Flying High

A lifelong fisherman gets his first taste of the hard stuff.

Steelheading near the Oregon coast     Photo: Photograph by Justin Bailie/Aurora

PRICE TAG $484
THERE'S A FLY SHOP next to our offices that I visit during work emergencies. Recently, while pacing there, I mentioned that I was traveling to Oregon in hopes of subduing my first steelhead, the anadromous rainbow trout native to the Pacific coast. "Careful," said a friend who works in the shop. "You can't party with heroin."

The warning was typical of the jargon-slinging endemic to this store and, for that matter, every other fly shop in the world: bravado that's so painfully awkward it makes you smile and leave. So that's what I did.

I arrived in Portland on a cold Thursday with my friends Ben and Anja and steered our rental to the town of Sisters, 20 miles north of Bend. Ben and I rose in the dark (Anja slept in, then scouted the local brewery) and met our guide, who was chugging coffee, vacuuming a cigarette, and hosing off his driftboat near the town's fly shop. It was then that I grasped the wisdom of my friend back home.

Our guide, Steelhead Joe—his moniker, not mine—was in the midst of a severe bender. He had slept a combined six hours in three days, during which he'd rowed 60 miles in pursuit of steelhead. He was a father of two and a former golf pro in California who'd moved to Oregon four years earlier, caught a steelhead, and fallen hard. He now spends more than half the year fishing the Deschutes, where, between July and November, some 50,000 trout commute. They swim up the Columbia River, bypassing two dams before hanging a right at the Deschutes en route to their spawning grounds in forking mountain streams. Hoping to meet the fish halfway, we loaded up, cranked Alan Jackson, and drove 100 miles to our put-in. It was 4 A.M.

Steelheading is not like other fly-fishing, which is about as athletic as throwing darts. The fish hold in deep, rocky water, and you raise them by swinging flies in front of their faces, often using a 13-foot spey rod, which requires a technique entirely different from trout fishing. Wading is a hazard, casting difficult. Then there's the strike. The first tug of a steelhead feels slight, as if a child were pulling your finger. There is a pause. Then a jackhammer pulls your arms downward and a silver log shivers along the river surface.

I know this because on the 24 miles of green water we covered that day, we hooked ten steelhead. Ben landed four, including his first, a 12-pound fish. I lost my first four, with predictable effect on my nerves. In the evening we dodged jet boats burning past us from the mouth of the Columbia and approached our final hole. There, the fish were in riot, and the laws of probability evened out. I felt a tug, then the anvil. The fish, a wild, four-pound male, tail-walked, then was kind enough to allow me to pull it in.

Sunday we picked up some friends and headed to the Metolius River, a gurgly spring creek, where we splashed amid spawning kokanee and occasionally cast for small trout. Meanwhile, Steelhead Joe was back on the river, partying with heroin.

EXPENSE REPORT Steelheading trip for two from the Fly Fisher's Place (flyfishersplace.com): $225 per person. Tip: $50. Fishing license: $31.50. Sandwich fixings: $16.50. Two nights' worth of burgers and beer from Three Creeks Brewing, in Sisters (threecreeksbrewing.com): $55. One night at the Sisters Motor Lodge (sistersmotorlodge.com): $90. One night at Camp Sherman, on the Metolius River (877-444-6777): $16. Total: $484

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