This is a copyrighted excerpt from “Marilyn or Raquel?”, a chapter published in My Whispers and Roars-Second Edition. It chronicles a camp trip with four clients down the Lower Deschutes.
I’m pretty sure that if you asked those of us who guide the Lower Deschutes on a regular basis what we’d do with three or four days off in September, we’d answer “Float the Camp Stretch”, the thirty-four miles of Wild and Scenic River between the ramp at Trout Creek and the old logging town of Maupin. Some might argue for Mack’s to the mouth, the bottom twenty-four miles before the Deschutes, an area described in an earlier story. I get that for steelhead -on a good year-, but the road to the ramp will rattle your fillings loose AND break your trailer. For fun fishing, epic scenery and riverside camps, the “Camp Stretch” in early fall is hard to beat. The next best thing is being there for work.
Last week was a classic reminder of why that we all love those miles so much. We were hosting four guys on four-day trip. They had travelled across the country to enjoy some early fall fishing, targeting whatever felt like eating their flies. This is typically summer-run steelhead time on the Lower D, but we’re experiencing yet another less than stellar run of the anadromous fish. Having said that, my clients started hooking steelhead a month ago. For the boys joining us on this trip, there was reason for hope, as there always is in September.
Last Sunday we all met in the lamp-lit Safeway parking lot, threw their gear in our trucks and headed for the ramp where dry bags were stowed, as was a not insignificant stash of adult beverages. This would not be a dull trip, nor a dry one. Two of the four clients, brothers Dan and Brett, had been down there before. The other two, Tony and Dale were new to that stretch of river, so they hadn’t a clue what lay ahead. It should be noted that none of these fine gents had ever tangled with a steelhead.
We put in at Warm Springs Day One, figuring we had four days, the upper stretch has been fishing great, and also we wanted to stagger with a friend’s guide service and their crew. The day was beautiful and warm. There were some really nice trout caught, most falling for the same little nymphs we’ve been having success with for the last month or so. After lunch at Basalt we fished a couple spots before dropping into the canyon proper. At Trout Creek I called my girls to tell them they’ll be with me every oar stroke of the way, as they always are.
Speaking of oar strokes, I suppose this would be as good a time as any to introduce the newest member of our family. For those of you who’ve suffered through any of my earlier drivel, you’re familiar with the boat that has mercifully stayed upright and afloat beneath me for the last five years, ‘Ruby Redside’, my 1987 16’x54” Alumaweld. A month ago, through a simple happenstance I came upon a boat for sale that checked every box, including the ones that didn’t require a payment in full or a quilt-ridden search, which would have had me wracked with questions as to why I’d betray Ruby. The new boat is a beautiful 17’x60”, 2007 WillieBoat. Her name is Opal. Ruby will always be part of me. Every reflex I have as an oarsman nowadays pertain to how she behaves. This trip would be Opal’s first below Trout Creek. And if I didn’t admit to a bit nerves, I’d be lying. I’d never rowed another boat down there. Whitehorse rapid awaited. With clients. In a new boat. The ultimate test.
Trout Creek Campground was in our “rear views” by four in the afternoon. The canyon welcomed us into her remoteness with a soft autumnal breeze. We drifted casually towards camp, deciding we’d fish the water down there into the evening. Opal felt great in Trout Creek Two, a nice rapid that’s always a little gut check. Her lower oar locks and deep rocker make her easy to spin, slow down and accelerate. So far, so good.
As I pulled the boat to the bank in front of camp, my guys had that moment I’ve shared with clients so many times over the years. A certain amazed wonder overcomes them when they first glimpse the extent of our “Glamping” experience. On the multi-leveled bluff overlooking the broad river were big sleeping tents, wind wings over dining and bar tables, a hand washing station and a camp kitchen big enough to feed twice the number of people in our crew. I’ll admit to still being impressed with the sheer amount of gear a bagger hauls and sets up. We all cracked beers and cheered to a good first day. When the other boat arrived, the hilarious chatter started immediately. I forget whom it was that chimed in, quite out of the blue, with “Stones or Beetles? One, two, GO!” And with that, a three night, mostly friendly, debate began over the merits or shortcomings of artists and athletes spanning the last seventy or eighty years. While for obvious reasons I won’t attempt posing each and every query herein, I will relate that we dissected many, many of the great, imposing and eternal questions mankind has troubled over since, oh I don’t know, 1950.
This would not be a trip for shutting down the brain. Nope, whether over beer, wine and food, bourbon, tequila or any other creativity-inducing factor you might imagine, we hashed it all out, sometimes in complete agreement, sometimes utterly unable to reach consensus. The role of contrarian moved freely around the table. There were even debates over the most disgraced legend. “Rod Stewart or Richard Gere?” Think about that one for a few seconds, folks. This went on late into the night. Very late. Maybe a little too late. Out of the gates hot with these guys…
Just before tuck-in time, and after the first meaningful gap in debate, one of the guys almost whispered, “Marilyn or Raquel?”
“For?” came the question in response to the question.
“The lot of it.”
This one had all of us quietly pondering for several silent minutes. Then the debate began. This one was less spirited, a little more reverent of the subject matter. Without going into a great lascivious detail, I’ll just state that amongst the group we basically had a draw, my deciding vote being kept confidential until later.
I’d have the brothers Day Two. We stopped a mere ten minutes into our row and began working one of my favorite spots on the entire river, a gorgeous, bending run with broad riffle water at the top and a long, fishy pad the rest of the way. Some of us call it ‘Hummock’ and it is for sure on my Mount Rushmore of fishing holes on the Lower D. The morning was a little overcast, cool, and ‘steelheady’ as anything. Dan was up in the riffle where heavy current pinches into the run. Brett was midway down, working line out nicely into the soft water. It wasn’t long before we had bent rods and some really beautiful Redbands in the net. Dan had the hot rod for the first part of the session. We were there an hour before I really began fishing Brett hard in the run. He’d been doing fine, but there were a couple techniques we had to hone. Once he was dialed, I just felt the elements were right for something special to happen. A couple nice trout rewarded his initial efforts, but my focus was on a slightly different quarry. We worked for a few more minutes on extending his tension casts, pushing the rig out with big roll casts, and then easily the most important tool in the box: the “stack” mend. As each presentation improved, I moved back to the boat to give him some space; let him spread his wings without me in his ear the whole time. As a guide, this is far and away the most rewarding part of the gig. I love a fish in the net as much as the next guy, but getting an already accomplished angler to dig hard into mastering a new technique is when I find myself sighing that particularly contented sigh.
“Hey Brett,” I offered from thirty feet away. “Let’s get a bit deeper, buddy. Slide that bobber up a foot.” Then from my left Dan chimed in, “Got another one!” I let him know I’d be right there. First, I had to watch Brett’s first cast with the newly adjusted rig. Midway through the drift his bobber absolutely shot down. “Get ‘em!!” was my only command. He slammed the hook home and immediate tension shot into his rod. Big thumping, a different brand of heaving than most trout.
About fifteen percent sure…
I looked up to Dan who was doing battle with a solid Redband. After making sure he was good, I turned my attention to Brett’s line, which was slicing into the big pool right in front of us. Then it arced towards the surface and a big fish sort of half-jumped before heading back towards the bottom. Then it ripped thirty feet of line into the faster current.
Fifty percent sure at that point.
Then the fish raced back into the run and gave some big head shakes. “Whadaya think you have there, Brett?” I casually asked.
“I dunno,” he began, about half as excited as he should have been. “A big whitey?”
“Yea, I don’t think so, buddy,” I said wading passed him to get the picture of the brothers doubled up. Just then, the fish surfaced again. Not enough to sail clear of the river. Not enough to freak out the guy with the rod in his hands. But enough to show me what I was looking for. As it began streaking for the middle of the river again, I took a few steps towards the boat. “Tell you what, Brett. I’m gonna go grab the bigger net.”
Seventy percent sure now.
I was back near his side thirty seconds later, just in time for the fish to make a proper dash for the Columbia. I watched what was left of his fly line and then at least a hundred and fifty feet of backing exit the reel in a matter of seconds.
A solid eighty percent sure.
“Alright, man. We’re taking a walk. Reel when you can,” I instructed, grabbing the back of his waders to ‘buddy wade’ him through the slick boulders. “I got you, Brett. Just focus on your fish. Let’s go.” This was said with some urgency, but careful not to intimate what I thought he was hooked into to. See, what I’ve learned guiding the uninitiated is that the less they know, the better we are. The instant they know what they’re quarrelling with, a different, destructive instinct takes over. They tend to tense up; struggle instead of dance. I did my best to keep Brett calm as we quickly waded to the lowest point of the run. Below us was mucky, unpredictable bottom. We’d have to stand our ground there. The line was around a hummock a couple hundred feet away. I watched his rod bending and could tell that the fish was still there and fairly hooked. “Just a big Redband?” he asked now, still pondering the original question.
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” I replied, avoiding a more specific answer. “You’re doing great. Get some line when you can.”
He really was playing the fish beautifully, considering it was now probably a football field away from us. “It’s hard to tell what’s going on down there,” he said with just a hint of panic.
Then I offered a critical bit of instruction. “If you can get this fish turned and swimming upriver, bury your rod tip and reel as fast as you can.” He gave me a confused glance. “Just make sure you’re measuring the line on the spool as you do it,” I continued, not returning his look. Within a minute he suddenly began reeling, almost as if the fish was off. It’s so hard to tell at that distance. “Still there,” I asked.
“Think so,” was all he could offer.
“Bury that rod tip and GO!” This was the first time I expressed exigence. “Do it and don’t stop till I tell you. Keep measuring that backing onto the reel. Don’t let it stack up.” There would be no more casual banter. No more mincing of words. “GO GO GO!!”
This technique is called “Walking the Dog”. It is a great way to get line back in a hurry on big fish. For some reason steelhead are especially susceptible to it. Once you get the fish going a certain direction, by keeping the tension low it won’t struggle as much until it’s belly scrapes the bottom. Or…. When you finally have to lift the rod to land it. Brett reeled at a furious pace. I urged him to keep going. As the bobber came into view, I noticed it angling slightly out towards the middle of the river.
Ninety-five percent sure.
Brett kept reeling. Then the bobber was only fifteen feet in front of us in water five feet deep. Perfect.
“Get the bobber a foot off the tip then lift the fish into the net. Do it in one move.”
He did as told. And for reasons unknown but to the fish, it slid right into the net. “There’s you steelhead, buddy,” I announced with surprising calm in my voice.
Before we get into Brett’s reaction to the experience, I should announce that after perhaps a dozen confirmed encounters this year, this was the first steelhead to end up in the net. So I felt a certain relief; the monkey lifting from my back. As for Brett… he just about shat himself. I cannot now recall his exact words. They hardly matter. He was undergoing a revelation, that particular transformation as a fly fisher that only comes with your first steelhead. I truly and honestly don’t care with which technique you utilize a fly rod to capture this fish. And frankly I begrudge anyone who does. But that’s a discussion for another day. This was fooled on a 6wt nine-foot rod with a Jimmy Leg on 4x tippet. It was as badass a brawl as you could ever wish for with a fly rod. And there in the net lay a sea-run fish that would probably tape out around 26” and weight in the neighborhood of 6 pounds. I’m admittedly crappy at measuring these things. The reality is that the size of this fish hardly mattered. Brett’s experience was from here to the clouds and back. He was lit up like a little kid who just tasted chocolate for the first time. A teenager having just gotten a little fondle from the girl of his dreams. A man feeling water on his parched tongue after a week amongst the desert dunes. Dan, having seen the massive tail hanging out of the net, had begun making his way to us. “It’s a steelhead!” Brett announced with a mixture of excitement and astonishment. Then he turned to me. “Can we get some pictures?”
“Hell yea, man. Let’s head up to the boat.” Just then the fish gave a lunatic flop and sailed above the net, still trying to get free and almost succeeding. “Stop it!!” I growled, nearly falling in the river to re-net the fish. “Re-net” now there’s a term you don’t hear much in fishing. The fish tried another three or four times to get free. That is certainly one of the defining character traits of steelhead: they just don’t quit, even once captured. We finally subdued the fish and prepare for a quick “grip-n-grin”. Dan held the net while I got the camera ready. The photos are classic with Brett grappling with how to hold a fish that big. But we got one or two for the books before releasing it back into its realm.
Thereafter we toasted our good fortune, the day, the trip, the river and its incredible denizens. I passed on the Bourbon and beer part of the toast until I remembered that one of the two times I ever drink on the job is to commemorate the first steelhead of the season in the net. So a Vicious Mosquito IPA was popped open and I was able to, if only briefly, live among the living on the river.
As Dan went back in, Brett and I hung out next to the boat, enjoying the beer, the recounting of the fight, the wonder of all that surrounds life in the canyon. Sharing that stoke with someone as cool as Brett is a blessing in my life for sure.
Eventually, my attention was drawn downriver, to other favorite runs, riffles and buckets. To lunch with the other guys. To Whitehorse Rapid. To the precise oar strokes, the raging torrent, the rush of adrenaline. To the second beer I’d enjoy on the river that day.
Late that afternoon, I was fishing the guys just above the rapid when Andrew came around the corner. “We’ll catch up,” I called out.
“Want to scout it?” he asked, standing above his oar locks.
“Nope. See you in a few.” I’ve taken to not gazing upon Whitehorse any more than I must. This spring, when we had around 8500cfs in there, we all scouted. And just about pooped ourselves too. It was a horrific sight. I’m glad we looked at it that day, but when the flows are steady as they’ve been, unless there’s a sign at the scouting beach, I’d rather just get through it.
We caught up with Andrew’s boat just above Whitehorse and took a minute to make sure lifejackets were fitted, the anchor properly stowed, no unnecessary loose objects lingering about. This would be first time I ever followed Andrew through the rapid. The music was canned. The guys were asked to speak only when spoken to. The river bent right. The cacophony grew. Heart lodged firmly in mouth. New boat. Longer oar shafts. Afternoon glare. Andrew disappeared into the maelstrom. A massive exhale. Then an inhale to match. Spin the boat at the ‘Knuckles’. Judge the right time to ferry her back. Drop in. Then let experience and the movement of the river guide… Opal sat down perfectly above ‘Hogsback’. I gave her one little nudge to straighten out right of ‘Slide Rock’. That’s all it took. The rest was as normal as that rapid can -or should- ever be. We took on maybe a half gallon in the ‘Washing Machine’. That’s it. One of my better passes to be sure. This new boat, with all the rocker and width, is super stable while also spinning on a dime. Pleased, I am.
Below ‘House Rock’ and above Frenchie’s Reef, I flipped open the cooler lid and grabbed three beers. That toast was a good one, full of celebration, relief, an acknowledgement that new chapters were being written. We three, with the river’s assistance, were part of the story.
“Rush or Queen? One, two, GO!” Tony chimed in over appetizers of bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed jalapeno peppers that evening in camp. There would be no letup night two. The debates raged unabated through the perfectly seasoned pork loin with rosemary fingerling potatoes and tarragon, cream carrots. “Greatest athlete of all time? One, two, GO!” Several of us either stated or agreed the Kaitlin Jenner was it.
The canyon winds calmed. An hour was spent on the small bluff above the river, stargazing. Constellations were pointed out, disputed. Smoke wafted into night sky. There were moments of reverie, silence, contented breaths. Back at the table, most agreed that this night would be an early one. Just the slightest throttling back. Midway through the trip, knowing that we had much river to cover, another night remaining to celebrate.
After everyone had tucked in, I dragged my chair out to the bluff, sipped a bit of whisky and listened as distant snoring mingled with the river’s whisper. Out there, as exhaustion and invigoration collided, I listened for the spirits of all those who have passed through those canyon walls before me. The great, proud tribes of Tygh, Wyam, Tinainu, then Northern Paiute, Warm Spring, Wasco, and Shoshone came to me. They lived off that land, alternately in peace and at war, trading and brawling, living off nature’s bounty, in harmony with seasons, moon cycles, all the other inhabitants of the riparian zone. It’s so easy to imagine the villages on that very flat. I can envision the teepees, fires, salmon and steelhead hanging from alders-branch racks. It’s not even a little stretch of imagination to hear the subdued conversations between elders and warriors, strategizing simply how to survive another day, how to predict storms, floods, fires, enemy tribes, pissed off bears, what was necessary to protect the women and children from the next threat. Which of them would sneak to the canyon rim in the predawn to survey the canyon from above, spot encroaching danger? How must they ration supplies? Where would they go if and when they needed to move? It’s the day-to-day aspect of what their lives were like that consumes me in quiet moments such as that. All these spirits and energies presented to me even as I got into my sleeping bag on the cot and peered through the small gap between hoody and down-stuffed fabric. Into the universe I gazed. How insignificant are we? Out amongst the vast wilderness, underneath endless space, what, if any of this matters? All that really means anything is this instant, this breath, this time to let heavy eyelids slide closed.
Our third day dawned cool and clear. The camp was quiet with little chatter and next to no river song. The big, swirling pool had some trout rising to an unseen meal. A few of us stood on the bluff sipping coffee as we watched the sipping fish. We all sat down to breakfast of hash browns, bacon and eggs. “Eddie Van Halen. Greatest living guitarist of greatest ever guitarist? One, two, GO!” There were alternating affirmations and scoffs. And that’s all required for a spirited debate.
Once camp was broken and stowed in Austin’s boat, we were off. I’d have Dan and Dale day three. Our first stop was the islands above North Junction, water that has always produced. I mean always. On this day though, not so much. We went through half a fly box. Fished high and low, shallow and deep, slow and fast, under bobber and swung. It was confounding. I admit to getting a little “grudgey” about spots like that when they don’t offer up what I know they’re capable of. We stayed a few minutes longer that we should have. I might take it a little too personal at times.
We found the others below North Junction; Brett hooked up as we drifted by. “Party fish at Wire Hole,” I call over. Thumbs up from the boys. One of the reasons for staggering our group with the other outfitter was feeling fairly assured that the spots we wanted would be there for us. Till that point we hadn’t had one significant disappointment and Wire Hole proved no different. I pulled the boat up beside the riverside alders and got the guys fishing. I put Dan in the upper bucket as he still hadn’t landed anything on the day. Dale waded over the tricky bottom out to a zone with solid potential. It wasn’t long before Dale was belt deep in the mighty river, rod high over head and throbbing into a nice fish. He played this one with the necessary authority and before long a 14” Redband lay heavily in my net. We were, as we almost always are, astonished by the beauty and tenacity of these fish. No matter how many native trout I get clients into or fool myself, the Deschutes Redband continues to amaze.
Not long after that first fish, Andrew and the others came around the bend, pulled in below us and began fishing. Brett was getting after it with the Spey rod and took the lower end of the run. Tony took the zone just below Dale and all of sudden it was Kids Fish Free Day at Wire Hole. The fishing wasn’t red hot for that session, but we had plenty of action. Tony tangled with another beautiful trout. This one, like most so far on the trip, gave enough of a fight in the first minute that we were waiting for something much larger to jump out in the middle of the run. But in the end, another great native posed for a picture with Andrew and Tony. I went up to work with Dan for a bit and we were quickly into a gorgeous trout that brawled as valiantly as the others had. That fish was a reminder of how complex the fishery can be down there. We made a pretty minor adjustment with fly selection and rigging, and right away he got eaten. This should come as a lesson to anyone who fishes The Lower Deschutes regularly; if you’re not getting eaten in fishy water, constantly reevaluate your presentation.
A few minutes later, something large ate one of Dale’s flies. How large? Well, from the speed it swam away on its first run, really large. Dale did everything right in those few frantic moments. I’ll go on the record as being sixty-five to seventy percent sure on this one. Dale held on beautifully for another couple minutes as I went to the boat for the big net. The fish was a fly line away and dogging hard out on the edge of the heavy current. Then, with good tension on the line and the feeling that the fight was just getting started, the line went suddenly slack. I told him to reel hard, just in the case the fish was charging. But it wasn’t. It was gone. Didn’t see that one coming. Really thought we’d hold on a little longer. But the fish, whatever it was, had a different agenda. Simple and painful as that.
A few minutes after that, Dan hooked up again. Now the fish were eating. This one immediately took off on a reel burner that prompted Dale to back up and out of the way as the fish ripped down into the slower water of the run. Again, I was over near the boat about the grab the big net. Then the tides turned, and Dan quickly got the line back. A minute or so later we got our first look at the fish, which was a proud a strong Redband. This fish might be the most badass Deschutes trout I’ve ever met. And I told it so as we got the hook free and cradled it before release. After this fish bolted back into the run, Dan and I stood dumbfounded at how powerful it had been, how stunned we were that a 16” fish had ripped that much line at that speed.
Not long after that fish, we climbed aboard Opal and began a nice long row. Sandwiches were eaten. Beers were enjoyed in the front of the boat. The glorious, sun-drenched day blessed our float. We stopped briefly at Grandma’s Run where Dan hooked another really nice trout. This one tore for the middle of the river and sailed clear of the current while tossing the fly from its jaw. The entire episode lasted perhaps three seconds. That is what we call a good, old-fashioned ass-kicking. Not much you can do about that. Tip your cap and try to fool another.
A mile or so down river we spotted the first bighorn sheep of the trip. There were two distinct herds with both ewes and rams, one way up under the top caldera, the others much lower down. For those of you unfamiliar with these animals, they originally migrated across the Bering land bridge from Siberia, you know, a long time ago. There numbers dwindled through hunting and disease to the relatively small population we now have, which are mostly “planted” animals from California. They are reclusive, incredibly skittish and about as impressive an animal you’ll ever see in the wild. There are trips down there when we don’t see any. This was a particularly cool sighting in that there were a bunch of them all moving slowly down canyon, grazing, checking us out as we checked them out. I got out my binoculars and we took turns watching them do their thing. Not sure why I love seeing them down there so much. But every time I do it touches a part of me not normally affected by wildlife. The herd moved downriver with us for a while as we drifted. Above camp, we saw a couple big rams laying low near a spring in a narrow draw. We eventually saw more sheep than wild horses. That’s never happened for me down there.
The evening was calm and perfect in every way a river can be. All the boys got some action there before camp beckoned. Fish came from all the spots we’d expect them to, still falling for the combos we’d been utilizing most of the trip. The slot right at the top of our run gave up a really nice ‘bow just before we left, which ate the Prince for those keeping score at home.
We’d stay that last night at Tuma Bend. This is one of my favorite sites both for the killer fishing right in front and also for the wide-open views. One of the other cool elements of this site is that it still has one of the original BLM poopers. Back in the day when the Lower Deschutes camps were formed, all the vault toilets were positioned so that, while seated and with the door propped open with a nearby rock, the view resembles a western landscape painting. There are only a few left now, and they’re worth having a seat in while they last.
Once we arrived at camp the boys got out of their waders and into some really good wine and bourbon. I took my little switch rod out in front of camp and swung up two feisty Redbands on a little egg-sucking leech fly. So, with a big smile I rejoined the crew for another amazing night of music, food, drink and conversation. Austin did us right with thick New York steaks, spuds and veg as we sat out in the soft breeze under the Wind Wing.
“Favorite comedian. One, two, GO!” The debate raged from Richard Pryor to Seinfeld to Eddie Murphy to John Belushi. And on and on.
We’ve done countless camp trips over the years, but I can’t remember any that had such an interesting, knowledgeable, opinionated, and openly contrarian group as these boys. The questions and debates kept coming until the booze and smokes were gone. “Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn?” (Stevie, for the record. Jimi was an innovator. Stevie took all that stuff to the next level.) “Best movie ever?” (that one kept us busy for a while. I believe there might have ultimately been consensus on “The Godfather”) “Who should have stuck around longer Amy Winehouse or Bradley Nowell (singer of Sublime)?” There was some serious debate on this one, which I found surprising. Bradley, by the way. That reasonably segued into the most tragic of the Twenty-Seven Club. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the ridiculous number of hugely talented celebrities who died at the age of twenty-seven. We only delved into the musicians. Bradley only missed this list by a couple months. Amy’s on it. As is Jimi, Janis, Kurt, Brian Jones (original Rolling Stones guitarist and one of the more beautiful rock stars of all time), Jim Morrison, Robert Johnson (the godfather of blues guitar), Dickie Pride, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (original member of the Grateful Dead who, if he’d stuck around, might have helped that band not suck so much). My vote went to Morrison. I just feel that there were a few more gears for him to find both in the Doors and on his own. That one, naturally, led to other musicians who’d missed the list by a year or two. Jim Croce made thirty. We lost him to a plane crash going from one show to the next. You might imagine the next debate being “Best rock star dying aboard a plane or helicopter?” That is a long list. And this crew kept ‘em coming. Glenn Miller. Buddy Holly. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Patsy Cline. Jim Croce. Otis Redding. Stevie Ray. Richie Valens. John Denver. Famous promoter Bill Graham’s name even came up. These are just the ones I can remember. The list goes on. As did the discussion as to who should have been spared. (I have a soft spot for Jim Croce. I can only imagine the brilliant songs he had yet to write.)
At some point, guys began trickling off into the dark and onto a comfortable cot. Mine waited far out in the flat. As I laid down that night, under a vast blanket of stars and drifted between consciousness and dreamscape, I was barely able to control my deep breaths of gratitude that this trip had come together and gone as well as it had; that these guys picked us to chauffeur them down the river.
In the morning, over coffee, juice, melon and breakfast sandwiches, we strategized our final stretch of river to the ramp. Andrew and I committed to our favorite spots. I’d have Tony and Dale that last day. My goal was to get Tony into some steel. While not having committed hard to catching one, he was pretty fired up for a chance at least. We made our way through the rapids at Buckskin Mary and Four Chutes. Gate Keepers was our first real stop. Super Dale got himself a great trout out in the softer water while Tony dialed in the upper slot. I worked with him until we found a fly combo and set-up that found fish. The first was a nice trout that brawled in the faster water before succumbing to the net. The second, well that was an entirely different story. This was one of those fish that ventures to the salt and back. And this was one of the bigger ones. Yea, it showed itself to us just so we’d all know. Our immediate -and harsh- reality was that this steelhead was probably not best addressed with a Redington Classic Trout 5wt. But, hey, let’s see how it goes. The fish did a couple barrel rolls. Then it decided it wanted to head back to the Columbia. And there was no stopping it. A bunch of fly line and backing went with it. We began wading down, passed the boat, passed Dale, who had reeled up and gotten out of the way. We got down to the end of the wade. The fish was still two hundred feet out in the soft water of the elbow and thumping hard against the pressure in its jaw. We had the same chat there as I’d had with Brett back on Day One about waiting for the fish to turn towards us and then burying the rod and reeling like crazy. Walking the dog. He seemed to get the concept. We waited. A couple minutes passed without any major give or take. Then, from where I stood, it seemed as if the fish was heading our way. I told Tony to dig in hard and begin reeling. Maybe ten seconds later, the line went slack. There was no outward sign of duress. No massive headshake, change of direction or acrobatic leap. Just full tension one second and none the next. That is a moment of despair and confusion rarely encountered in life. My life at least. We reeled in to find flies still affixed to tippet. No apparent or obvious excuse. Just came unbuttoned. Shit.
It would be a couple hours before we found the other guys all the way down at Closures. We rowed in to that certain casual, confident quiet usually associated with guys who’ve caught some fish. It was Andrew who announced that Dan had caught not one, but two steelhead, one of which -a hatchery fish- presently resided in a plastic bag in Andrew’s cooler. Both had fallen for nymph rigs. They were the only fish the boys had tangled with all day and they were perfectly content with that. I’d relate more details of Dan’s fish, but I don’t have them. I only know that the Wall brothers were both on the board and I couldn’t be happier for them. They’d put this trip together, brought the buddies, made it all happen and were deserving of every bit of stoke they felt.
The row to ramp involved mellow conversation about life, music, fish, canyons and the last three beers to our name. It couldn’t have been a more fitting ending to one of the coolest camp trips I’ve ever been on. I really hope to see these boys again someday, down there, in our favorite place, the place we’d chose to be whether working or playing.
And oh, by the way, as for the original question, which was “Marilyn or Raquel?” well it’s Raquel, of course.