Matt Dickerson: On steelhead, friendship and suffering

I used to be able to count on my older brother Ted. Any time we planned a fishing trip together, something would happen to make it more interesting and challenging.
Usually that “something” was rain or other inclement weather. It didn’t matter the location or time of year. I visited him once in Colorado. The temperature was in the 70s and the sky was clear the entire week before I arrived. My first morning in town, about the time we purchased my temporary fishing license, the sky clouded over and the temperature plummeted. By the time we actually got onto the river in the early afternoon, it had dropped 40 degrees and heavy wet snow was falling.
We could plan a fishing trip to the desert, and if Ted and I were going together there would be a drenching thunderstorm churning nearby rivers into an unfishable frenzy. In hindsight, we should have rented out our services to drought-stricken areas of the country. For a fee, we could have planned a camping-fishing trip during the drought, and the moment we showed up a storm would move in and dump rain on the area.
That meant not only I always had fodder for my writing, but I also always had an excuse for not catching fish.
But about a decade ago, Ted began to fail me. It was about the time he moved to Alaska I think. I visited him up there, prepared for a week full of suffering and devoid of fish. And it turned out to be a week of great weather, with plenty of trout and salmon. I thought something must have been wrong so I planned a couple more trips to visit him. Time and time again he failed to provide any disasters at all.
Maybe it was just Alaska, I thought. But then the same thing happened last summer when he moved back to New England and we did some fishing together in Maine. Maine is the state where we have enjoyed the most weather-related disasters together. We have years of memories of leaking tents, freezing hands, soaked clothing, and rivers too muddy to fish. But even in Maine we had great weather and caught lots of wild Maine brook trout.
I don’t know what’s wrong, but it’s hugely disappointing. He’s still my brother, so I’m not going to stop fishing with him. I’ll even pretend to enjoy the days of perfect weather and loads of fish. But I’ve started looking for a new fishing friend who is more reliable.
Three years ago I may have found my brother’s replacement. Working on a new book, I took a fishing trip to the Gila National Forest of western New Mexico. I had to plan the trip months in advance around my work schedule, and I invited Phil to join me. Though we didn’t actually experience any horrible weather while we were there, before we arrived the area experienced one of the worst wildfires in the state’s history followed by the worst flood in the river’s history. The river was scoured out and we went three days without catching a trout.
This seemed very promising, so the following January I invited Phil to join me for a couple days of steelhead fishing over a long weekend in Oregon. We even hired a guide for a day. Three days before we arrived, the guide told us he had just experienced one of the best days he’d ever had on the river. Fishing conditions were perfect and the steelhead run was fantastic. But the night we arrived, the skies opened up with a steady rain. When we put onto the river, it was already high and the color of tea. By mid-morning the steady rain had turned into a torrential downpour and the high water was turning to mocha. I managed to land two steelhead during the transition, but by 11 a.m. the river was unfishable and there was a 50 mph wind gusting off the ocean. We had to reel in our lines and call it quits. We were barely able to row downriver to our waiting car.
Last week I put Phil to the test again. Preceding another speaking engagement in Oregon and Washington we planned a little fishing trip. He came up from Oklahoma, we met in the Portland airport, and drove to the coast.
The coastal hills of Oregon rarely get much snow — certainly not heavy snow that lasts. Except the week before we arrived, the temperatures plummeted unusually low and a storm dropped several inches of snow in the headwaters of our river. The temperature of the water fell from about 50 degrees to only 36, and the water level dropped also. When we arrived, the river was so low our guide couldn’t float a raft down it, and so clear that the fish were spooked and not moving. Also, the sudden drop in temperature made the steelhead lethargic.
Which in and of itself wouldn’t have been horrible, except once we started fishing the sky began to dump sleet on us. Enough to make us cold and wet, but not enough to raise water levels and elicit activity. Three days of fishing including a day with a guide yielded plenty of shivering but only five hooked fish between the two of us.
I couldn’t have asked for anything better. Steelhead fishing is supposed to be about suffering. If things go too well, nobody respects you. And I’d finally found a friend who seemed to be able to guarantee enough misery. I’ve already planned another fishing trip with Phil.
Though come to think of it, as I write my column this week, I think I’ll plan a few more trips with my brother, too.

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