The trip starts at an anonymous trailhead at the top of a ridge in Oregon’s Coast Range. There are no signs, not even Forest Service signage — which is good, for people trying to keep this place under wraps.
I head out on the trail, my Osprey pack snugly cinched to my hips, duffel full of waders, camera gear, fishing rods slung over my neck. The weight practically drags me down the trail to the bottom of the valley. I’m trying not to think about the trip back up, not yet.
On the way down, I look up into the cedar and fir trees, some sprouting from the same nurse log, seeming to sprout from the same trunk. There are giant trees here. As I get toward the bottom of the ravine, a herd of cow elk crash through the open old growth.
I finally slog through the meadow at the bottom, the marshy lowland that had been a homestead at some point. How in the hell did they get in and out of here? And then I spot Karl’s gear and our homestead for the next three days on this wilderness creek.
It’s a weekday and a few of Karl’s friend’s are down here on a daytrip, but we’re the only campers. They’ve been here all morning and no one has caught a bright fish yet. The water is lower than expected. The rain stopped too soon. But it rained enough for some fish to move in and now they’re stuck here and turning dark and spawning.
Karl and I work our way upstream to a narrow chute that empties into a deep pool. There are salmon everywhere, but holding water is where the salmon stack up on their way upstream. Karl says they’re like bus stops and new salmon will hold in the same holes as more move into the river. He is using eggs, some of which came from my Coho on the Umpqua and he hooks a “sore-back” a dark salmon that inhaled the egg ball. We land it and let it go.
Dark comes and we haven’t set up camp, but that is OK because the moon is huge and is lighting up our stand of firs like a set of truck lights. We get our tents up, start our camp stoves and get a fire going. It’s a twiggy moss-fueled smoker, but pretty soon it’s raging and drying out bigger and bigger logs. We burn all night, feeding the fire and drinking tea — the booze was too heavy to pack in.
I wake up in the morning and for the first time in my life, I’ve pulled the mummy hood closed on my sleeping bag. The ground temp is just above frost. Karl is up making coffee and the sun hasn’t crept over the ridge on the horizon. I go down to take a first crack at any fish that might have made it into our runs overnight.
At the top of the run I hook a big fish on a leech pattern fly, but I’m pretty sure I’ve foul hooked it by the tail. You can only keep fish you hook in the mouth and this behemoth is acting funny in the water. It’s taking line, but not as fast or as hard as it should. It’s rolling out of the water sideways and it’s a little dark anyway. Eventually it decides to run downstream and instead of chasing it, I break it off. I can’t be sure it wasn’t fair hooked, but I let it go anyway. The day is young.
After breakfast, Karl and I head downstream to find new fish. He hooks another on the giant egg-gob, this one a chromer — A KEEPER — and loses it when the fish wraps his line around a rock and busts him off. We hook about a half dozen cutthroats as we work downstream, one of which is a giant sea-run cutthroat that ate Karl’s egg-gob in a big pool. But no more salmon.
That afternoon, I lay in the sun on my Thermarest, reading and writing in my journal on a rock shelf that jutted out from our campground, down to the river. I am resting the Chinook that were holding in the pool above us, letting them settle and waiting for the sun to come off the river.
Karl cooks up some chanterelle mushrooms to have with our lunch. They would have been better with white wine and basil over a salmon fillet, Karl says. He is still bitter about the chromer.
As it gets on toward dark, I head back upstream to where I’d seen some fish spawning the day before to get a better look. There is a giant salmon in very shallow water digging a redd and I creep up on it to take some photos. It thrashes its body sideways in the water to dig a spot for its eggs. The fish is huge — thicker than my thigh and longer than my leg. Its tail was white and sore from brushing the streambed.
Night number two passes similarly to the first — big fire, cold sleep. We decide to fish the morning and then break camp. I’ve got a date with KP for dinner. We wake to and ugly surprise: Bubbas — eight of them, fishing the top of the hole. Now mind you, I pretty much call everybody a bubba that isn’t in my fishing party, but these guys deserve it, fishing elbow to elbow like they’re planning to march the salmon out of the water and onto the other bank. Not to mention the fact that they brought eight people to fish a creek that’s only 20 feet across and a totally wild fishery. But at least they would earn it on the way out.
Karl and I had seen enough, so we spend a leisurely morning breaking down camp and eventually head downstream to the spot where Karl lost his chromer the day before — one more shot. And Karl gets it. That fish is still waiting at the bus stop, but Karl only has it on for a minute and it never comes back.
We head back to pack up and the Bubba party is creeping closer to the run near our camp. I march out to the run on principle with my ridiculous fly rod and dance my rabbit strip leech between the rocks when a Jack Chinook salmon takes the fly. It is a beauty of a little fish, but short work on my nine-weight.
A good ending — I don’t leave skunked on salmon. But wait… the bad ending. The march out is long and impossibly steep. And I’ve got a full backpack plus the stupid duffle. I vow over and over to strip down my gear and lose my gut. I break at 3 minute intervals. And somehow I make it out into the light of the trailhead parking lot. Even now, just a day later (hobbled and sick from exertion), I’m rationalizing that it wasn’t that bad. I’m ready to go again.