“I’m going fishing,” I said to Nancy, after we stood in a pre-dawn line of bundled-up, shivering seniors and got sent home because of vaccine shortage. “My COVID shot can wait.”
Two days later and still without hope of receiving a timely inoculation, I gather my steelhead gear and head south. My heart sings when I reach the top of Nine-Mile Hill and the snow-capped Blues come into view. I’ve fished the Walla Walla River since I was a teenager. Steelhead enter the river mouth following the first fall freshet and migrate to upriver spawning areas over the winter. A favorite stretch is between Touchet and the Oregon-Washington state line, where languid pools, riffle-runs, and expansive gravel bars provide variety.
Before the great flood of February 2020 devastated Blue Mountain streams, I tested my luck in a series of honey holes near the Whitman Mission. A honey hole is a large pool having certain characteristics that steelhead favor. Honey holes often have a name that relate to a distinctive feature (e.g., pipe, rope swing, bridge, car body) or a memorable day on the water (e.g., hog, holiday). Be first to try your luck in a honey hole when steelhead are in the river and odds are good you will hook a fish.
Every honey hole I’ve ever fished is mapped in my mind. Honey hole #1 is a 100-foot long hole formed by divergent flow where the river t-bones into a high bank. Cover is afforded by depth, turbulence and morning shade. A 50-yard hike through senescent reed canary grass and brush willow gets me to honey hole #2, a deep run where a trio of boulders slow current and overhanging alder tests your casting skills. Further upstream, I ford broken water to approach honey hole #3, a deep trough where current crests against the exposed roots of tall alder.
Imagine my surprise when I tromp along the river shoreline to find all three honey holes wiped out by the force of floodwater. The entire stream channel is shallow, wide, and straight. Dump truck loads of loose cobble. Gravel scoured down to bedrock. Shoreline vegetation flattened. Streamside alder uprooted. Flood debris plastered in branches six feet above the waterline. It was if my home stream got ransacked by a ruthless band of thieves!
Hiking downstream in search of new water, I bust through dried stalks of teasel and poison parsley that tower over my head and approach a huge logjam that splits flow. Unfortunately, the channel is too swift and deep to ford safely, leaving me stuck on the wrong side of the river. To clarify, the wrong side of the river is where overhanging vegetation, divergent flow, submerged root wads, concrete slag, or discarded fence material challenge effective presentation. It’s where both hooking and landing a steelhead are nigh near impossible.
Having no choice, I stand at the head of the hole and let my corkie and yarn rig swing across a current seam like an Orange Maribou fly. Two casts later, in the deepest, swiftest part of the pool, I feel a grab. A 16-inch bull trout makes a short powerful run before it twists and turns on its side and comes to shore for release.
I move along the steep bank to alter angle of cast and stand 6 feet above the water’s surface in the shelter of a tall cottonwood. Tree roots dangle at my feet. Wild rose and blackberry vines crowd my backside. I flip an underhand cast where the tongue of the current flattens and let my offering drift along the bottom. A steelhead strikes and turns to flash silver when I set the hook. Now what? I think. I’m on the wrong side of the river and there’s no place to land it. To make a long story short, I let the small wild hen tire, slide down the loose bank on my butt, release her, and pull myself back up on a tree root.
Further downstream, a deep slot where beads of flow disappear under an uprooted alder holds an 8-pound steelhead. A back-and-forth battle gives me the shakes when I bring the fish to the shallows for release The sun is low on the horizon and my shadow stretches across the river, but I have not tested the heart of the pool where alder branches waver parallel to flow. Three casts later and a third mint-bright wild steelhead whose gill plates blush crimson tests my mettle. When Nancy asks how my day went, the word epic comes to mind.
A week passes. I receive a COVID vaccination at the county fairgrounds and return to the same stretch of river to find the pulse of steelhead has moved on. A mile or more of hiking along a floodplain filled with debris and loose cobble renews my spirit but fails to yield a single new honey hole. That, my friend, is steelhead fishing.