This is a classic picture of what perplexed, cold and tired steelheaders look like, after a morning of mildly successful fishing. Oliver snapped it from one side of the Salmon River DSR, as a conversation among the group slowly began to coalesce, around the day's meager harvest of fish and plans to move elsewhere on this famous stream. I imagine that he had a poetic eye and, though I'm not sure if Oliver and Chess were having a similar discussion on their side, but I wouldn't be surprised if they had.
It's always that way.
When you're catching fish, there isn't even the first shadow of the wish to
move. Every seam bursts with the promise of fresh chrome bullets, ready to streak out and take multiple soaring leaps. But when the river is miserly, and nothing quite seems to satisfy the finicky mykiss, it's like a fresh rain on the burgeoning of doubts, questions, pointless theories (which may explain, but rarely overturn, lack of success) and the like.
Of course, we'd picked this particular weekend, but we didn't expect the weather.
At this time last year, the
temperature was in the high teens and low twenties celsius. But 2013 exemplifies a return to the norm, and snow squalls through Thursday assured that a nasty cold snap was in place before our Friday arrival. A preliminary stop at the South Sandy, with Oliver and Chess, showed that it was brimming with slush. I was immediately reminded of my trip with Khalid to the Saugeen last fall, when snow pared down the number of fish we would end up seeing at the end of our lines. There is no fish I know of that reacts well to a big change in temperature, whether up or down...
At the Douglaston Salmon Run parking lot, as the attendants handed us our tags (like ski lift tickets), they let us know that the day before had been good for the "pinners," on a variety of offerings but mostly on fresh roe bags. Or spawn sacs, as they call them in that part of the continent. This sounded good. As we came to the edge of the river, on a high cliff, overlooking a westward bend, Oliver, Chess, Adam & Mike Z turned upstream, whereas Mike B., Bill and I enacted the plan we'd discussed all week - go as far down stream as possible then work our way up.
Mike and Bill quickly got ahead of me, as I began to absorb and enjoy the freshly snow-cottoned woods around me. It almost had a Christmas morning feel to it, especially since we were all about set to partake in an activity that - to us at least - is a gift; even with freezing feet and heavy slogging through knee deep snow. I snapped a few pictures and even got a shot of Mike as he slipped through a patch of deciduous trees ahead of me. However it was not long before I caught up to them, as they debated how to cross over to and approach the Joss pool. We quickly found that it was not as difficult as the attendant at the entrance had predicted, but the rocks were exceedingly slippery. They would claim some of my friends on this day, but my luck as well as my footing held pretty well during most of the day.
The only exception, luckwise, was the Joss pool. On the next day, overlooking it with Oliver as we made our way back to the parking lot, I would understand why. Whereas I usually like to drift my float close to the opposite shore, this special pool is an exception to this loosely held rule. There is a solid, shallow shelf of maybe 9' wide that juts out from the far shore - something less than 3' deep - and with little to no snags to indicate, to the rube (a.k.a. "moi") or any other steelheader of average abilities, that one is definitely fishing where the fish are not. Seen from above, atop the small escarpment at the foot of which it sits, the shelf is clearly visible. Fished from the opposite side, on a gray and snowy day, without an egg sinker at 5'... the angler will get the odd "tick" in the float, but no fish.
Bill, however, was fishing closer to the near shore and, not on top of a shallow shelf , so he of course got fish. His first fish of the day was a beautiful chrome hen, close to 12lbs (or perhaps a bit more than that), which took him a good 10 minutes to land. He was quite ecstatic when he finally brought the fish to hand. Big and fresh, long and thick-backed, she was an excellent representation of the quintessential Lake Ontario steelhead. She appeared to huff as she rested at his feet. We took a few quick pictures then, as the rules demand on the DSR, we released her to swim and hopefully fight again.
After Bill and I had settled in at the Joss pool, Mike had kept going. Based on the direction I saw him take originally, I assumed that he had changed his mind and gone up-river to inspect some difficult to reach waters that he had spied, on the DSR website's interactive map. But after an hour or so of catching nothing but cold toes, I decided to start making my way downriver. Bill felt that he still had a pile of fish in front of him, so he left me to my madness and stayed put.
After a slightly risky crossing to a nearby islet, I suddenly found myself on a section of path that, while it was snowy, was easy enough to follow. I inspected water here and there as I went along, until finally I came within sight of one of the lower spots that we had been looking for. To my mild consternation, there was already someone there, and as I got closer it became quite apparent that the chap was wrestling with a fresh catch. When I got even closer, it also then became quite obvious that the chap was Mike B. - who I thought had gone upriver! But here he was as usual, ahead of everyone else on the curve, landing his 10th fish of the morning, and with the usual easy manner quite capable of pointing out the more productive drifts available.
Never one to disdain a free guide, I settled in and started casting more or less where he'd indicated. On one drift, he said "about 3 or 4 feet further out," which I did on the next cast. The float arched up and landed gently in the water, cocked, bobbed on the swift line of the current for a second, then jabbed down beneath the surface. Immediately my first (and best) fish of the trip started giving me the familiar head shaking, so much like the mandatory heaving of the bull in its stall at a rodeo, just before they open the gate; and all hell breaks loose! The fish was a nice 8 or 9lb male, already dark and milting slighty. But despite my moniker, and my previous exaggeration, I've had more impressive bouts. Not that it was the fish's fault, because he definitely fought "like a man," and never gave up; but the winter sluggishness that can afflict these fish when the water temperature has been low for a long time had somewhat of a grip on him. There were no brilliant leaps or nail-biting runs of extreme proportion, only a dogged and knuckle crunching tug of war which, in the end, he could not win. Mike was kind enough to film me landing this fish and I learned something... I do a pretty good imitation of "Bubbles"!
We fished this run for a while longer and each landed another fish, then went looking for even lower pools. On the way we both passed water that looked good, but that neither of us fished; and which, the next day after discovering that others had success there, would eventually prompt me to think and Mike to express "I walked right by it." No matter how much you learn about this sport and these fish, this phrase will somehow never leave you. Like the smell in your arm pits after a long day of difficult physical activity, it will not always afflict you, but it is certain to pay you the occasional noxious visit. In this sport as in life: water we did not fish, because another ideal was leading us on, will grace our backward glance like dappled shade forever. At least, on this occasion, I'm in excellent company. The "Secret" deodorant of the Steelhead Gods gave out for both of us.
My search lead me farther downriver and through more difficult terrain than did Mike's. And while I thrashed about for a couple of fruitless hours, I later found out that he paid another visit to the run & caught a few more dandies before heading up-river and leaving it for the day. I eventually revisited it myself, as well, missing a couple of hits, then making my way back up to Joss. By the time I got there, I was quite tired, hungry and thirsty. I thought I had no water to drink, but a little rummaging produced a miraculous juice box, which I greedily drank. Then, sitting in the crook of a fallen trunk, I had a small lunch. I also had to re-rig, so I pulled out a "schtogge" and enjoyed it, here in this sheltered little spot. I was just finishing my rig when a big hand pressed down on my shoulder; I turned to see Oliver, and right behind him was Chess!
Since I met Oliver two Decembers ago, I've heard a lot about Chess and was really looking forward to fishing with him. The experience of sharing a drift with him, that Khalid had had last spring, and which he related to me in glowing terms, only made me more eager to finally meet this gentleman. So I was quite happy to see both of them at the Joss pool, and both of them quite jovially ready to head right back down river with me! We fished the Joss shelf for a while, including some more productive looking tail-water, without success and then headed back downriver, to the run that Mike and I had had most of our success in. I missed another fish down there, but by then the day was actually coming close to its end, and we opted to leave.
That night, resting at the Fox Hollow Lodge and regaling in stories of fishing and fishermen, buoyed by the pleasant and soothing flow of cold micro-brew, and on a belly full of Eddie's roast beef, "the Seven," had a good time. It was, for me anyway, one of the things that made my "deal" with Laura so very worth it - enjoying the conversation of other cro-magnons such as myself, all tied into and revolving around the same passion and theme, of fishing moving waters for the bright moving quarry that is the Great-lakes run steelhead. Though the romance of seven snoring men is likely to endear itself to no one, still there is a joy in the concerted action of chasing the same prey which reduces the grunts and wheezes to nothing. With friends and without worries, and with only great reward to come, mild discomforts are easy to ignore.
But then, early in the afternoon of the second day, the picture of the four perplexed steelheaders comes into play. We did manage a few fish, but not as many, and on this day at least Mike B. had to be content with the usual mortal aspect of the human angler. Partly, this happened because the level of the water dropped from 1000cfs to 750cfs, and partly because of the continued cold weather. Later in the afternoon, things would perk up a little, as Mike and I fished the black hole & as Oliver and Chess fished slightly higher on the river - but no chrome-lode was discovered anywhere by any of us on this day.
Still, there is a beauty to winter steelheading that is unique and which, if you've never experienced it, can seem totally incomprehensible. In our case, the bright cotton of fresh snow provided a sharp back-light to the dark, almost black rushing ribbon of the river. Here and there, deer flitted among the trees, and, high above, the Canada geese and snow geese criss-crossed; and when the sun came out on Saturday, the white on the wings of the snow geese looked like jagged etchings on a perfect glassy sphere of purest blue. Spring birdsong floated in the air, despite the cold, and chickadees were ubiquitous. At our feet, as we trod the frozen paths, the emerging stone flies wandered in the thousands, peppering the otherwise perfect blanket of white. Then, on the second day, when the waters were brought down, almost everywhere one looked - about six inches above the flowing stream - perfect white glinting diamonds of ice were clinging to branches that, only the night before had been swathed in dark water. As the sun rose and cast its dusky, snow-brightened light over the river's edge, the eye of the beholder wandered in amazement through a field of countless pearls, dazzling in the bedraggled brush; though the camera struggles to recreate the smallest shimmer of the beautiful spectacle, the speckled-silver waking dream. Among such priceless sparkling riches, and with the promise of even just a little tiny bit of chrome-silver, who is unhappy?
Finally, it was time for me to leave. The others had booked an extra night at the cabin and were staying, but I had my young family to think about, a promise I had made, and obligations to keep. And so, with miles to go before I slept, I drove patiently home, listening to the Leafs game on the radio, looking forward to my greater blessings - even despite the fact that (unbeknownst to me) one of them was stricken with the flu and would keep us all up the whole night!
And yet I have faith that it was only a temporary torture. I'm already home-sick to for the sweet flows of the Salmon, and some day I hope that "Papa" and his two boys will venture there together, sleep at the fox hollow, and share the dark promise of a riverbank together with how many bright steelhead in the offing? and how many friends in tow? Time will tell!
p.s. Thanks to Oliver, BillM and Mike for some of the pictures in this piece - and hopes of repeating our association again many times over the coming years!