A week ago this past Sunday I was driving home from Half Full Triathlon thinking I was not going to put my legs through that kind of torture for a long time. But there I was, just a week later, standing for several hours in the Salmon river, knee deep in water flowing at just under 300 cubic feet per second, feeling it try to uproot me from my spot at the edge of a pool that’s been constantly replenishing itself with gigantic fish.
Never mind that the river had been successful once already; when we first arrived to the part of the river called “ball park” (Sections of rivers get nicknames for landmarks nearby) I learned how invaluable my guide was going to be. I had ignored his warnings that having spikes would help me to feel more stable on the more slippery spots where we were likely to have the best luck; I’d fished a bunch at Oriskany Creek and a little on the West Canada, I figured I’d be all set. Then I got out there, and I’m sliding around, and when trying to take a step I lost my balance and wind up on my side in the water. My guide Jim helped me out, and I realized my balance wasn’t the only thing I lost, my pole was gone.
It’s funny that my first day out on a creek I fell, and my first day on a real river I fell. I guess I learn stuff the hard way. Jim had brought a spare pole to account for just such a tragedy, and after renting some corkers (spikes that strap onto fishing boots to stop you from slipping) and a dry t shirt, we visited some other areas of the river. I wish I had taken pictures, it looked every bit what you think salmon run fishing looks like; guys (and a few gals) all along the river, fishing throughout the rain, hoping for that one big one to hit their artificial fly. We tried a few different spots, but none of them were really active. It gave me a chance to build up my confidence which was good because Jim wanted me to give ball park another try now that i had the spikes.
When we got back to ball park, we approached the spot Jim had identified from our first visit. Spikes make fishing in a fast moving river feel so much safer. Jim made good calls all day long, none better than the pool he had identified. Within a few minutes of setting up on the pool, I got my first hit. I didn’t set the hook hard, so that fish and the next couple of hits that followed weren’t on the line very long. I soon got the hang of it though and the next couple of fish on the line were protracted battles. One even ran upstream, a big king salmon that I thought I might have a shot at (fish that run upstream tire faster) but it wrapped the line around a rock before changing directions and breaking the line.
I was having fun, even without pulling in a fish, but fearing I might go away unhappy, and this being his maiden voyage as a guide, he wanted to make sure I didn’t. I think the guide buddy he’d been checking in with throughout the day had been filling his head with horror stories of customers who wanted only to reel in the big one, no matter what. Me, I’d gotten past a fall, wet clothes, a rainy trip, a lost fly pole, really cold feet, and learning a whole lot in about 6 hours; I was happy just to be still fishing. Jim though, wanted to up our odds a bit, replacing our tippet (the end of the line) with some stronger material. The risk in this is, is that the fish can see the thicker line more easily, meaning fewer hits. But when those hits happen, your odds to keep the fish go up a bit.
And that’s just what happened. My second cast after the line change my fly stopped drifting almost right away. A hard tug, and I had a steelhead on the line and about a foot in the air. This wasn’t nearly my biggest jump of the day (I had a King Salmon that I think was trying to match Felix Baumgertner’s ascent from the other day; you should have seen the look on my face), but I knew I had this one good. After an initial quick fight, I put a little stress on her; she ran, and she ran hard. In about 10 seconds she went about 200 feet downstream, but I still had her. Watching a fish move that fast, and feel that much pull on a fly pole is something to behold. That’s when Jim started walking me down stream as a I slowly reeled her in.
It’s strange the way things on the river work; when someone hooks a fish the people between you and your fish stop what they’re doing and get out of the way. It reminds me a lot of triathlon race day; everyone wants to win, and while they’ll be jealous of the people who are winning, they also want to help each other out. As I took my cautious steps down the river, several other men made way and encouraged me. Jim was in my ear making sure I was taking safe steps (he was more nervous than I was after I fell earlier in the day), and making sure I was doing the right thing with the fly rod to keep tension without breaking the line. In fact, it was another angler who was my net man on the steelie in question when I pulled her in. I really couldn’t tell you who was more excited, but it might have been Jim. I loved the whole day, and catching my first trout, a mammoth 28 inch steelhead was a huge thing, I was thrilled. I felt like a real fisherman for the first time in my life.