This is a copyrighted excerpt from ‘The Sacred Jewels She Possesses’, published in the book My Mistress Whispers and Roars-Second Edition. This chapter is about a trip I was invited on with a video crew from BlackStrap and two of their fly-fishing ambassadors. I was only asked to join after they exhausted their list of cool kids. The shoot took place below Mack’s Canyon on the Lower Deschutes
My old boss, Russ, owner of Mack’s Canyon Outfitters, would host us at his jet boat camp for a couple days. The BlackStrap guys made the pot pretty sweet. All expenses paid. Just bring a Spey rod and a sleeping bag. All I had to do was fish. At this point in the season, I can handle that. I didn’t know who else was going. It didn’t really matter. Two days of swinging flies was all I needed to know. Just tell me where and when.
A couple days after getting the invite, upon arriving at the factory to load up, I learned that along for the ride were J and A, a couple fishy ladies and social media hotshots. I believe ‘Insta-famous’ is what they’re called. I think they’re also some kind of brand ambassadors, whatever the hell that means. Either way, these two are utter and complete steelhead-frenzied bad asses. Just ask ‘em. Hardcore, to the bone. Spey rod slinging killers. I was genuinely awestruck. And intimidated.
Jim and Justin would be our film crew, shooting video and stills for the website, social media and catalogs. Those boys brought a ton of camera gear and bags full of products. They had an extensive “shot list” to cover, both staged product shots and action stuff. Coming from my background in film production, I was impressed with how together they were. I’ll admit to being nervous as well. I do not consider myself a pretty caster of two-handed rods. Yea, if I’m totally honest, I there’s nothing pretty about me. From any angle. Near or far. ‘Face for radio’ I’ve been told more than once. What the hell was I doing there?
We left Bend at a reasonable hour on Monday, in no big rush to the river. Russ would meet us at the Mack’s Canyon ramp around two. This would only be my second jetboat trip down there. Not being what anyone would refer to as a “hardcore steelheader” for reasons I may or may not ever share, the Mack’s to Mouth stretch of the Lower Deschutes just hasn’t been high on my list of things to do. I’ve heard the trout fishing is really good, but that’s a long, wash-board drive to catch the same Redbands I can fool much closer to home. It is a less crowded area for sure. Maybe I’ve just gotten lazy in my old age…
We were in camp by three. With little to do, we lolled around waiting till there was some shade to fish downriver. I’d snuck down a trout rod which I strung up and stuck a hefty ‘bow with right in front of camp. The girls scoffed. To them, it seemed, trout are yucky, lesser beasts, hardly worth wetting a line for.
At six-thirty we all loaded back into the jet boat for a quick blast to the nearest shade water. For those of you who’ve never done a jet boat trip, it’s a strange process. The guide basically drops you off and says, “Later!” Then he or she jams to another spot and drops someone else off. Sometimes you can see the other people, sometimes not. Obviously, with the aid of a jet boat, you can fish upstream or down, on either side of the river, alone or with a buddy. These outfitters are, for obvious reasons, the bane of any drift boater’s existence. And again, if I’m completely honest, it’s an uncomfortable way to go fishing for me. I do respect the hell out of anyone who charges up and down that river in a jet boat. It’s challenging and dangerous. I just wish they weren’t there. Nothing personal. Having said that, this was a cool trip to be part of, and to get to hang with my old boss, him doing a whole new thing, was really cool.
Jim and I were dropped off together at the top of a long, boulder-strewn run. I gazed up at basalt rimrock glowing under a lowering sun as wind rushed through alder branches behind me. Jim took a few minutes to get his cameras ready. I stood there, thigh deep, rod hanging at my side. I’ll admit to a building excitement. I was fishing with the only Spey rod I’ve ever loved, my Winston BIIx 12’6” 6/7, which was given to me a few years ago by the rep when the rod was being phased out. I was using the shorter Skagit head normally cast with heavy tips and big flies. I know, I know, it’s anathema to use such lines down there, but I was too lazy, high and beer-buzzed to bother switching. So shoot me, you purest assholes. Uh…that just kinda slipped out there. Sorry. But I really couldn’t give two shits how anyone fishes, so long as they’re within the regulations. Anyway, my fly was a smallish traditional called the ‘Outlaw’. Awesome, right? My dear friend -or at least he was until he reads this- Martin recommended it. Said it was his favorite, which in steelhead parlance simply means the last one he caught a fish with. Good enough for me. I’m such a steelhead neophyte, I’d have probably tied on an Egg-Sucking Cheeseburger and hoped for the best. What, you’ve never heard of that fly? For shame.
We chatted as I worked down the run, only half-focused on making decent casts. The wind pushed upriver pretty hard, as is its wont, playing havoc with each feeble attempt. Fortunately, the ladies were just around the corner so they couldn’t be witness to my pathetic butchering of their beloved Spey cast. As is usually the case, that first run of a trip for me is just trying to find a rhythm, get adjusted to the river’s current, let the mind ease into the moment, and distantly hope for a grab. Not being a dedicated two-handed steelhead guy, I don’t claim to know the intricacies of Spey casting. I do however have theories regarding where steelhead hang out, where they don’t, when they move and why, what processes their tiny brains race through while on their way to procreate, and what does and does not constitute something worth opening their mouths for. Wanna hear ‘em? Tough. I’m not telling. That will be for another time, a different book, which I’ll title, “A Steelheader’s Guide: Tips and Techniques from a Guy Who Doesn’t Give A Damn” What do you think? Pretty catchy, huh?
Without boring you further, let’s go fishin’. If you’ve never fished for summer-run steelhead within the lower reaches of the Deschutes river, you should make that happen. For starters, when we embark on said endeavor, it’s warm out, or even hot. So while you might put waders on for the early and late sessions, the air and water are comfortable, almost soothing. The wind will blow most afternoons, equally massaging and tormenting. And the runs, oh the runs. If you could design the perfect sequence of long, shoulder deep, walking-tempo water in which to swing light lines for steelhead, it would most likely look like the Deschutes from Mack’s Canyon to the Columbia. Bend after bend reveals quarter mile-long runs with every juicy element you’re looking for. It is a bit of steelhead heaven. The canyon itself down there lacks some of the epic grandeur of higher up, but the gradient eases slightly while the river widens and slows; again, perfect for swinging water.
After maybe a half hour passed unsurprisingly without a grab, Jim announced that he was going down to check in on the others. He gathered his gear and went to find a trail. Then he spun around and said, “Hey Griff. I just want to thank you for making the trip. Awesome to get to hang out.”
I looked over at him as my fly was nearing the end of its swing, and answered, “Hell yea, Jim. Thanks for the invite.” The instant I looked back to the vicinity of my fly, I watched a great swirling eruption. For me, that moment is jolting in every conceivable way. Firstly, whenever swinging for steelhead, there’s always the chance that entire days can leak away without ever touching a fish. The angler must always feel confident in their fly, the water they’re fishing, that they’ve lived their life ‘cleanly’ enough for a reward, that all the stars in the sky are aligned just for them, that sort of thing. But most days, we realistically accept that connecting with a fish might not happen. And so when one of the anadromous beasts has the grace in its heart to engage, there’s the briefest instant of disbelief. Secondly, when fishing with a floating line and a traditional fly just inches beneath the surface, the grab resembles a trout rolling aggressively on a dry fly, which, I suppose is what it is, only a really big, really annoyed trout.
The take I’d just watched was as solid as it was sudden. And in my psyche, it was nothing short of miraculous. Into the shaded canyon, one word was uttered, loudly: “STEELHEAD!!!”
The fish thrashed wildly right where it had eaten, seventy feet almost directly downriver. It’s heaving, crocodile rolls, all white belly, silver sides and emerald back, morphed into a mad, knuckle-rapping dash for the middle of the river, where it sailed clear of the currents crashing down in a gigantic shower of jade and gold jewels. I was well into my backing and considering heading downriver to get even with the fish. Then it did the very last thing I was hoping for… it swam straight back to our bank, me reeling as fast as I ever have, until only fifty feet separated us. I told Jim we were too early in the fight for the fish to hit shallow water. You’d always prefer a steelhead out in deeper stuff for a while as it tires. But this one just bolted right into the waist-deep, boulder-strewn area, right where we didn’t want it. And sure enough, as soon as its belly touched bottom, it went ballistic. In the span of maybe five long seconds, the fish ripped open the surface of the river in the most intransigent thrashing, which unsurprisingly resulted in the fly coming dislodged from its jaw. The bewildering strength and violence this steelhead produced was staggering. We all know how powerful and tenacious they are, but dealing with the reality can still be hard to react to.
So the fly came unbuttoned, the fish swam off, and the world went suddenly calm again. The river song, which had been momentarily silenced to me, faded back into my conscious. The humming wind once again brushed my ears. Jim, who stood behind me, his camera hanging at side, obviously disappointed at us not having gotten more footage. He was curious as to what had happened, how the fish had gotten away. The only truth to convey then -as now- was that I had simply gotten my ass comprehensively kicked. This fight barely made it into the second round. I was down, dazed, oozing red onto the canvas as the ref counted to ten.
Jim wandered away, leaving me to process alone. This was done with a Rainier Ale, a smoke and some quiet time on a mid-river boulder. Then I finished swinging the run. An hour or so later, Russ showed up to give me a lift to another run for one last swing before dinner. There were no more hook-ups as the wind eased, caddis filled the air, and the river hummed its darkened song. Big Redbands were feeding frantically all around me right at dark. The taunting…
In the morning, as we dug into pancakes and sausage, a light rain began falling. All of a sudden, in that first week of September, autumn came calling. The heavy grey sky felt especially “steelheady”. We motored a little ways downriver and Jim and I got dropped off together again. Russ notified us with a slightly evil chuckle, “This is a fun wade, guys. See you in a couple hours.” As with the previous evening, I took my time finding a rhythm, slowly working line out, knowing I was never going to produce slow-motion worthy casts, hoping Jim was just shooting stills. After the first several swings, as I worked down through the boulder-strewn run, I began coming to terms with the true difficulty of the wade. All the rocks were large, slippery and randomly spaced out. The grey sky obscured any clarity in the river. Each step was a prime opportunity to go down. After only a half hour, Jim found out exactly how “prime” it was. From behind me came that unique, sickening sound a person makes when they know they’re about to swim. It’s an involuntary, adrenalin-packed, guttural utterance. This one was the real deal. He’d simply stepped backwards, lost footing and gone in. As I spun around, the only bits of him above the surface were his hat and right hand, which clutched his big, expensive camera. I was just far enough away that there would be no coming to his aid. I registered that instantly. No reason for us both to swim. For several long, panicked seconds, he struggled to find some footing, some piece of earth he could stand on. Eventually, he was back on his feet dripping, wearing that wide-eyed look I’ve seen way too many times over the years. In his eyes was the realization that the day would be forever altered. He was both soaking wet, cold and frightened. How much water made it into his waders would remain a mystery for a while. But like the trooper he is, he stayed on point as I continued my now much more measured step-down.
It wasn’t much later, when another drift was interrupted by the swirling, explosive grab of a fish. Like the take the previous evening, this one was visually stunning, immediate and solid. Sadly, the encounter was even more brief. The fish ripped towards the middle of the river, made an abrupt U-turn back, put some slack in the line and spat the hook. You’ve no idea how much I’d love to substitute that truth with another; how much I’d really like to claim that some piece of equipment failed, that the waxing September moon was to blame, that it was somehow Jim’s fault. But no, the bold and simple truth was, yet again, my ass had been kicked. This fight lasted a mere fifteen seconds after the opening bell before my opponent connected with one solid, stinging roundhouse. And yes, dear reader, I do pinch my barbs. All of them. And anyone who claims to “love steelhead” and doesn’t, is a complete, hypocritical asshole. Oops, that just sorta slipped out. My bad.
After a brief break at camp, during which Joe gave me the stern instruction to not screw up the next fish, we motored upriver, still under a slightly leaden sky. Russ again dropped Jim and I off together and took Justin and the girls to the opposite bank. Now they could watch me cast. Shit. We were up near the top of “Sixteen Mile” camp. The water was a little skinny but had perfect speed to it. Above was a large eddy leading to a heavy chute all the way at the top. As much as any of us “read” steelhead water, the upper part of this run felt like a place where they might hang out. Once again Jim and I got to talking as I worked down. Rarely have I enjoyed such cool conversation while swinging. Normally working a long run is quiet, solitary, Zen-like stuff, which I love. Your buddies are usually out of earshot, doing their own thing. But I was really digging hanging out with Jim while I fished. I’d never known much about BlackStrap aside from the great stuff they make. As I swung the run, Jim told me how the company got started, how much of what they sell is dyed and sewed in the States. I got a feel for the culture they’ve developed, all the while producing stuff that should help us from all ending up with skin cancer.
We were only fifteen or twenty minutes into the run, stepping down steadily, when another tremendous swirl engulfed my fly. This one was right in front of Jim, who had just posted up on a little beach. “STEELHEAD!!!” Great heaving headshakes and barrel rolls blew up the bouncing currents. My beautiful old Winston bent from the cork and absorbed the thumping. And then the fish simply took off down and across the river. And it didn’t stop till she leapt far above the river, way out there. Then she kept going. And going. Fortunately my reel has a ton of backing on it. But I’ll admit here and now that I’ve NEVER been that far away from a fish I was attached to. In most places on the Deschutes it would have been game over. But as I scanned the river, way down to where the fish now held its ground, it occurred to me that I could actually give the necessary chase. I mean, when fishing twelve-pound Maxima there’s always the possibility of just reeling the fish back upriver. But I wasn’t using twelve-pound Maxima. And I’m too embarrassed to tell you what I had on. Stupid Griff.
At that point I’d guess the fish was a football field away. Even with twelve pound, getting that fish back, against the current would have been a big ask. I looked over at Jim, who was filming thirty feet behind me, and announced, “We’re going for a walk, buddy.” I told him that forgetting he’d already swum that day, lacking the understanding that the last thing he wanted to do was embark on a long downriver trek. Regardless, I was gone, charging as fast as I ever have when following a fish. I reeled frantically the entire time. And I spoke to the steelhead, coaxing her back to me, telling her how spellbinding she was.
At least a quarter mile downriver and after close to ten exhausting minutes, I finally drew even to where she held, still in the middle of the broad run. The next few minutes were the really stressy part. Any of you who have battled one of these fish knows that even after all its efforts till that point, a steelhead can blow up and end things suddenly, with inconceivable heartlessness.
I continued to speak to her as she reluctantly neared our bank, minute by endless minute pulling against me with a little less force. I was giving praises and apologies, and promising it would be over soon; swore that once landed I’d get it over with quickly as possible. I assured her with all my heart that I thought of her as the most remarkable, impressive and beautiful creature. She swam nearer to my enamored caress.
At some point I was aware of Jim having emerged from the dense foliage behind me. He was breathing hard from the trek. I had no idea where he’d been this whole time. My focus had been out there. With her. I didn’t know if he was shooting video or stills, not that it mattered. But in that moment, I did feel a great pressure to actually LAND this fish. I knew it would be important for Jim and Justin to come home with all the goods, including the grip-n-grin shot. And of course, I could hardly bear the thought of facing Joe back in camp if another fish was lost. So a little extra emphasis was put into uniting she and I. The fly remained affixed and my knots held through a series of rolls and brief, sprinting runs. She was pooped now, sensing, no doubt, that things were getting hopeless, and yet loathing with her every fiber what was happening. Quitting was simply not in her DNA. Each time we were within thirty feet, she’d feel the rocks beneath her and make another move for the deeper water, leaving comically large boils on the surface. I could see her clearly for those last few minutes. She wasn’t huge by steelhead standards, but a good on one the Lower Deschutes any day. And even before there was a close enough inspection, I’d have bet the farm on her being wild. I let Jim know that we’d land the fish out there, as opposed to the bank. If the process went wrong, so be it. I was not going to endanger this fish anymore. She was almost calm. then. I, on the other hand, was a mess. I had no net and was utterly unwilling to beach her. I’d keep her afloat as much as possible. Truth is, I hadn’t handled a fish this large without a net in a while. Eventually, sensing the time was right, I just dropped the rod in the river and reached for her tailed. My other hand slid under her solid belly. The fly fell from her mouth. She was wild, all of seven pounds, and easily the most perfect specimen I’ve ever encountered down there. We did get a quick shot before she kicked free, displaying her complete disregard for any further adoration. Then she disappeared into the Deschutes’ magical currents.
There followed a look to the heavens. I offered my River Goddess every swelling gratitude I possess. Then a fist bump from Jim. And then I remembered that an hour earlier I’d stuck a Rainier Ale in the pocket of my rain jacket. Any guesses as what happened next? Few things have ever tasty so pure.
I will report that an hour later, while swinging down to where Justin was posted up with his camera, and pausing at the end of a swing to slide my BlackStrap tube up, with rod propped between my legs, another fish breached on my fly. This was by far the largest of the trip. And yes, I’ll spare you all the details but for the part when it came unbuttoned, after a brawl during which I NEVER had the upper hand.
It was a smack down of biblical proportions. One that will haunt me.
One that made perfect sense.