Last week, I got to see my buddy Julian off in style, with an Oregon fishing bachelor party.
We started out on the Upper McKenzie — fishing on foot on our first evening.
We headed to the river at near dark – late, too late to see the bottom of the river as we stumbled over the rocks. The trout rising in faster, choppy waves. There were stoneflies and caddis rising in fluttery gorgeousness. Trout started rising. And we pulled out our half-down golden stonefly dries, our chubby Chernobyl ants — anything big enough to be able to see the bug on the water in the dying light.
The wet wading was more difficult than I remembered. And colder. Mentally, I knew how hard it is to wade without wading boots on slimy rocks and fast currents, and I remembered how cold the water is. But somehow I didn’t believe it. Living in the East for two years had made me dumb and soft.
Nonetheless, we caught a handful of respectable redsides in the last light.
The next day, we fished with Chris on the uppermost section of the McKenzie River, and caught a billion trout on hopper dropper rigs. It was awesome. I’m definitely sold on the new “jig” style on the bead-head nymphs — somehow that little shift in angle of the hook eye puts those bugs in the zone really fast, which matters a lot when your average drift lasts just a few seconds.
Horsetail ferns lined the banks, salal berries starting to ripen. I looked up at the giant trees, cedars and firs. Big leaf maples, leaves as big as plates. Oregon grape in the understory. Fish rising, splashing the surface in frenzied leaps.
On the Upper McKenzie, the drift boat floats downstream at a breakneck pace. Daughters pulls the oars to keep us in the fish as long as he can, but the experience is like trying to walk backwards up an escalator going down.
The day after that, we headed to the Upper Willamette, again on foot, and rekindled our appreciation of luxuries like drift boats, waders and most importantly, guides.
After a few days trout fishing, the bachelor party grew to a six-pack and we headed out to the Oregon Coast, specifically Astoria to fish with Bob Rees. Bob is one of the best gear guides in the business, and a conservation minded-dude and all around great guy. We headed out that day for a combo trip, trolling for hatchery salmon in the open ocean, followed by catch-and-release for sturgeon.
The rigs were surprisingly simple – fresh anchovies, rigged to hang on the hook in a C-shaped curve, producing a spinning motion. I’d always fished herring, so watching these silvery baitfish whirl just off the back of the boat was cool. The silver fishing wasn’t super hot, but we caught enough and headed into the estuary to chase my dream fish — sturgeon.
For most of my life I’ve been an elitist fly fisherman, you know — $600 fishing poles and trout daintily sipping hooks decorated with wispy feathers. But there is something decadent, luxuriously inevitable about fishing with bait – life wants life. And out there cruising in the depths are unthinkable animals the size and shape of a grown man, ready to consume the living offering. I feel like I’m in the movie King Kong, and I’m on skull island, with a piece of meat lashed to the gates. And waiting. The anchovy pierced, bleeding on the bottom, waiting for some whiskered giant to whisk it away. The sturgeon is like a half-stegosaurus, half-shark, with a pale belly that looks and feels like a drowned corpse.
We caught a half dozen, all doubles, in the period of about an hour and then it was over. The tides changed and we couldn’t buy a fish the rest of the day. But the fight and the jumps were amazing. All of the fish we’d caught were “keepers” in a normal year. ODFW had closed the season to protect the fishery. But a return of the smelt to the Lower Columbia had brought droves of them back into the estuary.
I love to eat sturgeon, but I was glad it closed. Without a lot of protection, these fish are vulnerable. And catch and release is pretty clean. Barbless hooks, big tough fish, no blood to speak of.
Coming home to Oregon felt like seeing an old girlfriend. Remembering all the good things – forgetting the tired, mundane moments. Unfortunately, there really weren’t that many times I wished I didn’t live here. In fact, I can’t think of any.