It is late January on the lower Walla Walla River and steelies are hiding out like big sea-going trout do when they are penned up in small water. Cold sleet spits sideways and my rod guides are iced up. I sit on a frozen tuft of reed canary grass and regroup after fishing two honey holes without so much as a bump.
I’ve chased steelhead from Lowden to the Whitman Mission for over 30 years. Local Indian tribes refer to this landscape as “place of many waters,” due a myriad of tributary creeks that collect rain and snowmelt from Blue Mountains. Cottonwood, alder, and brush willow outline the river’s flow where it splits a floodplain stretching a mile or so wide between low hills of glacial-age loess. The surround is raptor country, open ground where kestrel, northern harrier, and red-tailed hawks maintain vigil. A low, gradient stream channel cuts through dark silt-loam pastures to create broad oxbows, long runs and deep, languid pools.
A mix of private and public property limits angler access to WDFW Sportsman “Feel Free to Hunt/Fish” areas and adjoining farmland whose owners are fisher-friendly. My ability to sweet-talk one such landowner afforded me fishing rights today via one barbwire and one electric fence. The latter I rolled under like it was day one of boot camp.
Slipping out of low-lying mist, another angler wades across the river and pauses upstream from where I sit. A flycaster. I watch him dab a weighted nymph into a shallow run where current breaks over a line-up of large cobble. A steelhead parking spot when they are on the move, but not today when the river runs low and clear. I eye the thumb-sized gob of cured roe attached via egg loop to a no. 1 barbless Gamakatsu hook. Ironically, my bait is from a hatchery steelhead caught swinging flies on the Hanford Reach earlier this season.
The resonant feel of bouncing #5 split shot on cobble takes me back to my first steelhead. A fat juicy nightcrawler threaded on a no. 6 Eagle Claw “hook ‘em and hold ‘em” snelled hook, adorned with a hank of red yarn, fooled that extraordinary fish.
Although I confess to a depraved lifestyle when it comes to bait fishing for steelhead, I know the difference. There’s no better feeling than watching a trout come out of its protective lair to rip on a Royal Wulff. Indeed, the best way to entice a hungry trout from behind a sunken branch or midstream boulder is often with a well-placed fly.
The same behavior does not hold true for most steelhead that overwinter in Blue Mountain streams. Possessing no more than remnant feeding instincts and a need to conserve energy, they hunker down in a deep pool or point their snout halfway up a sunken root wad until its time to spawn. Knowing their motivation, I deploy bait in Blue Mountain tributary streams for the same reason I swing an Intruder in the Deschutes and Columbia Rivers. That is, to deliver an offering to a location where a steelhead might be induced to strike.
My bum knee stiffens so I shift position. It is turning into a day of too much thinking when I could be fishing. The lone fly fisher approaches within a few strides to shake me from my thoughts. “How’s your day going?” he asks.
“Not bad.” I reply. “Just taking a break. Caught anything?”
“No, but I’m in no rush. My wife is picking me up at the next bridge.”
“Sounds like a great way to spend a day.”
The odds are good he will have the entire stretch of river to himself along with several hours to enjoy the stroll. I want to inquire if he fishes here often, and if so, does he have success with a fly? Sensing I have already been pegged for a low life, I let it go.
My conscience eases when the fly fisher fords the river and disappears around the corner like the ghost of Marcus Whitman. Good riddance, I say to myself. I have the river to myself, not to mention first shot at the deep swirl hole he skipped because it was too difficult for him to work with a fly.
Still, I muse, there are places where I might nymph an Glo Bug or drift a feathered jig below a bobber, although neither technique would separate me from the casual bait fisher except by choice of rod and reel. Meanwhile, and until I bring my 7-weight Cortland fly rod out of the closet, the occasional bait-fishing venture for steelhead in the stream of my youth remains a guilty pleasure. Fellow fly casters might consider my choice of tackle to be backsliding, but I prefer to call it casting to memory lane.