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Mark Stangeland - NUFlyGuide
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Serendipitous Splendor (Right Place, Right Time)

Posted by Mark Saturday, September 20, 2014

Early Fall Brilliance

I could feel the barometer plummeting  After days and weeks of high pressure, it was gonna rain. I could smell it, you could taste it in the air. The clouds rolled in thicker and heavier. The river took on a whole new look. Gone are the bright, sun drenched runs of early and mid summer.  The ominous cloud cover now provided a much needed cover from that burning orb we call the sun. The colors of fall are starting to display brightly on the riverside vegetation. Trees and bank side brush are starting to turn the brilliant hues of early fall.

I had a little break in the action of my schedule and had a few precious hours to fish, alone and unhindered. The river was surprisingly empty and I drove down river to a favorite stretch of water. The clouds continued to build as did my anticipation for a great evening session of fishing.  There are few things that I ever bank on in this game called steelheading, but tonight I could feel that it was gonna be good. I just had no idea just how good it would be.

A light rain started to fall as I started into my first run.  I lengthened line from the reel with guarded hope as I started into the top of the tail out from my elevated casting station. I love twitching skaters and fish them often but tonight I was fishing a riffle hitched Muddler and was quietly waking the fly with a slow pulse. The fly was hitched straight underneath the head allowing the bushy offering to skitter across the surface like a water skeeter. As I started to hit the far side seam I was letting the fly land, and reach mending upstream to gain tension on the fly. Then under light tension,letting it slowly dead drift down the seam with a high rod position, holding the rod out into the river to keep the line off the near midstream currents. The fly would stall and hold momentarily on the far side of the river as I used the rod to direct its path.

As I was repeating this process I was working a longer and longer line and covering the entire pool from bank to bank. As I got down to a known holding lie, I pitched the fly across, threw a big upstream mend as the line started to tighten which straightened everything out from my high angle position. Then I let the fly dead drift down the seam for 8-10 feet without tension. As the fly was just about to come under tension at the end of the dead drift, a large steelhead came out of the far side shelf and slowly came up and turned on the fly and took it down much like a trout. I saw the whole thing vividly as I was 12 feet off the water at this spot. As often happens, I am always shocked when I see a fish eat a fly like that, even more so on a dead drifted fly. Its so visual I am overcome with the moment I forget that the fish has eaten my fly. This is of course the best thing to do anyway as these fish will hook themselves if you let them. In a split second after the take, the fish had turned on the fly to return to his lie and he is stuck with the fly by the tight line and current tension. Pandemonium ensues as the fish feels cold steel and retreats to the far reaches of the tail out and then going deep in the gut of the run bucking the rod violently as I struggle for control. A short battle and the fish is in front of me in the shallows. A final tail flip and the fly comes out and he is gone, a perfect release for this fish and a great way to start the night. It gets better.......

The rain is falling lightly now. It is warm but I can feel the drastic change in the weather and it hits me full force. After numerous hundred degree days, working hard at various jobs in the field and around the house, it is a glorious respite from the dog days of summer. I am totally satisfied with the night so far and don't really expect much more but I continue to fish. The next run is close and I am in it in minutes. It fishes well but no takers. I move to the next run and my fish radar is going off big time. It feels and looks as fishy as I can remember in a long time. I cover the run easily casting and mending the line in perfect harmony getting the fly to swing and cover the run perfectly as i have done so many times before. As the fly nears the tail and most of the known holding lies, I decide to put another drift down way into the tail, right on the lip of the drop, even beyond the drop and down into the V slick. The muddler is waking powerfully, the speed of the water going out the tail keeping it on a straight and tight tether. The fly is mid way through the deep tail and I start to
move the fly, pointing the rod straight at the fly and jabbing the handle backwards like a pool cue. The muddler skitters and wakes like water on a hot pan........and then Whooooooosh,RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR! The reel handle starts spinning at mach speed as it protests the presence of another fish that has mauled the fly at the very last possible spot in the tail. Game on!  Amazingly enough, after trying to leave the pool the fish turns and comes back up over the tail and into the runs. This happens after repeatedly testing all my equipment to the fullest. My knots hold as I put max pressure on the fish and get him into a better position to fight and land. Another short battle and I have fish number two at my feet. The fly is out in a second and the fish slowly slips back into the heart of the run. Stoked is a good way to put my mood at this point.

 Any day you get a fish or two on the surface on the North Umpqua is a great day, in fact its a world class experience. As difficult as the river is to fish and with the crowds of recent years, the dynamics have changed and it has become tougher in many ways. Having almost 30 years on the river now I have seen a lot of those changes first hand. Tonight though, this river seemed new and alive, like I remember in the old days. In those early days, you fished hard and you KNEW you would catch fish or at least have some chances. I had that confidence now. The fish were looking up and they were fired up. The barometer drop had stirred the pot and fish that had been laying low in the pools were now eagerly moving and active. The biological time clock of these fish is precise, small changes in weather and cooling clouds and rain get that clocks alarm to go off. The slightest bit of rain washing down from up high in the drainage of Steamboat Creek can signal fish to move hard and often when those scents from their natal creeks are dispersed into the river.

Walking on air back to the truck I then drive to another run, a run I have fished a bunch this year that has not produced yet. It's hard to fish and I have no idea why I decided to fish it this night but there I was. After a couple fish I thought it best to retie my fly as I had forgotten after the first fish. The battered muddler still looked decent so I kept it on. I riffle hitch the fly again under the  middle of the head behind the eye. If it ain't broke don't fix it!

I start out again at the head of the run. I am casting and fishing with ease, in the zone as they say. Everything is perfect. The fly is waking perfectly my casts are floating out with little effort. I am keyed on the fly, now really expecting something to happen on every drift. I watch intently as the fly arcs repeatedly across the pool, leaving a waking, skittering vapor trail and V-wake in its path. The rain is still falling lightly.........

Again, I am moving the fly slowly as it swings across the pool, pulsing it across the glassy tail, pointing the rod at the fly and working the rod slowly backwards in a rhythmic way. It looks so cool, how could any fish resist that I think to myself as it nears the high rent district of this run. One more cast should put this fly right in the prime real estate. The cast sails out in a tight wedge, turning over perfectly and hitting the water on a tight line, waking immediately, the fly searches diligently for a player as it dances across the surface, hesitating and stalling momentarily mid stream. Then, the fly line catches a puff of water from the swirling current which starts to take the fly quickly out of the middle of the run. As the fly and line are caught by the current, the fly starts to accelerate and ends up ripping across the surface at twice the rate I had been swinging it. This sudden acceleration triggers a vicious take from a fish that was holding in the luxury apartments of this run. I half expect the take where it came from but the suddenness of the strike startles me out of my intense concentration. I was so intent on watching the fly I forgot what to do for a second. Again, these fish will hook themselves if given enough rope to do it with. The old adage of DO NOTHING when a fish takes the fly on the surface rings true once again as the fish turns in the heavy current and places the fly firmly in the corner of its mouth. All of this happens in a split second and I am once again fighting a steelhead. A quick slug fest brings the fish to hand and as I twist the fly out of the fishes mouth, I look heaven ward and think how blessed and thankful I am to be able to fish this majestic river.

The river is devoid of people and I can't quite figure it out......but I ain't complaining. I have seen no one fishing at all and have gotten to fish everything my heart desires to this point. The river is alive and the fish are happy beyond belief. Amazing what that falling barometer will do. You have to be there when the bomb drops.

 Usually I don't go out and stick a bunch of fish before guiding for a couple reasons, One-you just don't go out and stick a bunch of fish on the North very often, that's easy, and Two-you want to find those fish with a client the next day.The way the weather was shaping up, I knew that we would find fish for the next few days no problem so that was my reasoning for staying out. Also, I watch so many people hook fish that I have get out and do it every once in awhile to remember how its done, HA!

Now fish number 4 was pretty cool because it set up fish number 5 for me and a client the next day. I love it when a plan comes together. It was now getting dark and I wanted one last run. Why not, a four fish night on dries was within my grasp and I was gonna make it happen. If ever there was a time to do it it was now. I walk in with high confidence into one of my all time favorite runs. A run that has accounted for probably more fish on the river than any other. One because I fish it a lot, and two because it holds fish most everyday consistently. I decide to switch horses and put on a favorite skater pattern that has a yellow top and is more visible to me in the low light. I work quickly down to the" zone" and twitch the dry lightly through the glass behind the middle holding lie. A fish comes after the fly, once, twice, three, and then four times as the fly comes across the pool. He cleanly misses each time but I know that I have found a player who is gonna eat.  I huck a cast back out after a minute of so on the same flight path, twitch.....twitch........twitch....twitch, its gonna happen for sure.......nothing. Wow, whats up with that? I wait a minute and huck the same cast out again, rise and a miss, twitch....two rises and a miss....twitch, three rises and a miss.....twitch twitch twitch,,,,,come on eat it will ya!!!!! Fourth rise and the fish eats with a full head and tail flip and the reel is screaming instantaneously. How sweet it is!  I put the wood to this fish, a small wild hen and get her in for a quick release. Wow, how cool is this night I think to myself..........

Having not fully covered the bottom half of the run I look out at the remainder of it and with shaking hands I retie my fly. I step straight out to the lower casting station and start back in short. Covering the water down to the tail I struggle to see my fly in the fading light. I am about to reel in for the night when I get a serious boil and explosion behind the fly. No way!  I send the fly back and nothing happens, Again nothing. I put a muddler through to no avail and leave the run knowing full well where I will be in the morning with my client. I put this one to bed as we say.

I don't need to tell ya the rest of the story but needless to say, we went straight in there in the morning and hooked and landed that fish. I love it when a plans comes together!


  1. Geeze Mark, what a memorable evening!! Great story and great writing. I was there with you, couldn't stop reading. That's more surface steelhead than I typically get in a season down there! Good for you and congrats on being there at the right time, in the right places.


  2. It was a fun night thanks Todd


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