It’s little wonder I favor creek fishing, having grown up with one less than a block from my front porch. While, Pine Creek didn’t hold trout for the taking, other rural “cricks” that emerge from the flanks of the Blues provided ample opportunity for development of my adolescent angling skills. Many of these same small waters still attract me when local rivers are high and roily – like on opening day of trout season this year.
The fourth Saturday in May led me to one former boyhood haunt that flows cold and clear near the family cabin. The lower half-mile of Bear Creek is a series of pocket pools and riffles that cascade over boulders the size of a washtub. The sound of water tumbling over smooth stone drowns out birdsong. Keeper-size trout move in from the Umatilla River to find refuge in its shaded confines.
Back in the day, my high school buddy Norm and I got up in the dark to beat Jim Johnson, a local angling legend, to the punch. Johnson was known to keep more than his limit when the game warden wasn’t around. We had arrived the year before to find him standing next to his truck with a canvas creel that bulged with fat speckled trout and weren’t about to let that happen again.
Funny, I didn’t remember the water temperature being so cold when Norm and I drifted garden hackle under logjams shaded by overhanging alder. A few things hadn’t changed, however. The sweet fragrance of mock orange filled the stream corridor and catching trout required that I navigate dense undergrowth, dance from boulder to boulder, and occasionally wade up the middle of the creek. One difference is I relied on bow-and-arrow casts with a three-weight fly rod to place a fur-and-feather offering where small trout held station.
My hard earned catch after two hours totaled seven small rainbow trout. The largest fish (barely 9 inches long) was secured between a moist layer of bracken fern in the side pocket of my fly vest. It would be fried in bacon grease until crisp and brown, and served with a farm fresh hen’s egg, sunny-side up.
A week later finds me revisiting another boyhood haunt on a cool June afternoon when storm clouds and peals of thunder roll across the Blue Mountain foothills. Couse Creek is a “step across” that enters the Walla Walla River five miles upstream of Milton-Freewater. Native rainbow trout and the occasional steelhead work their way into the lower reach during a good flow year. While most of the stream bank is posted “No Trespassing,” one small pasture affords me access via a barbed wire fence that I climb over with the agility of an old man with creaky knees.
Giant cottonwood logs and fallen alder make wading interesting as I move upstream from one stretch of water to the next. The worse part though, is a never-ending growth of blackberry vines that hang over the creek to limit my casting. When trout refuse to rise, I switch flies to drift a Beadhead Nymph through a deep run. Four small trout are fooled in quick succession. Further upstream, a more respectable size trout shows only to retreat to the cover of a root wad.
Memory often gets clouded by a long period of absence. Where are all the trout? I ask myself. After finding a safe opening through a tangle of blackberry vines, I hike back to the road through a pasture of chest high orchard grass. A redtail hawk cries “kree, kree” as it soars over a basalt outcrop. The bloom of sulfur buckwheat and bachelor button floods the adjacent hillside. My revelry is interrupted, however, by the unmistakable sensation of an unwelcome hitchhiker crawling on my neck. A woodtick! Then another, when I hitch up my pant leg to remove my wading sandals.
Some things never change: rural creeks, small trout and wood ticks. I wouldn’t have it any other way.