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Friday, September 26, 2008

Northern Exposure;The search Continues....Part II

This time of year when the days begin to shorten, the leaves begin to tinge with color, and the air has at times a genuine chill in it , those of us who are passionately attached to the thrill of the fall run of salmonids start to get antsy ... really antsy. We get out the heavier rods , clean up the reels, and sometimes just gaze at the gear we are so anxious to use. It just can't come soon enough. But unfortunately as early September drifts into mid-September and the rivers are nothing more than trickling creeks , despite the unseasonably cool temperatures, we know we are expecting too much too soon ... or are we? Well 15 of us who decided otherwise, took matters firmly in hand recently and took decisive action to rectify the problem. Here in northeast Ohio mother nature is setting the stage for the bounty to come , but just a few hours north of here in the upper great lakes there is a wild party in full swing, and it seems that just about every salmon in the Big Lake was invited!

The Garden River is by no means just around the corner, and it took a real commitment of planning and logistics to arrange the travel and rustic "accomodations" for 15 , not to mention the actual transporting of the faithful. But the power of the mental image of the reward to come was more than enough to sustain us through the hardship of sleep deprivation and hours on the road. Once we arrived at our campsite on the banks of a river that was positively vibrating with running , leaping and splashing fish as they heeded the inexorable call to migrate by the tens of thousands, there was not a man among us who felt his fatigue.

Day one began for most of us with only a cursory nod to our campsites and our gear, preferring instead like kids on Christmas morning, to surrender to the excitement of the gifts and abandon all sense of poise. We donned our waders and threaded our fly lines entirely secure in the knowledge that all of us , every one , just couldn't wait for the moment that our rod would bend and animate with the connection to the life-force of so beautiful a creature... No need to be bashful in our enthusiasm here.

As I waded into the river and caught my first sight of Pink Salmon in so many numbers , I literally had to catch my breath. It is almost hard to know where to begin in the face of such abundance. The bear tracks I stepped over and the huge moose tracks around the next bend gave me pause and time to take in the sense of the North American wilderness in its inestimable beauty. I looked up and counted no less than 10 bald eagles circling overhead with their white pates reflecting the sunlight like halos. Undoubtedly they had their eyes on the smorgasboard that was swimming all around me. As beautiful as it was around the river, my attention just could not wander long from the scene in the water. I quickly established myself in a hold that interested me and began to swing streamers. The "Garden" is a great place to swing, and my plan for the weekend was all about finding the big fish and enticing them on streamers - sculpins , bunny leeches, and tube flies. As far as I was concerned , the Pinks that fell for a streamer would be welcome bonuses. And fell they did , by the dozens. No question, they were more easily had on nymphs or other patterns that were dead-drifted, but what fun on the swing with a big black bunny leech! At any rate it was the Kings that I really wanted. And they were there , scattered about in groups of 2 or 3 or more ,... some holding , some sparring for dominance, staking their territorial rights , and some... crushing flies!

Finding the players was the first level of engagement. Swinging the fly by the group and watching for the fish that shows the interest. That is , the one who faints towards the fly or chases and sometimes outright slams it. After the player fish is identified it can be plied with repeated presentation . Once hooked an angry King is an eminently worthy opponent. Not quite the speedy acrobat that the steelhead is , it is nonetheless mercilessly powerful , tearing line off your reel and ignoring your drag, it feels as though you hooked a passing freight train. It requires skill and strength to turn , tire , and bring to heel. What a fantastic challenge.

As the first day wound down and darkness approached, a front moved through and it began to rain. Lightly at first , it gradually grew more intense. I stayed on the river alone through the dinner hour, opting instead to chase a pod of Kings that were clearly becoming more active and aggressive by the minute. As I was releasing the first one of the pod I hooked , I Iooked up to see three of my friends approaching, rod in hand. It was that time of day, and they were not about to miss out on this opportunity at angry Kings, storm or no storm. As the rain poured down , we had a great time in the remainder of the light, whooping and hollering and taking turns hooking these wonderful fish as they chased and assaulted our tube flies.

By the next morning the rain had stopped and though the dawn came late through the lingering grey of the clouds , we got an early start. As the constant splashing and thrashing from the river through the night had suggested, fresh Kings had moved up, and all day continued their upstream push, looking like speedboats as they shot through the riffles sending up a spray and a wake. The day went much the same as the previous one had , finding the players and fishing to them with swung streamers. Many more fish were taken by our group , some in absolute trophy size.

With the waning of the afternoon came the time to strike camp and head home. The only regret of the weekend was that it was too short a time, but my consolation is that next year is already on the books and reserved. So when it is time to crash that salmon-party ... I'll be there!

Thanks to both Ben and all their friends and family for their tremendous hospitality .. they are fantastic hosts!

John Clouser
SAO steelhead guide

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