Matt Dickerson: Haunted fishing memories

I had just finished my best ever day of steelhead fishing and I was in the pickup truck with my guide Ryan driving back to town. I commented that days like I’d just had must get him a lot of repeat clients. It wasn’t idle banter. I was already trying to figure out when and how I might get back to that river, and I knew that Rain Coast Guides had already nearly booked most of March of 2019 more than a year in advance.
Ryan laughed. No, he said. It isn’t necessarily the great days that bring clients back. Often, it’s the lousy days.
The comment surprised me at first. After a moment’s thought, however, it made sense — at least to my own experience. I’ve had only a handful of opportunities to fish for steelhead on the famous rivers of Washington, Oregon, and northern California. I’ve never had the flexibility to plan a trip during perfect water condition or wait for when the steelhead were running upriver. My rare steelhead fishing trips are generally just the extra day or two squeezed onto the end of a business trip before catching a redeye flight home and back to work. On this March trip to Washington, I got lucky and hit it perfectly, resulting in the sort of day — and, more importantly, the sort of fish — that stick in the memory a long time.
On my previous winter steelhead trips to Oregon, by contrast, I hit it just wrong. Two years ago, the last time I was out there, I caught an unusually dry and cold spell. Several rainless days had just passed, which is a rare phenomenon in coastal Oregon. The snow in the hills wasn’t melting either. The rivers were running low, clear and cold. And as a result, the steelhead weren’t moving. We could see them all stacked up at the bottom of one long 20-foot-deep pool, essentially unreachable for an angler wielding a fly rod. Three days after I left, the rain fell and my guide had one of the best days he’d ever had on that river.
The trip before, three years ago, conditions were just the opposite. The rivers were already running high and muddy when I made it down to the coast for one day of guided fishing after a two-day conference. The guide said our outlook was bleak and volunteered to cancel the trip without charging us. We decided to go ahead with it. And, sure enough, as we met our guide a little before dawn a light rain began to fall. For the next three hours the rain gradually increased in intensity. By 10 a.m. the skies were unloading on us and the wind was kicking up into the gale range. I somehow managed to hook and land two fish, but by 11 a.m. the river was completely blown out and our day was done.
And here is the thing: despite those last two experiences in Oregon — or maybe because of them — I want to get back to that river. I am haunted by those failures. I’m like a gambler. Next time, I tell myself. Next time I’m bound to catch things just right. I’ll have one of those days like our guide had with the clients who came three days after us.
It’s the same thing with the rivers I got to fish last year while working on a book in Alaska. I certainly remember the great day I had on one particular river, landing seven rainbow trout — at least four of which were the biggest of my life. Sure, I’d like to go back there. But the river I really dream about, the one that still haunts me, is the river where I landed only one rainbow trout and one Dolly Varden char. I keep thinking of all the mistakes I made that day, or all the different strategies I might try, or even just the half-dozen spots in the river that still stick out in my memory where I missed a fish or where I know there must have been a fish. I want to get back there and get another chance.
I think this is why the quickly approaching opening day of fishing season — in Vermont, the second Saturday of April — is so important. It isn’t just the cabin fever that sets in on Vermonters, and the desire to be outside (though that’s part of it). It isn’t just our favorite honey holes where we can always count on catching a fish (though that’s a part of it too). It’s the memory of our failures, or the failures of the river, or the failures of the weather. It’s the places we didn’t catch a fish. Those are the memories that will haunt me, at least until I can get out and hit those spots again. I’m counting down the days — 23.

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