Whip Finish


Ralph Long - November 21, 2011

I pulled the Jeep into the small Gravel parking area below the Skookumchuck Reservoir and shut off the engine. It was an odd weekday off so at this point it appeared I had the river to myself. A crisp clear late February morning which was heavily frosted. The field adjacent to the stream was blanketed with a 10 foot high layer of fog that was rising from the frost covered ground as the morning's sun began to warm the air. I was there hoping to dredge the pools for some sea-run Cutthroat and possibly a steelhead if luck was on my side. The crowds had been pounding this stretch of water for the past few weeks, which was a reason for me avoiding it during that period. So my hope was for a slower weekday morning and a change to catch the last remnants of the run. Rigging at the back of the Cherokee, the tailgate closed much louder than expected in the morning air as the sound echoed across the valley.

I was fishing a fairly light 9' 6wt setup and a sink-tip line. On the terminal end of the line was 6ft of Maxima Chameleon mono, and a tandem nymph rig. The top nymph was a heavily weighted #10 wooly worm tied with a yellow abdomen & dark brown palmered hackle, while the trail nymph was a #14 Bead-head Hare's Ear. It was my standard starting rig for nymphing that stretch of water. Today I would be tight-line nymphing and basically dragging my flies through the heads of the smallish waters deeper pools and riffles. Looking upstream towards the dam, I decided to skip the access pools right near the parking area, and head around the first bend to begin. 

Stepping into the winter water had a good feeling to it on this particular morning and I was sure that having the water to myself on the tail end of a run should prove to be a good thing. On the first pool, my 2nd cast brought a light strike but no hook-up. Three tries later and I knelt admiring a beautiful wild sea-run Cutt of a hefty 16 inches. A great start to a promising morning. But as luck would have it, I was quickly ¼ mile downstream and nothing to show for it but 3-4 whitefish. A fish that while it's always fun to catch, is also most often disappointing because one convinces himself that the lowly whitefish beat an otherwise impressive trout or steelhead to the hook. Or so we like to think.

The next pool coming up was always a good one for me though, so I still had high hopes. The tip of my rod kept pace with the flies as they swept through a channel formed by 2 smallish midstream boulders, when the strike came. I lifted the rod sharply and instantly felt the fish. A nice fish! Yet in about 2 minutes I was able to spy the same flash as before bouncing around on the end of my line. Another whitefish, albeit it a sizeable one this time. It was at least a nice fight and I admired the 12" fish as it made yet another run for the head of the hole.  I had really thought it to be a Cutthroat when first hooked. But at least it was a fish I thought, as I worked my way down to the next promising stretch of water below. Again no trout, yet even as I lamented that fact another hard strike and another fat whitefish came to the net.

I stood looking over the water and debated heading back towards the truck. I had come with other fish in mind, but try as I may it was still nice to be on the water landing fish, even if they were whitefish. While I acknowledged my disappointment, I was unable to pull myself away from the thought of catching just a few more of them. I stepped downstream and quickly picked up 3 more fish, as I eyed up the next pool. I eased up to the head of it, and thought that for sure there should be a nice group of whitefish holding in this section as well. As I drifted my nymphs through the head of the pool I watched as my line made a quick switch back toward me as it hit the near-side eddy, when it suddenly stopped with a heavy jolt. Setting the hook hard, that familiar throb of a heavy fish was a welcome feeling. Yet this was not a cutthroat. Once experienced, you will never forget the feel of a steelhead upon hookset. Quickly the small stream exploded as a near 3 foot fish did its level best to shake that wooly-worm in the 12ft wide pool. With the light gear I was fishing, I was careful not to press too hard, and soon I was stumbling downstream along the bank as the fish slashed its way through 30yds of shallows and then went for the bottom in a long slow pool. That pool was my chance to gain the upper hand, which was quickly the case. Kneeling in the mud and grass of the shoreline I admired the wild fish as I accounted for all of its fins. It was a beautiful freshly minted sample of a wild steelhead. I smiled as it slipped from my hands and with a quick slap of the tail, pulled out of my grip on its own power.

As I stood there still in a place of adrenaline and the feeling of success, I chuckled to myself about finally finding a steelhead. Where I as first frustrated with the water being devoid of anything but whitefish, I soon continued to fish seemingly in pursuit of nothing but those silvery cousins. Several times nearly quitting for the day, but hitting just "one more" hole hoping to hook another of those little bottle-nosed fish. Though the first fish had been a nice wild Cutthroat, and my last fish had been an impressive wild Steelhead, the rest of the water had been carried on the fins of Whitefish. I tipped my hat in thanks to them as I reeled in my line and snipped off my nymphs.

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