Fall is over and winter has begun. Officially I guess winter is still a few weeks away, and the weather is still fallish, but for me fall is over. The end of this, my favorite season, signals the end of my trips to the Deschutes in pursuit of steelhead. I have forsaken my trout rods since September so I might chase after this noble fish, but now the chase is done. It is only the middle of November, but other commitments will keep me at home until December. So this is my last day to fish for steelhead on the river until next year. I have tried to prepare for this day by planning trips to other locations that provide good sport during the months when steelhead are not in the Deschutes or the weather is poor. I hate to see this day come, but it is here. I will fish it and enjoy every minute until it is passed and I am heading home.
I do not mind fishing alone, especially on this day. It is easier to decide when the day has ended when you are alone and do not have to worry about another’s schedule. I have shared a few special days on the river this year with fishing partners I have gleaned from my list of friends. A fishing partner is not chosen lightly or without some consideration of the qualifications. Good companions do not require undue attention and are well equipped. They are self-sufficient, but will ask and give advice willingly. Understanding that the most important thing is just being on the river is another quality and probably the most valuable in a good partner. They are never late. Today though, I fish alone. The way I started the fall season and the way I shall end it.
When it is the last day of the season one chooses carefully the places to fish. They may have been productive all season or provided the most challenge. They may have the best view of the canyon walls as the sun sets, or placed where the sun leaves the water sooner providing more productive fishing time. The places I had fished on this day were a combination of all of these things. One spot remained. Otter Run I had named it, a name I alone use to identify this unremarkable section of river. A friend who guides this river had first brought me here, but he had no name for this place. I have on several occasions been run off by the family of otters that call it home. So Otter Run it became. Once the big male swam right up within a rods distance and snorted his displeasure at my interruption of their family outing. Many evenings I sat watching as they played and hunted crayfish and trout. Many evenings I had hooked steelhead here before being run off, but my score for fish landed at this spot was zero.
I had saved Otter Run for last; my last cast of the season would be made here. Undoubtedly I would be on the river after trout during the colder months, or looking for winter steelhead on another stream. Maybe a trip to warmer climes for bonefish or tarpon like the winter past. My rods would not sit idle, but the fall season would end here. I stepped in at the head of the run with a sense of anticipation, peace, and sadness.
As I worked down through the pool I tried to convince myself that I was glad this was the last time I’d be doing this for a while. I’d been up since before daylight and been in waders the whole time. My feet felt cold and clammy, and I wondered if it was from a leak or just perspiration. I would take care to check that during the off-season. There were many little projects to be done before heading out again. Reels and lines that needed cleaning and fly boxes to fill. I had broken a bootlace this morning and needed to replace those. Yes, I was glad to put an end to the Deschutes steelhead season. Many evenings I had left my trout rods in the truck; with trout feeding all around me I cast for steelhead. “Why do I do this?” I asked myself out loud. I had not had so much as a bump or boil to my fly all of today nor last evening for that matter. Yes, it was good to end the season, today, at this spot.
Halfway down the run I stopped and sat on a boulder that lies just below the surface of the water. As I inspected the fly attached to my tippet I noticed the last rays of sunlight were painting the top of the canyon walls letting me know that time was passing and this day would soon end. I cut the fly away and opened my flybox to deposit it and select another. I had fished it through some good water without a take and with little time or water left I wanted to have a fly I felt good about at the end of my line. As the Chinese would say, “This had been the year of the skunk,” green-butt skunk that is. This pattern had accounted for every steelhead landed and all but one hooked during the season. I had fished many others, but it was the one I was always using when the fish gods smiled. I choose one I had tyed the morning I left on this trip, normal except the wing was a mix of polar bear and arctic fox, a chilly combination.
The spey rod has become quite popular with steelheaders on this side of the pond, and we have adapted it well to the Deschutes and its run of summer steelhead. The rod I held was a far cry from the rod I used on my first steelhead, it’s at least seven feet longer for starters. Casting this fifteen-foot blend of graphite and cork has been a learning experience for me, and one I have not yet mastered. This last day of the season would be good practice if nothing else. With robotic motions I continued down the run. Lift, sweep, back cast, tap out, and mend. When I had cast all the line I could handle I’d reposition myself and start again. Lift, sweep, back cast, tap out, and mend, working to the tail of the run.
With daylight running out and the end of the season in sight I had resigned myself to another fishless day. It wasn’t the first, and no doubt would not be the last. That was not important. It had been a wonderful day to be on the river and had been a fair fall season of steelheading. I had set a new personal mark with a sixteen-pound summer fish in September and had finished off the season with several nice native fish. Now it was time for the last cast.
Lift, sweep, back cast, tap out, and mend. I followed the path of the fly line as it swung toward shore. The final cast, the last day. Tug. Tug. I let the loop of line slip from my fingers, tug, tug, tug. I raised the rod to the shoreline and set the hook. What followed can only be appreciated by someone who has been in this position. A chrome bright steelhead erupted from the water in cartwheels, seeming never to re-enter the water. Each explosion was followed by another as the fish headed back toward the Pacific, several hundred miles away. It seemed as if she’d never stop as the line melted away and the backing started through the guides. Gaining speed she stayed in the water for a brief run straight away then continued her airborne trek to the sea. Then she stopped. Holding in fast water it now became a matter of endurance. I gained line slowly, very slowly. Now she was off again in giant arcing leaps upstream as if trying to ascend some unseen waterfall. With each jump I lowered the rod taking care to not let her come down on a tight line. She was closer now and I was gaining line. Soon she would be carefully beached and the hook she tried so hard to shake would be removed. After a picture of her lying in the shallows and a few moments of admiration she would be allowed to swim free. I would have won this battle and ended the season as it should be ended.
With the tip of my rod now at the leader I led the fish toward the spot I had chosen for her surrender. It had been a gallant fight, but I had won. My prize would be a photo and memories of a splendid evening on the river during my favorite season. Hers would be freedom. I could see every ray in her fins and tail. A pink stripe that ran from her cheek down her side highlighted her chrome bright body. She slid toward the shore yielding to the pressure of the fly rod. Suddenly she bolted toward the center of the river leaping high in the air again in cartwheels above the water. Frantically I lowered the rod to keep the line from parting, but it was too late. I had felt the tippet part with the first jump, but the fish continued to leap, not knowing she was free, freedom on her terms.
It may seem hard to believe for some, but I did not curse or vocalize my feelings. I made no sound at all. As the last ripples that marked her departure faded I stood smiling at the turn of events. My question of why had been answered. One never knows what will happen when steelhead are the quarry and fall is in the air.