“I don’t deserve that fish. I don’t deserve this day on this beautiful river. I don’t deserve to fish with these good men.”
I wade out into the rushing water of the Dean, farther than I should. The cold of the water grabs me around the waist. The current tugs at my footing. I feel the pebbles washing out from under my feet as they slide softly downstream against my will, looking for a home. I gather my running line and tuck it under my index finger, then I lift my thirteen-foot rod high into the air, anchoring my fly in the swift current in front of me. The wind blows and a cold mist creeps around my glasses and down my neck. I sweep the rod round, making a big D loop, watching the rod, keeping it loaded, then draw the butt back hard to my chest. I roll the grip clockwise so that the guides face upstream and watch the bright green running line draw shapes in the air against a backdrop of dark clouds, like a kid writing his name with a sparkler on a summer night.
The line disappears through the guides and nearly a hundred feet away I see the splash as my weighted fly meets the river. I mend the line and tell myself that my feet will find something solid as I step with the rush of water, once, twice, three times. On the horizon, just over the big log jam, I can see the silver band of salt, the Pacific. Below the next run and the next, maybe four-hundred yards. The river hasn’t far to go and it’s impatient, running like children to the tree on Christmas morning. They call this run Instant Backing and I know that if my fly finds its mark, I’ll see why. I carry my rod tip upstream until I feel the weight of the river on my line. Slowly I swing the fly, I feel the strength of the water, I wait for the pull, I stare into the river and I want.
The Atlantis Restaurant, in Cherry Grove, South Carolina, between Myrtle Beach and Cape Fear, is a stark little beach town pancake house. It is completely unremarkable. Shabby, in fact, but it has always been special to me. Every year, on my family’s Labor Day beach trip, my father and I would slip out to the Atlantis while everyone else was asleep for breakfast. He would have eggs, over easy and bacon and I would have pancakes. Since I was little I loved having breakfast out with my father. Just the two of us in the quiet of the morning. Our complicated relationship worked well, within the simple framework of breakfast.
My father has been gone a long time now but I still find walking into that pancake house comforting. For that reason and to share my memories, I took my wife there a few years back. I got more than pancakes.
The Atlantis is an odd place at best. It doesn’t suffer from any sort of interior decoration, let alone design. The walls are glossy white with blue trim. There are a few photos from some foreign country, maybe Greece, and an aquarium next to the register containing nothing but water and a few turtles. There are some hand drawn signs with a vaguely religious theme. My favorite is a dolphin with a voice bubble that says, “I love Jesus!”
The employees seem to be from somewhere far away too, but I don’t think it’s Greece. There is a young girl, sixteen maybe, who seems particularly distant. Thin and strawberry blond with freckles she has, what combat veterans call, a thousand yard stare. Not vapid exactly but not entirely present. She waits on my wife and me that morning. After my wife orders the girl turns to me. “I want pancakes,” I say smiling. “Really?” she replies as if truly puzzled. After a long pause in which she stares at me as if I were a painting in a museum, she asks,
“What’s it like to want?”
I was completely unprepared for such an existential question before I’d even had my coffee. Not that coffee would help me find the answer, but it does make me a nicer person. I consider the question briefly, on several levels ranging from, “is this the meaning of life” to “are you out of your fucking mind” before deciding on my answer.
“You know, it’s like when you want a tip.”
The pancakes are tasty, in spite of having surely been spit on and I want to think that I’ve put that question to bed, but I haven’t. Far from it. That annoying little teenager had done something to me. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. “What’s it like to want?” For the next few years I carry that question around in my head as a litmus test. I conjure up every blown decision in my life, every misstep that lead to unhappiness and asked myself, “why did I do that?” The answer is always the same. Want.
I look around me and suddenly I see it everywhere. Want. It’s like the air we breath. We are all consumed by want. It’s like the strings on a marionette, once you see them you can’t blot them out. They’re all you see. That little red-headed waif in the apron had looked right through me and knowing only that I like pancakes had said, more or less,
“Here’s your problem, stupid.”
The Dean River is moody, the kind of river that kills fisherman, at least one that I know of. It’s fickle and has a temper, not like the elder rivers where I’m from, that found their channels long ago. The Dean is young and impulsive. This week it has leapt from its banks, coming up six feet the day my group arrived. It has decided that British Columbia has far too many cedars and is carrying hundreds of them to the sea. The water is pulsing and violent. It seems to have a life completely independent of its banks. It feels more like the ocean in a typhoon than it does a river. Standing on the bank by the rapids of the canyon I can feel the ground shudder under my feet as if the mountains themselves fear the Dean.
That first day is a reckoning. Five of us have come to fish for Chinook Salmon on the Dean. No small undertaking. It took two days of travel for me. Two airplanes, four hours in a car, another two in a school bus over a mountain road cut by the locals and finally a helicopter to the BC West lodge. I came from Georgia. There’s my buddy Andrew from Seattle, Rob from Oregon, Richard from England and Serge from Russia. We have traveled together, laughed, told fishing stories and drank beer. I watch their faces turn hard and their tones become serious when they see the river. Like fools we are in our waders with our rods rigged. It is uncomfortable, just standing near that river, and there we are dressed to fish. We stay for a bit, watching trees float by, then go back to the lodge. It is clear that we will work for our fish, if we are lucky.
The first day we watch the river. We tie flies and make sink tips. We build fires and drink and talk about tomorrow. When tomorrow comes we fish but only to make ourselves feel better. Everyone knows there is no point. The river has dropped dramatically but it is the color of mud. Floating down river you can hear the sand and pebbles pinging off the hull of the aluminum boat. It sounds like fizzing champagne but it looks like chocolate milk. We fish hard and keep a keen eye out for trees, but to no profit. That would be the story for the first three days. No one complains. These guys all know that with fishing you are at the mercy of the river but it is a tough pill to swallow. The Canadian government will only grant foreigners a license to fish the Dean one week per year. This is our week.
Late on the fourth day I’m fishing a run very near the salt that Justin, my guide, tells me is called simply, “Oh Shit.” Justin is a tall thin Canadian who I’d guess is in his mid-twenties. He’s grown up with the steelhead and salmon on rivers like this and is clearly used to tough conditions. He’s as smart and fishy a guy as you are likely to meet and he’s pulled out about every trick in the bag this week trying to put the five of us on fish. It’s clearly starting to wear on him. The uncertainties of fishing are a guide’s trade and seldom rattle even a greenhorn but the uncertainties of clients are another thing entirely and can make a veteran guide more than a little uneasy. Guiding a group of guys who have spent a lot of money on a once-in-a-lifetime fishing trip and not having a pull in four days can be a crisis of faith. You know, it’s like when you want a tip.
Justin is doing a pretty good job of staying positive and we’re talking about the grizzly bear, that he calls Boo Boo, who frequents this spot as I fish through the run. My fly swings into the soft water below me and the heavy sink tip takes it quickly to the bottom where, for the ten-thousandth time, it stops on a rock. The muscle memory in my right arm makes it seem to have a mind of its own. There is something about this rock that my arm finds interesting and rather than toss the line over it to clear the fly it holds tight for five seconds, ten seconds, then I feel a single, strong throb.
“That’s a fucking fish!” I snarl through a tight jaw. Justin lets out a whoop and runs for the net as my rod swings hard to my left, putting strong side pressure on the fish, who is just figuring out that he’s hooked. I’ve heard plenty of stories about Dean River fish. Everyone says that they are the toughest fish anywhere. Their genes forged from thousands of generations fighting the torrent of that canyon, they are an evolutionary leap forward, the X-Men of anadromous fish. I’m prepared for a fight. I move quickly downstream so I have a better angle on the fish. I have a twenty-pound leader so I pull hard. He’s in the net in about a minute.
A steelhead, not a chinook. A buck, about sixteen pounds, pure chrome, no color at all. I doubt he’s been in the river a half hour. When I release the fish Justin throws his arms around me in a bear hug. He’d have picked my feet up off the ground if I’d been fifty pounds lighter.
My buddy Andrew is with us. We’ve been taking turns fishing. He fished the morning session while I took photos and I try to make him take the rod now. “I’m on the board man, fish,” I tell him but he won’t have it, so I take a few steps up stream and start again. On the third cast the fly stops again. It’s a small fish.
“Must be a dolly,” I say and horse him in. It’s a tiny chinook. I laugh and baby talk him, “Who’s a big scary salmon, who is?” He’s the size of a trout but he’s hard as a rock and his jaw is full of teeth. I ease the barbless hook out and I give him a kiss on the head then slip him into the soft water. “I’ll take that as a sign,” I say and hook my fly in a snake guide. It’s time to head in.
At dinner I wait for Andrew to bring up the fish and I keep my excitement dialed way back. Everyone is really cool about it and I hope that they will take it as a sign of good things to come but I know that everyone is taking a beating. I play up the little jack and comment that I have the small fish prize in the bag. Andrew tells me I still haven’t felt a real Dean River steelhead. “I know, I was surprised that fish didn’t put up more of a fight,” I say.
“Well, I hope the next one does,” Andrew replies,”I hope your arbor knot breaks.”
I’m secretly thrilled about the steelhead. We had come for chinook but for me an early steelhead is really cool. I want to catch a big chinook but my expectations are tempered. I have mixed emotions about salmon.
Pacific salmon are a fish that many anglers are conflicted about. Of the five species: chinook, coho, sockeye, pink and chum, only two are considered of interest. The sockeye, though tasty, is dubious as a sport fish because of the tactics necessary to catch them, while the pink and chum are thought of as trash fish. It’s implied in their names. The coho is a fun fish to catch, largely for its acrobatic fight but it’s a stupid fish that will eat anything and it’s not considered an accomplishment to catch one. The chinook alone is considered a trophy. Perhaps why he is also known as the king salmon. He is aggressive but not foolish. He is moody and unpredictable. He is not an easy fish to feed, and once fed, not easy to hook. Hooked, he is the fight of a lifetime.
The first chinook I ever caught was fifty-eight and one-half inches and weighed about sixty-five pounds. Although they have been caught as large as a hundred pounds, fifty is considered huge. They are an ocean fish with an ocean attitude. Fighting one is like fighting a tarpon…in a river. Of the chinook that are hooked, few are landed and many take fly lines or pieces of rods with them for their trouble. I’ve never come close to the sixty-five pound mark again. I no longer expect to.
On the fifth day things are turning around. The water is almost pea green and when you’re in it up to mid calf you can still kind of see your feet. It’s a big improvement. Rob lands a steelhead in the morning and Richard in the afternoon. The numbers are still tough. This river is known for truly great fishing. Guys come here because it’s not the lonely game that steelheaders are used to, but that’s what we’re seeing.
On the fifth day I land another steelhead and another chinook and break off a big fish. I feel lucky to have them and stay pretty quiet about it that night. I’m a little embarrassed to be so lucky. These guys are all good fisherman and deserve better than they are getting this week. They all deserve that big chinook and that’s what they want. We have one day of fishing left and I too am full of want.
The next morning I’m fired up. When I was younger I took up skydiving for a while and I remember feeling the same way before a jump. I’m fidgety and talking loud trying to get the other guys up to my energy level. I’m like that on the last day of a trip. Filled with a sudden sense of urgency. Feeling like something rare is slipping away from me. Trying my best to wring every drop out of the experience. It’s very likely annoying.
The general tone seems nervous. A couple of the guys hook up in the morning but no one lands a fish. I’m fishing the afternoon session. I spend the morning shooting photos and thinking about how I will fish in the afternoon.
By the time I get a rod in my hand I’m on the verge of spontaneous human combustion. The schedule is such that the afternoon session is short. Four hours minus the boat ride. I’m fishing hard and fast but thoroughly. Fishing every cast to the end of the swing. Expecting the pull at any moment. We fish through the first run with no reward and get back in the boat.
Justin drops Andrew and me off at Instant Backing. It’s the first time all week that the run has been fishable. The water is still high and it’s a tough wade. I wade as far into the rushing water as I dare, strip line from my reel and make a cast.
I am fishing like a demon now. Andrew comments that my casting looks really good. I’m still fairly new to Spey casting and he’s been helping me get dialed in this week and it’s paid off. I’m making long casts and taking three big steps with each one. I’m half way through the run when I feel a pluck.
It could have been a rock but I don’t think so. Not in that fast water even with twelve and a half feet of T-17 for a tip. I hold up where I am and make the cast again. There’s no pluck this time. This time it’s a full on grab. The fish comes high out of the water. It’s a big steelhead. I pull hard to the bank with my rod and wait for the reel to sing but it doesn’t happen. The fish is just lying on the surface, wallowing in the current. Dangling by a barbless hook at the end of eighty feet of line. She just won’t turn and run.
I know I’m in trouble. I clamber for the bank to try and get a better angle but I’m waist deep in rushing water. I only succeed in losing my footing. I stay upright but I gain nothing in leverage on the big steelhead thrashing at the end of my line. I reach as far as I can with the long rod and work to stay tight to the fish but it’s over in less than a minute. I stand there with my fly hanging in the current, looking down at the water, squeezing the cork in my hand. Why didn’t I loosen the fucking drag. It’s still cranked down for that big chinook I wanted to catch.
I regroup and wade back up stream a bit. I’m breathing hard. Maybe a heavier fly through that good water, I think. I change flies and start again but I’m rattled. My casting has gone to hell and my running line is tangling. I’m cutting my swings short, desperately trying to work the run faster. I hear the sound of the jet boat coming my way. It’s over. My week on the Dean is over on a lost fish.
I reel up my line. I hook my fly in a snake guide and loop the line behind my reel. I take one last long look at this beautiful place, the jagged mountain they call Scarface, the big log jam and the bright band of ocean on the horizon, the rushing water and the heavy clouds that seem to hang just above my head, the green cedars and the ones floating down stream, stripped of their bark, the color of skinned knees. I take a deep breath of cold clean air and feel the rain on my face. I listen to the singing river and the whistling wind and the humming outboard and I hear a girl’s voice say,
“What’s it like to want?”
I feel like an ass. I’ve landed four fish. Two of my friends have landed only one and two are going home skunked and I’m standing here stewing over a lost fish. What’s wrong with me? I don’t deserve that fish. I don’t deserve this day on this beautiful river. I don’t deserve to fish with these good men.
That’s what it’s like to want.
But that feeling doesn’t last. I’m back at the lodge having a drink with friends. Breaking down our rods, packing our gear, telling stories and planning the next trip. In the morning we meet in the dining room for breakfast. Belinda, the chef who everyone knows as B, is hard at work in the kitchen. The bags are packed, the coffee is good and spirits are high. Even the spirits of my friends who are going home fish-less. They laugh and tell stories as they drink their coffee. These are real steelheaders. I am glad to know these men. I hear soft footsteps behind me and when I turn to look I see B, smiling at me, holding a plate of pancakes.
I want for nothing.Louis Cahill Gink & Gasoline www.ginkandgasoline.com firstname.lastname@example.org Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!