What the heck is a Stehekin anyway?

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I have a confession to make.  I used to hate fly fishing.  That may sound a bit harsh, but  I do come by my aversion naturally.   My dislike of fly fishing started on my tenth birthday when my dad wrenched the fiberglass Fenwick pole and Mitchel 308 reel out of my hand, pressed a bamboo 7 foot rod into it, tossed my Folgers can of worms into the water, walked me to the edge of Ward Creek and told me to wade into the freezing water and start casting.  I stood there shivering,  pitching a line into the water over and over and over in order to learn the finer points of the single-handed cast.  “It’s like throwing an apple off the end of a stick!” my dad yelled at me from the bank, as if anyone had ever put an apple on the end of the stick to throw it.  I never really got it.  Oh, I got the casting and stripping and all that because I am, after all, a very, very handsome and naturally gifted athlete with God-given superior hand-eye coordination, but I never really understood the appeal of it all.  I wasn’t catching, I was casting, and it felt a bit to me like the fish had the advantage.  Standing waist deep in a swirling river that was trying to swamp me so the fish could peck at my eyes as I washed down river never felt all that enjoyable or natural.  It always seemed to me that I should be pulling fish out of the river and not the other way around.


I’m the one in the Xtratufs

It just wasn’t  all that fun, and not only wasn’t it all that fun, I always felt that there was way too much to learn to even begin to think it WAS fun.  The sheer volume of skill and knowledge my dad said a fly fisherman must possess to cast a line to catch a fish far outstripped my persistent ADD and I always found my mind wandering to the question of why can’t I just put a worm or an egg onto the end of the hook and pitch it out into the current?  If the end goal is to catch fish, this is certainly easier and by far more effective.  Silly me.  If a fly fisherman were to do that, not only would he be looked down upon by the other men dressed in waterproof, yet breathable, lederhosen, he would be called a BAIT fisherman by those same angry men, held down, and have his special card forcibly removed from his wallet, torn into pieces, and cast upon the fetid, stained and tainted bait-fishing waters of his shame and no one wants that.

If done correctly, however, fly fishing is an art form and one that even a bait fisherman can appreciate.  It is beautiful to see a fly fisherman use a whippy stick to cast a line onto calm water.  But there is science behind the art and it’s not just any old fishing line being cast, mind you, but a special fishing line that can either fully float, fully sink, partially float or partially sink, be weight forward or double tapered and all fly fishermen are required to know the difference and when and where each is to be used.  There are also countless types of leaders and tippets that attach to the floating or sinking line and multiple knot variations used to attach each to the other.  The line also has to perfectly match the size and weight of the rod (do not call it a pole) if you want it to actually work well.  These rods come in different sizes, weights and pieces ranging from a two piece, seven foot, one weight to a four piece, nine foot, fourteen weigh.  There are multiple variations on this theme and you must know what it all means and which to use to catch whichever species of fish you plan to target (notice I did not say catch, because that rarely happened in my experience).  Pair the wrong line with the wrong rod and disaster could strike or, at the very least, you will look like an idiot.

A skillful fly fisherman must also have expert entomological skills (not to be confused with etymological skills, though using the proper swear words when your line wraps around the same miniscule tree branch for the third time in a row is important too and very useful to have in your personal bad word tackle box) so he can identify every single living creature in the water, know its life cycle and how to mimic it using nothing more than elk hair, twine, tinsel and parts off a dead chicken.  The mimicking part is much different than the fishing part and is a special kind of torture enjoyed by a wide range of people as they sit in the dark recesses of their basements and “man caves,” or “she sheds,” (yes, women tie too) illuminated by a single light, only coming out long enough to wander down to the coffee shop in hopes of getting into a discussion with other masochists about whether a purist would ever use rubber legs on a stone fly or if using an egg or worm pattern isn’t actually really just bait fishing.  It’s different than voodoo, but not by much.

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The reward also seemed so, how do I say this… unrewarding compared to the sheer amount work one has to put in to get a fish to even look at the mimic (also known as “the fly”).  This imitation of the real is attached to the end of the tippet and used to attract, or in most cases, amuse, the fish when not tied correctly.  I guess if you enjoy the skill of it one might find it enjoyable, but if you actually wanted to catch fish, I used to think that you’d get better results trying your hand at bow fishing or noodling.  I thought fly fishing was akin to hunting for geese, but before you got into the field you had to build your own shotgun, make your own shell casings and gun powder, and pour molten lead into tiny molds to make your own shot.  When all was built you then went into the field blindfolded and if you happened to bag a goose, you ran to it in the hopes that you hadn’t killed it.  You then hold it in your arms until it catches its breath, take a picture of it and let it go.

This last part is called catch and release and is akin to dating in high school and is considered honorable among fly fisherman, but is a source of contention between Dream Crusher and me.  I catch big fish, but if they have an adipose fin still attached the law requires that you release them back into the wild so they can make wild babies (as opposed to hatchery babies), but for the life of her she cannot understand how I can spend an entire day catching fish and not bring home anything to put in the smoker.  She questions my manhood and the truth of my stories and swears up and down that I keep showing her the same picture of the same fish I caught on week one and that I really only go out on the boat to smoke and drink with my fishing partner, Dave, which isn’t the whole truth because I quit smoking years ago.


Smoking is my passion

However, something happened to me a few weeks ago that changed my thinking.  I’m not embarrassed to say that I’ve repented and that my change in heart has sent me scouring the interwebs for things like double tapered floating line, net magnets, felt-soled wading boots, head cement, and hackle capes.   I’m blushing a little, however, because I wasn’t even an agnostic, I was a full blown, unbelieving skeptic, but on that day, as I heard the preacher preaching what he was preaching, a beam of light fell upon me out of the stormy clouds as the wind whipped violently around me.   I jumped out of my seat, ran the aisle, and fell at the altar of the single handed cast and asked what must I do to change my evil ways and catch fish like man was meant to catch fish?  And Doug said, as he looked kindly into my eyes and placed his hand on my shoulder, “My son let me introduce you to the Stehekin River – a river so beautiful and so clear that it takes the breath away – and to fish so big that when they rise out of the water to take the dry fly, the echo of its body crashing back into the water will sound off the canyon walls for a full two minutes.”  I bowed my head and wept silently.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back in January I was approached by my friend, Aaron, who works for an amazing ministry called Family Lines.  You might remember Aaron as the omni-competent guide from my post a few years back when Allison and I went on the Owyhee River together and I tasted death multiple times and found God.  He asked me (Aaron that is, not God) if Molly and I wanted to go on an amazing fishing trip and talk about our father/daughter relationship, along with two other father daughter pairs.  We agreed and off we went, neither of us knowing much about fly fishing, who we were going with, whether any of the Family Lines staff had any weird diseases (they do spend weeks on end in the wilderness), where we were going, how we were to get there, or what on earth we were going to talk about.   All we knew is that we were going, that we were going to talk, and we were going to fish.

None of my kids had ever really fished growing up (although Allison did catch a number of big fish in her college years with Dave and me, and if she’s around, I still rub her head when we make a run to the river) and by every stretch of the imagination I would have been considered an Idaho dead-beat dad because I live in the most huntable, fishable, campable state in the union and never did any of it with my kids.  We never went hunting or camping or fishing except for that time when Idaho had a free fishing day and I took the boys and we caught one hatchery raised rainbow trout on a piece of corn and we got free orange hats, but the girls never fished once.  The closest they came was the time we went crabbing at Rockaway, which was fun, but not fishing, and so I really had no idea that Molly even liked to fish (I’m not sure she knew either) until Dave and I took her Steelhead fishing last year.

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First Steelhead

As we were slowly backing the boat into the glory hole on the Clearwater River (it does have a name which I am not at liberty to divulge), Molly sat on the engine cover and talked to me as I ran the kicker.  “How you doing, honey?” I asked.  She had just moved back from Boise and I was thrilled to have her on the boat.  “Good.  It’s really nice to be out in the fresh air.  It’s really nice to be out in nature. This is pretty.”  She said all this with a kind of wistful voice and a sigh as if she was fine, but bored out of her mind.  Then all hell broke loose and a huge Steelhead grabbed the plug – aptly named Dr. Death – and she grabbed the pole and the fish tried to drag her off the boat and down the river.

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Maniacal gleam

There is something magical and terrifying at the same time when you have a Steelhead on your line and it tries to rip the pole out of your hands.  They fought to the death, literally, for ten minutes and by the end, when Dave netted the fish and said “It’s clipped,” we all cheered and Molly turned to me and she had that maniacal gleam in her eye that I had only seen once or twice before (see the Allison comment above).  She held the enormous Steelhead up so Dave could take a picture and it was huge and so was her smile.  At the end of the day I asked if she wanted to clean it and as she gutted it I heard her giggle a little and then my licensed cosmetologist, make-up artist, fashion-forward daughter held up the pile of fish eggs in her perfectly manicured hands so I could take a picture and I realized at that moment that she was hooked.


So, I wasn’t all that sure she was going to like fly fishing.  In my experience fly fishing produced miniscule fish and the chase always seemed to be more important than the actual size of fish you caught.  The fish I’ve seen are pretty, dainty, delicate creatures that “fight” for a while and then roll over and sit quietly while they are taken out of the bamboo net to be photographed and no matter how close you hold them to the camera everyone can tell how small the fish is by comparing it to the size of your hands and unless you have Manute Bol hands no matter how close to the camera you hold the fish everyone can tell exactly how big the fish is and no matter how much you want people to think you’re holding a raging beast between your thumb and forefinger everyone knows that you are actually only holding  a very tiny smolt no more than a few inches long.


Manute Bol hands

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against smolt. In fact, without smolt, Molly wouldn’t have caught that Steelhead.  Smolt turn into big fish that I use a big boat (it’s actually Dave’s boat and he runs it) and large rattling lures to catch and then muscle up to the net and hold  close to my body because they are too heavy to hold out to the camera.  Then I  (sometimes Dave does this) whack them on the head (if they’ve had their adipose fin circumcised) and throw them in the fish box, grab my steaming mug of hot tea (I only drink tea because coffee does bad things to me) which is almost as manly as drinking thick, black coffee (okay, it’s not, but it tastes really good, especially with sugar and cream – okay, non-dairy creamer, actually, because dairy does bad things to me – and besides no one can tell that I’m not drinking coffee once I take the little baggie out of the cup using the cute little white paper flag), take a swig, push the button on the TR-1 (sometimes Dave pushes the button), let out the lines, and then I am (and Dave is) fishing again… for large angry fish.


Dave and me and an angry fish

So yeah, I was a little worried that Molly might not like fly fishing and, after a long ferry ride and her first afternoon on the Stehekin, I was worried doubly so.  As she sat on the rocks waiting for others to get tired of catching nothing and start back to camp, she looked for all the world like she wished she had cell reception.  “It’s beautiful, it’s nice to be out in nature, it’s nice,” she looked as if she wanted to say; only this time there wasn’t a S0teelhead to break into her reverie… or any fish for that matter.   She probably wasn’t exactly bored, but tall majestic mountains and a beautiful, rushing river are good things to look at for a while.  They are good things, but they are not fish things.

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No cell reception

Fly fishing is challenging on a calm day, and any kind of fishing is difficult on a windy day, but fly fishing on a very windy day is almost impossible because no matter how hard you fling the line it comes shooting back at you like a wispy ball of tangled yarn.  If by some miracle the wind lets up a bit and you do get your fly line to lay down on the water, the wind whips the trailing line and drags your fly down the river like it’s got its own engine and the natural presentation of the fly is ruined and more than likely so is fishing for that day and we had wind in spades – high, gusty winds like you hear about in the scary tales of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Stehekin River is quite possibly the most beautiful river I’ve ever been on and I’m from Alaska where big beautiful rivers are a dime a dozen, but as we forded the same stretch of the river on the morning of the second day and the same high wind was trying to push me over and the river was trying to lay me down, I really couldn’t see the beauty in it and started wishing for my spinning gear and a flat calm lake while sitting on Gertrude McDudieface, my Boston Whaler.  However, Mindy, our excellent and faithful guide, pushed us on and kept up her cheerful banter and patiently switched out flies and leaders in hopes of getting us on the bite and though I had one fish rise to my strike indicator neither of us caught any fish and as we trudged back through the turbulent waters a quote from Nacho Libre came to mind, or a variation thereof, “The Stehekin is a lie, Steven… A LIE!”

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Casting into a headwind

It wasn’t as though I was in a bad mood.  I wasn’t.  After all, I was on a trip with my daughter in a location with no cell coverage.  I was surrounded by great people in a great place with great food and as we sat around the dining room table waiting for Jon and Doug (two amazing guides and friends) to get back from scouting our new afternoon fishing location, we warmed up, ate a good lunch, and had some really good conversation.  I was in good spirits, but the hope of catching any fish was quickly waning and even though I was told that the Stehekin was better even than the rivers of Montana and the rivers in Montana are so legendary that they wrote a book and made movie about them, I had never heard of any books written about the Stehekin.  At the end of the meal I was beginning to wonder if the scenery, the food, and good conversation was really all that I had to look forward to for the next day and a half.  I was mapping out my plan to make it a five pound week if it was.

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After lunch I squeezed my skeptical, well fed and breathable wader-clad-body into the van and in my food induced coma I almost missed the fact that we turned the other way on the road coming out of the ranch.  It was warm and my less-than-toned-and-tanned body jiggled merrily away as the van rattled down the road, trying to lull me to the point of sleep.  The banter going on in the van was pleasant and as I watched the river slide by I realized that I shouldn’t have had three cups of tea and a glass of water at lunch.

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As I trotted off into the woods to take care of some business, Mindy got our gear ready.   When I got back everyone was already halfway up the road to our fishing spot and as I caught up to them I realized that Doug had been assigned to our little band of The Three Amigos and I was kinda sad that our little troupe couldn’t have just wandered off to make our own way.  However, I figured that Aaron thought that we were so hopeless that we needed two guides instead of one. There were no fish in this river anyway so what did it really matter if we had one or two guides, but Aaron knew better.  Doug is an amazingly kind, soft spoken and gentle man, but he WAS the one who said the Stehekin was better than all the rivers in Montana and so I looked at him with a wary eye and as we walked I lagged behind and, to my shame, I abandoned Molly to the guides and fished another patch of dead water that I thought looked promising.  I really had no clue.  Little did I know our education was about to begin.

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I was a little discouraged, but mostly resigned to not catching fish and as I wandered over to where Doug was teaching Molly the finer points of how to let the line swing to the end of the float and use the pressure of the water to bend the rod and gently lay the fly back upstream in one fluid motion, I prayed “Lord, please let the daughters catch fish today.”   It might seem like an odd thing to ask for, but I know my God loves to give good gifts to his children and so I thought I might just bring it to His attention.  I would have been happy either way, but much happier to have caught fish.  I’m kind of selfish that way.

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I know this will be hard to believe, but moments after I said that prayer and on the very next cast, Molly caught nothing, and on the next cast she also caught nothing, but on the next cast she caught the biggest nothing I had ever seen.  No fish, nada.  However, Doug calmly continued to point to the water and teach and take a few steps upstream, teach and move, teach and move until Molly was in a fly fishing rhythm with every cast falling more or less where Doug wanted it.  Mindy and I just kind of watched and listened.  Then it happened.  Molly’s cast landed in a seam in the river about three quarters of the way across.  She stripped line and lifted her rod to keep the strike indicator moving at a natural pace.  It was a beautiful thing to watch and I might have teared up a bit. She had just dropped the tip of the rod and was about to pay out line when it hit.  Her rod bent double as the huge Cutthroat tried to pull the rod out of her hand and she set the hook like she had a giant Steelhead on, and, in doing so, yanked the fly clean out of the fish’s mouth.   I can imagine that the Cutthroat at that moment must have thought, “What the heck was that?!”

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I whooped, then wheezed, as the air went out of me and I went from elation to dejection in the span of a few seconds.  It was like an entire baseball stadium heard the crack of the bat only to realize that it was just a very loud and long foul ball.  The rod dropped to her side and we all kind of groaned… everyone that is except Doug who took a few steps upstream and told her to try again, only this time to use a bit more finesse if she hooked another fish and reminded her that these weren’t Steelhead.

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A few steps and a few casts later she laid her line onto a beautiful pool in the river and let the fly swing through the tail out.  Moments before she was going to flip the line back up stream a solid Rainbow crashed her fly.  She didn’t panic, but raised the tip of her rod and with gentle pressure set the hook.  It fought hard and tried to get tangled in an old tree snag, but Molly moved quietly away from it, holding the line tight and with what looked like a practiced hand, guided the fish to Doug’s waiting net.  I’m not sure who had the bigger smile, the student or the teacher.   I could see Doug talking to her as he unhooked the fish and left it sitting in the net which he had also left in the swirling water of the river so the fish could continue to breath.  She nodded, wet her hands, then gently lifted the rainbow out of the net and both of them turned to me and smiled for a picture.  Then she lowered her hands into the river and the trout bolted for freedom either to be caught, or not, another day.

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This may sound dumb and simplistic, but as I stood there I realized that fishing is a great analogy for fatherhood.  To someone who loves almost nothing more than catching fish, watching Molly land her first large trout, I realized that, simply stated, being a dad means you find greater pleasure and enjoyment out of watching your daughter catch a fish than you do from catching one yourself.  It’s very simplistic, but I think it correlates pretty well to the father/child relationship.   As a father almost everything I do for my children is because of one thing and that is that I find more pleasure in seeing them succeed than I do in my success, and I do love to succeed.

Molly caught a lot of fish that day and as we were getting ready to head back to the ranch Doug told Molly that not many other people had caught fish and if anyone asked how many she had caught, just tell them “a few.”  Well, he didn’t tell me not to say anything and so after we got back to the ranch and someone asked me, I did a toned down version of my victory dance, then lifted my shirt just enough so they could see the ten tiny hash marks I had etched into my belt with my knife and I just smiled as they whistled through their teeth.  Okay, that last part isn’t perfectly true, but she did catch ten and they were beauties.

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The next morning we made a b-line for the “Magic Kingdom” as it was dubbed, and for a full day we did nothing but catch fish – and magic it was.  The river was teeming with life.  There were thousands of red, spawning Kokanee that scattered as we walked through the water and large spawning Chinook that shot up the river like wild teenagers looking for a date and the sheer number of big trout looking for an easy meal gave the place its name.  We were sheltered from the wind and the sun shone through the fall leaves making the water sparkle and we never wanted that day to end.

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Thousands of Kokanee

We were late to dinner that night and the wait staff wasn’t all too pleased that many of us ordered off the menu instead of the hotline, but we were satisfied with the day and didn’t really care that our food might have not been treated with the best hygiene by the unhappy cook.  We lined up at two picnic tables and ate our meals and drank our hot coffee (tea for me) and our weariness was tempered with great peace.  I listened as everyone recounted their highs and lows of the day and there weren’t really many lows.  As everyone was talking I leaned over to Doug and said, “Thank you so much for teaching my daughter how to fish.  She had a great time today.  I’m a little worried though because I think you might have created a monster.”  He just smiled and shook his head a bit.  “I didn’t create a monster.  I just released the monster that was already in there.”  No truer words were ever spoken.

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Cast of characters

That night the skies opened up and dumped a deluge of biblical proportion onto the ranch. The wind whipped and howled so that I thought the trees would fall upon us.  As we packed the next morning for the long ride home, the canvas on our cabin roof and windows snapped and popped in the wind and I added an extra layer.  We ate quickly and loaded our stuff into the van and as we pulled onto the road, the clouds broke and the sun came out and reflected off the swollen, muddy and unfishable Stehekin River.

After two glorious days on the best river in the world, the window of opportunity to fish it had slammed shut.  Had we arrived a few days earlier or a few days later, the fishing would have been very different.  As I said, my God loves to give good gifts to his children and He certainly gave a great gift to us that week.  As we drove home Molly and I talked for the entire five hours about the trip and the friends we had made and what was discussed on camera and about the fishing.  We were both tired, and each of us had a pretty good load of caffeine on board, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it.  We were experiencing the warm afterglow of an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime trip.  We both want to come back to the Stehekin again next year, but one never knows what a year will bring.  As I sat there, the nose of the Tacoma pointing east on I-90, listening to my beautiful daughter talk and laugh, it struck me how much our relationship had healed and I realized in that moment that this trip could never have happened a year ago.  It was a beautiful gift that God had given to us, but especially so to me.

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