Book excerpt

Mist on the River

An Angler's Quest for Steelhead

Michael Checchio

St. Martin's Press

Mist on the River
SUMMER RIVER, WINTER RIVERI FIRST CAME TO THE North Umpqua River by way of the Oregon desert. The desert can come as a bit of a shock to someone who thinks that it does nothing but rain in the Pacific Northwest. Fully two-thirds of Oregon is a sagebrush desert steppe. It was August, and I felt like I was being slid into an oven. I was on a cross-country trip, driving from Montana to the Cascade Mountains, having just left Yellowstone Park behind me. Earlier that summer I had quit a good job where I lived back East just to take a year off so I could fly-fish for trout in the Rocky Mountain West. I had never fished for steelhead before, but it seemed like a good idea. Now I was looking for a river that flowed into the Pacific Ocean.I drove to Bend, where the desert meets the high Cascades. Climbing west toward the plateau at Diamond Lake, I passed from a forest of skinny lodgepoles into much denser stands of Douglas fir. The desert air suddenly grew cool and refreshing. I climbed steadily into this fir forest and then began a descent down a shady, tree-lined corridor. Suddenly there was a spraying river next to me on the right. There it was, the North UmpquaRiver, racing swiftly through a canyon in dancing riffles and fast pocket water.The North Umpqua had a forest reflection that was equal measures of Douglas fir and Oregon sky. It was a small and tumbling stream where it emerged below Soda Springs Dam. By the time it reached the campgrounds at Boulder Creek and Eagle Rock, the rushing pools had spread out and the runs were more clearly defined. I crossed over a bridge, the river now on my left, and looked at a shallow cobblestone flat sweeping around a bend that I would later learn was a spawning redd for chinook salmon. The river continued to flash through the trees below the highway's steep grade. Just above the Dry Creek Store, the North Umpqua dropped hundreds of feet below the highway, and it was a long, precipitous plunge off the embankment to the river. A mile below Dry Creek, the river swept away unseen around a long horseshoe-shaped bend, and when it came back into view the sight was every bit as dramatic as upstream, with the forest river frothing in rapids and plunging pools. In the mileage below Apple Creek, the North Umpqua continued to rush in whitewater chutes through dark basaltic rock shaded by immense stands of Douglas fir.Four miles or so below Apple Creek, just around the corner from Island Campground, an old trestle known as the Mott Bridge crossed high above the river. Off to the right, Steamboat Creek came in, the largest tributary in the canyon. The North Umpqua doubled in width below Steamboat Creek. I didn't know it then, but I had come to a series of famed pools known as the Camp Water.Upstream of Mott Bridge, Surveyor Pool lay in the shade of Douglas firs that were the size of mature redwood trees. The river poured over a bedrock of black volcanic basalt. Immediately below the Mott Bridge, in the eponymously named Bridge Pool, the river cut a deep channel between reefs of ledgerock. Well downstream the river passed in a smooth glide over two very jagged, sharp reefs known as Sawtooth. Just below Sawtooth, among streaming riffles, lay two small pools known as Hayden's Run and Sweetheart. A few yards below them was the Confluence Pool marking the spot where Steamboat Creek came into the Umpqua. And below this was the reefbound run known as the Station Pool, so named because a Forest Service station had once been set up directly across from the pool on the north bank. Because it was situated just below Steamboat Creek, a major spawning tributary, Station Pool was probably the most productive pool on the North Umpqua.Below Station, the river fanned out into streaming riffles and a brief whitewater rapid. At the head of this rapid, a narrow chute tried to contain the currents of the upper Boat Hole. As the riffles and whitewater calmed down and played themselves out, the Boat Hole broadened into a wide flat of forest-green water bending around an expansive gravel bar, one of the few gravel bars on the river. It was a magnificent green pool, the largest pool on the Umpqua, a great convex mirror of sky and forest.The water of the Boat Pool passed by like a bolt of cold green silk, and the river began to slide over a series of submerged reefs. These brown bedrock reefs formed the Kitchen Pool, so named because they had once been directly in line of sight ofa kitchen tent in the first steelhead camp ever established on the river, the one set up by Major Lawrence Mott on the south bank, back in 1929. A steelhead lodge had later been built on the site of the old tent camp, but it was gone now, no trace remaining.Below the tailout of the Kitchen Pool, the current passed into a narrow opening of ledgerock that formed a half-collar around a pool known as the Fighting Hole. Below this, and running for several hundred yards downstream, were three separate and distinct chambers of ledgerock known as the Upper, Middle, and Lower Mott Pools. From where the trees plunged down to the steep south bank, all the way out to the Mott Pools at midstream, the bottom bedrock of the river was a confusing labyrinth of rippled ledges, shallow channels, and uneven rock chutes.The river passed into Glory Hole and the Gordon Pool, and as it rounded a bend, its volume rose noticeably. High on a bluff on the north bank, the Steamboat Inn perched above the river in the shade of massive sugar pines. On the opposite bank, even higher up on a foot trace on Maple Ridge, a hiker could gaze down through the trees at the roaring waterfalls beneath the inn and listen to its thunder filling the gorge. Around the bend and below the falling whitewater lay the last of the Camp Water pools: Upper and Lower Maple Run, Jeannie, Abernathy, Upper and Lower Takahashi, and Knouse.I drove on past the Steamboat Inn, and through the screen of trees had a good look at pools that I would later come to know as the Ledges, the Tree Pool, Divide Pool, Williams Creek Riffle, Log Pool, Discovery Pool, Split Rock, Burnham,Pulpit, Archie Creek, Coleman Creek, Cougar Creek, Bogus Creek, Rattlesnake, McDonald's Pool, Wright Creek, and Fairview. There were many more pools farther downstream, miles of them: Rip Rap, Fox Creek, Boundary, Susan Creek, the Honey Creek Riffles, Huckleberry, Baker Wayside, the Salmon Racks, and Famous Pool, to name some of the more prominent. There were parking pullouts alongside the road and scramble paths leading down to most of these pools and runs.I found the North Umpqua uncommonly beautiful. A thick forest of Douglas fir shaded the canyon, cooling the summer breezes. The Douglas firs towered above the river and were as thick around as old-growth redwood. The river ran over ledges of black basaltic rock, and it made a beautiful music down among its boulders. The North Umpqua in its canyon had perfect pitch. Wild blackberries grew in abundance along the north bank, releasing their perfume into the forest-scented breeze.I knew that the North Umpqua had a great tradition. I was aware that Jack Hemingway, the eldest son of the novelist Ernest Hemingway, had called the Camp Water, those pools directly below Steamboat Creek, "the greatest stretch of summer steelhead water in the United States." The famous fishing lodge on the river, the Steamboat Inn, was practically a shrine to steelhead fishing. The North Umpqua had been Zane Grey's favorite river. He had named the Ledge Pool, or the Ledges, and local fishermen had named the two Takahashi pools in honor of the author's Japanese field cook.While it's good to stand and watch a river, it's always better to fish it. And so I pulled tackle and waders from the trunk of my car and rigged up. The North Umpqua was full of summersteelhead, and it seemed a crime not to try and catch one on my first day.I found the rubble bottom and slippery bedrock ledges very tricky wading at first, and I fell in several times. I won't ramble on about the hours and days I spent trying to catch my first steelhead. Anyway, they say that steelhead are fish of a thousand casts.For days steelhead flashed all around me. They leapt out of the water and shook themselves in the air. It unnerved me to see trout the size of salmon. There had been nothing like this in my fishing experience. All around me, fly-fishermen were catching steelhead and I wasn't; I would watch a struggling fish leaping crazily at the end of an angler's line, and I would turn into a manic-depressive.Every morning I would come down to the river and go through the same motions. I knew the drill well. It became a ritual. Cast ... strip ... cast. One step downstream, and repeat. A familiar rhythm set in, and my mind would begin to wander. I believe I was sitting in a bar in San Francisco having a beer when the steelhead grabbed my fly.There's no mistaking the solid yank of a summer steelhead. It's quite different from the gentle tap of a trout. The strike came as a great surprise. It was as if the hand of Zeus had reached out of the river.My rod bowed under an incredible weight. A great throbbing creature seemed to pass up the rod and into my arm. A steelhead shattered the pool's surface, splashing and spraying droplets of water all around. It jumped a second time, flashing silver in the sun, and ran twenty yards of line off my reel. How Imanaged to hold on to that wildly erupting fish I'll never know. I had never experienced anything like it in trout fishing. But after a fifteen-minute fight, I slid my catch over near the bank to admire her, an iridescent henfish still bright from an ocean that was more than a hundred miles distant. The steelhead's back was dark green and speckled like a trout's. Its shining sides were tinged by a vapor of rose that seemed to be awash in a silver luminescence. Within the pink cast on the shining armor was an almost invisible lavender mist that contributed to the general iridescence.Imagine a tiny trout that is born in a mountain river backed by giant Douglas firs. The tiny smolt disappears into the blue Pacific and returns several years later as big and heavy and powerful as a salmon. This fish leaps waterfalls and swims up sunlit rapids to get back to this spot in the river, only to run afoul of a novice steelhead fisherman from New Jersey.I am staring down in awe at my first-ever steelhead. Gratefully, and with the utmost reverence, I release the magnificent fish back into the river unharmed. And yet the North Umpqua will not willingly release me. I cannot even begin to calculate the damage that has been done. After such an afternoon, on such a gorgeous river, I am the one who has been caught. 
One of the country's loneliest stretches of coastline begins somewhere north of San Francisco and extends all the way up through Oregon almost to Portland. Blue sea and white surf contrast with deep green forests and weathered gray barns. Here folks live in small coastal towns and rural hamlets, and their livelihoods depend on logging, fishing, farming, dairyranching, sheep herding, and occasionally pot smuggling. America's best vintage wines are grown in vineyards inland. Along the fogbound coast, Victorian gingerbread homes and white New England fishing settlements sit atop ocean palisades. The forested coastal mountains are drained by a labyrinth of purling salmon and steelhead rivers. That part of the region lying in California has come to be known as the Redwood Empire.Close by the Oregon border, California's Smith River meets the ocean amid the majesty of coastal redwoods. This is a steep and lonely region of cold summer fogs and winter rains. The Smith drains the Siskiyou Mountains, one of the few ranges in the western United States that runs from east to west. Like California's Coastal Range, the Siskiyous are entirely free of glacial ice. Somehow the advancing glaciers of the last ice age missed them. Rivers born in the Siskiyous, rivers like the Smith, and the Chetco, which is just over the border in Oregon, run with exceptional clarity where they have not been logged. The Smith River flows either emerald or jade depending on whether it has rained, and it is always the first river in northern California to drop and clear after a heavy storm.I have driven six hours from my home in San Francisco to be on the Smith River. It has been five months since I caught my first steelhead in the North Umpqua. The Smith has become my winter steelhead river of choice. I discovered it shortly after moving to northern California. I was a trout fisherman gone wrong. I had given up my first love in order to pursue steelhead. I still loved trout; but steelhead filled me with wonder.At Jedediah Smith State Park, I found myself looking at frothing creeks feeding into the Smith River from an unspoiled forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock, cedar, and old-growth redwood. Redwood National Park in California was created out of three existing state parks, Jedediah Smith being one. The Smith's magnificent redwood forest has never been logged. The Smith River itself has never been dammed. It is the only river of any consequence left in California not to have a dam on it. In autumn, the sylvan stream hosts vast runs of king salmon, and these are the largest king salmon seen in any river in California. In winter, California's biggest steelhead arrive, brutes weighing up to twenty-five pounds.Everyone living up here seems to be either a fisherman, a logger, or a pot farmer. Or a prison guard. California's maximum-security penitentiary at Pelican Bay is close by. I stop at a wide spot in the road that comprises the entire hamlet of Hiouchi, which is just downstream of the forks of the Smith. There is a combined gas station-and-mini-mart, a rather mildewed motel, a bait shop, and a cafe. The mini-mart seems to be the town's cultural center. You can buy fried chicken, corn dogs, cold beer, beef jerky, and fishing tackle inside. Hanging on the walls are eye-popping mounts of steelhead and Chinook salmon of mind-boggling weight. Next to the door is a wall covered with Polaroid snapshots of fishermen who are standing next to their dead catches suspended from a rather fierce-looking grappling hook attached to a scale in front of the store. I don't see any photos of fly-fishermen releasing fish."Can anyone suggest a good spot on the river where I might be able to wade and fly-fish?" I ask the room. Everyone staresback at me as if I have just announced that I am to be in a performance of Swan Lake.The Smith is ideal for bait casters, hardware fishermen, and terminal tackle-jockeys. It is the river of the slinky, the Spin-'n-Glo, and the lead pencil. It is a hard river to fly-fish. It is not a particularly easy river to wade. Its currents are deceptive and so strong they can sweep a fly out from under a steelhead before the fish even has a chance to see it. The Smith's winter-run steelhead are bottom huggers; unlike summer steelhead, steelhead in cold water will not travel far to chase a fly nor swim off the bottom to grab one that is fished anywhere near the surface. Heavy-grain shooting heads or sinking fly lines are the order of the day on the Smith, and these are not always pleasant to cast.The steelhead in the Smith River are hard to hook; even harder to land. The river has three forks. All but a mile of the North Fork is closed for fishing. The Middle Fork of the Smith, the shortest branch, is a rather swift stream due to a rather steep gradient, and full of rapids. The current rarely has a chance to slow down and kayakers will do better in here than fly-fishermen. And yet interspersed throughout the fast runs and raging chutes are one or two shallow, gravel-bottom pools that end in slick tailouts, where a fly-fisherman can actually wade out into the river far enough to swing a wet fly through good holding water.The South Fork is the hardest to reach and least-fished branch of the Smith River. Its deep canyon is also the wildest branch of the river. The good water is a long drop down from a narrow road that winds high above the river. The South Fork canyon's road is frequently closed by rockfalls and mudslides.But there are sixteen miles of legal steelhead water in the canyon, and a few pools suited for a wading fly-fisherman.Just above the town of Hiouchi, the Middle and South Forks join to form the main stem, Smith River, and it is in this lower mileage that the vast majority of salmon and steelhead are caught. In this stretch, the Smith is big and impressive and flanked by the tallest redwood spires. Driftboat traffic is intense and gear fishing all the rage. Many of the gravel-bank pools on the lower river are quite suitable for wading and fly-fishing. The only problem comes from driftboats floating over your line.On my first day ever fishing the Smith River, a dozen driftboats ran over my line, and it seemed to me this was done on purpose. The driftboats were manned by professional fishing guides who were taking clients out on California's premier steelhead river. The main stem of the Smith had been overtaken by a go-getting commercial euphoria. When I protested to one of these guides after he floated over my water, he calmly informed me that his boat wouldn't spook the steelhead. This was like Nixon telling America he was not a crook.On this bright January morning there are any number of good places where I can fish. I can go to the campground at Jedediah Smith Park and try the Park Hole under the redwoods. Or I can cross to the other side of the river and fish a good steelhead run known as the White Horse Riffle. I can try my luck at either the Bluff Hole or the Rain Gauge Riffle or the Cable Hole, which lies directly behind the Hiouchi Cafe. Or I can find a deserted gravel bar on the Middle Fork where I can swing a fly, or climb down into the South Fork's deep canyon. Either way I won't have to contend with driftboats. Or I can gobelow the Hiouchi Bridge to the Society Hole, a pool made famous in the salmon fishing stories of Russell Chatham.The day is clear and almost windless. A California steelhead fisherman can't ask for anything better than green water and winter sunshine. My breath condenses in the frosty air. It is about ten degrees colder in the shade of the redwoods. I slip on a fleece pullover. Already encased in thermal underwear, I struggle into a pair of insulated neoprene waders. My feet are snug inside ski socks, and I pull a ski cap tightly over my ears. Feet and ears are the first to go in cold weather. If your head and feet get cold you won't last much more than a few hours on the river. I pull on a pair of fingerless woolen gloves. These water-resistant gloves will allow me to handle wet lines and flopping fish in an ice-cold river without going numb. I have learned the hard way that winter steelhead are caught only by fishermen who have learned how to stay warm and dry.In the Pacific Northwest, steelhead fishing is a kind of religion, and winter fishing is strictly for its monks. You can stand for hours in freezing water, casting your heart out for a phantom that might not even be in the river or there in so few numbers as to make it hardly worth the effort. At least the steelhead faithful have their redwood churches to pray in.I follow a footpath that leads through a forest of lacy ferns and massive redwood boles straining to touch heaven. Deeply filtered sunshine slants in shafts down into the forest. "Dim aisles in ancient cathedrals," wrote the poet T. S. Eliot, who never saw a redwood tree as far as I know. The redwoods are so tall they seem to link earth and sky. What little sunlight reaches the forest floor has begun as a green glow diffused ina canopy high overhead. It is like looking into light that has passed underwater. A silence seems to come out of the emerald moss that is growing on every fallen trunk and redwood log, out of the carpet of soft duff that covers the forest floor.Redwoods get their name from the auburn color of the tree bark. This soft bark can grow as much as a foot thick on the oldest and tallest trees. This grove I am walking though is pure virgin redwood, the kind they call old-growth. Some of the oldest trees in Redwood National Park have trunks that boast more than two thousand annual rings. They are the tallest living things on earth, and they are also among the oldest, alive when Columbus set foot in the New World. And yet it can also be said that no tree in the ancient redwood forest can be more than thirty years old. Only a thin cambium layer beneath the bark of any tree is living tissue. The rest is dead wood. And yet a redwood tree seems every inch a living entity.This is what is known as a temperate rain forest. The moist breath of the Pacific arrives as summer fog and winter rain, and the ocean releases her load of moisture onto these trees in the form of one hundred inches of precipitation a year. The redwoods even make their own rain. The forest literally breathes, the trees drawing up groundwater by the hundreds of gallons, from the roots to the crowns, releasing it into the air as condensation.I pass fallen redwood trunks scattered throughout the forest, decaying by degrees into a moist carpet of duff, mosses, and ferns. Mushrooms and toadstools are growing on rotting logs or at the base of huge redwood burls and trunks. The giant redwoods in this grove are mixed with a few equally impressiveDouglas firs, and there is an understory to this forest made up of bigleaf and vine maple, huckleberry, salal, wood rose, azalea, and an abundance of rosebay rhododendron. The tallest redwoods are growing in groves closest to the stream flats. On the ridges and hillsides above these flats, the guardian groves are gradually giving way to a mixed forest of younger redwoods, tan oaks, and stunted chinquapin poking out of steep cliffs like bonsai shrubs in a Japanese garden.I emerge from the forest and walk out onto a sunlit gravel bar beside the river. There are several other fishermen here. It hasn't rained in some time, so the river is the color of an emerald. Beside the bank, a bed of stones lies under clean water so transparent it is impossible to correctly judge the depth. Even in the shallows, the water is deeper than it at first appears. Like the virgin redwoods that rise above the banks, the Smith River is pristine and beautiful almost beyond comprehension.At midstream, sunlight penetrates almost to the bottom of the river, highlighting the remarkable emerald tint. This distinctive aqua-green shine comes not only from the water's purity and the reflections of redwood trees all around but also from a mineral called serpentine that is found in the canyon bedrock. The emerald shade makes the river stones that are flickering on the bottom appear gold and green, depending on the depth, and in places the river pools so deeply that light is turned away two fathoms down in black-green holes. Olive boulders become dimly visible in mysterious underwater grottoes, and in the shallows the water is so light-stricken and transparent that I can actually see the shadows of steelhead over the pebbles.Standing knee-deep in the river, backed by giant redwoods, an angler is drawing a steelhead toward the bank. The winter fish is like a fallen god. Its splendid body is pearlescent, with just the faintest hint of pink. This steelhead has been out of the ocean no more than a few days. Strong as ocean fish, smart as river trout, that's how fishermen describe steelhead. I admire the beached god, an animal to be worshiped.The steelhead appears aerodynamic, shaped like a fuselage. Sleek and very strong looking, the steelhead's back is a shade between gunmetal-gray and metallic green with many trout speckles. Its flanks shine like stamped silver. In the zone of transition between the gunmetal and the silver sheen is a blush of lavender iridescence so faint as to be almost invisible. On the fish's side, and on the belly that is shining white like a pearl, there is a similarly faint cast of pink-and-lavender radiance.The steelhead's unblinking eye is fixed on the sky and the redwoods. It is out of its element, drowning in air. It has no memory of the ocean's blue immensity nor of the birth river it has ascended. It cannot even know how it has struggled on the end of an angler's line. It doesn't even know that it is dying. It is only a collection of reflexes and a servant to its instincts. And yet it is one of the Pacific Northwest's true marvel animals.The biological history of the Smith River can be said to be contained in this one steelhead. The fish has been swimming upstream carrying life like an Olympic torch. Its spawning ground is imprinted in its genes. The fish is a library of genetic knowledge about the river.Like a salmon, a returning steelhead brings the fertility of the ocean up with it. Strictly speaking, a steelhead is not asalmon but a seagoing rainbow trout; yet they are so alike as to be practically the same fish. Smith River steelhead can grow larger than twenty-five pounds in this river; and the salmon fifty and sixty pounds.The Smith is only one of hundreds of rivers pouring out of the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest. Somewhere steelhead are ascending these rivers every month of the year in order to spawn, pushing upstream in silver squadrons. From northern California to the Canadian border, every river and stream drawn by gravity toward the Pacific will likely hold at least a few steelhead.Think of the power of ocean-dwelling fish swimming upstream against a river current that never lets up. Now think of these fish steadily climbing toward mountains a thousand miles away. Pacific steelhead and salmon are capable of traversing three major Western mountain ranges: the gentle Coast Ranges that rise at the very edge of the continent and extend from California to Washington's Olympic Peninsula; the Cascades, which are a higher and more distant barrier; and the mile-high crests of the Rockies. Incredible as it seems, these ocean fish climb mountains. Some salmon and steelhead won't stop until they reach the Continental Divide. Idaho is a Rocky Mountain state and yet it legitimately can be considered part of the Pacific Northwest because there are steelhead and salmon in those rivers. If you need a definition of the Pacific Northwest, say it is wherever steelhead and salmon can swim to.I wade into the river from the gravel bar. Although the pool is very smooth and clear, the current is very strong, and the water streams around my legs with such force that I can feel ittrying to suck me toward the Pacific Ocean which is about ten or twelve miles distant. I wade out thigh-deep and cast as far as I can into the sliding emerald water. There is good holding water under the emerald shadows. I am certain steelhead will be out there. I fish the gravel bar from top to bottom but I get no strikes. I return to the head of the pool, tie on another, smaller fly, and proceed to do the whole thing all over again.Halfway down the bar I feel a yank and suddenly I am attached to a large steelhead. I don't know which is fighting me harder, the river or the fish. I feel an incredible weight that is both steelhead and current. The steelhead hunkers for a moment on the bottom, and by following the trail of my slanting fly line I can see the steelhead at the other end of it writhing in the emerald depths. And then the fish flashes toward the surface and water explodes around him. The steelhead shoots downstream and is pulling me with him. I am still fighting both fish and current. I hold my rod high, running and splashing over the cobblestones, almost tripping and falling, the line singing off my reel. The fish is deep into the backing now; the line is coming off at an alarming rate. I hold tight and manage to slow the steelhead's run. Again the silver fish rises to the surface and the water boils. I pump, reeling tight, but the line starts unwinding again. I stumble over more stones to keep up with the departing fish. Twice I almost trip and fall. I certainly don't want to take a spill into this freezing water. Once again, I manage to check the steelhead's run. In the ensuing tug-of-war, I almost manage to turn the fish. Then the hook pulls free.I sit down on the bank, shaken. No experience in fifteenyears of trout fishing has prepared me for anything like that. I look out over the redwood spires and see a golden eagle turning above the forest. The clear sound of the bubbling river is in my ears. I never want to leave this place.MIST ON THE RIVER. Copyright © 2001 by Michael Checchio. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010. Mochael Checchio is the author of A Clean, Well-Lighted Stream, a collection of fly-fishing essays, and Sundown Legends, a book about the American desert Southwest. His sporting essays have appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal, Fly Rod & Reel, Trout, Flyfisher, and California Fly Fisher. He lives in San Francisco and when he is not steelhead fishing, he is thinking about it.