Wednesday, January 5, 2011


There were days I wondered if the river was going to swallow the footbridge below the Sunrise crossing.

Downstream, closer to home, my river-height benchmark, Duckshit Island, was completely submerged.

In the mornings, though, when I'd step out onto the porch to fetch the paper, the air was cold and wet in the way that says: The steelhead are back; grab your spey rod.

Since my home waters were blown out and unfishable, I turned to The River Never Sleeps for consolation. I listened to Roderick L. Haig-Brown talk to me again about fly fishing for winter steelhead on his home waters.

“And now, if all goes well and the Campbell, on whose bank I live, does not rise in full freshet, I know January for the best of all winter steelhead months. The fish have come in in good numbers by that time, but they are still fresh and silver and clean. There may be snow on the ground, two feet of it or more; and if so, the river will be flowing darkly and slowly, the running water below freezing but not ice, just flowing more slowly, as though it meant to thicken into ice--which it never does. steelhead fishing can be good then, and there is a strange satisfaction in the life of the river flowing through the quiet, dead world. On the bank the maples and alders are stark and bare, drawn into themselves against the cold. The swamp robin moves among them, tame and almost bold for once, and perhaps an arctic owl hunts through them in heavy flight whose softness presses the air until the ear almost feels it. On the open water of the river are mergansers and mallards, bluebills, butterballs, perhaps even geese and teal. Under it and under the gravel, the eggs of the salmon are eyed now; the earliest of the cutthroat trout are beginning their spawning, and the lives of a thousand other creatures--May flies, stone flies, deer flies, dragonflies, sedges, gnats, water snails and all the myriad forms of plankton--are slowly stirring and growing and multiplying. But the steelhead, with the brightness of the sea still on him, is livest of all the river’s life. When you have made your cast for him, you are no longer a careless observer. As you mend the cast and work your fly well down to him through the cold water, your whole mind is with it, picturing its drift, guiding its swing, holding where you know he will be. And when the shock of his take jars through to your forearms and you lift the rod to its bend, you know that in a moment the strength of his leaping body will shatter the water to brilliance, however dark the day.”

I've heard poetry described as a conversation with the past, the present, and the future; between the living and the dead. So, too, the conversation among steelhead flyfishers.