More than a decade ago, while spending a summer working at the Steamboat Inn, a fishing lodge in southwest Oregon, I listened in on a late-night conversation concerning the combination of qualities that would constitute the "ideal river fisherman." Haifa dozen knowledgeable anglers, fueled by bourbon and enthusiasm, worked the subject over for an hour or more and finally reached general agreement: The ideal fisherman would have to be an expert caster with bait, fly and spinning gear but wouldn't use anything other than flies unless conditions made it absolutely necessary. He would be a strong and daring wader, with the stamina to stay on the water from dawn until dark in any weather. He would have the almost mystical gift of being able to "read water"—accurately predicting the holding and feeding spots of fish—even in unfamiliar streams. And he would also be blessed with exceptional vision, enabling him to detect even the faintest surface disturbances caused by rising fish and the vague, flickering movements on the river bottom that indicate fish holding deep down.
It struck me as a sound definition, and I've found myself applying it, for better or worse, to fishermen I've known and watched through the intervening years. This past November, though, after spending a couple of days with the Okie, my notions about the ideal fisherman changed.
First, "the Okie," as I use it here, is definitely not derogatory. It's what the gentleman in question likes to be called whenever he fishes away from his home state. He loves Oklahoma and enjoys having people know he comes from there.
He's a retired teacher, powerfully built but with a rather formidable paunch, a nose like Jimmy Durante's and the twang of a country and western singer. His principal and passionate pursuit is fishing—anytime, anywhere—and when I pulled into the parking lot of the Neptune Motel, in Port Orford on the Oregon coast, just before dark on a Sunday evening, he was, as usual, talking to another fisherman, a tall young man with a reel clutched in one hand and a fly rod in the other.
"Oh, they caught some this morning!" the Okie was saying as I climbed out of my car, a little stiff after the four-hour drive from my home in Ashland, Ore. "Why, you might have hit it perfect" the Okie said to me as we shook hands. Then he went ahead with his story, talking now to both of us: "I've been here two weeks, and this was the first good day yet. It's been raining. It's been blowing. But today that river lowered and cleared and the sun came out. I got over there a little late, and they'd pulled 12 or 14 Chinook out of my favorite pool, and a few more came out this afternoon. I haven't gotten any yet, but they're there. Thirty-pounders! I saw them laid out on the bank. Good fish! Bright fish! They're beautiful] Chinook! King salmon'."
"On flies?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah!" he said.
"I fished the Winchuck and the Chetco all weekend," the young man put in. "I saw salmon moving upstream, but they wouldn't hit."
"Oh, these in the Elk River hit!" the Okie assured us, his smile widening. "You might have hit it perfect'." he told me again, bringing a large fist down hard on a fender of the nearest car for emphasis. "I'm glad I called you! I'm glad you could come!"
In August, I had run into the Okie, an old but not a close acquaintance, at the Steamboat Inn—I was up to fish for the day—and he told me about the Elk River, wrote my phone number down and promised to call from there in the fall when it looked as though the salmon would be running well.