Above a long, churning rapids the river widens to 40 yards or more. The slick is divided in the middle by a small rock island, and the steelhead lurk near the opposite bank, in deep water, close against a rock ledge. The only way to fish the spot is to wade out to the island, which is difficult to do even in low water, and cast across from there.
I parked and took a look. And that was when I saw it, hardly moving. At first I thought it was a Chinook salmon, but I had never seen a salmon hold there. They generally prefer the deepest, slowest pools, while steelhead like more movement to the water. Besides, this fish was slim and light-bellied for a salmon. I stared hard for a minute, and was absolutely certain. It was indeed a steelhead—a hook-jawed, silver-bellied male of at least 40 inches and 20 pounds.
I was selfish enough not to tell anyone else about my find, and that night I tried for it. The water was still too high for anyone to wade out to the rock island, so I was sure that no one else would fish that spot. I waited until just before dark because that would allow me to use a heavy leader; in that light fish would be less likely to see it.
By nine o'clock I had fished my way downstream, landing three steelhead along the way—one at Lower Archie and two at Wright Creek. With the fish hitting as well as that, I thought I had a good chance to raise the big one, if he was still where he had been that afternoon.
I retied my leader, shortening it to nine feet with a tippet of 10-pound-test. I tied on a No. 2 Skunk, which is by far the most popular pattern on the Umpqua, and carefully sharpened the point of the hook until it would dig into my thumbnail under the slightest pressure. I had my 9½-foot Russ Peak fiberglass rod and a Hardy Perfect fly reel with a weight-forward 11 line and 200 yards of backing behind it. My waders reached up to my armpits, and the snow-tire studs in the soles of my boots would give me traction on the slippery rocks and ledges. I was ready.
I had already decided to keep the fish if I landed it. I could rationalize killing it in a number of ways. It was a male, and plenty of other males would survive to spawn with all the females. And this would be the largest steelhead ever landed from a river rich in fishing tradition. Who could blame me if I showed it off? If I released it, who would believe me when I told about it afterward?
By the time I started out to the island it was so dark that bats and nighthawks were swooping over the water for insects. I couldn't see the bottom, and I had to wade diagonally upstream over slippery boulders and against a fairly heavy current. The only way to do it was to make sure one foot was planted securely, then step ahead gingerly with the other. It took about 10 minutes to cover 20 yards that way, and I slipped twice, taking in a quart or two of cold water over my wader tops.
When I reached the island I found a secure handhold and pulled myself up, then sat there resting a minute or two. I felt temporarily secure on the island, which was about 10 feet long, five feet wide and a foot and a half above the water at its highest points. I was certain that the big fish was still there, and I was so nervous that my hands shook when I stripped out line to make a cast.
Ordinarily it would have been necessary to sit or kneel on the island to cast, to stay low and out of sight. But now in the near-darkness I could stand. Steelhead can be caught using any of the dry- or wet-fly techniques that work on other trout, but the standard procedure is to cast a fly across and slightly downstream, then keep the line straight and the fly moving slowly and smoothly as it swings across the river below you. If you have to wade in up to your chest and cast 60 or 80 feet across currents of varying speeds, a good presentation can be next to impossible. All I had to accomplish was a simple 50-foot cast from a convenient platform.
I made two short casts to begin with, just to get the feel. The fly drifted perfectly down and across the channel between the island and the opposite bank. On my third cast I stripped off five more feet of line and brought the fly—which was about six inches beneath the surface—directly over the ledge where I had seen the steelhead.