It was October. It felt like December absent snow. An Arctic wind with a knife’s edge blew downriver incessantly. The sky was as blue as blue gets. Steam rising from the river told us the water was warmer than the air. We slept in fits and starts in Art’s aged camper, rocking in the gusts, the furnace on full, and the wind whining through the cracks.
The first morning, Bob and I drank coffee as Art waded far out into the steaming river at the Y Pool with his 18-foot Bruce & Walker and bravely tossed black General Practitioners into the river. I was taken by the backdrop. A big river, larger than the Skeena, framed by treeless cliffs, off white but grey where the shadows lay, immense shelves of sculpted chalk.
Art came in cold and fishless, which is rare. We ate bacon and eggs, drank more coffee then drove downriver to the Grave Yard where we watched a parade of unsuccessful anglers walk to the river and back through a field of blue sage.
Art had had enough. Bob wasn’t eager to brave the subzero temperatures. I grabbed my fly rod with gloved hands and made my way down to the river. I had come a long way. I fished hard, eager to catch a Thompson River steelhead and eager to maintain a pace that would keep me warm. It felt like winter. I responded with winter gear – a fast sinking line and orange fly. I found myself fishing behind a trio of anglers, a boon because I could see what water they were covering, and realized I could reach out a little farther with my 15-foot Hardy.
Thirty minutes down the great cobbled beach, a fish took my fly going away. It was a hard hit. Harder than I’d ever felt. It sent a bolt of electricity down my spine. As I leaned back in the cold air, I saw my breath and in the distance, through that small patch of fog, a steelhead, a big steelhead in the air, once, twice, and once more. When the acrobatics were done, the steelhead ran. It ran hard. My reel howled. Line disappeared. I followed. I had no choice but to follow. I recovered line. I lost line. After ten minutes of this back and forth the line slackened. The steelhead had earned freedom. I was beaten. I caught my breath, intrigued and impressed by the ferocity of the fish. I had fought and caught hundreds of steelhead before. I couldn’t recall one that had fought with such strength and determination. I waded in again.
The fishers ahead of me seemed to fish with more determination after witnessing the spectacle behind them. By the time they reached the end of the expansive run, I’d reached its midpoint. They left. I continued to cast as far as my skills would permit. It was more work than pleasure until another fish took as ferociously, perhaps more so, than its cousin. As we battled, Bob, who had been wondering how I was making out, stuck his head out of the camper door and, seeing I was onto a fish, started making his way down to the river.
The first steelhead had been something else. This creature was something else again. It raced upstream faster than I could retrieve line then raced down river with such reckless abandon I thought my poor reel would come apart. The steelhead punctuated these breathtaking circuits with frantic leaps into the air. Again, I was forced to follow or run out of line. I stumbled over the boulders, a considerable feat considering the rubber, felted and aluminum cleated overshoes I was wearing over my boot footed waders.
More than anything, I wanted to see the fish capable of such explosive behaviour in such cold climes, but it was not to be. I reached the end of the run and waded as far as I could below that without risking drowning, and as the fish was still running downstream I tightened. The hook came free.
You had a fish, said Bob.
I had two, I said in reply.
I said to Art that you had to have hooked something to be out so long, he said.
They fight so hard, I said. So goddamn hard.
That night we stopped by Acacia Grove and said hello to Gerry Wintle and Jeannie. Fishing had been tough because of the cold, said Gerry. And it would have been for a man fishing an 8 weight Orvis bamboo rod and a floating line. There was no point in telling him I’d contacted a pair using a 15-foot rod and a big hot orange winter fly.
From there we made our way to the Log Cabin Inn where we sat down with Ric Olmstead, king of the bait fishermen. Ric was a long way into a bottle of Scotch. No fish for days, he said.
Rob hooked two on the Grave Yard today, said Bob.
Ric’s eyes narrowed as if this was something he didn’t want to hear.
Next week: Trouble on the Thompson