Redbands, 9X9

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Photos by Dan Frasier

By Dan Frasier

“He wants to talk to you.” Mike, the owner of Orvis Northwest Outfitters, said flatly as he handed me his cell.

My guide. Colby, was on the phone and he had this idea. “Dude, I just had this thought that made me drop my toothbrush into the sink. We could go fish cutties on the CD, or… I’ve got this thing I’ve been trying to work out. We won’t see anyone and we may not catch anything, but if we do they’ll be big. Most I’ve ever gotten was 7. What do you think?” 

A guide asking you for your opinion on fishing a certain waterbody isn’t what it appears. He knows the water best, you’re paying him to know the right answer to that question and you’re effectively guessing. Him asking you your opinion doesn’t make sense. Of course, that’s because both of you know he isn’t asking your opinion. He doesn’t think you have any special insight into where the right place to fish is, and he certainly isn’t at a loss for where there may be some trout. Instead, a subtle communication is taking place. A dance, usually understood by both guide and sport. There is a risk to be taken here and a choice to be made. The guide is telegraphing to you that you have two choices, the sure thing that will be good and an uncertain thing that may be great. He isn’t asking if you think that particular stretch of river will be any good to fish. Your opinion on that is worthless. He is asking you how much risk do you want to take. Are you willing to gamble a full day on the water for the possibility of something special?

The answer isn’t as easy as it may appear. If you spend 100 days a year on the water, or are on some kind of headhunting mission, then yeah, you take the risk. But if you only get out on family vacations the risk of a fishless day may be too much. Or perhaps you’re looking for a nice wade over cobble surrounded by mountains more than you’re want to hang a hog. We talk about flyfishing like it is a spiritual experience catalyzed by convening with nature in beautiful places. Believe it or not, some people actually feel that way about it to. Of course, despite the poetry flyfishing puts in your soul, I’d put dollars to donuts I could catch most of you fishing a golf course if it held 22 inch browns; passing up the 9 inchers in the babbling brook 3000 feet higher up in elevation. 

I could tell by the tenor of Colby’s voice he was excited and I learned long ago that when a guide has something they’ve “been working on” you go. 

First, he needed to get his raft ready. We had intended to wade, but then he’d had this toothbrush dropping thought, you see. He called back 10 minutes later and he and Mike had a serious logistical discussion in tense words. It turned out he’d lent his hitch to a buddy and forgotten and couldn’t tow it. So we arranged to use Mike’s raft and truck. 

Then we lost the keys to Mike’s truck. A quarter of an hour went by as we checked every zipper, pocket and drybag that we’d been moving from Colby’s truck to Mike’s. Don’t worry, we found them. 

After getting gas we pulled down a long service road to a parking area that funneled down into a put in under an overpass. This arrangement meant the parking area was hidden from view of the road. This is usually a good thing. It means that only people that know it’s there, know it’s there. The problem was the beat-up Chevy Cavalier parked hidden in the boat launch. Two people sat in the front seat, a man and a woman, and the back seemed to be filled with all of their earthly belongings. Not well packed “We’re going on a 2 month romantic road trip” belongings, but rather piled high with things like bags of kitty litter and assorted loose junk.

These boat launches can be sketchy places.

They represent some kind of pseudo public parking area where cars are left unattended for hours on end. On top of that, they are often in out of the way places and infrequently monitored. So all sorts of people just looking for a place to park, or worse, looking for unattended cars can congregate there. It makes leaving your truck and it’s trailer a testament to just how badly we want to fish, because you wouldn’t leave it there to, say, mow a lawn. 

As we rigged up the car backed out of the actual put in, moved to the side of the lot and stopped. The couple got out and pretended to be looking for something in the backseat. It was pretty clear they weren’t in a good place. Probably meth heads. It took us longer than they thought it would to get wadered up, rigged up and put the raft in. The entire time they pretended to be engaged in something benign but the longer it went on the more obvious it was they were just waiting for us to leave. Colby and I did discuss our trepidation at leaving Mike’s truck there and floating on down the river but hell, it was Mike’s truck afterall not ours. And there were these big fish to be had.

For those of you who haven’t fished out of a raft, there is a process to launching. The raft is slid off the trailer and into the water and then a hand pump is used to top off the air. There are multiple air intakes to blow up so that all sections of the raft are taught and buoyant. On the last intake I’d made about 3 pumps when the air pump just fell apart. Honest, it just broke in my hands. Colby checked the section I’d been inflating and luckily it was alright, still a little squishier than you’d like, but serviceable. 

The more things went wrong, the more excited Colby got. “The water gods are trying to keep us off this stretch. This is going to be epic.” We were finally ready to launch. 

The water we floated was completely empty of anglers and totally alien. Long stretches of fast moving deep water over a featureless stone bottom gave the impression you were floating in air 6 feet above a bedrock highway. Fish darted deep beneath us, untouchable in the vast expanse of deep cold. These sections were huge and unfishable. There was no way to locate fish and no feature to concentrate them. It was just a wide, long featureless stone slab with many feet of bathtub clear water sitting on top of it. The river slid effortlessly across this stone table until it was time for it to step down a couple feet in elevation. 

There the river would froth and rip as tumbled stone pinched it and the flat bottom fell out from underneath. Here there was foam. Seams, eddies and pockets appeared for a short stretch. In each holding spot one large Redband Rainbow held. 

And so, for long stretches we floated along chatting about Colby’s impending fatherhood, about the nature of work and the pursuit of happiness; hunting with our fathers and places we’d fished. Rods were stowed and beers were opened as we chatted and floated lazily. Then, as the tumult approached, hooks were loosed and line stripped from reels and a silence would fall over our partially inflated craft. Sliding over the step, the chaos in the river would beget chaos in the raft. Oars were dug to hold us as flailing casts were made to allow for desperate drifts before the opportunity was lost. And we caught them. 9 holding lies, and 9 Redband rainbows. None under 17 inches. God what a day.

Dan Frasier
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6 thoughts on “Redbands, 9X9

  1. I love the balance of quality interaction between people and landing some quality fish. I think it makes for a truly complete day of fly fishing.

    • I agree Bob. When I think back on trips past, with guides or buddies alike, there are good trips with lots of fish but a less than stellar human connection. And there are good trips with a stellar human connection and few fish. Both of these trips are worth repeating, but they don’t leave the indelible mark that a trip with a quality fish and a great connection. I’ve fished with people who became my best friends and people whose name now escapes me, very little of which has to do with the person being ‘nice’ or a competent guide. Sometimes there is just an explainable symbiosis that takes good fishing to a great day.

  2. Ahh, my nephew, Colby, is stellar. Thank you for sharing your day with rest of us. You know, those who are often locked behind four walls with a bunch of strangers who just don’t understand the real meaning of a god day!

    • Colby is the best. If I were related to him, Every birthday and Christmas present I asked for would involve a raft, a river and a long conversation.

  3. I’ve been privileged to go on a few of these “guide option” trips, and my response has always been, “Let’s go for it!” There was never a lot of fish caught, and there was never a huge fish caught, but it always turned out to be a great time. Thank you, Dan, for the reminder of wonderful days afloat.

    • You’re welcome Les. Guide Option trips are the best. When they’re excited about the possibilities, it portends good things.

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