First Steelhead

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We sit in the darkness watching Rick toss a spinner to the black water we can hear and sense, and we wait for light enough to see our bobbers.

It’s the kind of Oregon winter I remember from my childhood. A mix of cold, snowy days, ice storms and 50-degree, drizzly days.

This is the latter, warm enough to fish without gloves on.

As the day starts to paint the landscape around us, first in faded tones, vaguely impressionistic, a fir tree here, a rhododendron shape here. Then in more detail, but washed out a little by high overcast skies.

I stand next to Kenny, who shows me how to look for the seams where slower water slides between two faster currents. He shows me where to look for shelves and drop-offs and boulders.

It’s the invisible structure in a stream that takes some of the guess-work out of fishing.

I swing my 10-foot Berkeley fishing rod out and stop it at 10 O’clock and watch the bobber sail over the green water to the far shore.

I watch Kenny do the same thing with his 9-foot rod. He’d mend the line to keep the line off the water and the bobber pointed up.

The line gets in front of my bobber, and I picked it up slightly by raising my arms, but it pulls the bobber out of the seam it had been riding in.

I do this another twenty times, before I get the hang of it a bit, and I start fishing on my own, or practicing with expectation, as I call it.

The water is beautiful, the way it is on Oregon coastal streams after the earnest rain has ends. The river seems to drain the green blood of the rain forest without diminishing it.

It’s mesmerizing, really. You watch it go by, but it seems to watch you like something reincarnated so many times it barely regards you in passing.

You are here now, but the last year, or maybe it was ten-thousand years ago, there were the newcomers from the north who went south, and some came north again, and the water was already old in those days before history.

Then there was the Nehalem man, who came for the fish that lived with the water. The water knew the Nehalem man for a few days or maybe a few thousand years, and then the man died from a disease brought by a different kind of man.

The water knew the fish when they were plentiful. And now it regards them as it does the man along the banks, as something that passes in and out of existence with time.

I shake off my thoughts about ancient water and the people it saw and concentrate on the fish that should be holding there under a ledge or behind a boulder.

But either they are not biting or I am not putting it in the right place.

After several hours, we move to a new spot downriver, and Kenny and Rick take the flats upriver from the trail, so I go downriver a little further to a spot elevated above a narrowing of the river between two streams that plunge into the Wilson as waterfalls.

I switch to a bait-caster I purchased last year with monofilament line that keeps unwinding on me every cast, unless I set the brake tight.

I cast a couple times and let it float down the channel quickly, before allowing it to slow along the same bank I am standing on. Then I’d reel in quickly.

On about the third cast, my reel unspooled slightly, so toward the end of the float, I look down and peel two or three arm lengths out to clear it.

As I did, I notice the bobber pass the small waterfall on my bank and then disappear just a few feet off the shelf beneath the fall.

In my mind, the bobber was just being pulled down by the weight of the jig head with the pink worm attached to it. So I reel in slightly to tighten up the line. That’s when I feel the shake coming from the far end of the line.

It’s a firm shake, the kind a fish delivers when it finds that its food comes attached to something.

I reel in a bit and realize I have no idea how to get this fish to me. So I yell out, “Fish on!”

Within a few minutes, my fishing partners arrive, slightly winded, and they walk me down the bank and put me in the water, which feels more natural.

The big fish pulls hard and swims down stream away from the source of his irritation. I fight to turn his head back upstream.

Kenny and Rick give me alternating instructions about turning my rod toward shore, watching out for branches above me and letting the fish move when he wants to move.

This goes on for a good 15-minutes, and it’s satisfying to be connected to something old and powerful that was of the water. The fish rolls a few times, giving us a flash of color here and there.

I try to take it all in, to remember all the details of those few moments with something so wild. I nose him toward the shore, and he, tired, submits to the shallows, where we remove the hook, bathe him a bit and snap a few pictures.

He’s a big buck, headed upstream to spawn for maybe the second or third time in his life. He’s crushed metal with red on the sides and black-dotted olive on top. He has a few scars from previous journeys or previous days on this journey.

He strives to wiggle free, in that way that big fish do, contorting himself to try and slide beneath the cold water again.

I hold him briefly for a couple of photos and to feel him thoroughly to remember that weight in my hands, even as my arms still ache from the fight.

And then he’s off, sliding away with a few quick pumps of his massive tail, back to the dark at the bottom of the deep hole where we had battled.

I smile then and for several hours after. That was my first steelhead. Something I’ve dreamed of and something I’ll continue to dream about, only with more detail and the added joy of memory.

Meanwhile, the river slides by, observing, or maybe simply regarding us the way it always does.

Downstream again, to another hole with some popcorn water and down again to a turn around and then upriver to spots we missed along the way.

And a rainstorm falls hard and the old circular ritual of water is complete again.

We don’t catch any more fish on this day, but we observe the river, and the river observes us.

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