A Clearwater Christmas

by Tom McCoy

Students of geography and steelhead fishing will instantly recognize the Lewis-Clark Valley of Washington as the intersection of several storied steelhead rivers, most notably the Snake, Clearwater and Grand Ronde. I have the great good fortune of having family that homesteaded in that area. Many of them, my mother included, still live there and provide the Christmas meeting place for the extended family. For my nearly five decades of existence I’ve spent Christmas in this sporting mecca.

On Christmas Day there were a few hours between familial social engagements, and my wife, noticing my unsettled behavior, banished me from the house, demanding I go hit a river for a few hours. Poor me, what is a guy to do? Despite the abundant river choices it was an easy decision. The Clearwater had been cruel to me this fall; totally unyielding to be truthful. So that’s where I decided to go. It owed me one.

Clearwater, Christmas Day

Selecting a run however was not so simple. Driving upstream there was already a rig at Lower Hog Island; the Gravel Pit was open but a long walk to the river. When I got to Gibbs Eddie with no one in sight, I pulled over. Not only is this a great run, but last Christmas it had given me a couple of hookups, and my cousin Jeff had landed a fish in the 16lb. range. Also, the parking area is close to the river so changing rods, lines, etc. would be simple. A good thing when you have five T&T rods and a bag full of lines with you!

Next, what could seemingly be a big decision – selecting a rod – was actually very simple. One of the tubes held the first Thomas & Thomas DNA 1498-4 ever produced. Last fall on the Clearwater I had fished it almost exclusively, coming to believe that if ever there was a rod made for this River, this is the one. A perfect machine.

Hmmm, which line? Dug though the bag and strung a Gen. 1 Nextcast Winter Authority 55 8/9 onto the 40lb. OPST Lazar running line. This is a fantastic dry line setup but I had never cast it with a sink tip. In the interest of science I grabbed 14’ of T8 to replace the floater, knowing that it would get me as deep as I could ever want to go, but uncertain how the line would cast it. Just had to find out – you know, science. A fresh length of 12lb Ultragreen and I was almost ready to go. Now the hard decision. I opened one of my fly boxes and studied the contents. Following a brief but boisterous internal deliberation I selected a black and blue, size 6 Anderson’s Euphoria. Little more than a big soft-hackle if you are not familiar. The tan version had been devastating on the Methow in October so why not the dark version here in December? A quick loop knot and stepped thigh deep into that other world of cold-footed zen.

On the dangle on the Snake 2 (cropped)

The conditions were favorable. Overcast skies, temperatures in the mid 30’s, so no iced up guides, good water visibility and modest flows. Only occasional snow flurries and a meek downstream breeze reminded me that it was late December. Now for the scientific experiment. I stripped out the whole head and let rip with a single, carefully watching how the sinktip turned over. Not perfect but not bad. Time to fish. Working out one pull at a time, pretty soon I was reaching my target slot about 100’ out and swinging it back slow and deep, stepping down with each cast. Flow in this particular run slows very gradually in the downstream direction and the occasional hanging up on the bottom at the end of the swing would snap me out of my blissful zone. As the hangups became more frequent I started thinking to myself, Ok, only a few more casts and I’ll recycle to the top. Finally, I reached the point where I was exclaiming aloud “This is it. Definitely the last cast”… BUMP… “See, already ticking bottom before the end of the swing”… BUMP, BUMP. Not until the big Marquis 3 started making that timeless sound, singularly unique, unmistakable, like the sound of a rattlesnake, did I realize that I wasn’t hung up on a rock, I was hung up on a steelhead! Giddyup.

Being the dead of winter I wasn’t expecting aerial combat and didn’t get it. Instead it gave me a down-low seesaw type fight. Give 30’ then take it back. Couldn’t be certain how big a fish it was but there was a pretty good bend in the 1498 which is no withering violet. With a flash of insight I thought it might be time to take a picture. But you know how that goes, fumbling with a camera with one cold hand, angry fish, slippery rocks and cold water…..then the follow up flash of insight harkening back to past experiences: “hold on, I can see where this is going; let’s not get too cute here, take care of business before this ends in unintentional immersion therapy.”

By the time I got my first glimpse of the brute it didn’t look that big, say 7-8lb, but given how much pressure it was withstanding I couldn’t be certain. About all I could tell was that it was a melon headed hen. Slowly, I worked her in till the sinktip was near the rod tip. Now the seesaw was down to 15’. At this point we fairly well reached a stalemate. I’d sorta been putting the wood to her the whole time but she evidently didn’t believe the story I was telling. When at all possible I prefer to lean on’m and turn’m loose with as short a struggle as possible. Evidently this particular fish had an alternative strategy. Finally, after groping for her tail a couple times I was able to get a grasp and the game was over….sort of. Tried to get a couple glamour shots but she wasn’t quite ready to cooperate so I got what I could. Before sending her on her way I was able to measure her against the handle of the rod and she came in right in the vicinity of 32” with pretty big shoulders. Suddenly it was clear why the struggle was more hotly contested than your typical Methow River fish. She was about twice the weight of the fish I typically pursue. Finally, the Christmas present the Clearwater owed me.  After all, I have been a good boy, haven’t I?


T&T Ambassador Tom McCoy lives with his family in Winthrop, Washington.

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