Matt Dickerson: Eagles, elk and an empty nest
Last week began with the end of my cross-country ski season. It ended with the beginning of my fishing season.
It wasn’t the opening of Vermont’s general trout season. That doesn’t come for another week. And it wasn’t my first fishing of 2019. I’d headed across the bridge to New York a few weeks earlier to chase some steelhead in a Lake Champlain tributary. But it was spring break, and that led to my first real fishing trip of 2019.
My brother Thanh picked me up at the Sacramento airport on a Tuesday afternoon. After a couple days at his home with his family, the two of us grabbed a short flight up to Portland. From there we drove west to the Oregon coast for two and a half days of steelhead fishing on the Nehalem River watershed near Manzanita. I’d been to that river several times before, including once with Thanh. In the past I have always done fairly well, hooking multiple fish and never landing fewer than two.
On this trip, however, I knew we were in for a challenge. End of March is late in the season for winter steelhead, and though it’s the time when the big, wild fish — including some 20-pounders — have come in from the ocean to spawn, there are far fewer of them in the river than in January or February. Honestly, that alone didn’t worry me. Catching bigger fish even if fewer was a fine prospect. My greater worry was because a couple weeks before our trip, our guide Gil notified us that the water levels in the rivers were exceedingly low. All the snow and rain that usually falls in the winter months making Portland one of the rainiest cities in the country and turning the Pacific Northwest into a rain forest had shifted south and were flooding California, but leaving Oregon dry. If we didn’t get rain, Gil said, the steelhead would be difficult to find, and floating a raft down the river to the few spots where they might be holed up would be even more difficult.
So I kept an eye on the Manzanita weather forecast. Several times I saw rain predicted, and my hopes rose. If we arrived right after a day or two of steady rain, when the rivers had risen for the first time in weeks following months of dry conditions, I might get the best fishing of my life.
But the predicted rain never materialized. By the time we arrived at our destination, the water-level gauge on the river had bottomed out. Gill had been fishing the area for nearly four decades and had never seen water that low. Still, there we were with our rods and our three-day licenses, and a two-night hotel reservation. So a-fishing we would go. On the first afternoon, Thanh and I hiked a mile and a half up a narrow gorge above where the river is floatable. We spent several hours scrambling up and down steep, muddy banks, mostly fishing just below and just above a famous waterfall. The warm air had triggered a hatch of mayflies, including little blue-wing olives and larger March browns. A few stoneflies were coming off the water also. Knowing that in the low water conditions the steelhead would be down deep, I tied on an imitation mayfly nymph, added a couple weights, and started drifting it along the bottom of some deep runs. Three hours into the afternoon I got my one and only hit. I lifted my rod, and for about four seconds I felt the hard pulsing tug of a strong fish. Then my bent rod unbent. Disappointed, I reeled in wondering if the fish had broken me off. It hadn’t. But it had spit the hook. When I looked more closely, I saw why: the hook was bent. That was the only fish either of us would connect with on day one.
The next morning we met Gil half an hour before dawn for the first of our two guided days of float fishing. As the first hint of morning light touched the steep slopes of the surrounding hills shrouded in mist, we wound up a dirt forest road to our put-in point.
And over the next two days we fished hard. We floated three different sections of river: the lower South Fork of the Nehalem, the famous stretch of the North Fork, and then an upper stretch of the South Fork through a deeper wilder canyon with some intense rapids. Gil worked his back end off. On the North Fork he repeatedly had to haul his raft over rocks where the water was too low to float it. On the upper, wilder stretch of the South Fork he had to rope the raft over one small waterfall since the low water had made the river too narrow to take his usual route.
We saw a herd of elk wandering the shore. We saw several bald eagles, some sitting in trees over the river and one hauling a fish right over our heads. We saw a mink and a beaver and numerous waterfowl including a flock of ducks that stayed just ahead of us the whole day, flapping off with a big commotion whenever we got too close. We watched the mist slowly evaporate as the sun slid down the steep slopes toward the water, and we felt the air warm from 40 to 60 under clear blue skies. And we kept fishing hard. We drifted egg imitations with nymphing rods, and cast streamer flies with 13-foot spey-casting rods. Nothing seemed to work. Over the course of two days, we might have had two strikes on an egg and another two on a spey fly, but nothing took the hook.
Just when I started to feel frustrated, though, Thanh would comment how much he was enjoying the beauty of our surroundings and I’d remember why I loved fishing. Eventually Thanh hooked and landed a sea-run cutthroat trout, which was not our intended target but was still fun. And in the very last hole we fished, just a hundred yards before we had to take the raft out of the river on the last day and start back to the airport, he hooked our one-and-only steelhead. Gil paddled the raft to the shore, and we got out. Thanh fought the fish to the bank, where it managed to spit the hook and swim off just as I was getting ready to take a photo.
“What a great day,” Thanh said, as we packed our waders into the car and started the two-hour drive back to the airport for my redeye flight home. I thought about the empty net. But then I thought about the eagles, and the osprey, and the steep mist-covered hillsides, and the blue sky, and the moss-covered, lichen-draped alders leaning out below the taller cedars. “Sure was,” I replied.
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