After weeks of staring at work calendars, steelhead reports, river flows and weather forecasts for one of the wettest places in the country, some friends and I finally pulled the trigger and headed out for a long weekend on the Olympic Peninsula.
With early season conditions and temperatures well below freezing on the coast, we were content to treat this as an exploratory mission with a low bar for success.
Fly fish remote glacial water. Camp in an ancient rainforest. Drink beers by the fire. Anything else was extra.
But those modest expectations went out the window pretty quickly when a nice Bull Trout came to hand and we lost a bright steelhead in the first hour of fishing Friday morning.
As is so often the case with winter steelheading, those were the only chances we had with decent fish on the first two days. A few yearling steelhead and surprisingly hefty coastal cutthroat took our swung flies, but overall it was slow fishing in bitterly cold temps.
But with tree’s reminiscent of Tolkien’s Ents ringing our camp, and perfect glacial runs only a short cast from the tent, there was nothing but the cold temps (as in 14 degrees once the sun went down) to complain about.
At least until Saturday morning when the effects of too much Rainier, Fireball and Evan Williams took their toll, and I woke up with minor frostbite numbing the tip of my pointer finger.
After fishing hard for two full days with only the briefest hint of steelhead to stoke our hopes, the temptation was strong to sleep in on Sunday, lounge around camp, and then drive the four hours back to civilization.
But I didn’t. At first light I forced myself out of a warm sleeping bag and into frozen wading boots.
After pounding some Starbucks VIA , I tied a fresh six foot flourocarbon leader on my Spey rod, pocketed my steelhead box, and hiked past moss covered giants to the best run I’d seen the day before.
While debating whether to start the day with a black Intruder or a purple Fish Taco, I took in the perfect turquoise color of the river and the deep green of the old growth around it. And thought about the wondrous places these anadromous trout call home.
And then I casted, mended and swung my fly low and slow across the run.
My fish didn’t come on that first cast. Or even the fiftieth.
But over an hour later and a few hundred yards down, standing on a midstream gravel bar and doggedly swinging towards a tailout, a sharp tug brought my line tight.
And then it quickly went slack again.
Shaken, I angled my fly out of the holding water and waited. Desperately wanting to cast again, but knowing the best chance of another take would come after giving the run a rest. I stood still as heron, staring at the roiling blue-green water.
And then I swung a tight Snap-T and popped my sink tip and fly well above the spot the fish had struck. Nothing.
Taking two steps down, I casted again just high enough to allow the fly to sink before swinging through the spot I imagined the fish to be.
And suddenly, just as the water begin to carry the fly broadside through the riffle, a very angry wild steelhead jerked the line tight.
After a few frantic headshakes, the buck took a searing run downstream, making my reel scream and ripping line towards the leader-snapping rapids below us.
Holding ground and slowing his run with a careful hand on the drag, I angled the fish back into the deeper part of the pool. Instead of dogging me in the slower water, he turned and ran straight back upstream, for a second making me think he had come unhooked.
But the fish rolled and thrashed again on the surface and my rod tip bounced as I picked up the slack. Stepping backwards in a slow game of give and take, I kept the long Spey rod low to the water and eased the chrome fish, fresh from the Pacific just over twenty miles away, into the shallows directly above me.
Stripping some line loose from the reel with my free hand, I released tension and quickly moved in to grasp the roughly twelve-pound buck just below its impressive adipose fin.
This is why fishermen endure long drives. Days of uneventful casting until even the most beautiful places get old. Pouring rain and blown out rivers. 14 degree nights in a tent and perpetually numb finger tips. Too much cheap whiskey, Clif Bars and freeze dried meals.
When a perfect native steelhead comes to hand, none of that matters.
You smile and laugh like a maniac. Snap a few hurried pictures, rest the fish in the river’s gentle flow, and slowly loosen your grips as it darts off to complete it’s upstream journey to the spawning beds and back to the ocean again.
When the fish was gone, I stood on the riverbank and stared for a moment. Utterly unsure if what had just happened was real.
Then I cranked in my slack line, pinned the purple Fish Taco to the reel, and walked back to camp past elk tracks, thousand year-old evergreens and sword ferns that reached above my waist.
Once there, I cracked a cold breakfast beer from the cooler, sat down on a mossy log, and smiled a contented smile.
I have yet to sight-fish the salt flats for bonefish, battle a hundred pound tarpon or witness a Green Drake hatch on a classic spring creek.
But I have a hard time imagining that any fishing, anywhere, can be more satisfying that the feeling a steelhead angler experiences when that swung line comes tight in a perfect rainforest run.