Backcountry Steelhead (mis)Adventure

Warning: This post contains a fairly graphic image.

This isn’t the post I wanted to write about this trip. I wanted to write a love song about a remote backcountry stream somewhere between northern California and southern British Columbia, a place that has never been logged, where the runs of salmon and steelhead of decades and centuries past sway in the old growth sitka Spruce and douglas Fir and the younger alder and maples that stand along the stream banks. This place has strong runs of coho, chinook and steelhead.  I make several pilgrimages a year there, where I always feel my spirits restored, my hopes renewed and my commitment to conservation of indigenous, self-sustaining coldwater fish populations reinvigorated.

I hiked in, greeted by the smell of death and stumbled on the poacher’s camp. A dead cow elk lay near an abondoned tent, debris and a igloo-esge wigwam constructed of douglas Fir boughs. The meat had been stripped of the side of the elk and much (to my untrained eye) had been wasted:

Poached Cow Elk

Near the corpse lay a calling card that completed the scene and gave a glimpse into the poacher’s mind. Not only unashamed but genuinely proud . . .

Poacher's Calling Card

There were also signs of “fishing.”  Abandoned bags of cured roe . . . my mind spun with the possibilities, poached hen salmon eggs used to poach steelhead in a pernicous cycle of waste and abuse. Somehow, the world felt cheaper and crueler, like the when unattainable girl you idolized from afar as a youth threw herself at some dumb jock who dumped her immediately and bragged to everybody who’d listen, relaying the story of conquest, sneering, laughing and coarse.  Disgraceful.  I strung up my rods.

The strategy was simple. Swing the swinging water, bobbercator the indicacator water and if the flies didn’t work, show ’em the spinner. I worked upstream fast as is my way without touching any fish and saw a flyfisher just ahead vacating a deep pool. Figuring he had thoroughly worked it with his flies I skipped mine, cast a spinner and retrieved slowly. A sea run cutty grabbed my lure but didn’t stick and I repeated the cast, retrieving even slower and a bucky buck, dual striped with a deep glowing red gill plate grabbed me and ran us up and down the pool before sucumbing. Of the fish I hooked or caught there is only this shot:

Bucky Wild Steelhead Buck

There were other hopeful signs. A log jam that started three years ago has continued to grow, accumulating habitat enhancing debris:

Natural Log Jam, Year 3

The stream was full of steelhead redds, I stopped counting at well over twenty in less than three miles:

Steelhead Redd

I moved a steelhead with a swung intruder and it took position behind the fly, grabbed and I set too soon. There was no connection. Then it happened in this pool:

Sage TCX

As my tandem offering drifted into the gut of the run my indicator plunged down and I was connected to the hottest steelhead I’ve ever hooked. The big buck went on a rampage, first running down toward the bouldery tailout I was able to turn him and he jumped in displeasure. He ran towards the top of the run, turned and reached full speed running downstream and again broke the surface, this time with the most impressive leap I’ve ever personally witnessed from a hooked steelhead, easily four feet. He came upstream one last time and powered down toward the tailout again, I tried to stop him from reaching the rapids below . . . . I put on the brakes and held on-but but leader didn’t and it was over. No great loss. My only regret is that I had been unable to locate the tripod or you’d be watching video of this ass-kicking instead of reading about it.

I continued to work upstream not doing any more good with the flyrod. I pitched my spinner just below a rapid and as soon as it hit the water a chrome hen grabbed it, breaking the surface I saw her silvery head and flanks as she spit my spinner back at me in disgust. I fished the next run with the flyrod and then caught a bright hen on a spinner. In this small water she also ran toward the downstream rapid and I knew I couldn’t stop her. I stopped fighting, opening my bale and she held in the tailout for several minutes under minimal tension.  Lulled to sleep I moved her into deeper water and began the fight again, a quick tailing and she was off. A couple casts later, a buck who must have been courting her chased down my offering, took a swipe but wasn’t hooked.

Hiking out thorough the old growth in the moonless night, a small circle of light thrown by my headlamp, I wondered if the cougar and bear used the trail once darkness had fallen and I thought of the big steelhead trout in the small stream below and whether they too felt a tinge of fear at the wildness of it all.–KM

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6 Responses to Backcountry Steelhead (mis)Adventure

  1. Jay Nicholas says:

    Karl. Stunning post. Thank you. More than a little scary that there are people out there who, fortunately, you missed. These are lifetime memories…… JN

  2. Sam says:

    yes indeed, the “wildness” is what it is all about, the fly rod (or spinner) a vehicle to get us there. And yet, how quickly we forget.

  3. Rob R says:

    Far out. I wonder if the po-po could use that beast sign as evidence?

  4. Matt Parks says:

    A friend and I found the same poacher’s camp about a month ago. It looked like he (they?) were putting together a gill net, and we also found a makeshift fish gaff and spear. No one was around when we were there, either, but it was clear the camp was being used regularly. Great luck fishing, and keep up the great writing!

  5. Mark C says:

    We stumbled on this camp yesterday, and needless to say, it was unsettling. Really put a dark cloud over the day. Really didn’t want to have to come face to face with this person. Has anyone reported this ?

  6. Karl Mueller says:

    Yes, it has been reported.

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