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THE RISE OF STEEL
The broadleaf ferns held water like a fresh new kitchen sponge as I squeezed my way down a narrow elk trail in search of the sounds of running water up ahead. I was only 100 yards off the trails end where I had parked my truck, and already I was soaked through from armpit to mid-thigh. 'Should have worn my waders", I thought as I glanced down at the water beaded and running down my hip-boots. But I knew that it was forecast to be in the mid 70's by noon, so waders would not have been the way to go in the long haul. It was a cool 50 degrees and a bluebird day for late September on the Olympic peninsula. Today I was on the hunt for the headwaters of the East fork of the Satsop River, in search of Sea-run Cutthroat. I had taken a fat Blacktail doe with my bow earlier in the week; so with my archery tag filled the rest of the fall would be spent carrying the 7 feet of glass rod now held in my hand. And although the vast majority of my fishing is catch-and-release, sea-run cuts are my favorite eating fish. So with hopes of an evening meal of trout, I was stalking my favorite fall waters with a newly minted 3 weight glass rod. With the Upper Satsop being only 8-to-12 foot wide and mostly pocket water, the rod would be perfect for side-arming casts around rainforest vegetation.
As I approached the stream, the ferns gave way to the moss covered raised roots of the surrounding Fir trees and the smell of the mulch-like black soil beneath the moss was strong.. Everything seems accentuated once you get near water within the rainforest. The smell of elk was strong as I stepped out into an opening, and I glanced over just in time to see the rump of an elk slowly step off into the ferns on the far side of the stream and disappear. I stood for a moment listening to the herd slowly move off downstream, seemingly unimpressed by my existence. Yet even as the sound of their movement faded into the background noise of the stream, the strong scent of their passing hung heavily in the air. The stream edge was a jump down from the high-water mark and I tried to keep things quiet as I made my way down to the gravel. Pausing to rig up and look over the first pool upstream, I tied on a size #12 Satsop Stone pattern and put myself into position to fish the entire pool without moving. On my third cast my fly was slammed with gusto by a hungry wild fish and moment later I was dropping a 14 inch cutthroat into my creel. A great start; now just find that fish's twin and I would have the dinner I was looking for.
Moving up to the larger pool above me, I paused to dry and dress my fly when I noticed something in the water near the head of the run. The water was clear and only about 3 feet deep in the middle of the run. Then there it was again. A large fish came up from the bottom like it was inspecting something floating by, and then sank back down to the bottom. It was a BIG fish. Not being able to cast standing due to overhead vegetation, I eased down to my knees in the water where I stood bringing the cool Olympic water up over my knees where it swirled around my creel that hung in the water at my hip. While keeping my rod low at about a side-arm position I hook-cast the pattern to the head of the pool. I could see the shadow of the fish but it didn't move as my fly approached. When the current began to take my fly off of its intended drift, I began to lift my line which added a bit of unintentional drag to the fly as it swung below the fish. It was at that very moment the big fish surged and came to the top, took the fly and rolled in a boil on the surface. I lifted my rod to set the hook and my world exploded. A mere ten feet in front of me and at nearly eye level as I knelt there in the water, a 3 foot long fish exploded out of the water! Not one…not two…but 3 times in a row! Each time leaving the water while twisting in mid-air and "slapping" down hard on the surface. After the third jump my mind caught up with the moment and I realized that this was not a larger sea-run cutthroat. I knew at that moment that it was a steelhead. I also knew that the steady pull of an anchored fish holding the bottom in front of me now was only there out of sheer luck, since I had done literally noting after the hook-set to either retain or lose that fish. I just knelt there wide-eyed throughout, along for the ride in all of its shock and amazement.
After a few moments of applying back-and-forth side pressure, the headshakes began and he came back to the surface. This time the tactic was a steady rolling boil in the middle of the pool. Hanging on for dear life, it took two more similar runs before he finally began to tire. Then suddenly I was holding my rod high as the large fish drifted in the current downstream to my knees where I was able to tail it at last. Lifting the fish from the water, it was beautiful. Obviously having been in the river for quite a while, it had taken on the dark smoky colors of a classic rainbow. Gone were the silvers and chromes of the sea. He was a wild fish with perfect fins all around. I took a moment to measure it on my rod, which later proved it to be about 34" in length, and then focused for a bit on reviving the fish before it kicked smoothly from my hand taking station once again. I stood and gathered myself and moving slowly up the pool on the gravel to find that he was the only one. An odd lone holdover from the wild summer run, and a true gift that I had been privileged to enjoy. Taking several more nice fish through the day, I was able to creel another fat Cutthroat in the 14 inch range and left the stream with far more than that I had arrived with.
Now sitting at my tying bench 21 years later with that same little Lamiglass Firecane rod across my lap, it all comes back as if it had just happened this morning. I can once again smell the passing of the elk, feel the cold clear water on my legs and see that fish turn and rise towards my fly.