Matt Dickerson: Washing out and rinsing down

Earlier this month I spent a long weekend in Oregon.
Oregon is deservedly famous for at least two things. One is craft breweries. According to 2013 Brewers Association statistics, Oregon boasts 6.3 craft breweries per 100,000 adults, ranking No. 1 in the country in that category. (For the record, Vermont claims 6.2 per 100,000, placing us at a very close No. 2. By contrast, our neighbors New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York have a mere 2.2, 1.2, and 1.1, respectively.)
Although according to a 2001-2002 survey by the Outdoor Industry Foundation, Oregon ranks only No. 13 in per capita participation in fly fishing at 8.8 percent — well behind No. 1 Wyoming, which has a stunning 31.8 percent participation, but somewhat ahead of No. 21 Vermont at 6.7 percent — it nonetheless boasts a tremendous wealth of fishing opportunities ranging from trout in high mountain rivers to Pacific salmon and sturgeon in rivers like the Columbia and its tributaries.
The fishing Oregon is most famous for is its steelhead. It has several strains of both wild and hatchery-supported fish, including summer steelhead, an early winter strain, and a late winter strain. Steelhead of one kind or another can be found in big ramous rivers like the Rogue, Deschutes, Umpqua and Willamette, as well as in myriad small coastal rivers and streams. Indeed, just about every river you cross as you make your way up the Oregon coast seems to have steelhead in it.
So when I was invited to spend two days giving lectures and a reading from my recent novel at a college in Oregon in January, the first thing that came to my mind (after the topics of the lectures themselves, of course) was that it would provide an opportunity to spend a long weekend chasing steelhead. I called my recently retired friend Phil in Oklahoma. It did not take much arm-twisting to convince him to join me. I then put in a reservation with fishing guide Gil Muhleman. The previous January Gil had done a great job guiding Rich Warren from Starksboro. I figured Phil and I could drift a river with Gil on Saturday, then on Sunday and Monday we’d do some wade-fishing on our own.
Six months I spent in anticipation of the excursion. I told my friends. I tied a bundle of some unique Oregon steelhead flies. I even used my Christmas money to buy a new 11-inch L.L.Bean Silver Ghost rod I’d been admiring for a couple years. And then after six months of anticipation, I spent the final six days nervously watching the weather forecast: a major rainstorm to hit the West Coast on the first day of that three-day weekend.
Our fears, as it turned out, were well founded. The forecast did not change as Saturday approached. It got worse including afternoon winds of 50 miles per hour. On Friday, our guide called and we talked about canceling. He was free on Sunday and Monday, but if the storm dumped the amount of rain predicted, the rivers would be “blown out” for a few days.
We ended up meeting at 6:45 a.m. on Saturday at the drift-boat take-out. We had thermoses of hot coffee, rain gear and our rods. The rain had started to fall lightly during the night, but the river was still fishable. We decided to go for it. By 7:15 a.m., we had put the inflatable, three-person boat into the water a half dozen miles upriver and started our drift. And just about the time we hit the first fishable patch of water, the skies opened up in full. The light mist turned into a hard steady rain. The river began to change color almost at once and to rise.
Now steelhead appreciate this type of weather. When water levels are low, they hold in deep runs, keeping invisible and safe from predators. When the water rises and gets murky, that is their chance to move upriver safely. The good news is that rising river flows can bring a whole new batch of steelhead in from the ocean. The bad news is that as soon as they start to move, they become difficult to find and difficult to entice with a fly.
“We’re on the clock,” Gil said. I knew what he meant. In just a couple hours, the river was going to be too murky to fish. So clouded that fish would not see our flies. We needed to find fish fast. But hole after hole seemed empty. My friend Phil hooked a couple fish in scattered places, but we didn’t land them.
By 10:30 a.m., when we pulled a shore at a nice looking run, the visibility in the water had dropped to less than three feet. The rain picked up, from steady rain to deluge. I still had not hooked a fish. Gil sent me to the lower stretch while he worked the upriver pool with Phil. “Cast a little further out past the ledge,” he called down to me after a few minutes of fruitless casting. I did. And I hooked one. A big rod-bending steelhead. Which I promptly lost about a minute later, just as Gil arrived with the net. But steelhead travel in pods. If I hooked one, there was bound to be another. As the water continued to rise, and visibility diminished further, I somehow managed to hook three more fish in that same hole. I land two of them, both bright chrome and fresh from salt water.
Hooking four and landing two steelhead is never a bad day in my books. Much better than my fears had predicted. By noon we knew it was time to give up. The water had gone from silt-green to the foamy brown of a fresh cup of latte, and the wind was starting to kick up. We paddled hard downriver, loaded the boat onto the trailer, and scrambled soaking wet and slightly cold into the safe interior of Gil’s full-size SUV.
And that was all the good fishing we would get in three days. USGS did not have flow data for the river we were on, but its sister river four miles away rose that afternoon from 2,500 to 13,000 cubic feet per second of water! That afternoon and all of Sunday were completely lost, and though we found another slightly smaller river in which to wet our lines on Monday the water was still quite high and we did not see any fish.
But rain was not without some consolation. Across the street from our hotel was a local sports pub. Not only had I landed two chrome fish on that rainy morning, I was going to get to watch the Patriots-Colts game Sunday afternoon after all. And, fortunately, Oregon is famous for two things. Only one of them is the steelhead. 

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