Oct 24, 2012

The Fever

My steelhead initiation back in the day was punishing. Like a punch to the gut or a kick to the – well, you know where. I showed up on Idaho’s Clearwater River with a good pal who had some friends that were into camping along the river bank and chasing these fish around. I still remember pulling into camp, wandering over to the assemblage and not knowing a single face around the campfire glow.

It was a motley bunch- humorous, sometimes boisterous-but very welcoming to any newcomer wishing to share their passion; specifically, spending entire days searching for steelhead with fly rod and fly. They took me in right away and made me a part of their scene and ponderings. The fire ring was the centerpiece, like a roundtable where fine grub, laughs, cold beer and whiskey were passed between all camp chair occupants. Not to mention the musings and theories as to why things happened or didn’t happen on the river that day.

Being fresh to the whole steelhead beat, I mainly kept my mouth shut until another topic came up or I had enough go juice to blurt rising thoughts about steelhead behavior and their fickle relationships to a swung fly. I learned a lot listening to them. Maybe I didn’t learn about why, but rather how things happened and where they might happen again. What type of water to look for and how long a cast and what fly pattern… you know, that sort of thing. History was the ultimate teacher. They would return to the fire with tales about fish or a grab or a hookup that happened at say 3 o’clock at the Bridge Run, or what some call Pete’s Run, depending on who told the tale. My history book seemed to be teaching me what I should not be doing out there. What do you call it, negative reinforcement?

I fished for an entire week, without a grab. I was beginning to doubt their existence and at times I pictured my fly swimming across swaths of river that were entirely void of fish. Was everyone lying? Did they really exist? It wasn’t until our last day that my negativity was shattered. My pal landed a pink and chrome, wild steelhead on his umpteenth cast. I remember the exact spot in the river when I saw his rod tip bump and then start to bend over. And I remember the importance of faith and my stoked embers of hope. It was indeed a steelhead. It came from the ocean some five hundred miles away and I saw it with my own eyes. It had my buddy’s fly stuck in her lip.

The following year I showed up with one of those spey rods, but it was little use. I had no idea how to cast it. When things went south, I just applied more force and well, you know, that’s when things really come apart. At one point I had my friend taking pictures of my line during the cast, but I couldn’t really understand what the photos were trying to tell me. If I could locate those photos today, perhaps I might recognize the story as resembling something akin to, Apocalypse Now or maybe even Fight Club?

Needless to say, I didn’t touch a fish that trip either. I was there about a week – stumbling over slick, malformed boulders and hooking myself in the back for days on end. The runs went on and on, as did the casts with a few trout nibbles scattered here and there to pick me up and then drop me just as quickly. I became possessed, or maybe crazy is a better word. The crew around camp called it The Fever. The Fever: when nothing else exists outside of the pursuit of something almost entirely unattainable and you are willing to voluntarily toil and be abused by said fever. But I knew my time would come. That one night, I would walk to the fire with a worthy tale to tell. That my moon landing was coming, that all my preparation, hard work and growing intuition was a worthy investment.

I know now, that this was the most invigorating fishing of my entire life. That these early days of steelheading were crafted of moments that, collectively, built the climax of my intensity for fish and fly. Never could a fish be more rewarding than my first steelhead; that ghost that lurks; the one of fire ring legends; the one that I would never feel without another cast.

He finally came to me the following year. It was just me and the soft sounds of the river. I was doing what I thought I should be doing and as the fly swam across the top third of the run I felt a sharp stab of pressure. Then my mind told me that it must be so, that this was one giant step because the rod started shaking wildly. And then it all went hazy and spinning and I’m tethered to this creature while my heart beats touched and my stomach is in knots and I have a cold sweat dripping from my temples on this cool October day because I am finally coming unraveled. The fact that I left my body for a portion of this event may not be true, but interesting how I recall the view from above - looking down on myself with rod and outstretched line and a large fish-like shadow darting down river.

After I released the large, wild, crimson buck, I lay down on the boulder bank and stared at the sky watching the clouds wisp overhead. And to this day, I don’t remember ever feeling better.

But I have come close. Since these initial days I have scoured many a beautiful steelhead river and I have raised many from lie to fly. Dullness can never describe these moments of impact when your efforts are rewarded and the line comes tight, but more and more, satisfaction comes during some of the more docile moments. You know – when the quarry is muddled by the sound of water, the smell of water or the silent slithering of a bull snake through willows. You still feel the black hole fish pulling, but now that you know you are capable and fishing well, your connections to the rest start to find your attention.

So this story goes for many a steelhead hunt, when you love the unfurling line and how it settles, pulls tight, and probes the river. You love the sky and the tree fingers silhouetted against it and that other line where the horizon joins the immediate. You become surprised or maybe even enlightened by the conversation that you have with yourself, there, standing in the river – feeling the river envelop you, embrace you. It goes on and on, like the perpetual flow down from the sky and on down the river - the connections while fishing only terminate when your memory slips and you cannot find your way back there.

This October, I returned to the very waters where my virginity swam off. The big maple trees seemed taller, fuller and their bushy cheeks hung with more yellow than green over our tent. Beyond the trees, the river still flowed - low, but moving and the old steel bridge spanning her still rumbled, signaling each passing rig. Old train cars still weren’t rolling in front of the falling down silo and hay barn adjacent to camp. It felt good to be home.

Around the fire that night were faces I knew. They were long ago faces grooved deeper by time, but twinkling much like I remembered - their brows lifting at the mention of fishing. The catching had been tough. The river was low, temperatures were dropping and numbers over Lower Granite Dam were less than half the 10 year average. A few fish had been hooked but, all in all, it looked as if we could be the victims of bad timing.

Secretly, somewhere in a corner of my mind, I thought about our timing and I decided to celebrate that which we cannot control. If being a seasoned steelhead angler had taught me anything, it’s to appreciate what is at hand: That which you can touch, for better or worse; to fish where you are; to bring the periphery into focus; to adapt and fish like you really want to fish. And just maybe, I would return to the toil of my past and play hide and seek with my sanity that rode on the back of a big striped fish. If that would be the way of things then that would be the way of things and who was I to judge such a touching pursuit so harshly.

As days on the water ensued, it wasn’t long before time stopped moving linearly. Entire swaths of time vanished and came to rest somewhere on a calendar that seemed more circular than straight. While trying to recall when you had the grab, or when your waders started leaking or the last time you fished the Hive Run, the most accurate conclusion became simply, sometime in early October 2012 -which, we embraced without much effort. After all, who cares for when, if only that it happened: Us on the river, studying the water; figuring casting lengths, angles and fly speed; casting and stepping to a rhythm that, at times, matched our own perfectly. Probing the river, moving on hunches and hopefully growing closer to understanding seemed the only course of action.

But if not for the loving woman at my side and the campfire congregation; if not for the river, just being the river - inside of that illustrious canyon with its colors ripening; if not for the touch of Idaho air; if not for these things and more, then only the pursuit would exist. The primordial hunt.

The Fever. Lord, what a temperature I once had! If one could spontaneously combust, I might have grown close - considering the magma boiling up beneath that end-the-myth and discredit-my-shortcomings odyssey. Intense as it was invigorating, this plot line left little room for balance.

Balance however, arrived with time. A cup of fish and a pinch of all things not fish, became finely sifted and blended together. Fishing became more extravagant while remaining slightly less focused. River naps won my heart. Sitting on rocks became more enjoyable. A moist shred of jerky pulled out of a zip lock – it all found its way into the mix. It’s true, I hadn’t been feverish in years.

What do they call it when you are infected but have no symptoms – like it is only sleeping? As the days came together I began to realize that although I had been in remission for quite some time, I was still a carrier and maybe I would be a carrier right up until that day when I am no longer around.

The evidence surfaced when I slipped and filled up my waders the first time. After fishing through a rather curvy piece of water – a proven home to willing fish – I was captured by a distant slot on the far side of the river. I had covered it earlier with long casts, but the altering currents had destroyed my presentation. Enticed by the need to fish this slot with a short cast, I thought little about the repercussions of getting there. Wading down a thin, mid-river bar in stiff current seemed like the only logical choice. After all, that is where that fish was this day, so that is where I needed to be. It was not the right decision.

Nor was it a good choice to ignore my unraveled boot laces that eventually came tight in a groove between two boulders while fishing a different stretch of river. I can’t say when exactly, I started filling up waders, or when my words grew sharper, or when that big rock I was sitting on became more uncomfortable while waiting to step in. I guess it was sometime in early October. That is when the battle began; when I started to sense only water and dream of mythical fish.

And that is when I finally hooked one.

Have a good time,


  1. Duffy,
    Thanks for taking me back to the time over 20 Octobers ago that I spent chasing steelhead on the Clearwater. My campfire was surrounded by a motley crew of Idaho guides who showed me the way of the steelheader. I hooked one fish that week (below Cherry Lane bridge), which came unbuttoned at the end of hundred yard dash, but I will never forget the volcano that errupted behind my black and yellow bomber. I haven't been back to the Clearwater and have long since lost touch with my campfire crew, but that week ignited a passion for steelhead that still burns.

  2. well said FCman. My fever is still raging! Hope to see you all again this fall. Nov perhaps? cheers mate! roy

  3. It was a great week even though there wasn't much of a bite..I guess I needed the casting practice. The hip is still sore from when the only hooked fish pulled me off balance and I came crashing down hard in the river.. and I mean hard! Oh and by the way, this is a fine piece of writing Mike! Keep up the good work!

  4. Great picture of Dell!

  5. Very nicely written and a pretty good description of the disease that afflicts us, known as chasing chrome.

  6. Miraculously I didn't fill the waders this year!


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