Wild steelhead must be released. Gary Lewis caught this Clackamas River steelhead on a cerise jig beneath a float. Photo by Jennifer Lewis
“I have lived,” Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1889. “The American Continent may now sink under the sea, for I have taken the best that it yields, and the best was neither dollars, love, nor real estate.”
Addressed to the ‘gentlemen of the Punjab Fishing Club,’ the story recounts Kipling’s passage from The Dalles to Portland, thence along the Willamette and 15 miles overland in a horse-drawn carriage.
“All the land was dotted with small townships, and the roads were full of farmers in their town wagons, bunches of tow-haired, boggle-eyed urchins sitting in the hay behind. The men generally looked like loafers, but their women were all well-dressed.”
Away from the towns, the road struck into the woods. “It wound in and out among fire-blackened stumps under pine trees, along the corners of log fences, through hollows, which must be hopeless marsh in the winter, and up absurd gradients.”
This is what people endure for steelhead. For this is what Kipling spoke of. Better than dollars, better than love, better than real estate: steelhead.
It’s a rite of passage in our family. My first – nine pounds of North Fork Lewis chrome – came when I was 14, after three years of trying and ten great fish battled and lost.
My wife Merrilee caught hers on our first fishing date, a six-pounder high in the Sandy River watershed.
Our firstborn Tiffany caught her sea-run rainbows on the Snake River on a January day when the riverbanks were crusted with ice.
Our daughter Jennifer was well-dressed, in a borrowed ski jacket and her grandpa’s rain pants when we plumbed the depths of the Clackamas. Where Kipling and company waded 122 years before, where Kipling hooked his first on an eight-ounce bamboo rod.
“The next cast—ah, the pride of it, the regal splendor of it! The thrill that ran down from fingertip to toe! Then the water boiled. He broke for the fly and got it. There remained enough sense in me to give him all he wanted when he jumped not once, but twenty times, before the upstream flight that ran my line out to the last half dozen turns, and I saw the nickeled reel-bar glitter under the thinning green coils. My thumb was burned deep when I strove to stopper the line.”
We fished a couple of slots up high then drifted around a corner into a long run. On the left bank, two anglers stood, shiny in wet green slickers. On river right, the best water was occupied by a jet sled and a pontoon boat.
My friend Rob Crandall, owner of Watertime Outfitters, dropped anchor upstream from the bank anglers. “I don’t want to crowd those guys. They’re fishing too far out, casting right over the good water in front of them, but they don’t know it. We’ll fish here.”
We occupied the middle of the river to drift our jigs into the ‘buckets’ that Crandall knew from experience held the most fish.
Way downstream, Jen’s float plunged. Her rod arced when the fish wallowed at the tailout. She put the backbone to it to keep the fish from running the rapids. And then the guy on the bank cast over her line. His float, jig and weights tangled on Jennifer’s rig, he gave the line slack.
Jennifer stole line bit by bit and the fish took it back, then Jen gained again – the current, the line and the graphite on her side. Crandall dipped the net and six pounds of ocean-fueled rainbow fury was ours.
Crandall clipped Jennifer’s line in a couple of places and freed the other angler’s rig. We basked in the glow of Jen’s first steelhead success.
Rob hooked up next. Bright as a new-minted nickel, the fish broke water downstream and turned a backflip above the surface. A big, wild summer-run, we brought him to shore and turned him back.
The rain never stopped. By two o’clock, water soaked through my hat and ran down the sides of my face.
The last drift was a long run. When the float had almost reached the tail-out, it disappeared. The fish charged toward our boat and allowed me to gain a prodigious amount of line before it battled 20 feet off the rod tip. I saw it then, a slab of silver in the green water. At the bank, we guided the 12-pound wild hen into the net and then back out again to seed the mighty river with her offspring. I was exultant. Each steelhead is as good as the first.
Kipling would have agreed. “My hands were cut and bleeding,” he wrote. “I was dripping with sweat, spangled like a harlequin with scales, water from my waist down, nose peeled by the sun, but utterly, supremely, and consummately happy."
Today, that 15-mile drive from Portland past the loafers and well-dressed women is paved the whole way to the Clack. Generations upon generations of steelhead have passed through the jaws of the great river. By undeserved grace there are still wild steelhead – fish that transcend time and our own generations when we test each other on the water.
Gary Lewis is the author of Fishing Mount Hood Country. Contact Lewis at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.