Somber skies and a glaze of ice on the truck’s windshield do not deter me. I cruise south on Highway 24 and cross the Snake River where perch anglers test their luck at Cargill Pond. Further down the road, two duck hunters push a raft filled with decoys across exposed mud flats.
I don’t favor either activity. My quest is steelhead. I’d be swinging flies in the Hanford Reach, but the season never opened. Floating a bobber-and-shrimp rig behind Snake River reservoirs, another option this time of year, is also off the books due to low run size. The Tucannon and Walla Walla Rivers are the only option for steelhead within a two-hour drive from home.
Steelhead move into small tributary streams of the Blue Mountains following the first fall freshet in early November. Today’s restless anticipation is muted by knowledge that no such a flow pulse has occurred. I must get out of the house though, if only to keep from going stir crazy.
Back in my working days, I devoted a week’s vacation around Christmas and New Years to chase steelhead in the Walla Walla River. One productive location, named the “holiday hole,” never failed to yield a steelhead. As for specifics, I can only share that rivers and memories tend to change shape over time.
Turning down Detour Road, I park in an open field dusted with frost. Stocking foot waders, hooded sweatshirt, gear vest, wool cap and a vintage army jacket comprise my winter angling wardrobe. The jacket belonged to a buddy who gifted it to my sister after he returned from his two-year tour of duty in Vietnam. He didn’t ask for the jacket when they broke up, so I incorporated it into my fishing wardrobe.
That the bait-crusted army jacket remains in use over four decades later serves both as testimony to my predilection towards nostalgia and a habit I can’t seem to break. I admit it. I enjoy the tactile nature of drifting bait for steelhead.
I often fish by myself – if only to ensure no witness for my foibles: falling down, casting into alder branches, missed strikes due to inattention. First time out also means getting acquainted with the river again. Favorite holes fill in and new ones are created with each flood event. Where to cross safely is important. Often the best approach is from the other side of the river.
Reed canary grass hides the approach to a favorite hole. I clamp a pair of #5 split shot 18 inches above a “yarn fly” topped with a red corkie and sweeten the laser-sharpened hook with a thumb-nail size gob of cured roe. My first cast to where swift current sweeps around a broken slag of concrete is tentative, but a sharp bite gets my attention as kinks in my line straighten. A second more focused cast yields a gleaming foot-long trout that I carefully release.
I blow on frozen fingers and slog upstream through knee-deep water. It’s important to cast to places where you once caught a steelhead, but equally important to test new water. Over-wintering steelhead seek shelter: within the shade of overhanging willow, at the head of swift runs where a boulder splits the flow, back-eddies framed by exposed root wads.
Another favorite hole yields a big-shouldered, 17-inch long rainbow trout that peels line from my reel. Its flanks flash metallic blue when I ease it to shore for release. Many winter trout exhibit what scientists call an adfluvial-type life history, where they migrate between Columbia River reservoirs and tributary streams. Conditions in the lower Walla Walla River are not favorable for trout to remain all year long.
After testing another stretch of river and releasing a large trout that struck from a deep shaded hole where rope swings dangle, I remind myself to hike further and fish harder next time. After all, it’s not trout but steelhead I’m after.
Darkness takes over winter landscapes early. I follow the crunch of my boot heels on frozen cobble to where deer trails lead through reed canary grass, and skirt a worn pasture lined with discarded farm equipment. The musty odor of rotting leaf fall fills my nostrils. I reach the warmth of my truck with a glad heart and renewed holiday spirit.