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Poor Decisions and Leaking Waders

David Kirkpatrick

I can’t remember whose idea it was to go fishing on Halloween on a particularly cold fall day, but after some handwritten directions and a general “there may be some fish around” from the fly shop, we decided to give it a try. Handwritten directions were necessary because there was no way to navigate where private land ended and public land began without using landmarks (at the old red barn turn left).

When we pulled up to the river, I could see I was gonna have to make a decision. The river split and the best run was on the far side, requiring a wade across to the island in the middle. Not usually a problem, but for the pinhole I knew was somewhere in the groin area of my waders. I sat staring at the 42 degree water not even aware of conversation around me and others putting their waders on.

Once my decision had been made I didn’t hesitate. While everyone else was layering up, I strip down completely naked. To their credit, no one ever asked me why I was standing beside a cold river stark naked at the end of October, they just waited to see what would happen next. Once naked, I hoisted all my gear (waders included) over my head and began the waist deep wade to the other side. Once I made it to the other side I simultaneously became aware of two things. First, everyone was laughing hysterically and second, I was being filmed. The fact the lower half of my body was completely numb wasn’t registering for some reason. My plan had been to stay dry by not wading waist deep up to where I knew the leak was. In theory, I could then avoid wading that deep the rest of the day and stay dry, but shivering violently now I began to question the prudence of that decision.

Fully clothed once again, I strung up my rod nonchalantly and tied on a #16 orange stimulator with a pheasant tail dropper. This was perhaps the last chance I would have at catching a fish on a dry that season and I intended to take full advantage. It did not take long to get the first rise, a beautiful 13 inch native cutthroat. A few minutes later, my stimulator disappeared with no warning. I set and felt ferocious headshakes, followed by an impressive aerial display.

As I walked further down river, I found a likely spot on the other side of the river. Wading that deep was out of the question for obvious reasons, so a long cast with a hard upstream mend would be required to tuck the fly in to the soft spot right behind the rock. As I let my first cast go, I knew it wasn’t going to get the job done. To my everlasting surprise, a fish came out of the water from where I had been trying to cast to and caught my fly mid-air. As it landed it hooked itself, though I don’t remember much of what happened next. The image of that fish going airborne for my fly is forever etched in my memory, though.  

This was the last time I fished that season, partly because I got sick from my naked wading experiment (a consequence that didn’t merit a consideration in my decision making paradigm) and partly because I was going to school full time and working 30 hours a week, so there wasn’t a lot of time. Writing this half a decade later and finding myself just getting back from a fishing trip that involved camping in the snow, I’m pleased to discover not much has changed in five years.


David Kirkpatrick

I have been more contemplative than usual with the approaching fall steelhead run. The greater Oregon area has seen a drastic decline in native steelhead populations, with no indications things are going to get better. The Willamette system had a return of 500 fish this year. This is a system that averaged 10,000 fish runs in a not too distant past. Things are not much better looking over to the Deschutes and other famous steelhead water in Oregon. 

It's with this mindset that I'm processing what has been the best July and early August on my home water for steelhead. More than ever I am grateful my home water has managed to thrive in tough conditions. These fish are truly a marvel, traveling halfway around the world throughout their lives and they are too easily taken for granted. I am as guilty as anyone of this, but recent events have changed my perspective and caused me to see each steelhead as something to be thankful for. 

The first fish came in a usual honey hole for us. The strength of these fish is shocking, especially this early in the year. These are fish that were in the ocean just a week or two ago. They are chrome and still have their sea weight on them. This fish pulled me down through the tailout hard and forced me and my buddy to give chase. We managed to land him in some slack water and stood their gawking at this stupendous 28.5" fish. A hatchery fish no less, so after a quick bonking we had him on the stringer and were back at it. We usually keep hatchery fish because that's what they're for. And because I thoroughly enjoy steelhead tacos. 

This is also a fun time of year because there are Chinook salmon in the river that have been known to grab flies occasionally. Doing a float after work one day, I talked to a friend who was fishing from the bank. We anchored downriver a ways, but still in sight of him. After fishing our hole out, we went back to the boat for a beer. It was then we noticed our friend on the bank doubled over with what looked like (even 100 yards away) like a monster. He had no net and gear anglers were downriver from him and afforded no help. We sat there watching him for 15 minutes and eventually decided it must be a salmon. Assuming the hook would bend out shortly, we pushed off and rowed down river.

That night we get a text message of him with a beautiful native salmon. He had caught this fish on an 8 weight that had apparently broke as he was pulling it to shore. He had grabbed the line and got a grip on the fish's tail before it could get away. If this story sounds ridiculous, my brother in law thought the same thing while I'm relaying this story to him. The next day, however, we are on the water at first light and we see him fishing the same spot, but with a spinning rod. "Dude, did you see that salmon I caught last night!? It broke my rod and I don't have another 8 weight so I have to wait for the company to ship me a replacement!"

This is also a great time of year to take people new to fly fishing and try to get them into their first steelhead on the fly. People truly have priceless reactions to their first steelhead on the fly. A friend's uncle got pulled so hard it put him on his butt. He had to sit there helplessly while the fish shot out of the water higher than I've ever seen a steelhead jump. As he's trying to get tight to it, the fish runs up river and performs the 2nd highest jump I've ever seen from a steelhead, shaking the fly in the process. Another friend landed his first steelhead and just stood staring at it repeating "Holy sh**!!" 


The most memorable ones to me though are the ones that get away. On a particularly hot and exhausting day I come tight to a fish that I though felt heavy. They all feel heavy at first, but I thought this one might be different. It didn't do much when I hooked it giving Ben time to run back to the boat and grab the net. It had been a couple minutes of this fish probably not realizing it was hooked when it finally got the picture. I stood there stupidly with line flying off my reel for several seconds before Ben said "dude, most of your backing is gone." That seemed to pull us into action and he ran back to the boat to pull anchor and I ran downstream after the fish. The sweet spot of this run is about in the middle of the tailout and occasionally a hot fish will take you through the tail out into the minor white water below. I chased this fish farther than I had chased any other down into this white water knowing time was against me. I look back and see Ben in the boat just coming around the corner and only 30 seconds or so away. I move to get into better position and the line goes slack. We both saw it at the same time and I imagine the light went out of my eyes much the same as it did in his.   

We are still a month away from what is usually "prime time" here, leaving me to wonder if the rest of the season will finish as good as it has started. I feel partially guilty about this knowing the predicament many other steelhead rivers are in, but not guilty enough to stop fishing or to be more liberal with sharing my favorite spots. 




David Kirkpatrick

Every year Southern Oregon gets a long, sustained hatch of Pteronarcys Californica or giant stonefly. These salmonflies are the largest members of the stonefly family and generally come off consistently somewhere between the end of May to the middle of June. Every year it's a large, glorious event that draws people from all over to throw big bugs at rising trout. Not as many people as you would think though, given the popularity of the hatch. More famous rivers in Central Oregon tend to draw more crowds, so it is occasionally possible to have sections of river to yourself. It is a great thing (especially after a long winter) to have uncomplicated dry fly fishing and eager trout that are mostly where they're supposed to be and will mostly rise to your fly. This year, however, has been noticeably different than any other hatch I've experienced on my home water. 

It started in late May rowing down the river with my dad. The hatch was late this year because of high water and colder than usual temps, but I figured there would be some fish looking up. I had just released a small native cutthroat, when I looked up and saw a slurp against the bank under a tree. The cast and drift would be tricky, I would have to place the bug perfectly about 15 feet above where the fish rose so it could float under the tree to where the fish was rising. I made my cast, just good enough, and was halfway through saying "that's the drift" when the fish smashed my fly. The next thing I remember is line screaming off the reel and thinking "what is the fish doing on the other side of the river?" After about 10 minutes of just barely maintaining my composure (and two attempts at anchoring and netting the fish) we had him in the net. A 22 inch native cutthroat and my personal best for this river. For the rest of the trip, I would randomly start laughing or just say "wow" in various tones of excitement whenever I would think of that fish. 

A few days later I was rowing a friend down the same stretch of river. We had sighted a few fish rising under trees, so I was keeping the boat close to the trees so he could get the best cast possible. Right as we came under a tree, he set on what looked to be a nice 12-14 inch fish. The problem was that his set had been just barely to the outside of the boat, placing rod tip and line in a tree. Before fish or fisherman had a chance to react, the line threaded over a branch and created a pulley system. The fish was pulled from the water and up into the tree in a slow, dangling way that is difficult to describe. My mind went blank as the fish began it's ascension, apparently having difficulty processing what I was seeing. At the top of the branch the fish flipped over and fell at least 8 feet back into the water. I have no recollection of whether we landed the fish after that or it came off or whatever. We were just laughing hysterically at what we had witnessed. 

Later that week I convinced my friend who was skeptical of fishing this section when the "holy water" up higher was producing double digit days in a matter of hours. The weather was overcast that day though, and usually this section of river has a few early run summer steelhead in it that will occasionally look up in these conditions. We anchored at the first run and he fished up towards the head and I fished down towards the tail. After missing a few fish, I hear a reel start screaming and look over to see a stupendous chromer come crashing out of the water followed by my buddy with a completely dumbfounded look on his face. This fish was already down to the tail of the run on a 4 weight rod, so we thought we were going to have to get in the boat and chase him. After not so gracefully forcing myself into the boat, he gets the fish stopped and in slower water. Net in hand I jump out and go down river to where he is playing the fish. With the fish in the net we both just looked at each other in amazement, hardly believing what we were seeing. My arms were covered in goosebumps. The fish was 23 inches and looked like it had traveled to the upper river from the ocean in a matter of days. "Good call" he said as we watched the fish swim away. 

On what turned out to be the last day of the season for me, I was floating with my friend Ben who had just landed a beautiful cutthroat at the last good run before the takeout. We were sharing high fives and fist bumps when I felt my phone vibrate. My buddy Chris texted me saying something to the effect of I was about to lose control of my bowel functions. Chris had put in earlier that day and they had fished a different section of river. "Send me the picture" I said. What I saw was stupefying. By far, the biggest and fattest trout I had ever seen in this river. I showed Ben who just sat down in silence. I still can't describe exactly what emotion I felt then, but I realized this moment was a microcosm of the hatch this year. equal parts exciting, hilarious, maddening and unbelievable.