THE ONLY THING
by Ramon Vanden Brulle
The place was bright and noisy, full to bursting. The waitresses, the only women in the room, wielded thick china and shrugged off the jokes, clumsy passes, and general air of flirtation, giving as good as they got. The tips were piling up, and they knew plenty of these guys, or at least the type: men in the company of men, on the verge of the outdoors, excited and nervous as boys. Harmless enough.
Outside it was still too dark to see the low, thick sky. The pavement was dry, but the gravel and grass were damp, the potholes full of muddy water. The café was one of the few places with the lights on, and it shone like a small moon landed in the center of town. In the dim glow of the streetlamps, the small business strip gave the impression of never having projected enormous prosperity. This is a long way from anywhere, plagued with one of the dampest climates on earth, 200 inches of rain a year and a mean temperature around 50 degrees.
When Europeans first saw this place from the sea, they did not want to come ashore out of fear. Never mind the lack of moorage, dangerous reefs, and giant, bone splintering breakers. The Devil himself lived in places like this, beneath these dark wet thickets of towering trees. In fact, the first Europeans to set foot on this shore were set upon within moments of landing their small boat, killed, dismembered, and cooked before the eyes of their horrified shipmates anchored beyond the surf line. Explorers spread fantastic tales of savage, cannibalistic natives waiting in ambush for God’s children under the impenetrable green canopy.
Some of the natives actually were effective raiders and warriors. They thought they lived in the richest paradise on earth, and pretty much just wanted to be left alone. They had no idea how right their first instinct was. Europeans are nothing if not avid, especially once they’re squeezed through the American can-do filter, and Satan notwithstanding, those enormous trees were like money lying on the ground. Thus grows a resource outpost, the logging town, an operational testament to who the real cannibals are.
We all know how that story has played out; as it ever has. A National Park has sheltered great areas of nearby forest from the saw, but outside the park, the trees are almost gone. A spent forest doesn’t give up much of a living, leaving the down and out locals to covet the pitiful few old-growth trees left and resent any efforts to protect them. Working forests equal working families!
It’s easy enough to relate if you think about it. The big companies got while the getting was good, following the old pattern, moving on to mow down the next green swath. They left little behind to rebuild the wrecked landscape or wrecked lives, certainly no severance or community redevelopment packages, more like a snarled “so long, losers” over their shoulders.
The highway, the sidewalks, the buildings, never much more than they needed to be, had fallen into a state of neglect and disrepair, accelerated by the constant damp. Many storefronts appeared empty. But the parking lots at the café and the two or three motels were full, driftboats behind every second or third SUV. Warm in my poly-fleece and gore-tex, comfortable in my progressive, disposable-income largess, over decent coffee, a
The landscape had been hosed, but as steelhead rivers go, things could’ve been worse. I ate my breakfast and ruminated over the intersection of angling and socio-ecological history within minutes of what is in fact the last best winter-steelhead system in the lower 48. Thank goodness, or Teddy Roosevelt, for National Parks, if not Euro-American squeamishness over dark dank places. Out in the darkness beyond the café’s neon glow, three rivers drained high, steep coastal mountains, coming together a few miles from the open sea. That winter and spring they together gathered about 20,000 wild steelhead. That’s three or four times more than some other very celebrated drainages. But never mind comparisons; call it a lot of fish.
“How are your eggs?” I said to Paul.
“OK,” I said. “Hurry it up. People are leaving.”
In the truck we decided on a drift, the highway bridge to the hatchery, and stopped at a payphone to call about a shuttle. It makes me nervous, leaving the key up under the wheel well for some anonymous if enterprising local, who to this day I have never laid eyes on. It’s always fine, but I still spend a good portion of the day praying, and the sight of the rig at the take-out is always more than welcome.
The launch was nearly empty, save for an empty rig and one local, baitfishing on foot just below the ramp. Everybody else was either taking their sweet time, or on the lower drifts, or on one of the other rivers. It could’ve been the various combinations coming up in our favor, or maybe they all knew something we didn’t. I didn’t let it bother me too much. Fishing yesterday’s bite can get you in trouble; steelhead are migratory, after all. Sometimes it’s better not to know. Besides, the shuttle was already scheduled.
The local hooked a fish while we were launching the boat. He was not young, with a grizzled beard and roughly lined face. His body had been twisted, maybe broken, into a slightly hunched-back posture. He walked with a limp, his left leg stiff at the knee. It didn’t slow him down much, and he landed the steelhead quickly, a bright wild buck in the mid teens. It flopped powerfully on the cobble beach until the old fellow bent over, held the steelhead’s tail against the ground. He took a piece of cobble in his hand and dented the crown of the fish’s skull with a sharp, practiced rap. The big sea trout straightened out, gave a quick shudder, and was still.
The river hissed smoothly past the beach, breaking over the crest of the riffle below in a muted jangle of chop and foam. A logging truck rumbled over the bridge, shaking the glacial till under our feet. Above, a slight breeze moved the tops of the big trees. The sky was low, the color of wet ash. The local straightened as far as he could, holding his fish by the wrist of its tail. He did not acknowledge it to us in any way, or even smile. Paul and I looked at each other. We didn’t say anything.
I’m never sure what to do when I see someone break the law fishing. Sometimes I make myself believe I’ve witnessed an honest mistake, and offer a helpful warning to the malefactor that he has exposed himself to sanction and fine. Often as not, the accidental criminal will at least feign remorse and appreciation for the information. This didn’t seem like one of those times, and I was not anxious to begin the day with a hostile confrontation. This chap clearly saw this fish as his rightful due, not to mention a decent bit of food, possibly much needed. I didn’t get the impression he considered us brothers of the angle, or that he wanted to entertain a collegial streamside debate on sporting ethic.
Then I remembered that it was legal to kill a certain number of wild steelhead in this last best place. Only one more to go, I guess. I didn’t like it much, but I had to admit a certain relief that it was really none of my business.
“Nice fish,” I offered.
He didn’t take it like spit in the face, exactly, but he didn’t answer. Perhaps he had debated the issue a time or two with similarly outfitted tourists. It was time to finish launching the boat, and to go catch some fish. At least they were here.
The river was perfect, a little high but falling, the water clear but showing a distinct tinge of emerald. Early on, Paul hooked a fish in the car-body pool, a very big native that ran powerfully and jumped twice before throwing the fly. The hit came right above the eponymous vehicle, a bent and rusted white sedan, broken by bad luck and nature. The fly hadn’t sunk more than a foot, still drifting along the bank, when the fish took it in a large boil. The car-body pool is a straight, long flat, about 200 yards, hemmed by a high bank on one side, willow and tall red alders on the other. Under the gray ceiling it affected something of a large vaulted hall. The steelhead raced and flipped across the smooth stage of water, eliciting spontaneous and vocal appreciation from his private audience.
Paul’s defeat was total, but short lived. In the very next pool he hooked another fish from the boat, dead-drifting a fly under a bobber on a floating line. I beached the boat so he could play the fish on foot. The steelhead fought a little uncharacteristically, doggedly, with short if powerful jabs and a good deal of wallowing in the shallows. After his previous clock-cleaning, Paul rather overplayed him I thought, but ultimately the fish turned on his side in a few inches of water and I tailed him, handing him off to Paul to do the honors.
He removed the fly from its jaw, shuffled into slightly deeper water and righted the fish, silver with a slight blush, big though not as big as the lost fish, maybe 16 pounds. The native buck had a very long head, indicating advanced age. Some of the steelhead in this system might spend six years feeding in the ocean before returning to spawn.
He held the steelhead in the current, moving it slightly back and forth. The fish exploded and escaped in a frightful froth. Paul stood grinning, water running from his face.
We came around a bend into a place where the floodplain spread out a little, the channel splitting into braids around a high cobble bar on river right. At the crest of the bar, about 12 feet above the level of the river, sat an enormous spruce log. It lay on its side, sawed off at one end, an eroded root-wad at the other, maybe 25 feet long and more than ten feet high. At least one early area settler built his homestead by hollowing out a similar log.
We beached the boat under the log to fish the break at the bottom of the bar. Paul got out to fish the head of the riffle, while I stayed in the boat to have some coffee and a sandwich. I watched Paul measure out his first few casts, then turned to look upstream.
The ceiling had started to lift a little in the early afternoon, and I could see the lower slopes of the mountains climbing into the bank of clouds, the bright green corner of a replanted clear-cut just visible at the line where the mountains disappeared. At the far side of the floodplain a windbreak of tall bare cottonwoods marked a farmer’s pasture like great skeletal sentries. On the other side of the river, the forest came right to the bank, willows giving way to alder, twisted vine maple, and cottonwood, dark spruce, cedar, hemlock, and fir beyond. The only sound or movement came from the river, the soft rumble of water falling to the sea.
I heard a noise from up on the bar and turned to see the bent figure of our local, shuffling stiff-gaited down the cobble, silhouetted against the lead sky. I was beginning to feel a little haunted.
He ignored me, went straight to the river’s edge and began to fish, deftly drifting his heavily weighted bait through the slot along the steep bar. He shortly hooked a fish. It jumped right at his feet, and tried to run downstream. He didn’t horse it exactly, but he wasn’t fooling around. He neatly turned the steelhead right above where I sat in the boat, where it jumped again. Soon enough the fish was on its side at his feet.
The old boy wore hip boots, but he didn’t want to get in the water. He hoisted the steelhead onto the cobble, and grabbed it quickly. With a certain deal of trouble, he crouched down, his bad leg stretched out in front of him, so that he could hold the fish in the water. In a moment, he took his hand from the river, the steelhead gone. He grabbed his rod and stood facing me, giving me essentially the same look he had back at the boat launch.
“Nicely played,” I said.
He might have nodded an acknowledgement; I couldn’t quite tell. He turned and hobbled upstream a little way, where he rebaited and began fishing again. Paul had covered the lower run without incident and was back at the boat.
“There’s our pal,” he said.
“Yeah. He just released a fish.”
“No kidding. What’s up with that do you suppose?”
“Don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he’s some kind of moderate. Maybe his punch card’s full.”
We got in the boat and took off. The bottom of the riffle bent around a large logjam, and I had to spin the stern to river left and pull hard to stay out of it. As the current released the boat I let the bow spin upstream and caught a glimpse of the grey figure hunched over the river, alone in the still, solemn landscape.
Paul landed two more fish, a very bright, smallish hen that tore him up, and another big, darkish buck. It had been a big day, even for one of the best steelhead streams in the world. I saw six wild steelhead hooked, four of them on flies from one boat. I didn’t touch a thing. After a certain amount of time you get tempted into thinking you’ve got it figured out. I don’t know. Maybe it just wasn’t my day.
As we came around the final bend, I could see the red roof of the truck, parked in the gravel lot above the ramp. It was a relief.
HOME WATERS IN MY HEAD
by Brian Strickland
As I sit here in the engine room control booth of USCGC Vigorous underway and patrolling the north coast of Haiti, my mind wanders back to a particular cedar creek on the northwestern coast of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. I think back to an amazing day I had over 5 years ago, and I still consider it to be one of the best days I’ve ever had on the water. The sea run Cutthroat that I caught and witnessed that day were some of the most aggressive and healthiest I have ever seen. My friend Matt genuinely screamed in terror, when a 20”+ SRC, came flying out of the water several feet and landed on his royal humpy. He missed of course, but there were plenty others that day, ones that we could keep our composure on. It was truly a great day of fishing, but what did it for me was the beautiful surroundings, huge Sitka spruce, bald eagles and the occasional flash under the water from a dark place.
When I found out in the spring of 08 that we were moving to Cape May NJ, my heart sank. How could I possible give up the rugged and amazingly beautiful surroundings of the Olympic Peninsula for New Jersey? I would be moving closer to home, and that was a nice change, being closer to my folks and friends a few hours away in Virginia. It had been 7 years since I moved away to the NW by that point. And I could get into striper fishing, my brother and I could finally go on more backpacking trips together, things would be okay. It takes about a year of living anywhere to really get into the swing of things, and it was a big learning curve. I have learned all about bass fishing, and the top water explosion is an addiction. I have seen osprey fly out of a tree and grab a 3 lb largemouth bass from the shallows. I have even seen bald eagles, here in New Jersey. I have stood in the crashing surf like a lunatic in November, and one thing I’ve learned is that stripers are tough fish. I have seen beautiful places out here, like the Wild River in Maine, where I caught my first ever brook trout. The Pine Barrens of New Jersey, a vast and unique ecosystem. The Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, a truly beautiful part of the country. Western Maryland and the Savage River, an extremely technical river full of picky brown trout and some very treacherous wading. I went back and visited a creek I fished and have not been to in 17 years, outside of Montpelier Vermont… It brought back memories of just being a kid without any responsibilities, or a care in the world. The place looks the exact same as I remembered.
I have learned a lot about life in general, that you can find good people just about everywhere you go. We have made life long friends here in New Jersey, and it will be hard to say goodbye when we move to Oregon this coming June. Out of all these places and people, my mind still wanders to a few of my favorite spots on the Peninsula. Experiences are still vivid in my head after all these years. Hiking into to that remote spot on the upper Calawah on a cool summer morning, the pools are so well defined and the water is some of the clearest I have ever seen. The amazing camping trip that time on the South Fork of the Hoh, deep inside the park where elk out number humans 100 to 1. My first ever fly caught trout on the Elwha by Humes Ranch in August of 06, (yes I started late). Watching an eagle fly out of a tree and take a steelhead, (still one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen). The deep hole on the upper Sol Duc, a place I long to return to.
These places and experiences make up the core of who I am. I look forward to the day when I can stand in a freezing river again and swing for a steelhead. I look forward to the day years from now, when I can hike into the Elwha and cast to summer steelhead and feisty resident rainbows. I look forward to teaching my daughter Finnley about wildlife, fishing and love for all things outdoors (if my wife doesn’t have other plans for her). And most importantly, we look forward to the day when we can live how we want to, in the most beautiful part of the country that I have ever seen. That is why I consider the Olympic Peninsula my “Home Waters”, because no place has ever had the same effect on me.
Brian Strickland Dec 11th, 2011
New and Old Ties for Sea-Run Cutthroat
by Jeffrey Delia
A female and male 19-plus-inch Hood Canal sea-run cutthroat taken on the same day recently by Jeffrey Delia
I caught the female in the top image using one of my new baitfish patterns that is shown in the image below. I caught about 25 cutts before I retired the fly on that particular day of pattern testing! The big buck went after a Delia’s Conehead Squid pattern that I switched to after wearing out the baitfish pattern (seen in the photo) and wanting to see if the fish would go after the squid pattern.
The above image is another new pattern that I have been experimenting with in the baitfish pattern style. For those tyers who might be interested in experimenting with this style of pattern, here is the recipe:
Mustad R74-9672, size 6 or Mustad 9672, 4XL streamer hook; wood duck or mallard fibers for a tail, copper rib, body of pearlescent poly flash braid, grizzly tips tied in along each side of the body to suggest parr marks, with an underwing of white or gray marabou and overwing of black marabou. I tie the fly with 8/0 black thread, then whip finish the head and tie in a piece of 6/0 1X red micro tinsel that I then cover the head with and whip finish and cover the head with three or four coats of Sally Hansen’s Hard as Nails. I’m not sure yet if it’s worth it to finish the head with the red micro tinsel but I do like the addition of the flashy red head, but you can achieve a similar effect by just using red thread and multiple coats of Hard as Nails.
This image shows the two other baitfish patterns I have been working on. Both are tied on the Mustad R74-9672, number 6 4XL, using 8/0 black thread. Any red hackle fibers will work for the tails, although I like schlappen feathers and use the barbells from the stem end. It has a copper rib and body of pearlescent or yellow poly flash braid, with under wings of white polar bear or deer hair and overwings of red or red and black polar bear or deer hair. I make a large thread head for stick-on eyes that I finish with 5-minute epoxy. These flies take a little time to make but have been fishing very well for sea-runs and I don’t leave home without a few in my box.
These images show some of the Knutson-like patterns I have been tying lately and fishing with great success, especially the red bodied pattern. The fly does not sink very far below the surface, and on a brisk pause and six inch strip retrieve I have been having some torpedo-like takes that are about as exciting as it gets when casting to feeding cutthroat.
I am tying these patterns in red, yellow, orange, purple, black, brown and green. For those of you who want to tie your own, my recipe is as follows: 8/0 black thread; Gamakatsu T10-6H salmon hook, size 6 or 8; red hackle tail; chenille body (color of choice, although red always works); wood duck or mallard flank feathers for hackle. I whip finish the head, then tie in the red 6/0 1X micro tinsel, whip finish again, and make several coats of Hansen’s Hard as Nails. These flies can be used for sea-run cutthroat and steelhead, changing the size to suit your fishing.
Finally, I would like to pass on a tying tip for those of you who don’t already know about how to get your duck hackles to lay back in that beautiful way that Dick Wentworth and Syd Glasso were so good at doing. I’ve been tying for quite some time but just discovered this recently while tying a bunch of Knutson-style flies. If you notice in the photo of wood duck feathers above that most of them have the barbells that tend to stick almost straight out from the stem. As you go through your feathers, you will notice that some of them have an almost square shape to them. These are the feathers you want to select for those flies that you want the hackle to lie back and curve around the hook shank. You still have to carefully fold and wrap the hackle, but with a little practice you will see how these particular feathers will give you that beautiful “wrap around” look that we sometimes want for certain flies. I try to carefully go through my duck feathers and separate all the squarish feather in all the different sizes you will find on one skin or package of feathers. That way, when I am looking for that style of hackle the searching has already been done, and I can get on with tying some good looking flies.
The Feast of Three Fishes
by Doug Rose
I once read that the best way to live your life was to “dress English, drink French and eat Italian.” With surnames like Rose, Fisher, Sawyer, Lyons, Rainy and Pease in my family tree, I wasn’t exposed to much Italian food as kid. I was served home made spaghetti and meatballs the first time a girl asked me over to her house for dinner, however, and I been under the thrall of Italian food ever since. And in recent years, largely thanks to a lot of rainy days on the Queets and Giada De Laurenti on TV, I’ve begun to cook simple Italian dishes myself.
There’s a tradition in southern Italian households of serving a series of fish dishes on Christmas Eve. This “Feast of the Fishes” is often fairly elaborate, with as many as 13 different recipes. I have simplified this down to three different types of fish/shellfish for our Christmas Eve dinner.
The main course is a whole baked fish, stuffed with spinach, tomatoes, onions and carrots. I like blackmouth the best because it’s oily, but living in Forks it’s easier to come by a steelhead this time of year. All you do is spread olive oil and salt and pepper on the inside cavity of the fish, then add the vegetables. Then I put it on a piece of aluminum foil, spread more oil and lemon and extra vegetables if you wish on outside of the fish, and wrap it. I bake it at 350 degrees until the pink meat flakes readily, usually less than an hour.
My first course will be oysters with panchetta and oregano. I use small yearling type oysters, preferably from Delia’s Broad Spit Oysters, Taylor United or Hama Hama Seafood on Hood Canal. I open them and loosen the meat with my knife. I get rid of the top shell and leave the oyster in the deep, cupped half. I top it with a couple pieces of panchetta about the size of my little fingernail. I add a piece of oregano, preferably fresh, on top of that and then a couple of drops of olive oil. I broil the oyster until the panchetta is cooked (you can cook it lightly before if you want) and the oyster begins to curl away from the shell. Keep an eye on it because it doesn’t take long.
My favorite side dish for the feast is steamed clams with Italian sausage and fennel. I begin by slicing a red pepper and a large (cored) fennel bulb into strips. I warm a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot and add the vegetables and sausage (removed from casings). I cook them until the sausage is browned and the pepper and fennel are wilted, about 10 minutes. The recipe I got the idea from then adds about 8 ounces of bottled clam juice to the pot, although I usually use a mix of water and white wine. Then add a couple dozen unopened clams and cook until they open. Add a garnish of the leafy fronds from the fennel if you want and serve immediately in large warm bowls.
All of these dishes are simple, don’t take much preparation or time, and come out fantastic even when cooked by a complete amateur like me. I accompany them with a crusty sourdough bread, a simple orange, fennel and black olive salad, and a plain spaghetti course dressed simply with parmigiano reggiano.
If you give these recipes a try, I bet you will end up making them a holiday tradition too.
Merry Christmas everyone. And if you haven’t already done it, please sign the petition supporting the Campaign for a Wild Olympics.