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Ghost Fish

Posted by Mark Thursday, June 7, 2012


Steamboat Creek, the goal of the elusive early summer high water steelhead.

Misty Mountain Hop


I am alone on the river. Not a soul dares to ply her waters today. It is early yes but I have caught fish earlier in years past. It is always a gamble.It feels good to be on the river again.There might even actually be an outside chance of hooking a fish. My hopes are never high though at this early date.The knowledge that I might encounter a fish always linger in the back of my mind.The water levels looked good all week, high but good.Each night after work I was checking the levels and anticipating the small window I would have at the end of the week to fish a little. That time was now. As I drove the river upstream, I made note of  each and every run and dreamed of the time when they would actually be fish able. A lot of water was coming down the river, in response to rain and snow melt up higher in the drainage. The flat levels of the beginning of the week had taken a significant turn now as Steamboat Creek went from 300 to over 1000 cfs. Normal summer spots were not an option so I decided to try some winter spots.

 I strung up an 11'7wt switch rod with a Rio Steelhead line that I have been fishing as a single hander, tied a new leader and put a 1/0 GBS on the end of it. As I made my way through the first run I quickly got into the rhythm of the cast and step. The rod felt like an old long lost friend. Single hand casting was the way I was brought up on this river almost 30 years ago and a method that I still employ the majority of time in the summer. The rods and lines have changed a little but the casting is still the same. These switch rods are powerful tools in capable hands,today mine were semi capable. The roll casting ability of these rods is incredible in tight spaces. They also overhead cast like a dream. I will say that you need some serious arm strength to swing these around all day single handed. It usually takes a month or two before my arm is up to the task and by mid season I have the right forearm of Popeye. The lightness of the set up is refreshing. I balance the rod with a 3 3/4 Bougle and this seems to be a great combo.

After 15 minutes or so,the roll casts are coming better for me now.I still instinctively reach for the bottom handle occasionally as the muscle memory from a long winter of throwing a 7136 with Skagit and sink tips remains. I shake it off and work on my timing, snap T-ing the floating line and traditional fly upstream of me, making a killer D loop leaving just the leader and fly anchored. The forward stroke stops high sending the fly out to 80+ feet. The feeling is rewarding. The line rolls out,compacting and tightening in an awesome wedge as I flick my wrist at the end of the stroke,increasing line speed in tandem with a haul. A double hauled roll cast is a cast every single hand caster should know. Live it, learn it, make it your friend. You will be happy you have it in your tool bag. The fly is fishing well and even in this higher flow I somehow start to think of what it would feel like to hook a fish right now. Clarity is good and the water temp is 50 degrees. The fly swings. I cast and step, mend and follow. It becomes automatic I am in the groove. I finish out the run with nothing more than a couple of smolts that eagerly grab the fly as it swings into the shallows. The barb less hook easily shakes free with some slack and they are on their way.

The water is definitely up. I decide to try and fish the Confluence run where Steamboat Creek meets the North Umpqua. I may be the the first to walk this beach this year. There are no human tracks and except for the road right behind me I feel like I am in the wilds of BC. I feel as if I am the first person to ever fish this run, it just had that fresh kind of feel to it. Familiar in a way but mysterious as well. It seemed new, not the same run I have fished a thousand times before. I walk down the bank and stare off into the distance, letting the sounds,smells and visuals overpower my senses. I am home. It is good.

Snapping out of my dreamworld I attend to the more pressing issue of, can I get out in the run where I so desperately want to be without drowning?This is not a wade I would recommend for anyone at these levels. I was having trouble recommending it to myself. The good thing is,I have done it so many times now that I know the rocks and the path, but even that changes as winter flows scour and deposit rock and gravel. I know the water levels and I know my wading ability. Today I look and assess the scene. It looks sketchy as all get out. It is a long wade out to the submerged bar and it gets quite bossy in the middle. Right about the place where you can't turn around. It is a commitment no doubt. The pull of the unknown and unseen Ghost Fish is overwhelming.I decide to go for it. The last 20 feet before the bar rises up is where the deepest part of the wade is. If any of the friendly basketball sized rocks that you are looking for have shifted over the winter you can be over your waders in a hurry. I start in and am almost immediately a foot from the top of my waders. I hurry on making large steps and make some good progress. I hesitate just before the point of no return and scan with my Polaroids to get some sort of sense of where the bottom is. The water is a bit off color from the increased flow and I see nothing definitive.Somewhat blindly I plunge ahead, checking my wader tops again before committing fully to this last section of a somewhat crazy attempt. My feet find purchase in the deepest part and I airwalk the last few yards, breathing a sigh of relief as I start to walk up the submerged mid river bar and get myself into reasonable depth water once again. Whew! I still have to get back but I will worry about that later.

With the water flow and clarity what it is,I think better of using the 7110 and opt instead for the 7136 stick with a skagit/sink tip setup and a lightly weighted black and purple creation. This set up will at least allow me to show it to a fish. Perhaps long enough to get one to go.A car slowly drives over the bridge straining to see the idiot in the middle of the river. Fishermen no doubt by their keen interest in actually seeing someone out in these winter like flows.They continue on and then cross the Mott Bridge stopping to marvel again at how in the heck I got where I was. I can just hear them in the car saying " What is that guy doing out there?" "You can't get out there in this flow!" and on and on.

The interesting thing is that at 300 cfs like it was earlier in the week, Steamboat Creek is not flowing enough to swing a fly with any pace. It stalls out. As the water bumps, the early fish run straight here and as those flows increase, they bolt up the creek and are essentially out of play for the rest of the year. Once up the creek they are protected as there is no fishing. They end up in the Big Bend Pool where Lee watches over them diligently.These are the Ghost Fish, these early fish of days gone by, their ancient genes telling them to go in these flows. Very few people see these fish that ascend on the high water. Many of them slip through this very pool before ever seeing a fly in the entire fly water. These early fish can be large. These early fish can hit like a train and leave you quivering as they take you to school, and test knots,lines and rods to their limit. This is the fish I risked a swim for and have waded out to find. Here balanced on this submerged precipice of rock,the current pushes me around at will. I struggle to find solid footing as I pull line off my trusty Daiwa 812. I start in short as fish can hold on the slope just off where I am standing. The sink tip takes the fly down into the off colored water disappearing  from view in an instant. The fly swings sweetly and slowly through the run as I pay out more line. I carefully and methodically cover all the known holding lies as my line lengthens. I am casting to the other bank, between and under tree limbs. One cast hits a limb on the other side and hangs up in it momentarily, I tug gently on it as it thankfully falls back to the water and continues to search for the Ghost Fish that may be passing this way. I step down the bar, buffeted by the current. I feel confident all of the sudden, you know,that feeling that comes when you feel like something might just happen. My line and fly are now swinging through the heart and soul of this run, this Ghost Fish super highway. The flag has dropped and the race is on for them. Who knows how many fish have slipped up and away just in the time I have been fishing here. I continue to swing my fly..........

The take comes without warning but is not violent like I was bracing for. It was a light pluck followed by a slooooooow tightening of the line. A very typical cold water winter take. This water was 50 degrees. I let the fish take a little more line off the reel and then pinched the line to the cork and lifted sharply. As I lifted the rod into what felt like a heavy fish everything went into slow motion. An enormous buck comes tail walking out of the water in a display that would make Flipper jealous. This is a Ghost Fish and I have found him at the very last possible moment before he escapes up the creek. He is bright as snow in the fading evening light. He is large and in charge and I stare dumbfounded as I watch him go through his aerial maneuvers. Again and again he jumps, swapping ends in the air and clearing the water 4-5ft at a time.

I try to get him in close a couple times but have trouble in the over waist deep water. I decide to head for the shore and see if I can land him there. The wade back did not get any easier while I was out there and now the difficulty is compounded by the fact that I have an angry fish that wants to go the other way. I point the rod back at the fish keeping tension with my finger on the line and cork but ready to let him take line as well. I plow back through the trench towing the fish along behind, occasionally the reel barks as he peel line off in protest of the shallow bar where I just stood which he now finds his belly rubbing on. I struggle the last steps to the bank and now face my quarry with renewed vigor. I am in the shallows no and I can better fight the fish from this position. I get him in after another couple minutes and grab the leader. He slides across the water and I think I can tail him. Now that I can see him up close I see just how amazing this fish is. This fish is PERFECT! Not a scale out of place, and just translucent. One of the biggest summer fish I have seen in a long time. Never have I seen one so bright and pristine. I am in awe of this powerful creature that I have matched wits with. I am holding the leader at the tip of the sink tip, about 3ft from the fish. He then finds another gear and digs in. In seconds I am holding onto a fish at the end of a short piece of line that is just going mental. He thrashes the surface and jumps powerfully time and again me feebly trying to subdue him and hang on.And then, just as fast, it is over. He is gone.

 I look Heavenward and thank God for what has just happened. I thank God for these magnificent fish and this river that he has created.I thank God that I am alive. I thank God for my family,and friends and the many blessings in my life.

  1 Timothy 4:4-Everything that God has created is good; nothing is to be rejected, but everything is to be received with a prayer of thanks.

 Who knew Thanksgiving would come so early this year?

Good fishing

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