Never Seduced by Alders Again

Posted on June 24, 2015

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Here in Seattle, you quickly learn how the short, steep rivers are controlled by the rain and snow in the mountains. If you want first-hand experience of the impact of our current climate, it’s pretty easy to take a walk on a high-mountain stream and compare it to previous years. It’s one thing to know it’s going to be bad when you look to the hills day after day, month after month and see no snow building in them. It’s another to wet wade streams during what would normally still be ski season. Less than 20 years ago, Mt. Baker ski area set a world record with 1140” of snow (~100’!). This year, they did not open. Rivers I have never been able to cross, I wet-waded on opening day.

Finding fish is always hard as the season progresses. First, there is the poaching. The crackers who camp along the river think no more about fish as a resource than they do about crapping in the middle of the trail. I regularly wade past the campsites and parties, pulling the empties out of the rivers and tossing them back into the revelry. Last week I came across a commercial fish trap staked out by a campsite. I didn’t even know such things existed. And I make it a point to never, ever catch a fish with an audience, nor to own up to catching any at all if asked. The second issue is that, even in good years, eventually the water runs out and you have to find the fish. With the hot weather, this year started with a surfeit of campers and a deficit of water, so the fish were coy right from the start.

That said, two of the best days of fishing I have ever had have been in droughts, on triple-digit, cloudless days, and I’ve learned to use these conditions to advantage. Low water creates a high-mountain trout nirvana. It’s just finding those conditions where all of the fish have congregated as fat, dumb, and unrepentant as Republican congressmen. Like congressmen, these trout can never get enough and once you find them, they will roll their fat white bellies up to whatever free meal may float by.

The rules for prospecting in our mountain streams are simple; the fish are all stoppered in the system by impassible falls and it’s an algebraic intersection of where the water is still cold enough but has collected enough flow to support the fish. Go upstream until the water is too skinny to fish. Go back to the last tributary and fish the hole at the juncture using attractor patterns like, oh a Muddler or a Hornberg. Leapfrog downstream until you find the first big fish. If you want to get technical at this point you may, but it probably isn’t necessary or I wouldn’t be so in love with this.

Last year, I started exploring one of the local rivers in Steven’s Pass, something I was too stupid or lazy to do when I lived at the base of it and worked from home. Now, around the Solstice, if I leave work early and drive hard I can get in a couple of hours of fishing, so it’s a piecemeal endeavor to work the river. Last year, I walked right up to a likely spot, in front of a campsite no less, and promptly pulled out a 12” and a 17” fish. So this year I started at that spot to no avail. And several others with the same success, if you don’t count the little fellers who picked up my fly on the backcast and got unceremoniously tossed into the woods before I could even see them. You never expect a 3″ fish to take a 2″ fly.

That first frustrating afternoon lead to an obsession. I have much “better” things I should be doing than fishing these days, but I’m not sure I have anything more important to do. In fact the more I do all of the adult things I’m supposed to be doing, the more important fishing becomes. I got a second chance to take off after a long day of work and I brought my friend Beth along with me. The plan was simple, drive to where the river left the road, as far from people as I could get, and then apply the search from there. She dropped me off at a tributary and the agreed plan was that I would “fish until dark and then be on the road walking downstream somewhere south of my put in.” Such a simple plan, I tossed my cell phone in the car and headed into the stream. Alas,I was a bit farther from the river than I had anticipated. After passing through a campsite with a jolly inhabitant who shared some beer and promised he would pick up the latest copy of FFJ, the trib took a left and started paralleling where I thought the river should be, so I hopped onto an orthogonal elk path, which quickly took me to a beaver pond, which after much detouring and consternation finally took me the river.

I know every rock has a 4” trout behind it. But I’m looking for the adult population, and so I put a muddler on, hoping to keep the small fish off and only find the big ones. And I’m very selective. It has to be a riffle, going into a pool with whitewater, preferably at the intersection of an incoming tributary. I might make 6-10 casts and move 50 to 200 yards to the next spot. I pass by a lot of trouty looking water, but I know they will not be there in these conditions. Or rather, I know if there are fish here, I’ll find them in the oxygenated pools first. Then I can explore the secondary water.

I don’t have all of the empirical evidence I need to be sure, but at some point I began to wonder if beer and wading weren’t the chocolate-and-peanut-butter combination they first appear to be. As I stumbled along, I was definitely sure the guy I’d met at the campsite I’d passed through was not actually my friend.

I was moving too fast to switch flies, and thinking that rather than waders I should’ve put on Tivas so I could run down the stones where the river used to flow. The river was so reduced the water reminded me of pocket fishing for brookies in the white mountains.  Dappling flies into tiny buckets when I should be swinging over run after run. I was about a mile downstream when the tributary I was originally following finally joined the river, and sure enough I caught a 10-12” beauty right there, but unfortunately he ran my line 360 degrees around a rock and cut through it as surely as my broken tooth slices dental floss. Just then, I could see alpenglow on the mountains both up and downstream of me, and I thought of snapping a picture, but I changed flies instead. Maybe a skater will work on the last casts, I thought. Pictures of mountains denuded of snow depress me anyway.

I wish to say that fishing from there picked up, as I felt more optimistic (or perhaps desperate) about each run than the last. While I kept contemplating heading out, it also seemed wise to stay on the river as long as possible because covering ground was easy here on the bleached rocks. Also, right at dusk a hatch happened that brought a fish out from behind every rock. I wanted to wait as long as possible and see if I could witness at least one big splash. I did not.

As far from people as I was, all evening I had that feeling I was being watched. Sometime in the gloaming, I began to hear rocks tumble down the bank behind me. At first I thought it was simply from erosion, but it kept pace with me. It was probably just a coyote or bull elk who was curious about who was in their territory. Or, it could be an amorous Sasquatch. It was definitely starting to creep me out when I looked downstream, decided I could not make the next hole and that I should head out. We had driven over a small rise and I had put in on the far side of it. For a while, I had been looking at the wall of trees on the slope on the other side of the river and was disinclined to tackle it, hoping to pass it by. When I got to a stand of well-spaced alders, I thought “That should be easy to walk through,” and crossed over.

In my defense, where I’m from in the East, the hardwoods make easy walking. In the West, they make lots of room for things like salmon berries, devil’s club, blackberries, and vine maple to grow. All of which have evolved thorns just for this particular moment in time when I needed to traverse through them. As soon as I stepped into them it was full dark. The brush was over my head, and so thick I could not see the downed trees at my feet. It was like that scene in the Right Stuff where the guy ejects into the maintenance hangar and is stumbling around in the dark over all of the strapped down gear. Except when Tom Wolfe tells it, it’s funny. I grabbed things in the dark I would never touch in the daylight and promptly decided leather gloves were going to be in my 10 essentials the very next trip out. Then I decided maybe some of those chain mail shark gloves. Then I decided it would’ve been brilliant if I had broken my pole down before entering the 7th Circle and stopped to do that. Then I decided that had been a brilliant decision, because the next step I dropped 6’ into a stream bed. This is how waders get ruined. While I was down there, I also took out my headlamp. I thought about just crawling out, but it’s just not in me, so up I stood and onward I went.

There is somewhat of an art to finding the path of least resistance while also not deviating from the direction you need to go. Pretty much I kept the dark of the hill in front of me and the light of the river behind. After a good 20 minutes of swearing I would never, ever be seduced by an alder forest again I was pleased to hit my first cedar. Unfortunately, it was at the base of the 45 degree slope I had been trying to avoid. In skiing we say “the best line is the one you are standing on top of.” Or, in this case, the bottom of. Resting was really not an option, with not even a place to sit and with somebody above me driving back and forth trying to find me. There being nothing to it, up I went, sliding in my flat, felt-soled shoes on the 6” of duff and detritus on the forest floor. Somewhere along the way, my shorts had started to slide down off my ass inside my waders. Imagine, if you will, Gumby, with gang-banger pants, on roller skates, in the woods, in the dark, on a steep hill. The only difference is now the logs I have to go over are 4’ tall. This was getting to be really long night.

I was just checking all of my assumptions to see if there was any possible way I could’ve gotten disoriented, when I heard my muffler-challenged car drive by above. I really should fix that thing, but out here in the valley, the meth addicts use battery-operated Sawzalls and cut the catalytic converters out of your car to recycle the platinum out of them. I figure if I’m going to support their habit, it will be with an old muffler and not a new one.

While I was never in any danger I had been out of beer for a while, and I when I finally got to the road, I had been bushwhacking steadily for close to an hour and was as tired as any time I’ve ever come out of the backcounty skiing. I promised myself that I would never do that again. Then I carefully crouched down and marked the road so I could find the spot, just in case. Turns out, I was on the very peak of the hill. Sigh. I turned and started walking downstream as I had promised, and about 10 minutes later Beth showed up. I was two full road miles from my put-in 3 hours ago. If you discount the hour or so of bushwhacking in and out, that is some serious river walking.

As I was divesting myself of my gear and unpantsing myself, Beth asked how long she should’ve kept looking for me.

“Until you found me,” I said.

“What if something had gone wrong?” she asked.

“What could possibly go wrong?” I answered.

We headed down to the Index Distillery and Brewery, kicked the raccoons away from the back door, let the cat in, and called upstairs to Charles to come pour us a beer. I pulled out a map and started looking for tributaries. For, while I found not fish, neither did I find fishermen, and that is all I need to keep exploring.

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Representing the Imp!

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Posted in: Fly Fishing