After fishing the John Day Friday, Jeff and I were going to pick up his tent trailer at my house and then head to the Imnaha that night. And yes, that is a lot of driving. It would have been easier and simpler to simply fish the Imnaha for three days, but Jeff had not fished the John Day yet and I wanted to go back. By the time we got to my house my resolve to drive to the Imnaha that night was weakening quickly. Sleeping in my nice warm bed was sounding inviting. On the drive back I kept waiting to hear Jeff suggest such an idea. When we stopped at my house to pick up his tent trailer we found my Ford Explorer had some strange Uhaul plug on it instead of a standard 4 prong plug. That settled it, we were sleeping in our own beds that night.
Luckily Wal-mart is open late and after a run to town for a new plug I wired it into the Explorer with the assistance of a flashlight. We were all set for an early morning departure.
With the weather beginning to change and pulling the trailer it took a little longer to get to the Imnaha than usual. I was OK with that because it was pretty cold in the morning. By the time we got to the river and set up the tent trailer, the sun was out and it felt pretty good outside. There was no doubt that it was getting to be winter, but we both overdressed for walking down the trail.
The river was full of Chinook Salmon. I don’t think there was a suitable gravel bed in the lower 5 miles of the river that did not have a redd in it with a salmon sitting near by. At one large tailout we could see at least half a dozen salmon on the redd. There also seemed to be a few steelhead sitting behind the redds waiting for some energy packed eggs to come floating down to them. Jeff and I watched for some time and the steelhead would get run off periodically by the salmon only to make a big circle and reposition themselves down stream of the spawning fish once again.
I have watched rainbows and bull trout trail spawning salmon on the Wenaha in the summer time and now watching the steelhead pick up some eggs I began to think about what a major loss of nutrients decimated salmon runs have been to the rivers. I can only imagine that when salmon runs were plentiful the resident rainbows and bull trout probably grew much faster and bigger. Not only because of the nutrient rich eggs, but also because the dead salmon will feed many insects and other organisms that the resident fish rely on for food the rest of the year. A salmon contains a lot of energy for an ecosystem.
After an hour or two of fishing Jeff and I were about a mile and a half downstream of the parking area. He was fishing a deep run about a quarter mile downstream of me. I could see him in the distance, a small pawn among the large boulders and giant rock cliffs of the canyon. I was working a piece of water I often walked past. Similar to many spots on the river, there was a deep seem of water where the river ran into a rock wall and excavated a nice holding area for a steelhead or two. I was nearing the bottom end of this water where the gravel bed begins to slope up and the water gets shallower.
I made a cast that bounced my flies off the rock wall on the far side of the river and then turned to walk downstream a little ways. I will often do this, when I think I have given each fish in a holding area ample opportunity to demolish my flies, I will cast into the good water while I wade down stream a little ways. And more than once as I am wading downstream and my flies are drifting through the deep slot or run or pool, my line goes tight and I instinctively set the hook to discover if it is a rock or a fish. Today it was a fish. It always surprises me though. I may have cast to that spot 10 times already. I may have dead drifted it, swung through it, and stripped my flies through it with no reaction. But then as I carelessly cast and begin to wade, then a fish decides my flies are worthy of eating. Sometimes reason is not adequate to explain the action or inaction of fish.
I landed a beautiful wild hen. Where there is one there is often another so I cast again and worked the slot a little more. And indeed there was a second steelhead. This fish was a bit trickier though. After making a line ripping run up stream, the fish turned and seemed to zero in on me with even greater speed. I back pedaled as fast as I could, nearly falling in the river in the process but the steelhead had out maneuvered me.
A little while after that I was walking along the edge of the river and one of my feet went out from under me. I instinctively let my rod go hoping it would land safely away from me as it has so many times. I whacked my elbow good, but was ok. My rod was ok, but the handle on my reel hit a rock and got busted. I swore a little but was glad that my rod survived the fall. No more than ten feet from where I just fell, I fell a second time. This time my rod was broke in half in the butt section. I usually don’t fall that often, but the Imnaha is full of big slick rocks.
This is the fifth rod the Imnaha has claimed. Last year I had picked up a used St. Criox 7 weight that I was using for steelhead. Jeff and I were floating the roadless section in my pontoon boats. At one point I turned around to grab my rod out of the rod holder and it wasn’t there. It had fallen into the river. On that same trip Jeff broke his 7 weight and lost the top half of a 5 weight out of his pack somewhere on the trail. After losing my rod last year I had built both Jeff and I new 7 weights. I had just busted mine and my wife had busted Jeff’s into three pieces when she was using it in September. The Imnaha is hard on a lot of things, including rods.
After breaking my rod, Jeff and I headed back to camp. Will and Cody had come to the Imnaha again and we enjoyed some good food, a warm fire, and some good company.
In the morning everything was iced up or frosted over. Winter was coming. In trying to repay Will and Cody for their generous food and Jeff for many other trips of playing camp cook I made breakfast for everyone. And no it was not instant oatmeal. I actually think I surprised Jeff a bit. Jeff and I have been fishing together for a lot of years and I have always kept it pretty simple (bagels, instant oatmeal, trail mix, jerky).
I did bring a back up rod. Last winter I bought two sets of 6 weight blanks as well and had finished them earlier in the summer so my kids would have heavy enough rods to land a steelhead on. I had not had much of a chance to use the 6 weights yet. I had taken them on a few trips into Joseph Creek, but that was mainly fishing dries. The 6 weight I brought with me was a Rainshadow RX8 that was 9’ long. My 7 weight that I had fallen in love with was a Rainshadow RX8+ that was 9 ½’ long. The RX8 6 weight performed surprisingly well. I could roll cast almost as far with it as I could with the other. It took a little more effort and perfect timing, but it performed admirably.
Jeff was feeling a bit worn down and decided to join me on the river a little later. I headed downstream to fish. There were some other people fishing the first few spots so I kept going downstream. The first good pool that I usually fish wasn’t taken so I stopped there. This is one of those spots that I always fish, but don’t catch fish in that often.
It is very deep and pretty slow. I tend to like spots that are moderately deep and with a little more current. I will often fish through deep slow pools faster than I probably should. I hate to fish them super thoroughly only to catch nothing. If there is plenty of open water, my strategy is usually to put my flies in front of as many fish in as many different holding spots as possible. I view steelhead fishing a little like a statistics game. The longer I fish the more water I get to cover, the more water I cover the more my flies will be in front of fish, and the more fish you put your flies in front of, the more fish you are going to catch. This means I may cover 4 miles of water in a day (not a November day though, they are too short).
Today I didn’t feel like rushing though. Perhaps it was because I sat around camp cooking breakfast and enjoying the company of friends rather than simply heating up some oatmeal and hitting the water. “Today,” I thought, “I know there are fish in this spot and I am going to catch a fish out of this spot no matter how long it takes.” I fished the main current of the pool like I usually do and as usual I did not catch a fish from this spot.
Rather than move on, I tried to run my flies through each section of the pool. Fall steelheading is beginning to turn into Winter steelheading which means fish begin to move less and less distance to gobble a fly. Learning from my trip to the John Day two days earlier I also tried not to discount the tail end of the pool like I usually do. And eventually I was rewarded with one, then two, and then three steelhead from this pool. That was a great start to the beginning of winter steelheading season.
On our way out of the Imnaha Canyon at dark, the snow began. It did not stop all the way home. Winter is here.