Not long ago we celebrated our daughter Ingrid's 18th birthday. Hilde baked her a low-calorie cake, and we talked as we sipped champagne. We gave Ingrid the usual parental speech about the obligations that come with legal adulthood, and, to her credit, she sat through it patiently. Then she asked me an interesting question:
"Tell me the truth now, Dad. Which was more exciting 18 years ago, the steelhead or me?"
Ingrid was born in 1967 in Ashland, Ore., on a particularly warm Feb. 26. To explain her question, I'll recount the events leading up to that memorable day.
Through late summer and early fall, nearly every afternoon and evening, and all day long on weekends, I fly-fished the Klamath River for steelhead. I knew little about fly-fishing and less about steelhead, but I was determined. I also had a $12 fiberglass rod, and a reel that was even cheaper. On the reel was a well-worn fly line that had cost a dollar at a garage sale. I also bought my flies in those days—juicy bugs and Golden Demons—for 500 apiece, and I used them until they fell apart. I caught exactly nothing on the Klamath. I never had a strike.
Around Thanksgiving I switched to the Rogue River. In no less than 150 hours of fishing, I hooked two steelhead and lost them both. In January I began to fish the Applegate, a tributary of the Rogue, about 40 minutes from my home. This rather small, fast-clearing stream is fishable more often than larger coastal rivers through the stormy winter months. I went there on cold, clear days when ice froze in the rod guides, during violent rainstorms and when snow fell so thickly that I couldn't see across to the opposite bank. Bait fishermen were catching steelhead up to 12 pounds on salmon eggs and night crawlers. Lure fishermen were catching them on Spin-N-Glos and silver wobblers. I made at least 10,000 casts on the Applegate, and I never drew a strike.
This brings us to Feb. 26, 1967. Hilde was expecting momentarily. "I know I shouldn't go fishing today," I said in what I hoped was a noncommittal tone.
"It's O.K.," Hilde answered. "Go on. Don and Mary [friends who lived across the street] said they'd be home all day."
"Well, O.K.," I said. "If you insist. I'll only be gone a couple of hours."
Forty-five minutes later I parked beside the river, just beyond the town of Ruch. When I reached the first good pool, I ran into four men who were packing up their gear. "We've been fishing this spot since daybreak," one of them told me.
"How'd it go?"