Monday, November 30, 2009

I'm Thankful for Bobbers and Deep Fryers

It's been a tough year for a lot of folks. Which gives us all the more reason to be appreciative of our family, friends, and the fact that we're still here. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday; if not for the fundamental principles of it, then at least for the fact that I get to eat a ton of delicious food and sit on my ass watching football.

Christmas is so overloaded with consumerism and frivolous bullshit that it has lost much of its relevance. Valentine's Day was assassinated by Hallmark decades ago. But, ignoring that whole underlying association with the genocide of an entire native people, I think the ideas and practices surrounding Turkey Day are good stuff.

Unfortunately, living in Montana means that I only manage to make it back East to visit my family a couple of times a year. For the past several seasons, I've spent Thanksgiving with friends out West in return for Christmas with the family. It's worked out well...I've never starved.

This year, Jamie and I had been scheming on a trip befitting of Turkey Day for a couple of months. Jamie's surprising inheritance of a 1965 Airstream trailer this past summer made for a good road trip right about the time my transmission went in to full melt-down. When we got back to the Zoo, Jamie tracked down the perfect guy for fixing up such an asset, and the Hanta virus-laden aluminum fuselage underwent a major overhaul throughout the fall. Now that the sucker has been restored to it's former glory, it clearly represents an ace-in-the-hole for late season river debauchery.

With a gajillion fish in the Columbia system this fall, and given Jamie's newly-found passion for standing in an icy river freezing his balls off while not catching anything, a Thanksgiving steelhead trip seemed in order. The Salmon was bounced around as an option, but weather forecasts with highs in the teens gave us nightmares of chronically frozen tip guides...fourteen feet away. Highs in the 50's and solid overcast were predicted for northeast Oregon, however. Gotta love the high desert. Grande Ronde it is.

It's a long drive over to one of the prettiest rivers I've ever fished in my life, even without a 2-ton aluminum sausage trailered to your rig. Let's just say I'm too tall to sit in the cramped cab of a little Toyota pick-up for that long, and self-medication and good music only take you so far.

But then you drop down off the bench and start descending one of the more frighteningly scenic switch-back roads in the country, and it's all good. Down there, waaaaaay down there, below all the cactus, chukar, and cows (correction: the most hardcore cows on the do they get up there...and survive?), there's a little blue river winding it's way through a narrow basalt canyon. And there are steelhead.

Given our experience on the Ronde a few weeks ago (two days swinging=no fish. one day nymphing=5 fish), I unapologetically admit that I was committed to being a nymphing whore this go around. I know, it's far from ideal, but it's late in the season, the water's cold, and they wouldn't eat it swinging last time...soooooo. Being in all likelihood my last trip of the season, I just wanted to hang one, swing be damned. With Jamie and Conner (a metalhead virgin) along for the punishment, my meager experience held clout, and handfuls of bobbers and split shot somehow found their way attached to our leaders by the time we hit the water Wednesday afternoon.

Conner recently moved out West to bite off a little chunk of the dream and hang out with Jamie. He's new to flinging flies, but I'll give him serious points for enthusiasm. Given what he had heard about steelhead, he had himself convinced that not only did he not stand a chance of catching a fish, he also thought he wasn't "good enough" to even fish for them. Seems to me you can pretty much sit on your couch playing Xbox and catch as many steelhead as I do on any given day.

Fifteen minutes in to flailing around in his first steelhead run ever, Conner hooked a fish. Not a big fish, but a steelhead. Bobber down, fish on. I saw it roll up as the rod went horizontal, and just about the time Jamie and I registered what was happening and I started to call out, "Let him ru..." the rod snapped back straight and the fish was gone. Conner was ecstatic. Oops, we just f#$%ed up another person's life.

The fishing the rest of the weekend was, well, nymphing for steelhead. A lot of casting, mending, sketchy wading, and bobber-watching going on...for hours...with nothing. Then, the bobber goes down just like it has on the last fifty rocks, you set (half-heartedly), and feel life. Solid head shakes, originating from the business-end of an eight-pound slab of muscle that grew up in the ocean and wants nothing to do with your terrestrial dumb ass. The fish were beautiful and as strong as they're supposed to be. Humbling. It didn't help that I was using a 5wt because it's "easier to cast." Well, it's sure as shit not easier to land a steelhead with, so I may be reconsidering that move before next trip.

But the fishing this time around was an after-thought. We didn't come to catch fish; we just needed an excuse to trailer up the Airstream and drive somewhere pretty to spend time with good friends over Thanksgiving. That part of the mission succeeded beautifully. Jamie picked up a turkey fryer before we left, so the looming question of how to cook the bird in a tiny trailer oven was easily resolved. Let me just say, if you have never deep-fried a turkey, you may as well not know how to walk. Do it.

Thanksgiving dinner was beyond memorable. I've got almost 30 Turkey Days under my belt, but over all the good times with family and friends that I would never trade for the world, this one took the cake. Hard to beat a restored Airstream trailer parked on the banks of the Grande Ronde, the smell of a freshly caught buck on your hands, watching a turkey fry. Keeping an eye on the green-bean casserole in the Dutch oven while throwing a stick for the dog. Popping another PBR. Stepping inside the camper to a welcoming of warmth, Talking Heads, and Jamie cooking a turkey neck in gravy. When the feast came, it was destroyed, and our party was immediately comatosed for the rest of the night. Thanks.
Conner didn't encounter another steelhead for the rest of the trip. That's how it works. I was hooked long before I actually hooked a fish. I don't know if Conner will abandon what he previously thought of as "fall" in favor on numb extremities and questioning glances from non-believers for the rest of his days, but he's off to a good start.

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