South Santiam Unvarnished

South Santiam, Again and … – Jay Nicholas

Thirty-one years on this piece of water. Jeepers. I wonder if I may have worn it out, but I keep going back when June comes around. Every June.

Skamania summer steelhead – we stacked ‘em in the fish box like cordwood back in the seventies. All big, bright, clean, sleek, fat fish. Sure they were. Lately, though, these fish don’t seem quite as grand. Lately, I notice scuffed-up gill covers, stubbed-off tails, mossy re-cycle tags, rounded noses, and chaotic scale patterns. Digital cameras are cuttingly accurate. Memories, on the other hand – – –

I miss fishing the Willows and Upper Last Chance. Gone now, forever, victims of the damn dams. But it’s still only 45 minutes to the River, still June, and I still feel that anticipation when clouds gather and it smells like rain. Got that new Spey rod lined and strung, waders laid-out, my biggest-baddest leech tied on, and I’m ready to go. Check the flow. Pack a hundred-dozen flies, just in case.

reel in motion jay

June 18th. I meet Ed at the Lebanon Walmart. We goin’ fishin’? Ha ha! We’re geared up for thirteen-hours on the water, but the bagels and Powerbars don’t make it into the boat. Oh well, we’ve got water and sunscreen. Boat traffic is heavy, so we fish between the gear-guys. They think we’re freaks and we are – fly fishing freaks. We find grabby fish: six leaping, blurred handle, into-the-backing-twice fish. Three meet their hatchery-ordained destiny in the fish box. Ed boats two and I kill one for Andy. He’ll savor the whole fish, every scrap and flake of protein, working the carcass down to a pile of boiled bones. Andy remembers the Great Depression.


June 19th. Can’t go back. Too much to do. But-but-but. Make plans. Cancel plans. Can’t go. Work, work, work. Oops! I’m in the truck heading back to the river. Thirty driftboats on the river yesterday all had babies last night; trailers crowd the parking lot today, wailing, waiting to be fed.

It’s 4 PM and there’s still time to swing a fly through a few favorite places. A thirteen-year-old boy beaches his third fish of the day at Wiley Creek. Dad calls him a “dumb-ass”. Swallows swoop over riffles as I push downriver against the afternoon wind. Pretty soon, I’m over the side at the Island hole on river-left, ready to wade-fish. A boat with three teenage boys pulls in, twenty feet away. “Would you mind if we fish through” – the young oarsman asks, politely. Go right ahead; thanks for asking” I answer, standing there, fly rod in hand. They run the hole and drift on. My turn now. Cast, mend, swing, breathe, anticipate, step, repeat – no grabs. Not today.


OK, the Chair hole is empty. I anchor and pick up my rod. Two slow-but-sly guys drift behind me, plop-down their bobbers, and snake-out a fish where I was about to cast, never making eye contact. Hummm. A few more bobber plops and they slip off downriver. I sit down; photograph fly box; photograph fly line on water; fiddle with camera settings, breathe deep and banish bad thoughts.

jays fly box

Nearly everyplace has a boat in it – nearly. The Tire hole is open, for the moment, so the anchor goes down even though this place hasn’t produced a pull in ten years. I jam a short cast to river-left, feed 30 feet of line, mend, swing. Gentle-firm tug. Wow! Reload. Recast. Hold breath. Try ten more times. Fish smaller fly. No deal. Nobody’s fallin’ for it tonight.

I head for the takeout, trying to beat the tin-can-crush. 4x4s are parked all over the hillside. Ah-ha, the familiar stench of rotting ghost shrimp in the bushes. One guy cleans a fish at the mouth of Ames Creek, the in Sweethome Sewage outfall. He knows. Guess he doesn’t mind a little poop-rinse; it probably makes a great marinade.


June 21st. Fathers Day. God-am-I-blessed. Andy has a fish. I have plenty to smile about this morning. I browse the Internet. JH and buds are in AK harassing big-ass King salmon. Damn! Imagine that. A great honest river, good friends, and sleek wild salmon. Someday. Maybe.

Next week, I’ll dump all my South Santiam memories in a big strainer. I’ll filter out the disappointments of filled-in holes, scarred-up hatchery fish, crowds, the occasional drunk, bad language, and mean-spirited people. I’ll cherish the rest – and keep on telling and re-telling stories about friends, cloudy afternoons, and the best grabs from thirty-one years on the river.

Think I’ll be back on the South in a week or two? Ha ha!


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10 Responses to South Santiam Unvarnished

  1. Brian says:

    I’ve never fished for steelhead or salmon. Yet I don’t think I will tire of reading Jay’s writeups until I’m old and full of the same wisdom… the latter of which will likely never happen. This shite should be in a book.


    –Brian J.

  2. Rob R says:

    you are addicted to hatchery pukes 🙂

  3. guy says:

    Jay….give your psyche a break and come swing with the South’s more hospitable sibling !

  4. jay nicholas says:

    Brian J. Thank you. Fishing is about much more than just what one does or doesn’t catch. I am really happy that these stories make you smile. Or cry. Or laugh.

    Rob: my dear friend, all i can say is that it takes one to know one. Let’s team up and try to tempt some fine, scruffy hatchery fish. And let’s try to get ’em while they still have all their fins. Or most of them. Or some of them.


  5. Is that the ramp at Wiley Creek? If it is, man it’s been a long time since I’ve been up there. I sure don’t recognize it. Are you done chasing springers?


  6. jay nicholas says:

    Hey Rich, that ‘s the take-out at Sweethome, at the mouth of Ames Creek (the sewage outfall).
    Did anyone notice the cigarette butt drifting by in the photo of the spinning reel handle (with steelhead attached to end of line)? One of those wonderful unexpected surprises of digital photography.

    And no, I will not give up on springers yet. I think. Depending on work. Or family. What are the tides doing?


  7. Travis W. says:

    Yet another splendid story Jay! I was also wondering about the cigarette butt…haha. For years now my fishing buds and I have talked about pulling ourselves away from the McKenzie and Willamette to give the South Santiam a shot. But…you just confirmed all the horror stories we’ve heard! Is it really any worse than my two homewaters? Keep those stories coming, and thanks for the info!!!

  8. I thought that looked like the takeout in Seet Home. The last couple of days there were record setting minus tides. You could actually walk out to Haystock Rock in PC. I would of liked to see how much water was left in the estuary.


  9. fishlife says:

    Great story man! I fish the south a lot and have met some really great people who I would consider friends. I am a bank angler due to monetary issues but I must say everyday on the river is a blessing! Even the people who I don’t like teach me something and I’m glad to have landed a nice 12lb metalhead last week! Keep the stories coming man I enjoy your insite!

  10. Timothy says:

    I grew up on the south Santiam . Back in the Day 60’s and 70s . You would not believe the fun not only fishing , camping , hunting , swimming ,motorcycles, Hot rods and . (( everything )) inbetween . it Was completely different . I feel sorry for those who never experienced those decades along this river system . All i feel now is all i can say is (a great disappointment) nobody can take away the memories:) Peace out!

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