Sunday, November 22, 2009

Home Rivers

Sometimes I feel like I can't possibly spend enough time on the water to fully understand my home river. Like most steelhead bums I do my share of traveling, still there is something especially fulfilling about time spent on my home river. An intimacy with the River and its Fish that only time can produce. As Haig-Brown says in To Know a River,

"The sense of ownership grows simply from knowing the river. I know the easiest ways along the banks and the best ways down to the pools. I know where to start in at a pool, where to look for the fish in it, how and where I can wade, what point I can reach with an easy cast, what lie I can barely cover with my strongest effort. This is comfortable and pleasant and might well begin to seem monotonous sooner or later were it not something of an illusion. I have a fair idea of what to expect from the river, and usually because I fish it that way, the river gives me approximately what I expect of it. But sooner or later something always comes up to change the set of my ways. Perhaps one day, waiting for a friend to fish down a pool, I start in a little further up than usual and immediately hook a fish where I had never been able to hook one before. A little more of the river becomes mine, alive and productive to me. Or perhaps I notice in some unusual slant light of what looks to be a glide water along the edge of a rapid; I go down to it and work my fly through, and whether or not a fish comes to it, more of the river is known and mine."

and thats just it. The river is ever changing. From day to day the river rises and falls with the rain, the snow level or snow pack. Summers low, crystaline flows offer different lies, different challenges and demand a host of new tactics. In winter those soft easy boulder gardens may one day be full of fish but the following devoid with a drop in the river level. when the fish are moving, fresh to the cold winter flow they sit in the softest spot, just above the rapid where a subtle depression in the boulders creates a sense of security in the easy flow. The rivers change every year, after the 2003 flood the river filled with sand from the slides up river. The logs move, the river scours new deep channels in areas which last year held a fraction of the flow. In their dynamic nature rivers come to life. If we settle in and watch over the years we will see the heartbeat of the land, the exhale when the flood subsides and much of the sand it gone revealing those lovely green boulders and fist sized cobbles.

In travel we cannot hope to achieve such intimacy. The excitement of new water, big, wild fish in a legendary setting holds its appeals, but the home river forever calls us back. In the fall, when the steelhead are yet to arrive we can find the Bull Trout, voracious from spawning and gorging themselves on salmon eggs, flesh and any hapless whitefish that may cross their paths. Or the salmon, which so many steelhead anglers overlook. Sure fishing for pinks with 40 ass snagging Jims isn't the most fun, but a bright pink salmon with the tidal fog rolling in on the lower river is as beautiful a fish as any salmon. The coho of early october fresh, and bright with a pension for taking on the hang down, the challenge is always to fish the fly right to the bank. Then strip, strip, wait! While coho lack the power and speed of a fresh steelhead their enthuasm for leaping makes them a great sportfish in their own right.

Some spend their entire lives on the banks of their home stream, watching the floods, how the river changes, the decline of the runs.They remember how it used to be, before the big flood took all the log jams out and the huge slide smothered one of the most productive tributaries. They remember the huge logs they took out of the watershed, how it was to see when a single tree trunk was all that would fit on the back of a logging truck. And the bright little summer runs of July and August, so quick to grab a dryfly. The old lies are no longer there, nowadays most are filled in with sand and fine sediment, what remains is a shadow of its former glory. There used to be lovely 2 and 3 foot wide boulders, just off the main current where the fish could rest and feel secure next to the deep, heavy flow. Today its just a flat glide, uniform and lifeless, mostly devoid of those sweet little summer fish or the big shouldered henfish of early March. Those bright females with their impossible compact faces, pearl and purple blushed cheeds and the ghostly silver fin rays of her large, broomlike caudaul fin. all power and determination.

Things are different now, but there are still steelhead, and the river keeps changing. Somehow year after year the river is always there, the resilient lifeblood of the valley, and the fish come too. In lower numbers now than ever, but when the late February rains warm the crystaline, winter flows and the river rises, running slightly green, you'd better be on the water tomorrow. the rootwad on the bar made the river scour and the boulders can be seen now, just below the softly rocking surface where the water is up to your chest. With the water up the tailout will have gotten more depth, the rapid below more volume, more velocity, and driving through the dark morning with the rain pattering against your windshield you can imagine just how it will be, they'll be sitting down there in the bottom of the run. Where the surface flows greasy and soft they will rest and regain their strength after pushing up through the heavy water. And in the low light of the winter morning they'll be there waiting, secure, bright and aggressive. Agitated with the changing river level and anxious with the proximity to their home. its been a long journey and they're getting close now. The instincts of their riverine youth returning and their predatory ocean habits still'll never know what hit you.

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