Kalmiopsis - Fly Fisherman Mikey Wier Searches for Steelhead in the Oregon Wilderness
Even if you're not an angler, I highly recommend taking the time to read this story. It comes from Mikey Wier, a professional snowboarder and fly fishing guide who founded Burl Productions. Mikey's words are thick with the aura of appreciation that comes from having just returned from a Wilderness area. As you read this tale, there's a good chance you'll think back on your last trip into untamed nature and begin to relive the feeling while sitting in front of your computer -- a wonderful thing indeed. From Mikey:
It’s 6 am and I’m going over a mental checklist of things I “need” to survive in the wilderness for a few days. I’m always afraid I might forget one of the things that will make me think "oh, crap" later. Headlamp, camera battery, bivy sack, enough food. We’re on the road at 6:30 and by then it’s too late to worry any more. The cold morning air fills my lungs and colors my breath into cloudy vapors. Speeding along in a car, the outside world passes fast. Even while looking out the window, it’s easy to miss the small details, like a bug crawling on a branch, or a salamander swimming in a creek pool. I can’t wait to reach the trail head. I’ve been indoors too much this month and my body longs for the sun and crisp air. It’s the call of the wild.
[All photos by Justin Baillie]
Time in the car passes with catch up conversations between my brother, Eugene and I. Justin Baillie, who made the drive from Tahoe to Southern Oregon with me the day before, was just getting to know Eugene. We shared the research each one of us had done in preparation for the trip. Eugene produced some great photos he had printed off of Goggle Earth. We looked over the topography and bends in the river. It looked passable on paper. Conditions and circumstances had already thwarted us from reaching the headwaters on two different attempts.
On our first attempt at the pass, it rained all day as we hiked the four miles up hill for the first accent. Eugene and I spent the night under just a tarp in some of the hardest rain I had ever seen. I kind of slept for a while in a two-inch puddle of water. In the morning we could hear the river roaring all the way down at the bottom of the canyon. We knew we wouldn’t be able to cross the river, let alone the first trib. There was no point in going down, so we turned around and hiked back down the pass in the rain. It’s a tricky window of weather and water conditions you need to be able to penetrate that deep into the wilderness this time of year. It’s hard when you have to just look at the calendar and pick a date. It’s especially tough when that window is usually only a week or two, at most, in February, for the entire coastal range.
On our second attempt, Eugene and I decided we might be able to try hiking up the main stem of the river to reach the headwaters. The problem with this route is a large, major creek drainage that pushes hard on high water. In '05, we mapped out a route and gave it a try in the first week of March. Again, strong rains got the best of us. We found the trailhead, but spent the night in the car park under a tarp in the pouring rain. The next morning we made the couple-mile hike to the river, but it was too high and off color to find fish in a new spot with fly gear. We barely made the crossing on the first small drainage and figured there was no way we could make the confluence.
By this time around it had become a bit of a personal goal for both Eugene and I to reach this zone. So even after hearing a couple nightmare hiking stories of sleeping in puddles and hiking all day up hill in the rain, Justin still agreed to come along.
On paper, the river conditions looked good. Flows were right, but the forecast was calling for some precipitation during night two of our four-day mission. How much would be our main hurdle. As we turned off the 101, the estuary and lower river looked great. The sun was shining and all the plants were green, wet and happy.
As the road turned from pavement to dirt, we all turned our phones off at the same time as if part of some ceremony celebrating wilderness and it’s disconnection with the outside world. Not far down the road it became apparent that something was very different from the last time Eugene and I had driven the road two years earlier. There were trees down everywhere. In some places as many as one in five trees were down. There were bay, alder, fir and live canyon oak trees covering parts of the road. On the lower areas of the river, where fishing is popular, the trees covering the road had been cut away with chain saws. We continued on, hoping for the best.
After a while the road leaves the river valley and starts heading up the hill towards the summit of the coastal range. The turn off we were looking for is about 2,500 feet above sea level. At around 2,000 feet we started seeing snow. As we crested the small pass that marks the turn off, our hopes were high that we would make it to the trailhead. They were quickly dashed as we came around the corner and found two trees lying in opposite directions across the front of the turn-off road. There was also a two-foot drift of snow blocking the road. A quick assessment of the area determined that there was no way we were going to be able to get down that road in a vehicle. We thought about turning around, but decided to stick to the mission anyway. It only added an extra three miles to the hike. Only problem being it’s all downhill on the way there and you know what that means on the way out. We just chalked it up to being what it takes to get a wild winter steelhead on a fly, and packed up our gear.
Everything is green in the coastal range this time of year. The smells of the forest fill my nose. It’s a familiar but unexplainable smell of trees, shrubs and even the dirt itself. The air was thick with moisture and as I looked out over the canyon, some wispy clouds filled the little spaces between the trees. The wind was blowing them in and out of branches like ghosts flying through the treetops. Birds were singing songs across the forest to each other. A squirrel peered out of the trees in curiosity then ran off in a darting jerky gait.
We packed our food and supplies into our bags. Due to the snow and wet conditions, we put on our waders and fishing boots and hit the trail. After post holing through the snow, climbing over trees and descending 2,000 feet with four days worth of supplies on our backs, we finally reached the trailhead and the edge of the wilderness boundary. It’s only a mile from there to where we first hit the river. Once on the trail, the hiking conditions were even tougher. The downed trees were hefty obstacles with such heavy packs on our backs. The trail is cut into a hillside, so there is less room to move around the fallen timber than on the road section. Every time we came to a downed tree, we had to balance beam along the trunk, climb over branches, or duck under a high spot. There were no stretches longer than 100 yards at a time with no trees down. Sometimes there would just be one after another. It was a tough mile. Still we pressed on in the name of steelhead.
Now that we were off the road, out of the people zone and into the wilderness, it started to become apparent that even though the forest seemed devastated, it’s actually working perfectly. The old-growth trees are still standing. Most of the downed trees were ten inches in diameter or less. The old growth showed signs of a fire that had happened in the canyon 10 years earlier. The new growth had been thriving for a decade in the newly created niche of sun patches left by the fire. In early January, a storm dropped large amounts of snow down to almost sea level. The high winds that followed knocked down all the trees that were loaded with the heavy snow. It’s a great way to naturally thin the forest. The downed trees were providing new nutrients for the previously stripped ground as well as habitat for thousands of forest creatures. The old-growth trees were still standing tall and proud. They watch over the hills as nature provides for them. For us, it was as inhospitable as can be.
The hike soon turned into a strength and endurance test. With every step it became harder to press on. Thoughts of friends and failed relationships filled my mind as I kept placing one foot in front of the other. We didn’t talk much at all during the hike. Somehow I find a way to reach a zone in my head where I try to think about as much stuff as possible to take my thoughts off what I’m actually doing. Great attention is needed for every obstacle we encounter but my thoughts keep me somewhere else. It’s easy to drift off and not let yourself be fully encompassed in the moment. Only here it’s not a TV, blinking lights or music that serves to distract one. It’s the drudgery of my own thoughts.
Only when we stop and my breath slows down enough that the sound of it leaves my ears and the sounds of my boots and waders and pack rubbing on each other dissipate, that the sounds of the forest really begin to take my attention. It’s there in that moment that I start to feel the true freedom of wilderness. I can hear the wind through the leaves. It whispers and talks with words I’m not conditioned to hear. I hear the sound of the water dancing with the rocks and trapping air into fleeting bubbles. It too is speaking and I try to listen. Animals talk back and forth. Birds, squirrels, and insects all chime in at different times. They are all having conversations that seem like random chirps and whistles to me. I try to really take the time to just be quiet and listen. It’s like learning a new language. I long to know what they are all saying. It just takes time to know all the words. The farther I am from the distracting sounds of people and our equipment, the more I feel like I’m starting to hear what nature is trying to say. I feel the most at peace when I know I’m in a place that is unaffected by the hands of man, where the natural process still flows. I can feel its power and it makes me contemplate my place in nature.
My moment of profound bliss and introspective contemplation is quickly shattered by my brother reminding us of the reality that it’s getting dark and it’s going to be cold, so we should start setting up a camp and gathering some wood for a fire. We’ve only just reached the main stem of the river. After some scouting, we decide to camp on the far side of a feeder creek. The crossing takes some concentration and the aid of a sturdy branch. The water is waist deep and flowing pretty swift. It’s hard to balance on the slippery rocks with such a heavy pack. We set up our camp on a flat bluff overlooking the confluence of the creek and the main stem. There’s some flat ground surrounded by a few small fir trees and the remains of an old fire ring. A huge old live canyon oak tree hangs over the campsite from the hillside above. Everything is covered in moss. I ask if we can camp on the gravel in a clearing in hope of getting some morning sun. Eugene insists this site will be better if it starts raining hard because we can set up tarps between the trees.
The first thing I notice as I approach the river is a set of bear tracks in an otherwise untouched strip of sand. Some movement catches my eye and I focus on a rough skin newt. He’s moving so slow it’s almost tedious to watch. He blends almost perfect with the color of the rotting sticks he’s crawling near. I might have stepped on him if I hadn’t bent down to look at the bear’s prints. I was glad our path crossed and I bid him good day.
My first good look at the river and I’m stoked. There is a lot of water in the river this time of year, but the water is pretty clear and I can see the bottom in places I determined to be at least eight feet deep. A gravel bar has built up where the creek pours into the main stem. It breaks the current well and looks to be a good lay for a passing steelhead. I gather sticks for the fire as quickly as possible, hoping to get a few casts in before dark.
Catching a wild, winter run, pacific coast steelhead on a fly is becoming a harder proposition every year. Some have compared it to a lightning strike, others to finding a gold nugget. You have a better chance to get one if you go to one of the rivers that have a hatchery program. But to me, it’s just not the same experience. In the systems where there is no hatchery to supplement the runs, the fish have to rely on the health of the headwaters. Many factors can come into play with these systems and how they affect fish returns. Erosion is one of the biggest problems. Logging, road building and mining are some of the biggest contributors to erosion. In dam-controlled systems, the reservoir catches most of the sediment and it slowly fills the lake. The river below maintains a steady flow with clean gravel but the fish can only go as far as the dam, missing out sometimes on hundreds of miles of otherwise useful spawning habitat and potential fly water. In non-controlled systems the sediment affects the fish and their spawning habitat daily. It’s a sensitive relationship between nature and man, and over time the fish are losing. The fish have many hurtles to deal with while on their journey in the ocean, and now it’s becoming tougher to find the good conditions that wild steelhead and salmon need to spawn. Headwaters are an important factor in wild fish reproduction and a good way to determine the health of a system. The time it takes a river to clear up after a rainstorm is a good sign of a clean headwaters system. That’s why we picked this particular river. Its headwaters flow completely out of roadless wilderness. The river clears up quicker than most other rivers on the coast and, in the upper stretches, is small enough to cover with a fly rod.
To me, the wild winter steelhead is like a precious gem. That silvery slab has more draw than a chunk of platinum. I’d hike up hills and camp in the rain just to see one. Catching one ethically, on fly gear, and getting to touch it, is one of the greatest feelings on earth. Catching one on a fly is a hard trick to play on a fish that is for the most part, not interested in eating. Winter fish aren’t like summers that stay in the river for a while and need to feed to keep up their energy. Winter steelies come in, do their thing and are on their way back to the rich feeding grounds of the ocean in a matter of days. In a system like this you're lucky to even cross paths with one. Even if you do see a fish, it certainly doesn’t mean your going to catch it. After peering at the river and making a few casts at the confluence, I went to bed that night optimistic that it might happen on this trip.
A sliver of morning light peered through the trees and touched my face. I awoke to the sounds of the forest in all its morning glory. It wasn’t hard to get up when the possibility of a fish waited. There were a few small clouds in the sky, but it looked as if it was going to be a great day. We all decided to hike up river deeper into the wilderness towards the confluence of the two major creeks that formed the main river. The river sits in a canyon that is pretty steep on both sides. It’s lined with big boulders and trees. There’s no trail at all. Every rock is trying to twist your ankle. Every fallen tree is trying to make you trip or slip. Most of the rocks on the bank are covered in bright green mosses of different lengths and textures. There are small creeks and seeps pouring into the river off the hillsides. The ecosystem is peaceful, majestic and, most importantly, intact. Everything from that part of the river up is natural, wild and unaffected by the hands of man. In the small sand beaches between the boulders there were mountain lion, bear, otter, raccoon and deer tracks.
Much of the river here is rapids and not great holding water for fish. We had to hike a good 3/4 of a mile before we came to the first long stretch of slower water. There, in the shallow tail out of a long run, I spotted the first fish. As Justin and Eugene showed up, I pointed it out. The water was very clear. It was hard to tell exactly how big the fish was, but I could tell he was pretty small by winter steelhead standards. He looked to be about five pounds or so. I tried to position myself upstream and make a cast. The river was lined with overhanging branches and there was only one small place where I could even make a roll cast through an opening in the branches. I stripped out the right amount of line and made a good cast. As soon as the line started to drift down towards the fish, he split off like a rocket into deeper water and disappeared. Over the next mile or so, we spotted several more fish and took turns making shots at them, all with the same result. Then we came to a huge cliff face and had to hike way up into the forest, over all the fallen trees and then back down again to the river.
Finally we came to a beautiful pool with a nice long gravel tail out. There in the gravel was a female steeling sitting on a fresh dug red. As we sat quietly and watched, a very large male became visible sitting about 15 to 20 feet back off the red. After a few minutes two smaller males became visible as well. Soon they started making attempts to get into the red and rub up on the female. Each time the larger male would chase them away, sometimes biting them on the tail or flexing his mouth at them. We watched this dance continue for several minutes while I filmed the fish. After watching for a while we figured this might be our best shot. It was a good bet that in this situation, swinging a fly behind the red might get one of the challengers to bite and potentially do the mating pair a favor. I stripped out my line and again made a good cast well upstream. As soon as my line hit the water all four fish shot off like rockets. It was incredible how spooked they were. They don’t see any people up there at all. It’s uncanny how they sense danger from just the slight splash of a fly line. I tried a few more Hail Mary casts into the deepness of the pool, but to no avail. We only had a matter of minutes to spend trying to fish at each pool. The hike we had set ourselves up for was long and we didn’t want to get stuck out after dark. We had to reach a trail still another mile up river and the light was waning.
Eventually we reached the pool where a trail that was several hundred yards up off the river, on the canyon wall, dipped back down near the river. This pool was distinguishable by a large creek that flowed in on the opposite side of the river. There in the shallow water, over a gravel bar, we spotted two more fish. They were sitting near motionless. Both were suspended a few inches off the bottom and slowly wagging their tails in the soft current. It was Justin’s turn to have a shot. He stripped out his line and made a good cast well up stream. As his green line drifted down near the fish, they too shot off like rockets. At that same moment, it started to rain. It was a sinking ending to a hard day. We found the trial and started the long hike through the forest back towards our camp. It was almost as hard as hiking near the river. The downed trees made it a challenge. As the rain fell on my head, I tried to just keep placing one foot in front of the other, my thoughts turned back to the fish. It seemed like all the elements were working against us. With the heavy rain, I knew that was probably our last shot at fishing.
It rained hard all night and in the morning the river was rushing hard and off color. We decided to stay anyway and spent the following morning exploring down river. After noon, I hiked far up river to where I had seen the first couple fish the day before. The river was a whole different beast this day. It was dark and fast and scary. Our window for fishing had closed.
The next morning we packed up camp and started the trudge home. As we hiked back up the hill, again my thoughts turned back to the fish. At first I was upset that I didn’t get to catch one. Then I realized how lucky I was to have had the chance to see those fish in their native habitat doing what they have been doing for thousands of years. Wilderness is more valuable than any possession I own. I felt so blessed to see them in this environment. Just being there was enough for me. As population grows and climate changes, there is going to be an increasing strain on what remains of the habitat needed for these fish to live and thrive. As fish populations dwindle, they will become an icon of wilderness. Steelhead will become a symbol of a healthy and functioning aquatic ecosystem. In my opinion, they should be more valuable than gold, platinum or oil. They should be placed in front of mines, roads, timber sales and this year's fiscal earnings. Water is one of the main elements that form our existence. Most of our body is made of it. If we don’t drink clean water almost everyday, we will die. If we can’t take care of the fresh water river systems that support wild steelhead then we are not working as good stewards of this planet. If we let wild steelhead fade out, we won’t be far behind.
Story: Mikey Wier
Photos: Justin Baillie
[With thanks to Bill and the Patagonia Fly Fishing team.]