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.