Monday, December 12, 2011

Cast From the Past: Grande Ronde, September, 2008

I was thinking today about Steelhead I have known, and took the time to look up this trip report from my old blog. I haven't made it back to the local river for awhile, and it was fun to take a whole trip to the Ronde again without ever getting cold.

That was a good trip. Those were special Steelhead. I thought you, too, might enjoy this cast from the past. 

Serendipitous Convergence

I strayed away from home waters for a few days to fish for steelhead in the Grande Ronde, a beautiful little river in the extreme southeast corner of Washington.  My brother John and his co-worker Craig were going to come from the Fly Fishing Show in Denver, where they manned the HMH booth, to try for some western steelhead before heading back to Maine.
I left home early Wednesday morning.  Six hours later I pulled into the parking lot at Boggan’s Oasis, a restaurant and motel right on the river, where I was to check for a message from John.  The name is to be pronounced "bo-GAN’s"–very elegant–though John says the accomodations have a ways to go to achieve anything approaching elegance.  Still, the place has become one of those legendary locations in the fly fishing world because of the September and October steelhead season that draws fishers from all over the country.
I didn’t find a message, but the guy said, "Oh yeah. They’re here. Two guys from Maine?  Yeah, they’ll be down in a minute."  (There are no stairs.  "Down" means down the hill from where the cabins are located.)  So, 15 minutes later we were making a plan.  They had tried a stretch near the motel that morning without any luck, and were ready to try the run at the end of Shumaker Road, one of the few roads that get you to the river.  So they took off in their brand new rented Jeep and I followed in the van.
Now, there are three notable natural wonders between Spokane and the Oregon line.  One is the high rolling grassland now mostly covered with vast acres of wheat.  Another is the Snake River gorge, a massive declivity that takes an hour to drive down one side and up the other.  The third is the Grande Ronde gorge.  The Grande Ronde is a smaller river than the Snake, but it has a gorge that rivals it.  The few roads that descend to the river look like spaghetti on the maps.  The main road in is Hwy 129, and at the brink of the descent a road sign warned: "25 MPH, Next 13 Miles."
So, having just made the descent, I now turned around and ascended with John and Craig.  It wasn’t bad.  Pavement.  Road signs.  Guard rails.  Once on top we cut east on a gravel road, merged with a blacktop road, and then turned south on Shumaker Road.
Shumaker Road starts out as a nicely maintained gravel road.  But then it has to go all the way down to the bottom of this:
No pavement.  No warning signs.  No guard rails.  Just a steep, dusty grade and one hairpin turn after another.  Local lore says you don’t want to be down there when it starts to rain, because you’ll never get out on the slick, muddy road.  Or you’ll die trying.  Of course they may spread that story to keep the outsiders away on those rainy days when the fishing is best.  But, having driven that road, I tend to believe the lore.
Once we got down we were in another world.  Let the pictures speak for themselves.
We all fished, swinging a variety of flies through the riffles and glides and runs.  John got a good take, but no hookup.  At the end of the day the only fish we had caught were little Smallmouths:
I had made the decision by dusk to make my home away from home right there.  I wanted to try those runs again.  And we seemed to be in the pleasant throes of a stalled fair weather system: warm temps and clear skies, with no threat of rain until Saturday.  Meanwhile, John and Craig had decided to head for Idaho and the Clearwater River the next day.  They had heard it was doing well.  So when they had packed up for the climb out and we had said our goodbyes, I set up camp.
There was one other camper a distance downriver from me, but the light in his big tent went out at 8 PM, so it was just me, the river, the canyon, the crickets, the hills, and the stars.  I sat there for a long time and watched the light from the rising moon, hidden behind a mountain at my back, slowly transform the skyscape.
I got up early, made coffee, and got ready to fish.
It was a beautiful morning.  The sun was lighting the world outside the canyon as I waded into the run at 8 AM.
It was cool in the shade, but I was comfortable without a jacket.  I was hoping cooler water temperatures might get the steelhead on the bite.  I had seen many of these stone fly shucks on the rocks along the river:
So I tied on a Sparkle Stone Fly and went to work.  And it is work, compared to float tubing or canoing a lake.  Here you start at the head of a run, wade out into the fast current trying to keep your footing on the rocky bottom, cast across and downstream, let the fly swing in the current, take two steps downstream and do it again.  On the second or third cast I caught a fish, but not what I was after:
I took it as a good sign.  As it turned out to be.  I hooked a steelhead.  It felt at first like the little Smallmouths, just a couple of taps, so I was surprised when it jumped and showed me its slab sides and red stripe.  But by then it was off the hook.  So I waded out of the river, went back to the head of the run, and started again with high hopes.
This time the take was unmistakable.  He jumped, ran, jumped again.  I had waded into the shallows and was gradually working him in.  But the first time he saw me–I swear I could see his eyes get wide–he took a big leap and made his longest run yet.  But eventually I had him in the shallows and then up on the rocks.  Even as I tried to take his picture he thrashed and flopped, stirring up the silt on the rocks.  But ain’t he beautiful?
I went back in and hooked another one.  This one fought much like the first one had, jumps and runs.  By the time I finally got him up on the rocks the sun was on that stretch of water.  Makes an even prettier picture.
I also took a closeup of this one.  I think I tied this fly a long time ago, not knowing when I would ever use it, and certainly never imagining that it would result in this.
So I went out again and hooked another one.  This is where the story gets sad.  What a fish this was.  He was on for a long time.  My hand went to sleep.  My arm shook.  My back ached.  He never jumped, though he came up and swirled and porpoised.  Mostly he ran and shook that fly.  I had him close a couple times, close enough to see the distance between his dorsal and tail, his dorsal and head, close enough to see that tail as big as my hand, close enough to know he would have gone 3 feet at least.  A beautiful fish.  I think I will always have the image in my mind of that long grey-green sunlit shape holding in the current so tantalizingly close.  And also of the fly popping straight out of the water as it somehow came unhooked.
All of that in the space of an hour.
Now I wish I had gone right back for another pass through that run.  But then I was deflated and ready for a break.  I went back to camp, shaking my head every few steps, mumbling to myself, even chuckling in perplexity and admiration.  I made some lunch, sat in my chair in the shade and dozed, and then went back out.
Nothing.  Too hot by then, I suppose.  But lastnight, sitting in the starlight, watching it merge with the moonlight flowing over the mountain, I was hopeful, and eager to see what a new morning would bring.
I got on the water by 6:30 AM and worked hard all morning, but never had a bump.  So I decided to pack up and come on home.  I am very happy with the gift of those two fish, and, I can say, especially with the gift of that beautiful fish that got away.  What a privilege to have been able to have him on my line that long.  As someone has already observed, the fish that are the most memorable are the ones we almost caught.
Maybe that’s because they are the image of perfection just out of reach, and as such have a lasting power to motivate, to shape our desires.  Maybe it’s because they are the image of pure possibility: not this time, but next time…or the next….  I know this: I will go out again to cast my lot with possibility, to seek another connection with these beautiful fish.  And it’s all because of that grey-green shape that swam all the way from the Pacific, up the Columbia, up the Snake, into the Grande Ronde, and by some serendipitous convergence made connection with me; and is still holding in the current, strong and undefeated, somewhere deep within me.


  1. I think I ran into your brother at a show several years ago. My son got a tube fly setup from him. Small world. Now, through your words and pictures, I have been lucky to make your acquaintance. What a post! I've reread it like five times. The last paragraph....Wow!

  2. Herringbone: Yep, I bet you did meet him. Maybe I like your photos and blog so much because I've been in Maine a few times to visit him. I cut my teeth on fly fishing with him there at Pierce Pond for Landlockeds, and the Kennebec estuary for Stripahs. Glad you liked the post.