Whatever my destination, I can usually be counted on
to work in a fishing trip. In keeping with this tradition, I got my first shot
at fishing for steelhead on the
The prized fish in the McKenzie are cutthroat
and rainbow trout, steelhead, and salmon. Tom told me that if he catches a
total of 20 steelhead in a season, it’s a very good
year. He fishes the McKenzie frequently and was literally raised on the river. Tom
does his McKenzie fishing from a heavy-gauge aluminum “McKenzie River Drift
Boat,” appropriately named, for nearby the
I’m used to standing on the deck of my 18-foot
bass boat, in
Although we’d brought our fly rods, for steelhead and salmon, we were using conventional casting reels and rods with 20-pound monofilament and small gold hooks with gobs of salmon eggs attached. About 18 inches above the eggs we tied a two-inch piece of parachute cord loaded with split shot lead weights. The parachute cord was hollow and worked as Chinese finger cuffs to hold the split shot in place. Surprisingly, the rig rarely hung up. We cast across and slightly up current and let the rig ride down with the current, kind of “bottom bumping”. If we were lucky, a salmon or steelhead would take. The McKenzie is not the big river that so many outsiders expect it to be. It comes out of the Cascades and in most areas is only 50 to 75 yards wide and can neck down to 30, but has very fast-moving water and some big, deep holes. It can be very dangerous if you’ve never handled a drift boat, and it’s something that can’t be learned quickly like paddling a canoe.
After a couple of hours of fruitless “bottom bumping” without a strike, Tom could tell that my patience was wearing thin. Luckily, for me, a golden stonefly hatch had just started in a big slow-moving pool just ahead and the rainbows were rising everywhere, so Tom suggested we switch to 7-wt. fly rods and toss a dry fly called the stimulator, while using a black stone nymph as a dropper fly. We still cast across and let the fly and nymph ride down as before. It took only a short while to get the rainbows’ attention. The action was fast and furious and we immediately forgot about the steelheads and salmon.
An hour and a half later, the “hatch” was over and we were both arm weary from casting and catching. We didn’t keep track of how many rainbows we caught, but I estimated it was close to 30. However, I well remember the big 8-pounder that I fought for almost 45 minutes on a 5X tippet. She wore me to a frazzle. Each time I thought she was done, she’d get my fly reel screaming again as she made another leaping, swirling, diving run. I was within a couple of turns of being out of backing several times, but managed to subdue her just before she hit the end and broke my line.
All this time Tom alternated between urging me on and pestering me, as all brothers-in-law are prone to do at times. You have to remember that Tom grew up on the McKenzie and this was the first time I’d fished it and I, being a big-mouth Texan know-it-all and used to catching nothing but largemouth bass while cranking and winding, was not supposed to hook an 8-pound rainbow my first time out.
Tom was abnormally
irritated, which is another way of saying he was totally pissed at me for
making the catching of that big rainbow look so ridiculously easy. I really
have to watch it at times, ‘cause my
I was nervous, but tried my best not to show it. However, I did know how to fight a big fish. I took my time and I let the rod do most of the work for me. As the old lady tired and rolled over on her side, I netted her and gently removed the hook from her mouth, placed her back in the water and eased her back and fourth until she got her bearings. Then she was off with a rush, as though nothing had happened. Old Tom gained a new appreciation for Texans, when I released her. He thought we were all “meat fishermen.”
Tom’s remark after my battle
with the 8-pounder was, “You’re okay, Jimbo, you
fought that big rainbow like a pro.” I already knew that and I knew Tom was
just “blowing wind up my skirt,” but it did make me feel good for a “pro” like
him to give me that kind of compliment. My reply was a salty “Hell, Tom, wait
till I get you down to
At the end of the day, we pulled out at a landing about seven miles down river from where we’d put in. We climbed in my car, which we’d left at the take-out ramp earlier and went back for his pickup and boat trailer. I was worried about someone stealing Tom’s drift boat that we’d left tied to a tree by the ramp, but Tom said he’d been doing it that way all his life and had never had a problem. I’m a trusting soul, but I’ll be damned if I’ll leave my bass boat unattended if it’s out of my sight.
On the way back to Eugene, I asked Tom why we hadn’t caught any steelhead. He grinned and said, “That’s steelheadin’, Jim.” I’ve heard that same expression many times since then by as many different steelhead fisherman. The next year the story was completely different, no rainbows and no salmon, but four big steelheads right at 10 pounds each. As Tom says “once a steelheader, always a steelheader.” I have to second that notion!