Steelhead Camp

Pull your waders off and prop your feet up by the fire. Steelhead Camp is a collection of adventures from across the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Steelhead anglers are a special kind of crazy, but you already knew that.

The German/American Steelhead Expedition 2016

Joel La Follette - Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Every once in a while your path crosses that of someone who seems to be an old friend, even though you've just met. My friend Stefan is kind of like that, but it took a day on the water to really figure that out. Our first meeting was brief and relatively anonymous. We shared a few words while rigging up for an evening of Steelhead fishing on the Deschutes. Although we fished the same river, we fished alone. As darkness ended the day I left a business card and a fly on his rental, forgetting the encounter.

The first time we really fished together was not planned, nor expected. I was on the way to the river when my phone rang and it was Stefan. It took a second to figure out who was calling, but the German accent gave him away. I told him I was meeting up with my friend, Mike Duley, at 5:00AM the next morning in front of Gray's Market in Maupin and he was welcome to join us. Doing the math I figured Stefan would have to leave his hotel at 2:00AM so there was very little chance of him meeting us in time. No one is that dedicated. As I loaded my gear into Mike's Suburban I caught a glimpse of a little rental car coming down the road. I turned to Mike and said, "I've got a friend joining us today." And so it was. 

That first meeting was over 18 years ago and since that time Stefan and I have fished many days together in Oregon and British Columbia. We have shared many memorable moments and some incredible fishing. Throughout that time Stefan had never successfully fished for winter Steelhead. The last three February's my good friend has managed to schedule a few days of fishing by extending a business trip to Southern California. His first winter visit coincided with the Snowpocalypse of 2014. That year we faced high water conditions as the snow melted and left us with relatively tough fishing. I was able to coax a hatchery fish out of a small coastal stream, but that was the extent of our success. The following year was not much better as low water and warm temperatures plagued the Northwest. Again, I managed to bookend the trip with Steelhead encounters bringing one nice wild fish to hand on the Sandy River and losing a fish on the Clackamas. Stefan remained determined, but skunked.

The true measure of a Steelhead angler is optimism in the face of adversity and Stefan is the very definition of optimism. He returned again this year hoping to crack the code of winter Steelheading. This challenge could not be left  to amateurs so I enlisted the help of my good friends, Marty Sheppard and Brian Silvey. These two veterans of the winter Steelhead wars are known throughout the west and revered for their exceptional guiding skills. They are the measuring stick against which all Sandy River guides are held to. While it is widely noted that Mr. Silvey has earned the moniker of el Numero uno, Mr. Sheppard is no slouch and a force to be reckoned with. Both men are a pleasure to fish with and although possessing widely different personalities, maintain a close working relationship and friendship. They both also have a fondness for cookies.

Weather is always a factor when pursuing winter Steelhead, but you can't control it nor spend too much time worrying about it. This year the forecast was for near perfect conditions yet as we all know forecasts can be wrong. A persistent rain greeted Stefan's Wednesday evening arrival and seemed to be more enthusiastic than was anticipated. While some rain would be nice to freshen up the rivers, too much would be detrimental to our expedition. As it is often said, you pay your money and take your chances. 

Thursday proved to be a wash in the end as rising water sent fish scurrying upriver, too hurried to grab a fly. Marty had drawn the short straw and it was his lot to be the host as the flow increased 4000 cfs over the course of the day. In addition, most of the guide contingent was plying the water, jockeying for position as the river invaded the willows. While we were drenched by torrents of rain for most of the morning hours, our enthusiasm held true and was not dampened. If anything, we stood more determined and optimistic for the coming day.

Brian was waiting at the arranged location even though we arrived  several minutes early. Eventually we stood in the morning darkness fully rigged and ready, waiting for enough light to navigate the churning waters. While not a task for those lacking whitewater skills even in daylight, running this section in darkness is best left to experts like Marty and Brian. The ease at which both of these gentlemen pass through the raging boulder laced waters is enviable and a confirmation of their talent.

Unlike the previous day, we found the falling river to be more productive and less populated. We experienced several Steelhead encounters and finally in the afternoon Stefan hooked and successfully landed his first winter Steelhead. Soon he followed it up with his second  winter fish and the code was cracked. He was even nice enough to let me maintain my dignity by leaving a willing fish for me to intercept, kindly netting it for me to end the day.

While Sunday proved to be a test of patience as bobber lobbers in jet boats cruised over our flies on the Clackamas RIver, we were cheered knowing another day on the Sandy River with Brian lay ahead. We could endure the rudeness of lowholers and classless Neanderthals with guide licenses for only so long, finally retreating to the peace of Woodsprite Lodge and a meal of authentic German wiener schnitzel.  My friend proving that Steelheading was not his only skill. His culinary mastery had remained unknown to me having been confined to the opening of a can of chili or Dinty Moore Beef Stew.

Monday dawned and we again faced the day with enthusiasm and optimism. While the river had returned to its pre-deluge stage, we held out hope for another successful day with el Numero uno. Pushing off in the dark had now become commonplace as rocks and standing waves marked our passage to favorite pools. I hope to make this same trip in the daylight soon so I can photograph this wild place.

This was our final day and although the pressure of scoring Stefan's first winter fish had been lifted, it is not in our DNA to be distracted from the task at hand. So focused was I in covering my allotted water that Brian had to alert me to the black bear swimming across the river  just a short cast upriver of my position. While I fumbled for my camera to record this rare event the bruin gained the far bank and scramble into the woods. A grainy video  from the guides phone the only record.

As the sun cleared the trees  the river was soon awash in a blinding glare. Fishing would be different in the crystal water that now flowed off the mountain and towards the sea. In the second run of the day Stefan came fast to a hot fish that broke through the shimmering glass making his reel sing and heart race. Frantic actions by angler and fish were highlighted by the morning light. Soon this powerful traveler was netted and released, relieved of Stefan's hook and one of an angler perhaps less fortunate. A parting splash to thank us for the favor.

It is not possible to have a bad day on the water when the day is spent with good friends, no matter the weather or fishing success. These days are special and live on in stories replayed over and over in conversations or private reflections. These days make up who we are and remain with us even though our friends are miles away. 



Oregon Steelhead Marathon

Joel La Follette - Thursday, February 19, 2015

Having hosted three long-time friends and anglers on the river this past week, I thought I would have them relate the fishing conditions that we observed thus freeing me from writing the report myself. Due to the turmoil in Salem this past week, Mr. Atkinson was excused from this homework assignment, but made it in under the wire this morning for full credit, Mr Drew and Mr.Tritscher were less procrastic and offer here their timely submitted report. We shall start with Mr. Tritscher's account of the past week. The Editor

“Winter Steelhead?"

After 4 days of serious sleep deprivation and extensive casting exercises on 3 different rivers I came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as “Winter Steelhead” in Oregon.

They just are a myth - a fictional creature like Big Foot or Sasquatch in the PNW, the Yeti in the Himalaya or the Wolpertinger in Bavaria. Actually, I came to believe that “Winter Steelhead” is just a scam - one big conspiracy by fishing guides and some fly shop owners who want to keep the myth alive in order to extend their season to the winter month. Sure, 15 minutes into our first day I saw what MIGHT have been a wild “Winter Steelhead”: Joel landed a fish that actually looked like a steelhead and we even got some pictures of it, but as we are talking about conspiracy here, I now think it just was a big hatchery rainbow which the guide has brought in a live-well and stuck to Joel’s hook when I was not watching - again fly shop owner and guide working together to keep the myth alive... You see - it all fits together.

Real(?) Fishing Report
Last Friday Joel and I floated the Sandy with Brian Silvey. Water was very clear with level ~10.5’. As hinted above, Joel got a nice fish of maybe 9-pound first thing in the morning - and yes, I actually did see him hook it. The weather was very nice - bright sunny and unusually warm - it felt more like May than mid-February. We didn’t have any more takes all day long, but nevertheless it was a very pleasant day on a very beautiful river with a good friend and a very nice and competent guide. We also saw some bald eagles and the first butterfly of the year and finally there were Kellie’s delicious cookies!

No fishing on Saturday as I joined Joel in the shop. Lots of fish talk with his customers and friends though and also a very fascinating presentation from Jay Nicholas about off-shore fly fishing in Oregon.

On Sunday we left Woodsprite Lodge at 4am to drive to Tillamook. I cannot believe how hard it was to get a coffee early in the morning it took us 4 attempts at different McDonalds to finally get me a coffee and that was not good at all (why can’t Starbuck’s open earlier???). We met Gil Muhleman at 6am on the Trask River. The water looked perfect, a light steelhead green, but plenty of visibility. Well, apparently many fellow fishermen also thought these were ideal conditions and despite the inhumanly early time there was quite some traffic. A lineup at the boat launch and boat after boat coming down the same drift Gil had chosen. Some of the operators also lacked basic etiquette as I literally had boats rowing over my line. We saw a few bright steelhead caught by gear fishermen, and watched a family of river otters, but found no fish interested in our flies. As the traffic got worse, Gil decided to end the drift early and do another drift higher up in the system. Here we had more room to ourselves and Gil put us on some we very fishy looking water. Joel got one very nice sea-run cutthroat and I had one good, heavy grab, but the fish would not come back on subsequent casts. The weather again was very nice and unusually warm. It also looks as if spring has already started on the coast - we saw rhododendrons and other flowers in full blossom. Again, Kellie’s cookies were one of the highlights of the day.

On Monday Joel’s good friends Jim and Jason joined us for a day on the Sandy with Marty Sheppard and Brian Silvey. Again, a bright sunny day with temperatures in the mid-60th. The river had dropped quite a bit since Friday and was crystal clear. We watches some wildlife - bald eagles, osprey, cormorants, saw a big 4’ sturgeon and even saw a few big steelhead when we pushed them out by floating over their holding stations. However, despite the concerted efforts of our guides who put us on very good looking spots, neither of us had any takes. Marty tried to drown me by having me wade down a huge rock pile in a place he appropriately called the “swimming hole” - well, I made it through without falling in, but only barely! BTW, coffee from McDonalds in Sandy is decent and the guides loved Kellie’s cookies...

On Tuesday we fished for half a day with Rob Crandall on the Clackamas. Rob took us to some very good looking spots with his jet boat. We fished classic steelhead runs and some little pockets and on every cast I expected us to have a grab, but the steelhead simply didn’t want to cooperate. Again the weather was really warm and sunny - not really what you would expect in Oregon in February. Oh before I forget - did I mention that Kellie makes very good cookies? Rob’s cinnamon rolls were delicious too!

So I fished for four days on some of the most beautiful rivers I have seen (amazing that you can find these within less than 2 hours from downtown Portland) and although I did not catch any of these mythical “Winter Steelhead”, I had a wonderful time with good friends, excellent guides and nice weather (probably a bit too nice for catching steelhead)!
By the way - Happy Birthday, Joel!!!
Humbly submitted by Stefan Tritscher, Munich, Germany  

My buddy, Jim Drew, also contributed to this week's report with this observation....

It is not very often in our lives when we get perfect weather days in February to fish NW rivers, but it paled in comparison to the day on the Sandy with best friends and great guides. The setting for the West's premier fly shop owner's birthday trip was a cool and clear launch at Dodge Park at 6:30-ish. Marty Sheppard and Brian Silvey were the hosts for an honored world traveling German, a respected movie making former state senator, myself and the above mentioned Fly Shop Guru. 

 Despite losing 2 feet off  the tip of my switch rod after two casts, the backup spey rod with an updated Skagit setup proved to be perfect and offered a great opportunity to learn to throw the new line. Even being a holiday the river was surprisingly absent of the endless flotillas that were expected with only two others seen all day. We were put on great water, very clear great water after days of nice weather, and felt no pressure to move rapidly to find fish. The early hours didn't produce any grabs, but the anticipation of an imminent hookup kept my interest level high. Occasional warm upstream breezes seemed as though the heat pump had been turned on and soon the outer layers were being stored. 

I had not met Stefan, Joel's long time fishing buddy from Germany. Knowing him only by reputation I got the opportunity to jump in the boat after lunch with he and Marty. What a gentlemen and steelhead enthusiast! Fishing was slow, I only caught one foul hooked sucker fish all day, but the time with new and old friends, and a great stream-side lunch was worth the drive and early hour. The switch rod will be back, repaired in a few weeks. It's return will remind me of this and other Birthday trips with a best friend, and a couple of new friends. Thanks Joel, Marty and Brian!!
Submitted for publication by Jim Drew, AKA WaterDog

Mr. Atkinson was more into a freestyle report and provided this recollection of the day.

Heard but not seen

The following are excerpts from Joel’s birthday float:

Marty: “Hey, want coffee and a cookie while Stefan fishes this bucket?”
JAA: “Ya….these taste familiar”
Marty: “Kellie made um.”
JAA: “Does Stefan know about these?”
Marty: “No”
JAA: “Then I’ll have two more and carry the rest in my waders.”

Brian: “See that sturgeon?”
Joel: “Yes”
JAA: “Give you a dollar if you jump in after it.”

Marty: “What are you fish'n”
JAA: “This orange Silvenator”
Marty: “that won't work.”

Joel: “ I want a team photo”
Everyone: “Smile or Simms guide cool”
Joel: “guide cool”
Then Joel smiles in his own picture.

The only thing that wasn’t heard was because of what wasn’t seen.
“Fish on.”

To round out this week's report and to drive home the fact that there are winter Steelhead, I offer this short email received from Gil just a few minutes ago...

Oregon's North Coast Rivers are becoming low and clear. This past week has been magical with fantastic weather and lots of fish around. Boat pressure on the common drifts were as crowded as I have ever seen them though fish were found by nearly all. I preach knowing when and where to be in these rivers and now is the time folks. Great tides are still bringing sea lice fish daily regardless of the low water. The good news for us fly anglers is that many of these fish have moved rapidly into the upper reaches and away from the crowds. Yesterday we found excellent fishing and solitude up near Jones Creek on the Wilson. These fish were predominately chrome bright with just a couple fish showing color. On sunny days (unusually common this year) look for shaded runs. In low water most fish are found at the head of runs with appropriate flow or in longer runs with plenty of large rock structure. Good luck out there!!!  Gil Muhleman, Water Time Outfitters

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