Wading for Steelhead
For more than four decodes CLARK C. VAN FLEET, a native of Son Francisco, has fished for that gamiest fighter in Western waters — the Steelhead. He knows the best pools in the great rivers of Washington, Oregon, and California; he knows the habits of the Steelhead and how to handle him with light tackle; he knows what roads to take and where to stay. A racy blend of his wisdom, direction, and experience is to be found in his new hook, Steelhead to a Fly, published under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint on October 28, from which we have drawn the pages that follow.
by CLARK C. VAN FLEET
IT IS fun to watch an experienced angler while he covers a steelhead stretch in one of our major rivers: the bright glisten of the bamboo as it arcs the line back and forth, its nodding grace as the lure is manipulated across the lie, the supple bow when the line is retrieved for the next throw.
The current swirls around his waist leaving a plume of wake downstream. His movements are slow and deliberate as he shuffles forward a few steps here or hacks away from an invisible barrier there. If the bottom is highly irregular, his progress is a series of climbs and drops from a possible knee depth almost to his chest, yet the measured rhythm of his casting seems undisturbed. To attain this mastery of broken bottom walking takes plenty of practice. Yet a tenderfoot will realize that he has gained in balance and confidence the first week. Certain precautions will help to increase that proficiency.
Such bogy tales as have been circulated about in the big river! Each stream has its dreadful story of the poor fellow who was picked up against a log jam, or found pressed into the willows, with his head under water and his feet in the air. They would have you believe that, the fisherman having fallen in, the air had gone to the feet of the waders and prevented him from either swimming or raising his head above the surface. This, of course, is sheer nonsense. Even should you plunge in headfirst in waders, the air would be pressed out of them in a few seconds. When wading in a normal manner, all the air except that held in layers between the clothes is pushed out of the stockings as you go deeper.
Inevitably you will fall in. We all do, not once but many times. I have dunked in every major river I have ever fished and most of the smaller ones. I have spilled in the Mackenzie a score of times, and an icy experience it is. I go amply prepared for this emergency regardless of how short the stay. Besides the accidental soakings, I have deliberately taken to deep water a number of times to save a particularly heavy or obstinate fish.
The most important thing to remember is to avoid becoming panicked when you lose your balance, or stumble and fall in. More accidental drownings have been caused from pure terror than by any intrinsic element of danger under such circumstances. A surprise tumble might startle you, but be sure, very sure, it does not frighten you.
In wading you have to make a continuous adjustment between two forces, gravity and the sweep of the current — and the dynamics of the current are never constant. You feel a surge of pressure, then a distinct letup, followed by another and possibly heavier push, much as you do when walking in a high wind. Keep a little spraddled out in heavy wash and you will avoid trouble.
The next maxim to keep in mind is this: don’t try to keep high in the water. Put your feet between the boulders or cobbles, not on top of them; go around the larger ones, not over them; stay in the valleys along the reefs, not on top of the mountains. If you do lose your footing momentarily, don’t rise up in the water, but sink down. The natural tendency is to try to come erect after a stumble and rest on the foot that is securely anchored. If you try it, as sure as shooting the current will push you over.
The safest way is to drop down to breast depth and put out your arm for balance. You will nearly have reached buoyancy level by that maneuver so that the water will be bearing most of your weight. A touch of the free foot to the bottom will then put you right. I have often floated as much as thirty yards downstream, barely touching my feet to the bottom and then only at intervals sufficient to hold my waders’ top clear. I thus made time equal to the speed of the current, shipped no water, and saved my fish. Paradoxically, you are always safer fairly deep than you are in the shallows. My most painful spills have invariably occurred near shore in water less than a foot deep, where accumulations of slime and algae set traps for the unwary.
Copyright 1954, by Clark C. Van Fleet
If you do fall in where the current is strong and deep, scramble around until you are facing upstream before you drop your feet to the bottom to attempt a recovery. The force of the flow will then help you to your feet. If you have floated beyond your depth, one-hand paddling (assisted by a few kicks) will serve to sustain your head and shoulders above water until wading depth has been reached again. Angle towards shore always facing upstream. If you are turned downstream when you reach water shallow enough to wade, an attempt to stop your progress and rise to your feet will offer resistance to the flow and its shove may knock you down again.
To become familiar enough with water so that you do not fear it is, of course, the ideal. Even for the veteran, that takes time. A beginner would do well to equip himself with a good stick on a thong. The best of these are iron shod, have a sound type of grip at the handle end and a loop in the strap that goes over the shoulder and under the armpit. The stick can then be dropped when you are fishing, yet is always ready to hand when you set out to work farther along in the stream.
In most cases of a spill you can suffer nothing more serious than a wetting. The Eel and the lower Rogue can be waded with ease. In the Klamath, where the beaches and foreshore consist mainly of large cobbles and boulders and the flow is uncommonly swift, you may well take your dunking and the battle is to the experienced.
The upper Hogue and the North Umpqua present the most difficult problems, since their flow is over bedrock with all the irregularity normal to this type of formation. The ability to read water plays a most important part in the day’s wading on these streams, as the proper interpretation of surface signs will warn of deep-lying boulders, channels, or pockets before the necessity rises to negotiate them.
THESE admonitions are all very well for the preliminaries: reaching fishing water and putting a line over the prospect. It is when you have hooked a steelhead that you really need your wading knowledge. If the fish stays in the pool of origin the problem is not complicated, since you have ample time to decide a fitting spot for the beaching after your antagonist has begun to tire. Unfortunately steelhead are not always so coöperative.
The lish will often tear downstream in their wild fear, go through the riffle at the tail of the pool, and seek sanctuary in the waters below. With control thus completely lost, you must quickly reach some advantageous spot from which the fight can again be pressed. You must decide your course on the instant, as the line pours off your reel and your steelhead dashes wildly down the chute. For your battle sight there is one fixed axiom: never put pressure on the backing line, but wait until you have at least twenty feet of silk back on the reel before you force for victory. There are three courses open to you: make for shore if you can; follow on through the wading water; or, as a last resort, plunge boldly in and swim to some point of vantage. Your conduct will be largely determined by what your interpretation of the water’s surface tells you.
Honey Creek riffle is just downstream from the mouth of a brook on the North Lmpqua. The course of the river brings a fast race of channel to the near bank. To reach the lie, one has to wade out on a reef in this channel far enough to hold the line well above the current and thus avoid excessive drag. The fly can then be drifted through the slack of the lie just beyond the riffle, at fishing speed. The holding wafer is in two parts; the fish may rest in a series of reef or boulder pockets at the upper end of I he quieter drift, or along the indentations of an exposed slab near the end. For the upper pockets, the rod must, be held high, but as you work down the reef and onto the gravel bar below, the flood slackens sufficiently for you to angle the lure along the irregularities of the slab in the orthodox manner. By this time you are out from shore pretty well, with a deep gouge between the bar and the bank. The wade over the gravel is waist-deep for most of its length, with a dip or two to breast height.
I worked the upper reaches thoroughly, and had a follow from a fine lish but no raise. The edge of the shoulder at the lower end of the run is a longish cast even from the bar and has to be angled slowly with an upstream borrow to hold the fly in the best swirls. I covered those bays and projections with all the skill I could muster.
As my fly dropped at the end of the rock dyke, I had a vieious take. Up the run the fish sped to break in a shower of spray. Then down the pool with a lightning rush and over the lip into the channel that broke through the bedrock for the pool below, so many, many yards away. The chute appeared to have no breaks in if for at least a hundred yards.
I toe-danced down the gravel with the aid of the current, barely missed a ducking in a deep pocket just short of the rock plate I was headed for, and hurried after my fish. Immediately another complication loomed before me. A huge boulder stuck up between my position and the speeding steelhead. I desperately threw a high loop in the pouring line and barely cleared it. Twice more I looped an intervening rock, with the last, taking all but a few turns in my backing. A small bay in the bedrock then held that boomer long enough for me to catch a couple of breaths and take back some sorely needed line. That was as wild a trip through the windings of a rocky sluice as I ever hope to enjoy, and I was still in backing when we reached the pool below, where the fight was soon done. The stcelhead was an elegant seven-pounder which, under normal conditions, would never have given me so close a call.
Swimming in waders is a lot easier than would appear; in difficulties, such logs are much to be preferred to rubber boots. If you are in for only a few moments’ submersion, and if your waders fit snugly and are properly cinched at the belt line, you will take in much less water than if you had fallen in fully clothed. The chief annoyance is that you are forced to stop fishing until you have had a change. Attempting to continue soaked to the skin is both chilly and disagreeable. Even if you are forced to hike a considerable distance from one spot to another on a stream, it pays to shuck off the protectors and carry them. A long walk in waders will cause sufficient perspiration to make the dampness of your clothes chill you uncomfortably on re-entering the stream.
Of one thing I am certain: wading tends to even the chances between the angler and his fish. Moreover, the use of an artificial fly, plus the light gut that is mandatory with this lure, weighs the balance actually in favor of the stcelhead. For myself, I would not have it otherwise.
There is a vast difference between casting a fly from a deep position in fast water and standing on a platform some foot or two above it. In wading over irregular bottom, often with precarious footing, with the body frequently braced and very likely at an awkward angle to the desirable or necessary cast, the angler has a real problem trying to reach a particular target with accuracy and control. Distance is of secondary importance, yet there are times when one would like to handle from seventy to eighty feet of line. Since this cannot be accomplished with one pickup and a shoot when you are waist-deep in a fast current and there is no handy platform on which to coil your spare loops, you had better learn to take care of that line in your left hand and have it in such condition that it will not tangle.
I assume that your silk is well seasoned so that it will fall loosely from the hand without twisting as the coils are gathered. When the fly has reached the retrieve point in the drift, you are ready to make the pickup for the next cast. The first bit of line you pull back from the guide can be dropped, since you will need it free from the reel to your hand. Make the next pull as far back as your arm will permit, shortening each succeeding coil as you gather them. I normally hold the first three coils between the first and second lingers, picking up the last two or three between the dexter and the thumb.
When enough line has been retrieved — usually from twenty to thirty feet—the backcast is executed, followed by one false cast with the release of a coil or two, then the final cast — opening all the fingers to payout the shoot. If the loops have been gathered properly, no trouble will be encountered, and the throw will be smooth and well-controlled. This is about the limit of precise casting possibilities in deep, fast water.
There are a number of good reasons for the practice of wading as deep as possible in the fishing riffle. First it shortens what might be an impractically long shoot; next it aids materially in avoiding mischievous backcast hazards; and finally, and of the utmost importance, it improves the drift of the lure as it passes over the fish. You maintain better command of the fly’s actions for a far longer period in the vital angling area than would be possible from the bank. You have a much better chance, therefore, of inducing a raise during that all-important interval in which the fly is swimming during the drift.
My final suggestion to the wader in these larger rivers is to keep the body supple and not tense. If your footing gives way or rolls under you, you will be ready for that contingency. Gravel has a regular habit of mining out from under you in fast riffles and a cobble can be displaced with the pressure of your foot. Recovery is simple if you meet the emergency as a well-trained boxer would, wellbalanced on your feet, without strain.