Sometimes you want a big party on your birthday, and sometimes you just want to get away from it all. This was one of the latter years for me, so my husband Mike and I drove up to Wallowa County, Oregon, to visit our friend Jon and get some R&R.
This is not Jon’s first appearance on this blog—I wrote about his fancy firewood bundles last summer in my value-added marketing post.
We arrived late Saturday. Tucked into a corner of our guest room was a work table laden with shiny streamers and baubles, tools and small drawers—a fly-tying station. Jon is an avid fisher—and why wouldn’t you be when you’re a short drive (country-short, at least) from dozens of pristine mountain rivers? He promised to take us to a friend’s ranch on the Imnaha on Sunday and give me a fly-fishing lesson. The last time I fished was in about 1978. I barely remember it.
The next morning, we packed a lunch, fishing gear and the dogs into the pickup and took off.
Getting to Imnaha is a commitment—it’s 45 minutes from Enterprise, nearly on the edge of the state. As we drove into the Wallowa Mountains, snow flew. I looked out the back; the dogs were unfazed by the crust they were acquiring. Mike and I looked at each other. This was going to be some chilly fishing! But by the time we passed between Inmaha’s two buildings we had dropped a couple thousand feet. The sky had cleared and the temperature had risen at least 15 degrees.
But we weren’t there yet. We turned north for about ten miles, following the Imnaha River, until we ran out of pavement. Then we drove another ten on gravel. This road twisted up and into the mountains, around blind hairpin turns that revealed incredible views of the Imnaha River valley. We were so remote that we came across two bighorn sheep in the road! The dogs had already shaken off their snow-jackets and ran from side to side in the cab, anxious to explore.
Eventually, we wound down to the river’s edge. Jagged peaks rose up all around the narrow, grassy river valley we were in. The Imnaha ran hard and fast, swollen with spring snowmelt. Jon jogged down to survey the water and returned to get the gear. I would have drowned in his hip waders, figuratively if not literally, so I fished from shore.
Scouting from the bank
What we were hoping to coax out of this cold, turgid river were steelhead. These rainbow trout act a bit like salmon—they swim hundreds of miles down the Imnaha, then the Snake, then the Columbia, all the way to the ocean, and then fight their way upstream all the way back a couple of years later to spawn and die. Jon works for a rafting outfitter and has documented a number of his catches. Did I mention that he is a great writer?
First Jon introduced me to the fishing gear. I had already declined the waders, but was totally fascinated by the little box of flies he’d tied.
“You’re basically trying to drop something into the water that looks like food,” Jon said. Fish look for sudden movement, and dark and light patterns. The nymphs had shiny bits to catch the light, and fuzzy bits that would clump in the water and look like little insect bodies. He said that pink was good during spawning season. “Mine are showy,” he said, pointing out the features of his nymphs.
This one was made with deer hair
Jon explained how the fly rod works, a different technology from a standard rod-and-reel. Of course, the rods themselves are much longer, to aid in casting. Instead of relying on lead weights to give the hook loft, the line itself has weight. And there are little weights that you can put on your hook, called “heads.” Even with a head on your hook, it doesn’t weigh much, which is why fly-fishers actually get in the water on a wide river. (Plus, it’s fun to stand in the middle of a river.)
Some of the differences are purely aesthetic—the floating, round ball attached to the line that you watch to see if it dips into the water? “A bobber!” I said, proud that I knew something. “A strike indicator,” Jon corrected, and then proceeded to call it a bobber anyway.
Next lesson: Where to cast. He explained that fish like to hang out in calm water that isn’t too shallow; they avoid the strong current and the edges. What we were looking for, he said, was “soft” water, called the “seam.” Looking out, I could see a place where the top of the water smoothed out for about 20 feet. The seam.
The method of casting differs as well to accommodate the lighter bait and longer rod. The fly-fisher is nearly constantly in motion. Some people consider it an art form. Dry flies actually rest on the surface of the water to emulate flying insects landing. Even wet nymphs need to move often.
But Jon is a pragmatist; if there’s no need to do it fancy, don’t.
“Have you ever seen A River Runs Through It?” he asked me.
Subsequently, I was not being taught to whip the line around in the air like a lariat.
As Jon explained the timing of pulling the nymph back for another cast, Mike, who was observing from further up the bank, yelled, “Your bobber!” While I had been looking downstream, following Jon’s illustration, a fish hit my fly. But the fish recognized the fly wasn’t food and, since I hadn’t pulled up to set the hook, spit it out.
I kept casting, trying to focus on my form. After a while, Jon joined me—and then his rod snapped in two.
Sad fisher man
Since I was the only one doing anything, I practiced my cast a few more times and then called it quits. We went back to the rig and ate lunch in the sun. The scenery was so spectacular that it was difficult to leave.
Picture, do the talking
Jon was disappointed that we didn’t catch anything; I wasn’t. I completely understand the notion that going fishing can just be an excuse to be outside all day! It was exactly the kind of birthday I was hoping for.