Sunday Classic / The Fish Gods and The Temple of Swing

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The Swing is the Thing Photo by Louis Cahill

A steelhead is caught one way and one way only, on the swing!

The temperature of the room is getting kind of warm. The fishing banter takes on a surly tone when one of the guys mentions bobber fishing. This is steelheader slang for nymphing under an indicator. “I’d rather see bait guys out there,” someone says. The room falls silent when I chime in with, “trout fishing is trout fishing”… What I have done, in essence, is light a match to see just how bad this gas leak is. Everyone knows that when you’re in the Pacific Northwest, in the Temple of Swing, surrounded by the faithful, you never ever call a steelhead a trout. The room is silent for a bit while they size me up, then my buddy Jeff breaks the silence. “The Fish Gods are going to punish you for that”.

Jeff Hickman lives just a half hour outside of Portland on the banks of the Clackamas River. He guides the Clackamas and the Deschutes. He’s a tall soft spoken and thoughtful guy. Tough as cut nails with a deep and unshakable passion for wild steelhead. He’s as pure a purest as you will likely find but humble and in no way an asshole about it. A live and let live kind of guy. You do what you do, and he’ll do what he does, and at what he does there may be no one better. Jeff has told me for some time that I’ve never caught a steelhead and I’m here to change that.

I was almost certain I’d caught steelhead before now. I think I’ve even seen photos of myself holding them, but I was mistaken. Jeff cleared this up for me. First of all, obviously, those fish in the Great Lakes are not steelhead, they are trout. (I’m just repeating what I’ve been told here so hold off on the hate mail.) As I said, those fish are trout and we don’t catch trout, we are steelheaders. Secondly, a Kelt (a fish which has spawned and is headed back to the salt, AKA a down stream fish) does not count. This fish is an abomination and should be got out of the net as quickly as possible. Steelhead should be bright as chrome. A colored up fish can still be counted as a steelhead but it’s nothing to be proud of. Neither is a hatchery fish, regardless of how bright. Steelhead should be wild. Lastly, and most importantly, any fish caught under a bobber does not count and is a disgrace to all fly fishermen. A steelhead is caught one way and one way only, on the swing!

OK, I’m making this sound worse than it is. All of this ribbing has been done in fun and friendship but in all seriousness this week I am here with a purpose. I’ve come to the little house among the fir trees, on the banks of the Clackamas, with the chainsaw carved steelhead in the yard, the place I call the Temple of Swing, to do one thing. Catch steelhead on the swing. I’m in Spey boot camp. I will stand in the rain and snow with my waders leaking and I will catch steelhead on the swing or not at all. And as anyone who’s fished for winter steelhead knows, “not at all” is always an option. The guys bring up a friend who is not present. “Have you heard about it?” someone asked. The tone is suddenly somber. “Blanked since Christmas, he hasn’t had a fish this year.” Everyone shakes their heads and looks into their beer. “Yeah, that’s tough.” They’re all sorry for the guy but that’s not the reason for the somber tone. They all know it could be them. The Fish Gods are vengeful.

Jeff may have been kidding about the Fish Gods punishing me, or he may not. It’s hard to tell. He takes his fishing karma seriously. After a while you get the idea that before making any decision in life, no matter how far removed from the river Jeff asks himself, “how will this effect wild steelhead?” Everything with Jeff is a process and nothing is done the easy way. From the espresso made every morning to the vinyl LPs in the evening, to the hundred year old Hardy reel he gave me to fish because it has good karma. “There’s a lot going on in this game” he tells me. “You either get religious about it or it makes you crazy”. Steelheaders spend way too much time staring at the water wondering what’s going on down there. Rationalizing, personifying, questioning their beliefs. You can’t stare too long at the river, you start to see things. I’m too far down this road to start questioning the Fish Gods or the sanity of religion. I’m blanked my first day out while everyone else lands fish. The Fish Gods are angry.

My second day out doesn’t go much better. I get a tug or two but no commitment. I put the rod down for a while and shadow Jeff, taking photos. He’s been teaching me a lot the last two days. My Spey casting has improved immensely and I understand the swing a lot better now. Some of the lessons are a little foggier. It’s reminiscent of the TV show “Kung Fu”. I expect Jeff to ask if I hear the steelhead swimming at my feet. He swings a fly through a tasty run for the hundredth time and says “oh, feel that? Feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck? It’s about to happen.” For the record, the hair was not standing up on the back of my neck and the whole thing would have felt contrived, except it did happen. With that rod in his hand, and that connection to the fly, doing the very thing he’s done tens of thousands of times, it had just felt right and there was the fish. It was eerie.

That night, back at the house, I’m turning over a Doors album on the turntable when Jeff tells me, “you know I don’t care if you fish a bobber”. Was this a test? “Do you have one with you?” he asked. “I do, and a box of beads and a bunch of other shit you don’t want to hear about” I answered. “Go for it man, it’s cool, I want you to get a fish”. “No” I said, “I’ll stick to the plan”, but I tied up a leader and got my indicator rig set up anyway. I wanted to get a fish too. The next day was my last shot, and that morning was a moment of reckoning. I walked out the door and left the bobber at the house. I was going to catch fish on the swing or not at all. If the Fish Gods wanted a sacrifice, so be it.

I had an eat that morning and totally farmed it. I was so keyed up I tried to set the hook as soon as I felt the pull and took the fly right away from the fish. I felt stupid. I felt like I didn’t deserve a fish but I kept at it. I swung again and again telling myself, sometimes out loud, “be ready to do nothing”. It was my mantra. I kept swinging and chanting, “be ready to do nothing”. I tried to feel the fish. I thought about the water. A human being is sixty percent water. If I concentrate hard enough maybe I can tap into my water. Maybe I can reach sixty-five, even seventy percent. The fish won’t know where I start and the river stops. I will be one with the river. I stared at the water, ready to do nothing.

About lunch time the second pull came and I was ready. When I put the hook to her this time it felt good. On the other end of the line there was a heavy throbbing, this was a big fish. She broke the surface, a big chrome hen, and took off on a blistering downstream run. I put side pressure on the fish and made my way to the bank so I could follow her but before I made it she was gone. “Oh Man!” cried Jeff. “What happened?” “I don’t know man, I had her.” He shrugged, “well, only half of the steelhead hooked make it to hand, no matter who’s holding the rod”. I stepped back into the run and took up where I left off. On about my fifth cast the fly stopped mid-swing and the hair stood up on the back of my neck, fish on! This one stuck and Jeff came down to land it for me. It was much smaller than the first fish, a buck and colored up, a hatchery fish at that, but a legitimate steelhead by anyone’s standards.

Photo by Jeff Hickman

“See,” Jeff smiled and nodded, “the Fish Gods tested you. They took that big hen away but you stuck to it and got right back in there and they gave you this guy.” I laughed. It felt good to hold a fish. I stuck to it and I was rewarded a couple of more times that day. In fact, it was a great day all around. The sun even came out and for the first time all week the jackets came off. The Fish Gods were not vengeful after all, they were fair and benevolent Gods. They just have lessons to teach, there at the Temple of Swing.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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