On the second day of the trip we slid down the North Fork of the Nehalem in our guide Gil's small raft. The Nehalem was incredibly beautiful. The river bottom was a mix of bedrock and lava rock that gave beautiful contrast to the boulders and gravel that rested upon it. The side-walls were a mix of slate and lava canyon peppered with moss of various greens, the occasional waterfall, gravel banks, and rainforest. Oh yeah, the river also had fish.
At our first stop, it wasn't a minute before I got my first opportunity at a Steelhead. The take was prompt and heavy, and if I said I was ready for it I'd be lying. I still came tight to fish and felt its weight but didn't get the deep hook set that any angler is looking for. The fish b lined for me and I struggled to take in the line necessary to combat this run. Before I knew it the fish exploded out of the water, turned a full 180, and left me with a straight rod and rapid heart beat. Well, at least I had finally hooked one and saw it in action. Not but 15 casts later, the indicator sunk like a rock, and being more prepared I set the hook like a man. The weight and power on the end of my line was beyond what I expected and the flashing silhouette below the waters surface confirmed that I had hooked a toad. I was tight to the fish but not on the reel, it wouldn't matter though. The girthy Steelhead flashed, bucked, and shook his head, popping the fly free from his tough, toothy jaw. I looked at Gil and he said, "That's why they call 'em Steelhead". Pointing to the fact that it's difficult to bury the hook deep. My fishing partner Adam and I exchanged glances of disappointment to the lost fish but excitement due to the opportunities. Deutschmann would have some chances and close calls in this section of the river as well, but neither of us could capitalize on our first opportunities.
We continued down the river making stops in all of Gil's A water. We traded stories of fish lost and landed while we took turns making casts from the front of the raft. We stopped just after a small descending rapid and found ourselves right on top of pristine shelf. We could cast just off the edge of the shelf and maintain quality drifts with little additional line out. Deutsch was positioned in the upper part of the run and I had the center to the tail. On my second or third drift the fly got slammed sending the indicator straight down. This time there was no hesitation, I stripped in the slack and raised the rod tip lodging the hook deep in the Steelheads jaw. The fish immediately resorted to headshakes and the upward pressure forced him to the surface, where he started sucking air while maniacally trying to free the hook. I was able to keep the fish close to the surface and it wasn't able to run far. Soon enough Gil materialized with the net and carefully scooped the buck up. I heard Gil say, "You did it man, you caught a Steelhead!" and Adam shouted to congratulate me from the upper part of the run, fishing with increased focus at the sight of the netted fish. We worked our way to the bank to get a closer look at my first Steelhead. The fish was a male that already spawned, Gil referred to him as a kelt due to this fact and said he was probably 2-3 pounds lighter now than when he entered the Nehalem to spawn. It was amazing to see a Steelhead that close. His back was dark green now and his spawning pink gill plates and stripe were in full effect. You could tell he earned his hen from the scratches and scars that marked his body. He was all of 25"-26" and around 7 pounds. When I got my hand underneath his tail and turned him sideways, I could really appreciate the size and strength of this species. I couldn't help but imagine what this fish was like fresh out of the ocean. Bright chrome belly, ten solid pounds, and probably pissed off cause he'd never been laid. I lifted the kelt out of the water and Gil directed me like it was a top model photo shoot. He got an amazing shot that will serve as a memoir to the first of many Steelhead that I'll take in my life. I gently went to revive and release the fish. When I submerged him, I could tell he still had tons of energy and he kicked free of my hand within seconds. I thanked Gil and gave him and Deutschmann both formal handshakes. A time honored tradition that I wouldn't let slide on my first Steeley. After the excitement and adrenaline wore off, I couldn't help but want to get another one in the net. We fished that run for a bit longer before continuing our way down river.
We cruised through rapids, fished the better holes, and held out hope that we'd get another shot. It seemed the further down stream we got, the fish were more spread out but we still spotted them here and there. We popped out the end of the canyon and into a flatter stretch of water to finish the day on. The banks were lined with spreads that would make any angler day dream about living in such close proximity to these fish. I could just imagine rolling out of bed and rolling a cast into this beautiful river. We made fewer stops through the lower section, but in water that looked great and was Gil approved.
The sun started to set on our day and we paced quickly to get to the ramp before dark. It dawned on me that this experience was just that, an experience. We lost more fish then we landed, and found out that catching Steelhead on a fly rod ain't easy. Which is exactly why I want to do it again. The challenge of chasing fish that come and go with the tide and rain, aren't feeding, and have jaws like cast iron clamps is bad ass. It's bad ass because it's hard and you have to work for your fish. The gear is heavy, the fish are heavy, and the places they live aren't easy to get to. But when it all comes together and you're rewarded with one in the net, it's truly gratifying.
Ben was fishing with Water Time Outfitters- see more at: www.watertimeoutfitters.com