Leaning across my wife and daughter to peer out the window during our plane's descent, I come to several conclusions. It must be very cold outside, because the mountain presenting itself to the west is covered in snow; a couple jack and cokes can nearly erase a four hour flight; and traveling across country with a one year old in tow is possible, as evidenced by the crumpled up lion and giraffe stickers barely gripping the chilled window of the cabin.
e made it... car seat, stroller, fly rods and all. We have cut the cord on the weight of our "real world" to spend a week in Portland, Oregon visiting my parents, who have recently made the semi permanent relocation to this area on a craft beer tasting/ southern hipster rebirth/ you only live once kind of whim. It is an odd feeling descending through the clouds to catch your first glimpse of a new landscape. It looks as expected, but probably more beautiful than that. You have spent so much time planning and thinking of the trip, and as you get closer to the true human experience, it is impossible to deny the gravity of real world that lies beneath. Real people with real jobs live here. But this is our paradise for seven days, and it will be pure ecstasy. Like a bug landed on a weary human hand, after being shaken falls to the earth only a couple feet away, and although seemingly close, it is a world away…
My wife and I have both taken the next six business days off and are embarked on the longest vacation since the birth of our daughter just over a year earlier. The plans are tentatively set and consist of a steelheading trip on the Sandy, a few days exploring the Cascades near Mt. Hood, a day on the Pacific coast, and lots of delicious beer. I text my Mom, and as we nab the last of the checked items off the conveyor belt, she conveniently buzzes back to let us know she is in the arrivals lane. She will be in the sweet white Jeep with Texas plates. Not one year ago, we trekked half way across the country, as they loaded up and moved from Austin to Portland. Cast aside in Denver (voluntarily), I came back home while they pushed onward. They made their way north and west to arrive in the epicenter of American hipster funk; not a knock, just my personal opinion (coming with Austin, Texas in my back yard). We finally win the battle of car seat Manassas and press onward to home base. Portland in full bloom is truly a spectacle. My wife and I live just outside of Houston, which I consider to be a very lush beautiful place. But this place has clearly identifiable seasons, and without question spring has sprung. The smorgasbord of color lining the streets of the city is incredible. Chris Robertson, my stepfather, greets us at the door as we drag our luggage towards the wooden steps leading up the front porch. For a coonass from Lake Charles, he is one hell of a tech geek and an impressive tinkerer. He also hoards cutting edge outdoor gear as if we're on the brink of nuclear disaster. Currently a hot commodity due to his IT know-how, it is his flexibility to work remotely that has made their move and our entire trip possible. But if I were to pin a dream career on the man I'd have him rounding the Cape of Africa with his own specialty IPA, set to swoon any British imperialist thirsty enough to cross his path. Tonight, though, we are on a different kind of mission.
Oregon state law dictates anyone swinging streamers in a Columbia River tributary will need Oregon fishing licenses and Columbia River endorsements. We make a quick run through rush hour traffic and get legal. On the way home we meet the girls at Fat Head’s for a hot meal and some cold beers. It is a balancing act; I enjoy the hot meal but split time between navigating a Southside Slopes and hovering over my baby girl, as she rushes back and forth along the handicap ramp. She finds this hilarious and is thoroughly impressed with herself. Appetites suppressed, growler filled and check paid, we hit the road. We need to meet our guide at 5:30 am in Sandy, and with our track record of overdoing it the night before we decide it best we actually get some sleep. Morning slams my peaceful mind to a halt, and a couple minutes later we find ourselves in the living room geared up and ready to hit the road. It's a cliff bar and coffee kind of morning. As planned Ted Neely, our guide, is at the Safeway in Sandy ready to go. We slap our waders on, and as I make my way towards the running lights of his truck bed, he looks up. Glancing at Chris, then at me, then back at Chris, he bluntly points out that "those are duck hunting waders". Concerned that Chris will have a tough time standing in neoprene all day, he suggests that we make the twenty minute trek back to his house for some "replacements". By replacements Ted means guide quality Simms waders, complete with Simms wading boots. He even lends me a pair of boots in lieu of my half assed attempt at felt bottom boots.
As we near the turn off to the Sandy River launch, the ticker reads 6:20 A.M. Not really a problem. Since it is a Wednesday, the river ought not to be heavily populated. Ted’s Z-71 wears two fully assembled spey rods on the hood like a prestigious badge marking over thirty years of back country expertise. Like a triad of 12th century jousters riding an iron horse, we pierce a thick blanket of fog and rumble down a steep gradient, anxious to tangle with our quarry in the icy water below. Glacial run off and snow melt ensure that wading in the Sandy is similar to standing in an ice bucket. It stands to be noted that Ted did tell us to dress warm. However, we are both of southern stock, and everything is relative. My top half is solid; thermal underwear and a long sleeve shirt, all wrapped up in a wading jacket ought to do it. Polarized Revo sunglasses and my salt stained TX State hat complete the package. The waders I have on are underscored by a pair of breathable moisture wicking pants and a pair of cotton ankle socks. My Waterloo. A swift kick in the nuts. I've sat frozen in enough deer stands to know better than that. After wading the length of the first fish-able run, I am legitimately questioning the existence of my toes.
We glide quietly atop a thirteen foot cataraft that gets skinny like you would not believe, and our guide's effortless maneuvering of the craft would have you convinced it actually is easy. Rest assured darting back and forth across white capping rapids and straddling large boulders is anything but. We land on a stretch of river known to hold fish and hop out to fish it. Ted is an excellent teacher, and he needs to be, because neither of us has ever cast a spey rod. Lucky for us, most of the principals of fly casting are about the same with a two hander, so my experience chasing reds with an 8 weight translates very well. We split up about fifty yards apart and work our way down stream moving about a foot or two after each cast. Depending on which side of the river we have anchored at for each run, and more importantly the direction of the water in relation to our left or right side, dictates whether we make a “C” or a "Snap T" prior to rolling seamlessly into the "D loop". It’s that simple. Joking aside, spey casting is not nearly as complex or intimidating as you may think. An hour in and I've reached a level of proficiency adequate to rip off a good 70 feet and make nice loops out of it. However 90% of the time we are just playing with 40-45 ft of line. Ted Neely points out that he finds with some, as their skill set increases, so does the desire to rip off 40 yards of line and cast across the river. And inevitably, as a result, they are no longer fishing the water but having a casting contest. Most steelies in this area tend to hold in 4-8 feet of water, so we do our best to keep it reigned in and ensure the fly remains in the zone as long as possible. As I really begin to settle into a rhythm, there is some hollering behind me. Break neck 180, it appears that Chris is fish on with a solid hook set. The fish quickly comes to hand, and with burgeoning anticipation I wait to see what it is. The silver flash in his hands indicates that it is a young steelhead. The guide is so unimpressed; he tosses it back before anyone can even snap a picture. Nonetheless, I am excited. It is not the fish of a life time and doubtful to make the cut for Fly Fishing Film Tour 2017, but here two outsiders swinging streamers have managed a fish. Suddenly my toes aren't so cold; tighter loops roll off the tip of the spey with reinvigorated energy, and as the fluorescent orange line splashes to the water I anticipate every drift, knowing at any moment a silver skinned missile could be waiting to slam my tube fly. At this point I am truly fishing with the water as opposed to just in the water. Suddenly it happens. Three quarters through a drift my rod bows down an inch and a half. Then in rapid succession bump, bump, bump. This magnificent beast doesn't pull as hard as I would have expected, and rightfully so. A foul hooked sucker fish is only capable of so much. At first it is a tough pill to swallow; a brief high followed by the brutal reality that this is not what I was hoping for. I pop the barb less hook out of the fish, come to terms with the situation, and we press on down river.
The cold saps every ounce of energy out of my warm blooded body, and pretty soon I am dreaming of a hot meal. I would have settled for some trail mix and a c ration. Instead, we have hot homemade beef stew warmed on a gas burner, summer sausage, thick sliced sharp cheddar, and an assortment of cookies. After half a day freezing and wading the river, it was exactly what we needed. Working hard and eating outside is so human. Something about it is soulful, and I imagine this is what a frontiersman must have felt sitting around the fire after a long hard day. I boldly proclaim as we wrap up the calm of our dining experience, "I am feeling good about this afternoon". This doesn't necessarily mean anything. It is customary (in my circles) to try and talk the fish into biting, the buck into walking, or the goose into cupping his wings. We decide to gear up and try the hole we are currently parked at once more before packing on down river. No such luck. We make another run through some rapids. Water crashing over the lip of the cataraft frames the reality of the situation with perfect focus and zero filter. Technology is unbelievable. Here we are on a day trip utilizing man made gear to recreationally enjoy something that may have been life or death a century ago.
We drop anchor onto a sandy bank littered with the remnants of boulders, born of the bellies of ancient volcanoes and weathered down to the size of fists and pennies. Time and distance to the truck both begin to run short. The river flows with a moderate current here and pools up just before it cascades down a four foot rocky drop. On our side of the river, the current eddies in towards us and dances momentarily before reaching confluence with its inevitable destiny down the fall. It is here we will make our stand. Snap T complete, the anchor lies maybe 15 feet ahead and to my right. I smoothly pull the spey back, and with solid tension in the D loop, flick my line forward. The line stealthily unfolds onto the Sandy with the fly delicately splashing through the surface tension of the water. This is the one; the cast and mend so perfect the fish will have no choice. But maybe not. As the fly reaches the full potential of its drift and the line becomes completely taut, my mind progresses to the next cast. Yet my sensory speaks of something new awry. A subtle tug pressures the soft water wrinkled lines of my index finger and thumb. Some things are not, and yet appear to be. What seems subtle in the beginning gains momentum and seems to defy logic as my line rips through the water at a pace just slow enough for my mind to process, sending a ripple of water into the air as the streamer dances to life. The ultimate puppeteer and I am a feeble Pinocchio. Finally, she presents herself; a silver bullet shot out of a cannon. But more akin to a broad sword. The screamer runs up river another thirty yards and jumps again. Unsuccessful at dislodging Ted's masterfully tied fly, the acrobatics almost seem slow motion. Every fast twitch muscle in the hatchery born steelie pulsates at once. Not born of this river, but every bit a part of it, she is unable to escape her fate. As the reel turns her against her will and towards the net, she catches a glimpse of us and makes another brief blistering run. Finally we slide the broad neck of the net under her and marvel at the full glory of the beautiful animal we have been lucky enough to net. I am fully aware this could be the first and last time for me. It is hard to convey the sheer joy and excitement that grabs you during an experience like this; it is every bit an episode of buck fever. Shaking with excitement, I hold her up for a grip and grin. This one's an eater. Two strong blows to the head and then a well kept blade splits her open. We clean her right there in the river and can tell that she dropped her eggs prior to our encounter (most of them) and was headed back towards the Pacific. Since this is a hatchery born fish we have the privilege of indulging later that night; we finish filleting the steel head, and later season it to perfection, tossing the slabs of meat on a hot grill. Nothing is better than coming home to my gorgeous wife with dinner in tow.
The fishing is over but the vacation is not. We spend the remaining few days in Oregon making some of the best memories of my life. Traipsing about Mt Hood and the lush Cascade Mountains, we soak up every second of the freezing air that blasts our faces in the midst of a snow storm, knowing full well this will be sorely missed once back to the heat and humidity of the Texas coast. Cannon beach is fantastic and freak warm weather the day we are there almost feels a little bit like home. Our daughter splashes around on the warm sandy beach, clearly enjoying her first taste of warm salty air. The final evening is always bittersweet for me. Determined to enjoy every moment, but bound by the looming melancholy of returning to concrete and keyboards, I sip the hoppy froth lining the top of a frozen beer mug. This has been top notch. The huge grin on my baby girl’s face running around in her diaper at the beach; absolutely priceless. Catching the first glimpse of my wife dressed up for our date night in down town Portland continues to take my breath away (thanks Mom for babysitting). Yet the sheer beauty of our trip down the Sandy River dominates my thoughts.
Back at my desk in Houston I can still see the bald eagles soaring into trees high over head. I can hear the water rushing through rapids and can still see Chris, with complete focus, casting and mending his line. These things are to be appreciated. In a world increasingly developed and urban, outdoor experiences are becoming more and more precious. Who even knows what access my children’s children will enjoy?! Later that evening I kiss my wife goodnight, as she whispers, "don't stay up too late if you want to take the dogs out and drop off the crawfish pot for your sister's boil in the morning". We have places to be. The twenty first century; Sometimes I think this is the best time and the worst time to be alive. I find it difficult to reconcile the difference in what I really would love to do versus what I could never miss out on. As the synapse in my brain explodes, I take another a drag on my cigarette and check my texts. My uncle complains that I have invited a girl on our dove hunt this coming September, "this one is for the bucks, sorry nephew". In a perfect world, in my world, these things are for everybody.
| Swinging Dries | Steelhead Fishing | Houston Fly Fishing | Portland, Oregon | Ted's Fly Fishing | Texas Hunting & Fishing Blog | PDX | Pacific Northwest | Anadromous Fish | Rainbow Trout | Sandy River |
I am a passionate outdoorsman with over 25 years of hunting and fishing experience across the state of TX.