Ric was drinking whiskey. He drank it quickly. He drank it as if it was a pain killer and he had pain he was desperate to get rid of. His eyes were glazed, and unfocused, yet he looked fierce and determined.
I had hooked two fish in one afternoon on my maiden outing on the river using inferior tackle. I knew squat about the Thompson and willingly admitted it. This stuck in Ric’s craw. He didn’t hold it against me. Rather, he deeply resented the fact that I had shown fish could be caught there at that time. This was bad math. It was plainly wrong when he, Ric Olmstead, regarded by all in the know as top fish hawk, had spent many long, cold, fruitless days floating roe over those places fish frequent – many known to nobody else – and all of them discovered after the expenditure of considerable effort.
Some steelheaders have been lionized for catching prodigious numbers of steelhead on remote rivers. Ric, though his profession as a fisheries biologist afforded the opportunity, wasn’t one of those. Ric was the guy who caught steelhead behind, in the middle of, and in the front of people. Ric caught steelhead in crowds when nobody else, even though they were using the same tackle, could.
Ric was driven. To hone his skills to a razor’s edge he fished from first to last light. One evening just after Hallowe’en, he was powering his Zodiac inflatable past the Island below Spence’s Bridge when he noticed the rod that he had hastily leaned against the tubular gunwale was about to bounce out of the boat. He reached out to grab it and lost his grip on the tiller. The Zodiac lurched like a bronco, bucking Ric into the river. As he floated downstream the pilotless raft circled and returned to its skipper like an obedient dog. Ric miraculously managed to get a purchase on the boat and pull himself aboard. He drove his craft to the boat launch in the failing light, moored it, hopped in his truck, and drove to the bar in town.
“He walked into the Log Cabin Inn still wearing his waders, soaked to the skin,” said Ric’s oft times fishing partner, Roger Bligh. “He sat down. Then he ordered a bottle. Poured a glass, downed it in one gulp as we watched. Without saying a word, he poured another, looked up and said, ‘You’ll never believe what happened.”
The flock of Kingfishers, the club to which Ric belonged, believed his every word. They too were infected with the steelhead bug, though not to the same degree. They understood how the quest for steelhead could lead a man to be out too late in the evening alone on a big unforgiving river without a life jacket, wearing waders, in a small boat entrusting his survival to an outboard motor.
Ric was in fierce, unforgiving competition with himself. He was obsessed with and possessed by steelhead. Especially those from the Thompson, that big river cutting deeply into the desert, surrounded by sandy, sage-covered hills, hoodoos, rugged canyons, full of racing rapids, with a bottom so slick cleats, carpet, and a wading staff were essential tackle, a rugged river containing rugged fish – the most ferocious and powerful steelhead in the world. It was there, at Big Horn, Martel, the Graveyard, the Y Pool, the Grease Hole, the Island, and all the places in between that Ric Olmstead pursued fish passionately. The details of that pursuit gathered momentum and spread.
“We’d come off the river after a day’s fishing,” Roger said, “and all these fishermen we didn’t know would race up to ask Ric how many steelhead he’d caught, and how big the biggest one was.”
For Ric adulation and fame meant little. He was driven to best his personal best catches and to catch a larger steelhead than anyone else.
There are large fish in the Thompson. Steelheaders talk pounds. A twenty pound steelhead is a big fish. A thirty pound fish is the fish of a lifetime. Ric may have hooked a fish that large, but he had never landed one. Roger had. He invited me to his home in Burnaby only days after it had come back from the taxidermist. We had just arrived and opened a beer when the doorbell rang.
It was Ric. He had heard Roger’s trophy was finished and wanted to see it. Roger ushered us down the stairs and into his den. He turned on the lights. Under the brightness – a spotlight aimed at the wall – a huge male steelhead glowed.
Ric looked at the big buck like a monk at a religious icon. Roger beamed. The scene was surreal. Three men in the suburbs oohing and awing over a fish out of water.
The Log Cabin Inn was filling up with ranchers and steelheaders. We wished Ric good luck and made our way under the stars down the sage-lined trail to Art’s camper. It was still, and still cold.
More next week…