THE ONLY THING (re steelhead moratorium)

Discussion in 'Steelhead' started by ray helaers, Mar 15, 2004.

  1. ray helaers

    ray helaers Active Member

    Dec 31, 1969
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    Here is an essay I wrote that appeared in NW Fishing Holes sometime back, regarding something of an encounter I sort of had on the Bogey one day. To be honest, I'm still not sure what I was trying to say, but it seems close enough to relevant to what we're discussing here over the last few days that I'd take the opportunity for a little shameless self-promotion.

    I ear some will find it overly ambiguos, not to hot, not too cold, while others might decide it's just right. Like I say; I'm not sure where I am. Generally I tend to side more with BOB: screw those bloodthirsty hillbillies anyway. Then I get to thinking we're all God's chillun, blah blah blah, and I come up with something like this.

    At any rate here it is, for what it's worth. As always, back-pats, critical input, rasberries are all welcome and encouraged. If you do like it, keep in mind it's copyrighted.;)

    © 2001 Ray Helaers

    The place was bright and noisy, full to bursting. The waitresses, the only women in the room, wielded thick china and shrugged off the jokes, clumsy passes, and general air of flirtation, giving as good as they got. What the hell? The tips were piling up, and they knew plenty of these guys, or at least the type: men in the company of men, on the verge of the outdoors, excited and nervous as boys. Harmless enough.

    Outside it was still too dark to see the low, thick sky. The pavement was dry, but the gravel and grass were damp, the potholes full of muddy water. The café was one of the few places with the lights on. In the dim glow of the streetlamps, the small business strip gave the impression of never having projected enormous prosperity. This is a long way from anywhere, plagued with one of the dampest climates on earth, 200 inches of rain a year and a mean temperature around 50 degrees.

    When Europeans first saw this place from the sea, they wouldn’t come ashore out of fear. Never mind the lack of moorage, dangerous reefs, and giant, bone splintering surf, the Devil himself lived in places like this, beneath these dark wet thickets of towering trees.

    Explorers spread fantastic tales of savage, cannibalistic natives waiting in ambush for God’s children under the impenetrable green canopy. Some of the natives actually were proud and effective warriors. They thought they lived in the richest paradise on earth, and pretty much just wanted to be left alone. They had no idea how much. Europeans are nothing if not avid however, especially once they’re squeezed through the American can-do filter, and Satan notwithstanding, those trees were worth something. Thus grows a resource outpost, the logging town, an operational testament to who the real cannibals are.

    We all know how that story has played out; as it ever has. A National Park has sheltered great areas of nearby forest from the saw, but outside the park, the trees are almost gone. A spent forest doesn’t give up much of a living, leaving the down and out locals to covet the pitiful few old-growth trees left and resent any efforts to protect them. It’s easy enough to relate if you think about it. The big companies got while the getting was good, following the old pattern, moving on to mow down the next green swath. They left little behind to rebuild the wrecked landscape or wrecked lives, certainly no severance or community redevelopment packages, more like a snarled “so long, losers” over their shoulders.

    The highway, the sidewalks, the buildings, never much more than they needed to be, had fallen into a state of neglect and disrepair. Several storefronts appeared empty. But the parking lots at the café and the two or three motels were full, driftboats behind every second or third SUV. Warm in my poly-fleece and gore-tex, comfortable in my progressive, disposable-income largess, over decent coffee, a Denver omelet, and home fries I let myself imagine that steelhead might be the only thing keeping this town afloat.

    The landscape had been hosed, but as steelhead rivers go, things could’ve been worse. I ate my breakfast and ruminated over the intersection of angling and socio-ecological history within minutes of what is in fact the last best winter-steelhead system in the lower 48. Thank goodness, or Teddy Roosevelt, for National Parks, if not Euro-American squeamishness over dark dank places. Out in the darkness beyond the café’s neon glow, three rivers drained high, steep coastal mountains, coming together a few miles from the open sea. That winter and spring they together gathered about 20,000 wild steelhead. That’s three or four times more than some other very celebrated drainages. But never mind comparisons; call it a lot of fish.

    “How are your eggs?” I said to Paul.


    “OK,” I said. “Hurry it up. People are leaving.”

    In the truck we decided on a drift, the highway bridge to the hatchery, and stopped at a payphone to call about a shuttle. It makes me nervous, leaving the key up under the wheel well for some anonymous if industrious local, who to this day I have never laid eyes on. It’s always fine, but I still spend a good portion of the day praying, and the sight of the rig at the take-out always comes as a relief.

    The launch was nearly empty, save for an empty rig and one local, baitfishing on foot just below the ramp. Everybody else was either taking their sweet time, or on the lower drifts, or on one of the other rivers. It could’ve been the various combinations coming up in our favor, or maybe they all knew something we didn’t. I didn’t let it bother me too much. Fishing yesterday’s bite can get you in trouble; steelhead are migratory, after all. Sometimes it’s better not to know. Besides, the shuttle was already scheduled.

    The local hooked a fish while we were launching the boat. He was not young, grizzled beard, roughly lined face. His body had been twisted, maybe broken, into a slightly hunched-back posture. He walked with a limp, his left leg stiff at the knee. It didn’t slow him down much, and he landed the steelhead quickly, a bright wild buck in the mid teens. It flopped powerfully on the cobble beach until the old fellow bent over, held the steelhead’s tail against the ground. He took a piece of cobble in his hand and dented the crown of the fish’s skull with a sharp, practiced rap. The big sea trout straightened out, gave a quick shudder, and was still.

    The river hissed smoothly past the beach, breaking over the crest of the riffle below in a muted jangle of chop and foam. A logging truck rumbled over the bridge. Above, a slight breeze moved the tops of the big firs. The sky was low, the color of wet ash. The local straightened as far as he could, holding his fish by the wrist of its tail. He did not acknowledge it to us in any way, or even smile. Paul and I looked at each other. We didn’t say anything.

    I’m never sure what to do when I see someone break the law fishing. Sometimes I make myself believe I’ve witnessed an honest mistake, and offer a helpful warning to the malefactor that he has exposed himself to sanction and fine. Often as not, the accidental criminal will at least feign remorse and appreciation for the information. This didn’t seem like one of those times, and I was not anxious to begin the day with a hostile confrontation. This chap clearly saw this fish as his rightful due, not to mention food, possibly much needed. I didn’t get the impression he considered us brothers of the angle, or that he wanted to entertain a collegial streamside debate on sporting ethic.

    Then I remembered that it was legal to kill a certain number of wild steelhead in this last best place. Only one more to go, I guess. I didn’t like it much, but I had to admit a certain relief that it was really none of my business.

    “Nice fish,” I offered.

    He didn’t take it like spit in the face, exactly, but he didn’t answer. Perhaps he had debated the issue a time or two with similarly outfitted tourists. It was time to finish launching the boat, and to go catch some fish. At least they were here.

    It went well. The river was perfect, a little high but falling, the water clear but showing a distinct tinge of emerald. Paul hooked a fish in the car-body pool, a very big native that ran powerfully and jumped twice before throwing the fly. The hit came right above the eponymous vehicle, a bent and rusted white sedan, broken by bad luck and nature. The fly hadn’t sunk more than a foot, still drifting along the bank, when the fish took it in a large boil. The car-body pool is a straight, long flat, about 200 yards, hemmed by a high bank on one side, willow and tall red alders on the other. Under the gray ceiling it affected something of a large vaulted hall. The steelhead raced and flipped across the smooth stage of water, eliciting spontaneous and vocal appreciation from his private audience.

    Paul’s defeat was total, but short lived. In the very next pool he hooked another fish from the boat, dead-drifting a fly under a bobber on a floating line. I beached the boat so he could play the fish on foot. The steelhead fought a little uncharacteristically, doggedly, with short if powerful jabs and a good deal of wallowing in the shallows. After his previous clock-cleaning, Paul rather overplayed him I thought, but ultimately the fish turned on his side in a few inches of water and I tailed him, handing him off to Paul to do the honors.

    He removed the fly from its jaw, shuffled into slightly deeper water and righted the fish, silver with a slight blush, big though not as big as the lost fish, maybe 16 pounds. The native buck had a very long head, indicating advanced age. Some of the steelhead in this system spend as many as four or five years feeding in the ocean before returning to spawn.

    He held the steelhead in the current, moving it slightly back and forth. The fish exploded and escaped in a frightful froth. Paul stood grinning, water running from his face.

    We came around a bend into a place where the floodplain spread out a little, the channel splitting into braids around a high cobble bar on river right. At the crest of the bar, about 12 feet above the level of the river, sat an enormous spruce log. It lay on its side, sawed off at one end, an eroded root-wad at the other, maybe 25 feet long and nearly ten feet high. We beached the boat under the log to fish the break at the bottom of the bar. Paul got out to fish the head of the riffle, while I stayed in the boat to have some coffee and a sandwich.

    I watched Paul measure out his first few casts, then turned to look upstream. The view was large. The ceiling had started to lift a little in the early afternoon, and I could see the lower slopes climbing into the bank of clouds, the bright green corner of a replanted clear-cut just visible at the line where the mountain disappeared. At the far side of the floodplain a line of tall cottonwoods stood like great skeletal sentries, a windbreak marking a farmer’s pasture. On the other side of the river, the forest came right to the bank, willows giving way to alder, twisted vine maple, and cottonwood, dark spruce, cedar, hemlock, and fir beyond. The only sound or movement came from the river, the soft rumble of water falling to the sea.

    I heard a noise from up on the bar and turned to see the bent figure of our local, shuffling stiff-gaited down the cobble, silhouetted against the lead sky. I was beginning to feel a little haunted.

    He ignored me, went straight to the river’s edge and began to fish, deftly drifting his heavily weighted bait through the slot along the steep bar. He shortly hooked a fish. It jumped right at his feet, and tried to run downstream. He didn’t horse it exactly, but he wasn’t fooling around, and turned the steelhead right above where I sat in the boat, where it jumped again. Soon enough the fish was on its side at his feet.

    The old boy wore hip boots, but he didn’t want to get in the water. He hoisted the steelhead onto the cobble, and grabbed it quickly. With a certain deal of trouble, he crouched down, his bad leg stretched out in front of him, so that he could hold the fish in the water. In a moment, he took his hand from the river, the steelhead gone. He grabbed his rod and stood facing me, giving me essentially the same look he had back at the boat launch.

    “Nice fish,” I said.

    He might have nodded an acknowledgement; I couldn’t quite tell. He turned and hobbled upstream a little way, where he rebaited and began fishing again. Paul had covered the lower run without incident and was back at the boat.

    “There’s our pal,” he said.

    “Yeah. He just released a fish.”

    “No kidding. What’s up with that do you suppose?”

    “Don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he’s some kind of moderate. Maybe his punch card’s full.”

    We got in the boat and took off. Before we dropped over the riffle, I turned to look over my shoulder at the figure hunched over the river, alone in the still, solemn landscape.

    Paul landed two more fish, a very bright, smallish hen that tore him up, and another big, darkish buck. It had been a big day, even for one of the best steelhead streams in the world. I saw six wild fish hooked, five landed, four steelhead hooked on flies from one boat. I didn’t touch a thing. After all this time I get tempted into thinking I’ve got it figured out. I don’t know. Maybe it just wasn’t my day.

    As we came around the final bend, stretching to look, I could see the red roof of the truck, parked in the gravel lot at the top of the ramp.
  2. Mike Etgen

    Mike Etgen Not Quite A Luddite, But Can See One From Here

    Dec 18, 2003
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    Port Orchard, Washington, USA.
    New River Mike

    Ray, you've got the gift. Tell the story, let the reader draw his or her own meaning from the words.
    Great work painting the scene and setting the mood - I could practically see and feel it all.
    Awesome, awesome, awesome...

    :thumb :thumb
  3. Bright Rivers

    Bright Rivers Member

    Mar 5, 2004
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    Bellevue, WA, USA.
    Nice piece Ray. I can empathize with that first steelhead. Just when I'm starting to think that maybe I can write, you take a piece of cobble in your hand and dent the crown of my skull with a sharp, practiced literary rap.

    You oughta share more of these.

  4. Flip

    Flip The dumb kid

    May 20, 2004
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    Lk Stevens WA
    "" whistles with envy"" man you can sure write ray.. its great to read stuff like that. you have a gift, and its also good to see some released wild fish! woot!

  5. Jim Wallace

    Jim Wallace Smells like low tide.

    Jan 23, 2004
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    Cranberry Country...a glorified coastal swamp!
    Awesome story, Ray. I drifted the Bogy for the first time last Wednesday. That "bent and rusted white sedan" is still there. Seems like every river I've drifted has a "car body hole," or at least one or more car bodies on its bank. Hey, I got skunked, too! But it was a glorious day, nonetheless!
  6. ChrisC

    ChrisC Active Member

    Feb 11, 2003
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    Outstanding! Thanks. Feel free to share more of these stories.:thumb
  7. hikepat

    hikepat Patrick

    Jan 17, 2004
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    Des Moines, WA, USA.
    Brought me right along with you well done, well done.

    BOBLAWLESS New Member

    May 5, 2002
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    Port Ludlow, WA, USA.
    A well- crafted story, Ray, very nicely done. Your grammar is impeccable and your use of the language is beautiful. I had a small fishing experience reading it.
    Unfortunately, the powers that be don't often publlish stories such as yours. They prefer "where to go stories" that virtually write themselves: the same thing always, the who, what, where and why, the journalilstic approach to writing. But these stories lack the charm of yours and they don't have the drama or impact of your writing.
    And then the magazines ask what has happened to the sporting litterature such as Roderick Haig-Brown wrote.
    Fact is, it's still around; they just don't publlish it.
    Nice work.
    Bob, the Feeling Very Hasseled Just About Now:hmmm
  9. Roper

    Roper Idiot Savant

    Apr 12, 2004
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    Glenraven Ranch
    Not always...

    ...Bob, have you read Gray's Sporting Journal? It's full of such stories. If you hven't, I'll send you mine when I finish it.


    Good things come to those who wade...