I look up river. It’s low. The air is warm. There is only a slight breeze. There will be no fish in the small plunge pools and swift chutes between the boulders. I need a pool. It doesn’t have to be large, just large enough to hide a steelhead.
From where I am I can see a long way upstream. Its steep. There is no pool in sight. At the uppermost end of my sight line, the gradient seems less severe. The suggestion of a pool is enough to persuade me to keep going.
In higher water my passage would be hard. Today, I can cross almost anywhere.
Discovering this spot has taken a lot of time and energy. The quest began in the 1990s when Pawsome, a pup at the time, jumped into the stream for no apparent reason. She was promptly swept under a birch sweeper and popped up on the far side, to my relief. It was probably on a weekend, since I was teaching school then. It would have been in the fall because that is the time of year when I look for trout that have followed the salmon into their home streams in search of eggs and flesh.
I would probably have beached a few trout and char that day, but I can’t recall that. What I can recall was two shiny 8 inch juvenile steelhead I caught. Did these fish prove there were steelhead in the stream or did they call another stream home? Were they simply copying the behaviour of the trout and char? If they were native to the stream, were they the offspring of winter or summer run fish?
Summer steelhead rivers always have canyons and are headed by lakes; this stream had the former but lacked the latter, but it had small tarns and bogs in its upper floors, meaning summer run steelhead were a remote possibility.
That pair of small steelhead and the questions they provoked led to a lot of trips over the years. There were a lot of questionable drives down narrow, brushed in tracks and over logging spurs. Long walks down barely discernible paths, and outright brush whacks that proved fruitless until the day I walked farther down a path I’d been on previously. It led me to a place where I stopped to get my bearings and heard what sounded like rushing water. Or was it the wind?
It was a blustery day late in the year. Trees bent in the wind. Rain had swollen the rivers. Sounds reverberate in the woods, but this sound seemed to come from one direction. I checked my compass, though I didn’t need to since I had Pawsome and her unerring sense of direction. I saw light then, and a short distance later, water. Though the river was swollen and impossible to fish, I had a means of access. I was elated.
In the intervening years, I returned to the place a few times. The conditions were always wrong. The window was small, not much more than a month at best.
Today I’m back. The water isn’t ideal, but I’m a senior citizen now and the walk won’t get easier. I move on.
I ache by the time I reach the suggestion of a pool to discover it isn’t one. The gradient has lessened and appears to flatten at bit further on. The next bend is much farther away than it appeared. The sight of a pool before me and another a short distance above makes me forget my fatigue. I resolve to walk to the uppermost pool and fish down. The pools aren’t long or deep, so I walk thorough the devil’s club, then alder and willow thicket, sinking in mud up to my knees in a bog before climbing up to where I get a clear view of the upper pool. There is a rock the size of a smart car submerged in its middle. Through sunglasses under my long billed cap, I can make out the bottom in detail. No fish in the part of the pool not obscured by the boulder.
I make my way down, set up my rod and send a small nymph through. The dominant rock makes a good drift difficult. An hour and three patterns later, I give up then move down to the second, smaller pool. Oona crosses below me. When she is half way across, two dark torpedo shapes bolt upstream to hide in the turbulence at the head of the pool. My pulse quickens. I sit and tie on a Royal Coachman with a parachute hackle and wait for an awfully long time before moving upstream, stooped over, eyes riveted to the Coachman as it drifts undisturbed downstream toward us. One of the fish has dropped back. It rises and takes the fly, head then tail, then leaps into the air at the sting of the hook, runs, then leaps once more and gains its freedom.
I turn to the dog and tousle her hair and ears. “Perfect,” I say, convinced it was.