An annual pilgrimage

I almost always make an annual steelhead trip in the late fall. My guide season has ended and I want to have one last camp trip for myself.

For the past 10 years or so the weather has been very mild in the fall and I’ve been able to push my trip back further and further. This might actually be one of the latest camp trips I’ve done out East.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve made pilgrimages to the most famous summer steelhead rivers in the PNW, the Deschutes, Rogue,  Klickitat, John Day, Grande Ronde, Snake, and Clearwater. All of these rivers hold a special place for me, ever since I read Trey Combs's book, Steelhead Fly Fishing, as a young steelhead angler. I was and still am in awe of all of the anglers, their flies, and their rivers. That book is still important to me and there’s a copy on my nightstand.

The first place I really explored was the Deschutes followed by the Grande Ronde and the John Day. That was almost 25 years ago. At that time, my steelhead partner was Marty Shepherd. We had a lot of adventures and learned a lot together. Now the two of us hardly fish together, but I hold a large space in my heart for him.

This year I picked a stew day mid November for my trip. I invited a very few select friends who have been vetted and are known to be great companions on the river and in camp. Everyone needs to pull their own weight. Our small group consisted of my great friend Eric Gunter, Larry Atchison, and “The River Rambler” Rick Harrington. We had a few locations on the table depending on weather and river conditions. We landed on one of the further East multi-day float trips. With all the steelhead closures I hadn’t done this trip in a few years.

Rick and Larry headed out a bit early so they could find the boat launch in the dark, and Eric and I left after my shift at the shop. We made the multi-hour drive to the boat launch, with the last hour driving a true low-speed road. This road is so bad that 10 miles an hour is fast. The trail is down a long creek bed. We were getting our teeth rattled out and making bets that Rick and Larry would be able to hear the driftboat clanging for miles as we made the slow drive in.

We met up late. The evening and I rigged my boat for a quick launch in the morning. We followed that up with some late-night cocktails and plenty of stories. We were all excited and going to have a hard time sleeping.

We were up early to make our final preparations and launch the boats. The river had bumped up the past few days, and the higher-than-average water was going to make the float a lot easier. I dumped my boat in the water and was a little shocked to see the river was off-color. The river drains a large area and is slow to clear. Hopefully conditions would improve over the next couple of days as the river dropped.

We were floating about 45 miles so we planned on floating about 10 miles a day. Rick and Larry were in a boat together and Eric and I were in my boat. I was very familiar with the river so the plan was I would point out water I would fish and then we’d hop down to the next run.  The four of us pushed away from the boat launch and about a mile later I was like “I know this run. You guys should fish here.   One of you start here, and the other start below this little break.” About an hour later they caught up to us and Larry was glowing. He’d hooked the first fish of the trip.

At around 1:00 we realized we were going too slow and needed to make up some miles. I guess I didn’t remember the river as well as I thought because we had to skip a lot of good water. We made up some miles and found a good piece of camp water and made camp. When no one else is on the river it’s easy to go slow and pick the river apart.

The next morning we were up early. Rick and Larry stayed and fished camp water and we moved downriver. Eric and I came around a corner and a lightbulb went off in my head. I knew this run and it was a good one. Eric took the top and I started in the middle. I had a 5x5 MOW tip on matched with a red marabou tube fly. I started to work out my line and a spring broke in my old Hardy. I pulled out the pawl and broken spring and engaged the spare. About 20 casts later I hooked into my first fish of the trip. A few cartwheels and a couple of long runs and I had the fish to hand.

We had a great trip full of adventures, tall tales, and lots of river rambling. I can’t wait to do it again next year.

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