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Grays Best

Blackberry Steelhead Print E-mail

It’s the cool of autumn along the Oregon coast, and after a hot summer the fish are looking up.
by John Larison

About when the wild blackberries drip their sweet purple honey onto the emerald leaves below, and the east winds sweep off the Cascades carrying the stoning smell over my little Willamette Valley town, we know it’s time to take a day off. Summer steelhead, in the rivers since May or June, will finally emerge from their heat-induced comas and take our dry flies.

We’ll find pods of fish holding like aquatic geese in the smooth tailouts. We’ll find them eagerly rising for as long as the sun stays off the water. And we’ll find no one else on our rivers, because the September dry-fly season is not written up in the Hunting and Fishing News. We’ll find all these things—or so the blackberry air encourages us to believe.

“Did you smell it?” Peter asks over the phone.

“I did.”

“Five in the morning?”

“Make it four thirty.”

At midnight I load the rods, each rigged with a new leader and a fresh fly, into the drift boat. I should be in bed. But at night with the windows open, the blackberries slide through the house. With the tackle loaded, I move on to sandwiches. Homemade wheat bread, thick-sliced venison roast from last fall’s blacktail, sweet garden tomatoes plucked by starlight. I cut and stack, applying grainy mustard to mine and ketchup to Peter’s. Coffee comes next, tucking the grinder between two of my wife’s sofa pillows so as not to wake her.


I think we’re a little early,” Peter says, blowing steam from his coffee.

“You’re probably right.”

We push the boat off the trailer anyway, and it slaps the dark water. A big fish, maybe a spring salmon made lively by the coming spawn, responds with a jump, its waves lapping at the boat.

Downstream we find our first trusted run, the sky turning the surface to shimmering mercury. The middle section, while perfect steelhead water, isn’t likely to produce a fish on a dry. It’s a little too deep and a little too fast, better covered by a wet fly swung in the classic style. But the tailout is ideal dry-fly water. A smooth surface flows at the pace of a comfortable walk. And the heavy whitewater below ensures at least a couple fish will hold there each morning—or so we like to believe.

We both look to the rods lying in the boat. The dry fly, a version of the Waller Waker, hangs from the hook keeper. I lick my lips and pretend to be interested in the coffee. Neither of us wants to appear greedy.

“Why don’t you take the tailout?” Peter says.

“Are you sure?”

“I’ll take the next one,” he says.

I’m out of the boat and headed down the beach before he can change his mind.

The prime water in the tailout is a narrow trough extending from the lip of the rapid into the pool. The consistent boulder bottom falls away to produce a protected lie for the fish, a place safe from predators with plenty of well-oxygenated current just overhead. I wade in 30 feet upstream.

The first cast positions the fly on the outside edge and it swings toward shore, throwing quarter-inch wakes behind it. I’m certain a fish will rise, maybe not this cast but definitely soon. Three more feet of slack and a new cast, the fly arching as it did before. Three more feet and a new cast.

The morning light is brighter now, each rapid downstream throwing splashes skyward, each pool a mirror image of the sky overhead. The river is little more than a ladder for descending water—and ascending fish.

The steelhead here spent the last year or two at sea, chasing pelagic baitfish and bottom-dwelling crustaceans as far as the Japanese coastline. They moved in groups, ghosting through the blue depths, striking in violent twisting masses of chrome, until the magnetic pull of home drew them back, the unique smells of their natal stream guiding them to the very gravel from which they hatched. Their time at sea fattened them up, adding an inch or so a month to their length—adequate preparation for the arduous upstream journey ahead.

Three feet and a new cast. The fly ducks briefly under the surface as it becomes waterlogged, the wakes disappearing. A strong mend increases the tension on the fly, the pattern’s frontally angled calf wings catching the water and pulling it back onto the surface. The wakes reappear, and I imagine the thick snout of a chrome fish rising behind it like a chomping alligator. Three feet and a new cast.

Upstream, Peter steps his way through the run. With a flip, he lifts the line straight behind him and without a false cast rockets it back over the water. He takes a causal step downstream, tucking one hand into his wading belt, and follows the line with his rod tip. His youth spent casting to stripers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts taught him to heave heavy fly gear with speed and agility. When a job offer came from an Oregon university, he accepted without hesitation despite a substantial pay cut. Steelhead rivers drew him here, as much for their untamed nature as the fish they contain. He booms out another cast, takes a step downstream, and waves hello.

I make a new cast. The currents twist around a submerged rock and I mend twice to keep the fly skating. I know a fish is holding by that rock. I can feel it. When the fly is ignored, I make another cast to the same place. Again the fly skates by untouched. A new cast, and a step downstream.

With the tailout fished through, I reel in and wade ashore. A bramble of blackberry bushes, still too young to produce fruit, grows along the beach. I walk through with careful steps, making sure not to let the barbs pierce the delicate skin of my breathables. Peter, too, reels in, and we head for the boat.

“The next one will produce.”

“Definitely.”

As we drift over the tailout, we stand in unison, assuming the customary position: mariners looking for distant land under their ship. Two fish dart upstream.

At the next trusted run, we again anchor the boat. We’ll get one in this tailout, for sure. I hand Peter the rod, and he heads down the bank.


Before I went East for school, I’d fly fished Oregon’s streams only for trout. Steelhead were serious creatures, fish of mythical proportions, and frankly a species I was a little intimidated to pursue. I took my fly rods to Ithaca and fished for trout in that city’s many streams, a way to overcome my longing for Oregon. The rivers there were slow and warm, moving from their narrow headwaters through a long series of cascading waterfalls, each a barrier to upstream migration, toward the still waters of Cayuga Lake.

I fished mostly in town, within walking distance of my house. In the spring, feisty rainbows swam up from the lake. These fish below the barrier falls looked different from their upstream brethren. They were bigger, of course, occasionally up to six pounds. But they also looked shiny, almost metallic.

One April evening, after fishing tiny nymphs below an indicator, I met another fly fisherman along the bank—a rare sight at the time. He turned out to be a graduate student in freshwater ecology. We talked for a while about the angling in Oregon, a place he’d never been but where he wanted to retire, “buy a cabin along some wild river and put the tying vise near a big window.” Then we moved on to local topics: the big browns on the far side of the lake, the winter pike fishing around the power station’s outflow. When I mentioned the difference in the rainbows above and below the falls, he sparked to attention. “You’re from

Oregon!” He explained that the rainbows in the lower river had come East aboard a train in the late 19th century, from Northern California stocks. “Irideus fish,” he called them. “They’re a type of steelhead that grows big, fast. They’re the same fish you have along the Oregon coast.” Enthused by our conversion, I started fishing for these Ithaca steelhead, managing occasionally, by pure hard- headedness, to catch a few. Whenever I landed one, I’d do my best to cradle it in a riffle for a while, admiring its ability to adapt.


Peter covers the water quickly, slowing when he nears a prime lie. I work the gut of the run, first with a floating line then with a sinking-tip. But neither of us convinces a fish.

Now the sunlight warms the green mountains along the river, the light made orange by distant forest fires. In an hour the sun will be directly on the water, and with it will go our chances of raising a steelhead. We reel in quickly.

As we drift over the tailout, we stand and block out the light.

“There goes one.”

“And another.” Gray torpedoes rock-et toward the dark depths upstream.

We slip into the rapid, me pulling hard to keep us off a Volkswagen-size rock. Waves morph the boat into a raging bull and us into rodeo riders. A feral curl sloshes over the side, dousing Peter from the waist down.

“An accident,” I said.

“Sure.”

The rapid splays out into a short run, one with no fishable middle section, only a small tailout. The spot has produced more risers over the years than its small stature would suggest. We rose fish here several trips last season.

“You take this one,” I say.

“Are you sure? I wouldn’t mind a cup of joe, and you’ve been doing the rowing.”

I hand him the dry fly rod.

“Well,” he says snatching the rod, “if you change your mind—” but before he can finish the thought, he’s already headed down the beach.

I pour a cup of coffee and watch the river, wondering how long it takes a molecule of water to travel from the headwaters to the ocean. Downstream, Peter balances on the rock’s precarious tip, his legs bowed like a career cowboy’s for stability. The waving of his casting arm seems not to affect the rigid stance of his lower body. Years of casting a long line in pounding Atlantic waves prepared him perfectly for this. I wade ashore, my nose drawn to the sweet aroma of blackberries sweeping down the beach. He’ll nail one here. I’m sure of it.

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John Larison, a former fly-fishing guide, is the author of The Complete Steelheader, which is available from Amazon.com. He teaches writing at Oregon State University.
 
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