I don’t write much about personal fishing trips I take but on Thanksgiving day 2016 I did one that seemed worthy of some photos and a telling of the days events. I don’t know if I’ll ever start guiding late season steelhead fishermen but I do intend to purchase another boat just for use on the river I’ve been fishing late every year. My current river runner is too large for use there due to engine size regulations so there’s a second jet on the radar for 2017.

With that said, here’s what happened. Ever since the end of the first week of November I’ve been aching to get back out to fish for steelhead. There were however a multitude of things which stood between the desire and making it happen. Not the least of which was getting ready for a winter that could be bad or mild and I’ll have to comment further on that come May but by November 10th ……………

There were the wood piles which are a big part of winter here.
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Gone are the hanging baskets of summer flowers and the rest of the pretty things and wood becomes the look of our home for the winter. We fill up the front porch so that in the thick of a storm you need not go far to find tinder for the fire. There were 2 other larger piles but I think you get the idea.

Then there’s the fact that in order to go after those fish at this time of year the destination is exactly 189 miles from home one way. Add to that the fact that in order to be there at the crack of dawn you must leave home at or before 5:00 Am and the plot thickens. The drive itself although long is made more challenging in that you are going to cross Turnagain Pass and you can count on at least 75 miles of black ice on the roadways so it’s not something I take lightly. All of this led to a great deal of procrastinating and further delays.

From many past experiences in the late fall I have learned a few things, one being that you must decide; drive all the way in your waders & boots or suit up in the dark on ice. Honestly, neither seems attractive but I’ve made that drive many times looking like a Simms rep.

With each passing day it became clear that we are not going to see the temperatures become mild for an unknown period of time and ice waits for no man. Now don’t think I wasn’t using the computer to check the weather down there, I knew things were getting crunchy on the river so I had to make a decision. What I came up with was a choice, drive down Wednesday November 23, fish, then stay over at an Inn and do it again on Thanksgiving day? You see Nancy has a week off between her on shifts so I knew she would be home until Thursday afternoon and could get away with the 2 day thing. We have scheduled Turkey day for December 2nd when everyone can be here so it was all a go for me. All a go until Wednesday morning at 4 am when I had to decide. It was 12 degrees here and just dark as it can get……..

So, a new plan, I wasn’t so sure I could do 2 days in freezing weather back to back so I booked a room for myself Wednesday morning and left around 2PM which gave me light to drive in until roughly 5 when it is dark again for real. You see we’re still losing 5 minutes a day here between sunup and sun down and that accumulates fast when you think about it, 35 minutes less light every 7 days to be exact.

The drive was uneventful all except the ice fog along the river road. The river is held up by 2 very large lakes and those lakes are the only reason the rivers aren’t frozen solid like my home waters have been for a month now. Although the water is only around 33* by my best guess (it was 34.5 3 weeks ago) that is enough difference when the air is at 10 degrees to produce ice fog and that made things interesting for a long ways.

I scored a room for 69.00 and it was a nice one so I went to bed by 9PM and was up at 5 the next morning. A quick run for coffee and I was all set. Returning to my room I checked all the tackle so that I had things in place before leaving for the boat launch. Oh, I didn’t mention that this was to be the first cold weather test for a Mokai and I tried to be prepared. I even had an extra battery and jumper cables because this was to be a negative temperature start.

I should have taken more pictures but did the best I could. This was about 3/4 mile from the launch.
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There was only a two degree difference at the launch of -4 so I didn’t bother as I had things to do, namely start the Mokai. It fired up and things were looking good. However I used jumper cables from the truck so I didn’t drain the little battery in this tiny watercraft. I knew very well that a dead battery when I wanted to leave could be a big problem so I played safe. I moved quickly and made a concentrated effort to ignore the ambient air temp. Dry bag with tackle – rod tube – PFD – net – ear protectors – extra gloves, check, all in the boat so I parked the truck and hoofed it to the waters edge. Solid ice there so be careful big fella…….. There’s an art to getting into a Mokai without dragging in a quart of water every time but I can’t tell you that it involves being graceful. My butt landed on the seat and I hit the throttle.

Start the engine and push off all before 9 AM, pretty good. Here’s how things looked as I began the long drive up river.
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That was a good view but as I went on for a couple miles there were areas with such heavy fog caused by the water being 33 degrees and air at -4 or there about that visibility was very bad. The problem is that as things get colder these rivers get lower, if you can’t see through the surface of the water you’ll find all the low spots for sure. About half way into it I knew 2 things. One was that I had bottomed out on a gravel bar and needed to check my jet intake and second was that I should have put a little HEET into my gas tank.

I stopped to check the intake and pluck rocks and did a little walking around to get the blood flowing.
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I choose that spot because of the log, you need to elevate the back of the boat to pick the stones out of the intake grill………. There was also some sun hitting there if you were tall enough. The whole business of having to get down on hands & knees to pluck rocks from the intake with pliers is made even more enjoyable by inclement weather conditions. After this break I resigned myself to staying only in the very center of the river channels and the current. This was due to visibility issues and the desire to not hit gravel again. It did slow things down because of that darn current………..

In case you’ve been wondering, ‘What’s a Mokai’, they are an 11′ 6″ kayak with a 36″ beam and a big cockpit. Mine both have a 7.3 horse power Subaru Robin 4 stroke engine in them and the crank shaft will turn the impeller at around 3400 rpm. The impeller sucks water through an intake under the boat and creates a jet thrust which will move you at about 5 – 7 miles an hour upstream depending on current. The motor on my riverboat is too large for use on the rivers where I was fishing so until I buy another smaller boat I use Mokai’s to get to the fish.

I snapped this while I was stopped there so I would remember the morning sun.
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It’s times like this that although I try to stay focused on the fact I’m doing these things so I can fish but my mind wanders off to a place where reality hints to me that what you are doing is crazy. I didn’t bother hanging my thermometer out, I’m not sure I had it but I really didn’t want to know. Back in the Mokai and onward to the promised land I went.

Arrival! I assembled my rod and remembered I should take some pictures but having hands out of the gloves was becoming something not so cool by now.
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It was a very cold place. I snatched the 13’6″ Sage One eight weight from the holder and slapped on an Evoke reel and quickly threaded things up. Next came a variation of the Wilkinson Sunray on a pro Tube and a jamb knot to secure the hook. When I looked down for my nippers I noticed my forceps’ were frozen.
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One more self portrait just so I was sure the smile was still there and I waded into the river. You know 33 degree water isn’t so bad if the air is actually 37 degrees colder. It wasn’t bad.

As I began fishing this is what things looked like in my stretch of sight.
Looking upstream;
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And looking down;
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Even looks cold huh?

Second cast I had a fish plucking at the fly so I dropped some line then slowly pulled it back to the length where the taps occurred. No dice, so I moved a considerable distance upstream which is my normal when I’ve had a fish show interest but not really hit the fly. I figure to give them some time to readjust and then to bring that fly back down. Another thing that may be worth sharing is that even when catching a fish seems important I don’t strike with the rod. I don’t do hand sets with the line, essentially I do nothing. Notice I said I felt taps? A fish tapping away at a fly does no harm to the best of all my experiences with this soprt. What will do harm is if you are wound so tight that you react to the first indication of a fish playing around. I’ve never been underwater watching but when they are short striking at a fly they may just be curious. Trust me, if they ‘tap’ too hard they will get onto the hook and you’ll know it when that happens but if you rip the fly away from a curious fish one of several things can happen. Worse case is you prick the fish with the hook and usually that may mean game over. Second bad thing is that you had a curious fish and when you ripped on the rod or line you have startled the fish sending an alert to the survival instincts. I find these things much more important when fishing a species that is in pressured waters and not so critical in a very remote area where the fish may never have seen an artificial fly or lure before. Even in the remote settings it is always beneficial to belay any reactions until the fish is definitely onto the hook. When there is weight on the line it is then time to tighten things up and try to drive that point perhaps a little deeper. Honestly I can say that 95% of fish I catch hook themselves and I just assist a little.

So where was I? Oh yeah upstream innoring the cold and the fact that I knew I had a fish about 30 yards below my in that bucket just down from that gravel shoal……. I went to the casting with hopes of finding another but never felt a thing until I started bringing it back down into the same bucket and……… There you are I said aloud.

I knew when the fish hooked itself and I put on some pressure, I knew it wasn’t a salmon. The jump and the runs are just different and you don’t have to catch a hundred steelhead to get that figured out. You would perhaps be amazed with how I handle this catching business. I’m not really interested in fighting fish although some make runs that require a little more attention from me than others I usually just turn and start for shore where I will be safe and have some soft water to land fish in. So I turned and unceremoniously waded to shore stopping only when the fish protested being towed along on the trip. It made a decent dash for mid river and I loosened the drag a bit and then resumed the trip.. I think I was about 80 or 90 feet out in some pretty heavy current when things got started so getting to a safe spot is important.

I got my feet onto the icy shore and pumped & reeled the fish into a nice backwater below a gravel bar, that’s when I got my first good look at what had grabbed the Wilkinson. It was only ten forty in the morning and I knew that if I didn’t touch another fish before dark the cold ride to this spot had been worth it.
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It wasn’t the thickest steelhead I ever met but was as long as the scale on the handle of the Nomad Boat Net which said an honest 29 inches maybe even a hair more so I was very warm at the time.
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Wouldn’t you know it, even people who live their life in a bubble believing that if they try hard enough things will work out can get a break on a very cold morning. The next couple hours were filled up with silver salmon who had gotten well into the spawning colors and were very aggressive. These salmon are one of the reasons there are steelhead hanging out in this portion of the river and it’s inevitable that some are going to attack a fly as it swings. Oh there were salmon and they can be a problem because every time you have one grab the fly you have to take it to shore and quiet water to deal with them and this day there were 8 to be dealt with. Figure it this way every one of them takes at least ten minutes from when it grabs – you wade to shore – get it reeled in and unhook it – check terminal tackle and wade back out to cast. That’s eighty minutes when you have roughly 5 hours to fish at the very most…….. That and you have no idea if there are more steelhead there because a salmon has the fly again. They beat catching nothing and the color wasn’t too advanced. I actually had a couple that raised quite a fuss.
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Maybe just one more memory of that first steelhead OK?
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I continued to walk up and fish down for another couple hours but never raised another trout. I dropped downriver at 1:50 PM, time flies when your fishen even when it’s cold and on the first cast into a fresh current rip I caught a second steelhead albeit way smaller and a bright hen it was still exhilarating when it went airborne. It was only about 16 inches I think, just a quick shot with the second fly of the day and I let her go.
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Before I knew it the sun was dipping and it was past 3:30 and I knew I had to go, cold hands and all so I took a few more pictures and got headed back down river.
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It was cold on the way down also, my waders froze pretty solid and my gloved right hand froze to the throttle on the way back to the boat launch. While I’d love to share days like this with others I also understand this was not a day that I can even imagine anyone I know enjoying.
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One more of me on the trip down river, it’s about 11 miles.
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I had to remove my hand from the glove frozen to the throttle and then peal the glove off when I reached the launch. I wish I had some video of me trying to get up out of the boat when I arrived. I’d been wading deep and my butt was frozen to the seat. Every time I tried to push myself up something was holding me down. My butt was about numb so it took a while to figure out what was going on. The frozen waders made it interesting as well. Really, I couldn’t bend my legs very well at all and was wondering if those Simms G4′s were going to hold up through this whole trip, they did. When I loaded the Mokai onto the trailer the temp at the river was 8 degrees so my suspicions were confirmed, it had not warmed up much between 9 AM and 4:30 PM. Those few degrees, all 11 of them were appreciated. It may not seem like much but there is a difference.
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Of course I didn’t remember to take a picture of the temp gage until I was almost a mile from the launch but you have my word it was cold.

So what was it all about? I knew I would catch a steelhead if I went. I’m not sure how or why I knew but I just did and I knew that at least one would take that Wilkinson tube fly. In the end it really was a mission, one that you had to believe in and when that first fish leapt from the rivers cold surface I forgot about the fog, the cold, and the difficulty a trip in sub zero temperatures can present you with. I enjoyed the day although it was short and a good deal of it spent just driving a 7 HP jet kayak 11 miles up a swift river. Would I do it again, you bet I will but I’ll have yet another extra pair of gloves and I’ll add HEET to my gas.

Today I feel like something is lost, that something is my 2016 fishing season. I know it’s over now and I need to find something else to dream about rather than the next trip searching for those fish. Only 5 this fall but I got an immense satisfaction out of each one and I will hope to catch a few more next fall / winter. There’s something else I feel today and that’s the numbness of 6 of my ten fingertips. Just a mild case but a reminder that I need to find gloves I can learn to handle line with. Today is December eighth and the fingertips are still a bit numb so be careful if your going to fish in the cold. I did remove my fingerless wool gloves for landing fish because I knew getting them wet would be a mistake. Another thing I had going for me was that I was using a 45 foot Super Scandi line with integrated running line and a 14′ leader. Add the length of my Sage One and I was not stripping line at all. The only reason I had ice in my guides was reeling in the fish. There’s something to be said for not having to strip in 40 feet of line before every cast I think :)

That’s that,

Ard

  1. December 11, 2016
    Susan

    Wow, you are definitely dedicated to fishing Ard. I really enjoyed your story. I also appreciated all of the pictures that went with it. I live in Pennsylvania now and it gets cold here too, but not like it does in Alaska. I moved here six months ago from Colorado. I am originally from Pennsylvania. Thank you for the great story about Thanksgiving Day 2016. My brother is a really great fly fishermen too, he loves it and goes every chance he gets.

  2. December 11, 2016
    Don

    Great story Ard. Tougher conditions than we run into on the Clearwater River.

    I’ve really enjoyed your Speypages articles (My Unconventional Way of Sinking Things, Controlling the Submerged Fly, Another Definition for Greased Line Fishing & How I rig the Leader). I’ve learned more from those articles than any other articles I’ve read. I especially learned a lot from your YouTube video “Streamer Fishing Techniques”. Great job explaining & diagramming the concepts.

    I used your suggested leader & tippet rigging in Nov & it worked great!

    Thanks for sharing.

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