The view from the river was nothing short of spectacular. We looked up to old forest, dark and green, fronting impossibly steep snow-capped mountains. Downstream the river pushed hard against a clot of weathered grey logs then bent left, and clattered over a shallow riffle punctuated with large granite boulders before plunging into a deep green pool. Upstream lay two long terraced pools flanked on one side by a steep undercut rock wall and on the other by a shore line of boulders. We might have stayed on the side of the river we were on and made our way downstream, around the tangle of logs and past the noisy riffle to the pool below it, but the pools upstream had a magnetic pull.
Those pools could only be fished from the far side. Between that side and us was a glide that would have offered a demanding wade in low water. With the river on the high side, as it was that day, the crossing was past challenging on the scale of wading difficulty. Mike, who was about 250 pounds in those days, as strong as a bear, and a talented wader to boot, wouldn’t have thought twice before making the crossing alone, but I was 100 pounds lighter. Pushing through that heavy waist high water atop a bottom of large uneven rocks is something I might have managed with a staff, but I didn’t use one back then.
Without saying a word, Mike stepped into the river upstream of me and extended his right arm. I stepped next to him and grasped his bicep firmly. He did the same to my left arm. Mike leaned into the river. I slipped into his slipstream, and pushed, hoping to make his task easier. Mike read the bottom with his feet as if it was Braille. Where the current was strongest, Mike slowed as I struggled to find firmer holds for my feet. We moved upstream at a slight angle for the first half of the wade then slightly downstream at a similar pitch reaching the shallows at the end of our chevron shaped passage only a few feet above the chute below.
The exertion of the crossing hadn’t taken much of a toll on Mike, who strode up the uneven bank without stopping to take a breath. I scrambled behind, as I so often found myself doing on trips with Mike.
Both pools advertised fish, but the second was so promising we stopped at its head before examining its upstream cousin. It was as long as an Olympic-sized swimming pool but narrower. The undercut rock bluff on the far side was the height of an Olympic diving platform. It was a deep piece of water, its bottom visible only far down in its tail where the tops of a pair of large, flat topped boulders stuck out above the water’s surface.
Mike, the consummate steelheader with a drift rod, had only just started fishing for steelhead with the fly at that time. Within a month he was making tight loops and casting a long line as if he’d been doing so all his life. I’d told him to use a surface fly.
He went home and tied up some patterns along the lines of the those I’d shown him but with hot orange bodies. He called his creations float-chasers after those rare winter steelhead that rise from the bottom to hit the bright orange-topped balsa wood floats that drift fishers use to suspend their baits above the rocky bottoms of steelhead rivers.
I’ll go through first, then take pictures of you, he told me.
We were both wearing bright red shirts made from the wool of New Zealand sheep. We’d bought them from Bert Goulet, who owned the North West Sportsman tackle shop at the corner of Kalum Street and Lakelse Avenue. Mike insisted we buy them because they were warm and showed up really well on Kodachrome.
I took out my camera, an old Canon of Mike’s he’d sold me for the cost of a couple of cans of film when he’d moved on to their latest model, and waited for some action. It was a short wait. Half way down the pool a fish boiled at Mike’s fly. The sequence of shots that record the moments after that initial rise are mounted in my fishing diary: the first is a shot of Mike leaning back and a sizeable splash at the end of his line; the second is of a silvery steelhead high in the air above where the take had been; the third frame is of Mike with the rod bent and line taut as the steelhead races for the far side of the pool; the fourth is of Mike with the rod to his left side at a right angle, deftly guiding his vanquished quarry toward the shore; and, the last shot – one that I had duplicated and enlarged so that I could hang it above my fly-tying bench, where it still hangs – is of Mike, close up and smiling, as he gently slides a steelhead back into the river.
Continued next week….