Weekend on the Clearwater
Just got back from my annual trip to the Clearwater River. Each year in early October I make the trek to Lewiston, anticipating battles with the river's famous B-run steelhead. The majestic arid landscape of the Clearwater valley frames a river that is as close to an ideal for a large summer steelhead flyfishing as I've found. Paralleled by highway 12, there are plenty of access points to many of the prime flyfishing runs. The river is wide, with many large boulders and plenty of structure in runs that average 3 - 6' deep. And the steelhead? Well, lets see . . .
I arrived on bright sunny Thursday afternoon and met Craig Lannigan, a good friend from Lewiston who introduced me to the river several years ago. Finding that I had failed to bring the floating tip for my Sage 8150 (heavy summer steelhead rod), I decided to fish my 7136 (light summer steelhead rod). Craig kindly reminded me that "there are big fish in this river", but I assured him I could handle them with the 7136 (and 12lb test tippet). We headed for a favorite long riffle for the evening's fishing.
Mistake #1 - I'd forgotten that Clearwater fish are not only big, they're also very energetic fighters! About 5 casts into the run, an unseen force grabbed my fly and made off for parts unknown (downstream). I had the rod bent to the cork - then the fish turned and ran right back at me. Juro - remember that Sol Duc fish?? It's very frustrating, feeling totally under-gunned battling this fish. I hung in for a couple minutes, but never got any control of the fish and it threw the hook. OK, fish win round 1.
Next morning finds us on a run called Fishnet on the Nez Perce' reservation (much of the mid/upper river runs through the reservation). Again, about 5 casts into the run, I get the grab. I've got the 8150 with me this time and am ready! This is a big buck and doesn't want to burn out his energy with lots of fast runs. He shakes his head and hides behind rocks, I fight him back into the shallows, he runs back out and it begins over again. This goes on for about 20 minutes, I'm getting tired even as the fish seems to have endless reserves, but i finally get him sliding toward the rocks at my feet when the hook falls away. Off goes about 36 fat inches of steelhead, back into the river. Just as well, I tell myself . . . didn't have the camera with me anyway. But I would have really liked to get a better look at what would have been the big fish of my trip.
Craig comes down later and fishes through the same stretch and lands a fish that fought, and looked, identical to my fish. Ouch!
Craig injures his shoulder during the fight and this signals the end of his fishing (at least for my stay). We go in and have breakfast, then I head back to the motel to do some serious tying while watching the Mariners game. After the M's pull off the sweep, I'm off for an evening of fishing on my favorite shallow rocky run on the Clearwater. I arrive and find the run vacant. Tying on a small dark green-tailed low water tie that is my favorite Clearwater fly, I wade down to the run. The first double speys are rolling out and the fly swimming through the head of the run. After about 5 minutes, with the sun still full on the water, a small steelhead crushes the fly and follows through with a perfect head-to-tail leap. The hook doesn't take, and i pull it in to check why. Somehow, I'm still not sure how, the hook is bent out. Since this was my only remaining fly of this type (the morning's buck had trashed my other one), I bent the hook back and proceeded down the run.
After another 30 minutes or so, as I reached the tailout, a nice hen crashes the fly and goes into the tailwalking routine. What an aerial show - over 10 jumps of every type. Cartwheels, head to tail, etc etc. And runs - splashing along the surface, up and down the river. She burned herself out, and i led her to the shallows. After beaching her, I walked up and noticed that (1) the fly hook was again partially bent out and (2) that it had fallen out as she was beached. She measured about 33" and was carefully released.
OK, things are getting better. It's getting dark, so back to the head of the pool for one more pass. The sun had just set when the last fish hit - a hugh splashy take and a hard downstream run that ends abruptly when the fly comes away. You guessed it - the hook had bent out again!!! OK, it's now officially and honorably retired! Back to the motel for more tying.
Saturday morning was Unbelievable!!! I've never seen so many anglers on the Clearwater. Every good run had between 2 and 5 anglers in it. I went upriver as far as I've ever fished and ran into friend and fellow Seattle steelheader Leland and his fishing partner. We chatted about the amazing #s of people, then I headed back downriver having given up on the morning's fishing. The wind was howling and I just wasn't up for following a bunch of other anglers through a run!
Fortunately, one of the better runs (called Arrow) that had had 5 anglers in it when i drove up now appeared deserted. I parked next to the gravel pit and saw one angler beside his F250 (he was leaving). I walked down, convincing myself I might as well fish since I had the run to myself. The wind was still howling, cold, and I wasn't dressed for it so I figured I had an hour or so of fishing before I was done. I fished quickly through the upper part of the run and was relieved when the wind let up a bit as I reached the most productive water. The seam widened and softened and, just as I was looking downriver trying to guess how many casts were left, I got a strong grab and the steelhead was off to the races. Down and upriver she went, never leaving the water but never resting either. After about 10 minutes she was tired enough and I pressured her into the shallows. This hook was firmly embedded in her upper palate- it was nice to have a good hookset in one of these fish! What a beautiful wild hen, with just a faint pink stripe and about 32" in length. Grateful for a fish under such crowded conditions, I thanked the river for her generosity and headed back to the truck.
That evening, my last on the Clearwater, I decided to go back again to my favorite afternoon riffle. It's impossible to describe what it feels like to fish this run on a sunny fall evening. . . but I'll try. The sun sets directly downriver, turning the water a moulten gold and forcing you to fish by feel as it's impossible to track the progress of your flyline visually. A steelhead takes your fly and comes bursting out of that golden water with your fly in it's mouth and it's the one of the most amazing sights I've seen on a river. The run is incredibly easy to fish with a hugh gravel bar, easy wading, tons of holding water, and great scenery. This last afternoon was the toughest - I finally got at take as darkness set in and had the splashing jumping fish on for a few seconds before it threw the hook.
I went to a fly banquet and listened to John Shewey do a slide show on summer steelheading that was sponsored by Craig's fly club - the Kelly Creek Fly Anglers. Then I turned the truck south around 10pm and drove to the Grande Ronde so I could get a morning's fishing on another favorite river before driving back that afternoon. Everything went according to plan, but I wasn't able to make a connection with any of the river's steelhead.
Oh, well . . . it was still a great trip!