It takes a lot to trigger performance anxiety this far into my angling career. Fishing days are my own since I quit guiding, and I’m going for good times, come hell or high water. Last week, though, I had the jitters. My usual weekend excursion was to include two of my favorite authors, John Gierach and Scott Sadil. That part was great, if not a little daunting. But as the weekend approached, with plane tickets purchased and accommodations pre-paid, the fish gods threw us a knuckle ball. The hydrological prediction shifted from desirable to precarious. So much so, that when Scott called for the final word on Thursday night, I did not know what to tell him. A decade of guiding this country had taught me never to cancel trips due to weather forecasts. But I had also spent some uncomfortable days sitting out floods in motel rooms, trying not to tell stories of better times. As Scott and I talked it over, my decision crystallized. I was confident I could fish them through the weekend, and their additional guided days with Jeff Hickman were far enough out that the forecast could not be trusted. It was my call, and I pulled the trigger. “Tell John we’re fishing,” I said.
Friday morning came with a tsunami warning and a revised prediction. Hickman called.
“Dude, it’s not looking good.”
“Yeah…” I was watching a scene from Japan, struck dumb with horror.
“Man, I hate to say it, but I think Gierach should stay home.”
“You’re right,” I sighed, coming back to the conversation. “I’ll try to reach him, but he’s probably getting on a plane as we speak.”
There was no helping it. Gierach was already in Oregon and Sadil was heading out to meet him. Jeff and I agreed to talk again Saturday night.
I got out of work early and was on the road before 5:00pm. As I neared Hebo, it was just light enough to see that Three Rivers was pumping hard. Green, but large. The knot in my stomach tightened. There was only one river that would fish under these conditions, and everybody would be there. A short while later, as I backed the boat into the driveway of the Brown Betty, I got hold of my nerves. “Fishing is fun,” I reminded myself. “Go have fun with these guys.”
Smokey wood stoves and musty cabins tend to put fishermen in a festive mood. There’s no better place to meet, and if you’ve got interesting company, the toughest thing is knowing when to go to sleep. Such was our good situation. Scott and John knew how to converse, and we whittled away the night with stories, quotes, cigarettes and fly boxes until we all found ourselves nodding. The cabin breathed from the strong wind outside, while we snored comfortably inside.
Our first day on the water was crowded. We were early enough to push out front and score first water on a sweet run, though a gear boat decided to cover the tailout for us with their bait. Thanks, fellas! We waded several runs and swung from the boat through many more. Scott fished like a pro. His skills could only have come from hundreds of days on the water. John proved to be a better-than-average caster, held back only by his under-weighted line. He started with his own outfit, a 14-foot 9-weight matched with what appeared to be a 9-10-11 Windcutter. The combo couldn’t lift a full-sized Intruder from the water. We put on a smaller fly so he could swing a couple of runs with his own gear. Then, in the mid-morning, I handed him my old Burkie 7133. It was rigged in classic Skagit style, with a 550 grain head, ten feet of T-14 with a short cheater (thanks, Mariusz) and a large-eyed Intruder.
“Give this outfit a try, John.” That was the extent of my instruction. The way I figured it, his outfit had forced him to be a good caster. Once he had a comfortably matched combo everything would click. I waded upriver and stood with Scott to watch the transformation. Two casts into it, John was firing rockets across the river. Later, when I reminded him of the scene, he said, “I thought you taught me how to do it.”
“Actually, John, I just handed you the rod and walked away,” I said. “You did the rest.” He smiled so big at that. I hope I always remember him with that smile.
For the bigger water I had another 7-weight, a Scott 7123 rigged with a 600 grain head and 13 feet of T-17. With a heavy fly, the outfit was challenging to cast. “Unforgiving” is the word that always comes to mind with that soft-tipped combo, but it shoots hard and straight and gets into spots that T-14 won’t go. The guys traded off swinging runs from the bow of the boat, and they quickly became adept at switching from rod to rod, bank to bank. We were in the game, no doubt. We plied great water, and I was sure we’d find something. But aside from a couple of heart-stopping cutthroat, there were no grabs.
We drove back to the cabin and checked in with Hickmanimal. Nothing had changed, and I could tell Jeff was bummed. The rivers were due to spike again Monday, followed by a week of steady rain. Four days of work down the tubes, not to mention his chance to fish with these guys. Things were beginning to suck on his side of the coast range.
That night Scott heated up some tangy Posole (that’s New Mexican for chicken soup) and I seared some yellowfin steaks. My beer choice for the evening was probably a mistake: Widmer’s new KGB Russian Imperial Stout. Weighing in at 9.3% alcohol, it proved to be a bit more than I could handle. After one of them I was a motor-mouth. After two I was hammered, and I still had a fly to tie. Somehow I managed to crank out an old-school Intruder for those guys, in near record time, before passing out. I have no idea what those guys talked about after that.
Our second day started easy. Two pots of coffee, slow-cooked oatmeal, on the water by 9:00am. Thankfully the crowd didn’t show, and we were able to swing every inch of my favorite water without competition. The river was gorgeous and confidence was high. I knew where the fish would be, if they were going to show. But even the cutthroat seemed to be on vacation. By mid-afternoon we were getting down to the last bits. I was anchored along a high mud bank. The swing was delicious, the hang-down epic. We approached a magic bucket that had produced dozens of fresh tide-fish, still a few boat lengths from the sweet spot.
I heard wind in the trees ahead. I watched the river’s surface, waiting to see the wind approaching while John swung off the bow. Then hell itself came around the corner. A raging wind rounded the bend below, picking up the river’s surface and churning water into the air in hundred-foot-tall circling billows. We watched, frozen in awe, as the front bore down on us. “Get down and brace yourselves!” I yelled, flashing back to my only other encounter with hurricane-force winds. We hit the deck just as the wind and water hit us. The boat slammed into the river bank then dragged against the current, pulling a 40-pound anchor with it. Scott and John went for the rods while I managed the boat. I wanted to spin us around so the anchor was facing the wind. As I tried it, the boat lurched sideways and I lost an oar. It took a minute to assemble the spare, and by then the lost oar was a long way off. The wind eased a little. I pulled anchor, put my back to the wind and muscled downstream toward the oar and the boat ramp. In the final minutes of the storm the air temperature plummeted. We were all instantly shivering, and my hands, even while rowing at full strength, were going numb. John grabbed the wayward oar and I pushed us toward home.
By the time we made it to the ramp the squall was over. We were cold and rattled, but also excited by what we had just witnessed. Each of us relived the spectacle as we drove to another nearby river for the magic hour. We found a nice pool to finish our day. Every swing was savored. Anticipation remained high, a testament to my authentic anglers. But the fish had other appointments to keep, the river was rising, and our chance had passed.
I drove Scott and John back to the Brown Betty and hung around for a little while. Scott called Hickman, who explained that his power was out, his neighbor had trees laying on his house, and he would not be coming to the coast that night. The guys were let down, but they understood the futility of pushing back against the forces of nature. It was hard to leave them in that state. We said our goodbyes and I headed south through a downpour.
The next morning I checked in with Jeff. He said the same squall that hit us the day before also roared over the Clackamas where he and Koertge were fishing. He described how the trees bent, and how one tree broke in half and fell straight down toward Jason on the other side of the river. He yelled a warning just in time. Jason looked up to see his impending death, threw himself backwards and escaped with only a scratched and bruised arm. Meanwhile, near the Sandy River, Brian Silvey reported a mini-tornado that hit him the same afternoon, while he and his clients were driving home. He hit a tree branch that drove through his radiator. There had been some kind of malevolence in that storm, like nothing I had ever experienced. I wondered whether tsunamis might trigger something like that–a wall of wind travelling like a demon over an unprepared, unsuspecting country. Probably not, but that’s how it seemed to me.
Scott Sadil is one of flyfishing’s living treasures. His latest book is a collection of short stories entitled Fly Tales: Lessons in Flyfishing Like the Real Guys, published by Stackpole Books. He has authored three other books, and his stories appear frequently in Gray’s Sporting Journal, The Drake, and other fancy-pants publications.
John Gierach is perhaps the most beloved author in the history of flyfishing, with well over a dozen books to his credit. He’s also a columnist for Fly Rod & Reel magazine. If you are one of the handful of flyfishers who has not read his work, get a copy of A View From Rat Lake and prepare to be hooked. No Shortage of Good Days, John’s upcoming book, is due in May of this year.