I arrive at my parent’s small bungalow to find older brother Dusty soaking in the shower, his rod and creel stacked by the front door. What happened to the frantic feeling of anticipation that used to accompany opening day of trout season? When we went to bed restless and woke up before the alarm went off with butterflies in our stomach. This more relaxed schedule, one that included a full breakfast and hot shower before wetting a line, indicated our biological clocks now ticked to a different set of gears.
Dusty raids Mom’s cookie jar while I load his tackle in my truck. We discuss his four-hour evening commute from Portland as I motor southeast across the Blue Mountain foothills, passing a “PGG” grain elevator that rises up like a monument above black-soil fields with a healthy sprout of winter wheat. I speed on gravel roads damp from overnight rain but not so greasy I have to steer with both hands. Twenty minutes later, the North Fork of the Walla Walla River beckons. Known as the “water fetching place” by the local Cayuse Tribe, it’s the smallest of two directional tributaries and the first to clear up. It has been 18 years since I last fished it. Are wild trout still abundant for the taking, I wonder?
I eyeball a stretch of open water. Bank full, the river shimmers slate-green. I nose my truck up to a padlocked gate and gaze with trepidation at an old farmhouse. It is the “the moment of truth.” Will we get permission to access this exclusive stretch of private property? Dusty waits by the truck while I stroll to the back stoop where a matronly woman, gray hair pinned in a stylish bun, arranges a bouquet of fresh-cut purple lilac. Two hummingbirds zip past her head, hovering to sip from red plastic feeders hanging from the porch ceiling. “Mrs. Sams?” I ask.
She smiles. So far so good, I think. At least I got the name right. It’s useful to read the mailbox. Brief pleasantries are exchanged. We discuss the weather, the amount of water in the river and the condition of local fish populations. “I remember you from before,” she says. I repress a double mocha buzz while she continues as if she has all the time in the world before saying the magic words, “My place only runs up to the next gate, but I guess you can walk up the road if you want to.”
My inner sanctum screams, Permission granted! I saunter back to the truck, giving Dusty a thumbs up when he sneaks a cautious look my direction. We grab our gear and scramble over the barbed wire fence like schoolboys playing hooky.
A half-mile up the road, on a high spot above the floodplain, the familiar sight of a rusty orange, ‘34 International Harvester pickup, greets us. Blackberry vines trail through the cab and engine compartment. The rear and side windows are broken out and the right front fender is half pried off, but both bumpers are intact. I rap my knuckles against the driver’s side door for good luck as we pass.
Twenty minutes of hiking and two locked gates later, a westerly breeze moves ominous clouds up valley. I reflect how a fierce longing to fill my creel with trout “just to say I did” was missing. How a once hurried pace has become deliberate. I soak up tidbits from the landscape. Spring bouquets of arrowleaf balsamroot and sulfur lupine decorate the south-facing slope. Nervous quail twitter from roadside elderberry. Mud is curdled on the edge of the one-track dirt road like decorative icing on a wedding cake. A lone raven tips back his head from a perch on a cottonwood snag and delivers a loud warning “caw, caw” that echoes across the valley.
Fishing the North Fork on opening day was once a tradition. Back when rising at dawn to be first on the river made the difference between catching a “limit” of trout and getting skunked. This common ritual became a thing of the past, however, when the demands of a career and family overrode how I spent my free time. The surrounding landscape had also changed since my last visit. Bulldozer tracks crisscross the floodplain leaving an impression of torn threads on a carpet. Roadside pastures harbor alien Canadian thistle, goatweed, teasel and cheatgrass. As if denying complicity, a trio of bald-faced calves stared at us with simple-minded curiosity.
At the three-mile mark of our hike, Dusty and I approach a stand of black cottonwood. Hidden under their protective canopy is the “Falls.” The river drops dramatically in elevation here, funneling through a crease in bedrock and plunging over a waist-high basalt shelf. The result is a bathtub-shaped trout hole the size of a VW bus.
I rest my hind end on a convenient boulder to rig up my fly rod. Dark clouds pile up at the head of the valley while bank swallows dip and twist to grab mayflies dancing above the water’s surface. Nearby cottonwood deliver a fragrance like fresh bread baking in the oven. In open ground behind me a cock robin runs in short bursts, stopping every so often to tilt his head sideways. Can he really hear worms move? I wonder.
Dusty approaches the river, crouches next to a wood-slat cattle gate suspended over the river and swishes the air with a ratty-looking Stimulator I suspected had been tied on since he last put his rod away. Several casts later he hooks and lands a small trout. He holds it across the palm of his hand to admire before dropping it into the shallows next to his feet. There is something extraordinary about the first trout of the year, even if it is only 6 inches long.
Eager to try my luck, I tie on my standard “attention” pattern, a no. 8 Bucktail Royal Coachman. My first presentation to the signature hole downstream of the Falls is pulled deep by swirling current. I cast again and let my offering swing across the back roll and downstream to the tailout. No takers, hmmm. Undaunted, I cast a third time and a fourth, but there is no grab or subtle tug when the fly floats or drifts deep. I work the opposite shore, stripping line with short pulls to bring my offering along the current edge. The Coachman darts like a panicky minnow but does not entice a strike.
The absence of trout gnaws at me. I wade upstream to where current runs fast against exposed tree roots. There is a need to catch a fish if only to assure myself that my pattern attracts. I hold position in snowmelt water until a rainbow trout rises from the shadows to take my fly. It jumps twice, bulldogs at my feet and sprints downstream over the Falls. That’s when an enormous bull trout rises from its lair under the Falls and takes the small fish down like a Great White after a baby seal.
My rod tip buries under the water’s surface and line slices back and forth in the spilling froth. I yell to Dusty, “Get up here and take a look at this fish!”
Meanwhile, the bull trout lets go of its prey. Not to be deterred, I drop the battered trout dangling on my line back down into the swirling current. Once again, my rod tip buries and the battle continues until the bull trout tires and coughs up my “bait.” Satisfied that I’d had enough play, I unhook the small trout and toss it into the back roll. Dusty gives a low whistle when the bull trout surfaces one last time to engulf my peace offering.
The rest of the day follows with no particular sense of urgency. We hike upriver to where steep canyon walls press close, passing overflow channels rimmed with yellow monkey flower and buttercup. Gentle breezes cajole a nearby cottonwood to release its bloom, coating my fishing vest with pale, delicate fuzz as magical as the dust of new snow. The stream becomes an artist’s palette of which trout are only part of the mosaic. Rather than race ahead as practiced in our youth, we alternate fishing short stretches. We critique each other’s casting, argue over the best patterns and lie about the number and size of fish that we hook. The pleasant smell of trout stays on our hands.
A brief downpour pelts our backsides on the hike back but does not dampen my enthusiasm for this brief return to a landscape of my youth. Two brothers reunite on opening day to witness the predatory nature of a giant bull trout, catch their fill of trout and not be arrested for trespassing. It may have been my imagination, but when we approach the old Harvester truck, a shaft of sunlight shoots through a keyhole in passing storm clouds and rusty headlamps shine as if someone switched them on high beam.