Editor’s Note: Our Foundation President, David Moskowitz, prepares us for the summer steelhead season by enlightening us on his take of steelhead camping culture. To those who are part of this elite culture (gals as well as guys, by the way!), it is likely to evoke chuckles and many memories of experiences past. For those who are thinking about taking steelheading seriously, this piece could be part of your armchair orientation. Enjoy! LKH
by David A. Moskowitz
Well near as I can tell it is a place to take the perfect nap.
You have risen in the dark for coffee and the chance to fish at first light. You have likely had little sleep due to bad planning, good whiskey, bad weather, bad snoring, or heaven forbid, all four.
But you rise to meet the day, meet the fish, or at the very least, to ensure you will not be razzed by your companions for not answering the bell - meeting the call of a new day.
You may have some coffee or tea, maybe even a little bite to eat. Sitting in your chair or in your rowing seat in the dark, you watch the first light over the canyon walls, thinking quietly about where you will fish, how you will slow down and remember to breathe and do nothing else when you get close to the bucket. You may exchange a few words with your fishing companions, and you are up and out of camp.
photo credit - Rick Pay
And then you fish. Most times you fish hard even after a hard night.
In fact, most of the time, you do a bunch of stuff without food, water, brushing your teeth, staring at the mirror, etc. that you would never even consider doing if you were not in Steelhead Camp.
You poop in a bucket.
You stir your coffee with your finger.
You sit in a lawn chair in the rain fully dressed in waterproof gear as if at a neighborhood clean-up, the Rose Festival Parade, or a block party barbecue scheduled before July 4th.
You put on wet socks, wanting to save your dry pair for when it really matters.
You essentially "make your bed" which in Steelhead Camp means you put away your sleeping bag and any bedding you have in something waterproof - if your tent leaks or not. Or you put your gear under something heavy in case the wind decides to move your entire tent, cot and all your gear because it was not staked securely.
You put on a dirty shirt so you can "save" your good fishing shirt for when you stop for beer and pizza on your way home.
And afterwards, when the morning fishing is over, you come back to camp and you make more coffee, cook a full breakfast, and don't even blink when your buddy hands you a cold beer at 9:30 in the morning.
And if all this falls into place, you fall into bed (i.e. a cot, a sleeping pad, the passenger’s side of your old trusty Pathfinder, your cheap motel mattress, or even slumped in a camp chair).
So this is when Steelhead Camp is a place, because Steelhead Camp is definitely a very specific place.
But sometimes, Steelhead Camp is a state of mind.
You are focused. The timetables and your inner clock are wired to maximize one articulate, specific activity.
Yet the tone and behavior of camp often belies this inherent or even false focus. Your camp companions declare open season on your past foibles and present inadequacies. No one thinks you are suffering from early onset dementia when you tell the same story on three consecutive nights. You are suddenly endowed with a career counseling team if you are in a job or career transition. It becomes the least expensive yet often most effective marriage and relationship counseling session. Ever.
I love Steelhead Camp. It is completely acceptable to sit around and do nothing. No one questions your work ethic. The guys playing cribbage are viewed as active up and comers - going places - while you sit on your pale damp ass in a picnic chair. Steelhead Camp is like sitting on the front porch, or stoop - you really don't like the idea that someone else might be moving up, moving out or moving on - so you talk trash about anyone who is doing anything other than just sitting there with you.
It is about this time that you risk everything.
You pull out your fly boxes and decide to re-organize them. It doesn't matter if your with but one other fishing partner or in a big group. Re-org of the fly boxes from the "system" you created last season (because that organizing principle suddenly just seems foolish) is really truly a "declaration of war" to your fellow camp dwellers who want to sit and do nothing, including not feeling bad about being lazy. The shit will come, and not only that, there will be outright attempts to steal your flies or deeply question your new organizing principle. Worse yet, criticize your fly tying prowess.
A place. A state of mind.
Steelhead Camp is definitely always about your camp mates and steelhead buddies - and if you forget that I can guarantee they will remind you often and clearly that it is.
Most anglers – if they are lucky - have various angler circles - there is the core group of fishing buddies and often other groups of full-time fishing friends with their own core-group - who occasionally invite you to join them. And then there are the great unwashed - those not-so-close friends, mere acquaintances, brother-in-law’s, colleagues and even contacts from Linked In who know you are a serious angler. They sometimes refer to you when they talk about fishing with their friends in hushed tones "I have a buddy at work who is suuuuper serious about flyfishing......."). These guys are always angling to be invited to go on the trips you take with your core group of guys.
Inviting someone from another circle of serious anglers to join you on a trip with your core circle will get you in trouble with your inner circle. Inviting someone from the outer orbit of your fishing friends might even get you disowned. It is a really bad idea even if your domestic partner tells you it would be nice to invite a member of their family, or even good for your career to invite your new boss. Don't do it.
I would recommend passing on invitations or notices to the local fly fishing club and their "fish along" outings instead. The guys who plan and run these fish-alongs for all-comers from fly fishing clubs are the sport’s true superheroes. The industry reps ought to make sure these club guys get the sweet 50% discount on gear because I guarantee that they influence more people who are about to spend big bucks on the sport than the guides do. The fly fishing club outing chair or coordinators are our sport’s version of Mother Theresa. They deserve sainthood.
Despite how I feel about the clubs, I am not so fond of club outings that begin to look like Steelhead Camps – that scares me actually. And mostly because they often skip steps in The Process.
Steelhead Camp is often and even most often, a process. Camp is governed by The Process.
Steelhead Camp requires a series of stages - though not necessarily in any particular order - this is the process part.
First and foremost, there are the fish.
Rainbow trout gone wild.
River trout born to run.
Born free, as free as the wind blows.
Wild thing, you make my heart sing.
Where does a wild steelhead start?
An egg pushed out of a wild hen into gravels immediately doused with a buck's sperm?
The little egg that could turns into a sweet little trout. Most people - anglers or not - could not identify a baby steelhead from a rainbow trout or cutthroat trout or even a little baby Coho salmon. The little trout grows in its home stream, feeding along with the other small fishes, until it just needs to move downstream because its heart beats to a different drummer. The little rainbow trout journeys towards the salt with baby Coho and often sea-run cutthroat and under goes a transformation from freshwater rainbow trout to a saltwater breathing, tidal-pulsing, fire breathing dragon of a migratory and predatory missile in a wide wild Pacific Ocean.
Why, when, where they return to freshwater is what gives birth to Steelhead Camp.
So first there is the fish itself.
Next, Steelhead Camp requires a Plan.
A Plan that comes into focus over a phone call or a beer.
Once the Plan is hatched you will need Permission.
I list this second but it often does not occur until later. Much later. Often too late.
You need a List (we will come back to this one).
You need a Menu.
You need at least three to five calls or emails among the participants to make sure the Plan and the river conditions look good – though river conditions mean nothing to a well-executed Plan.
There is the Packing stage
There is the Errand stage
Generally Permission is requested when the packing, errand or planning stage becomes visible to those not going to Steelhead Camp.
Then there is the Travel Plan and Loading stage.
Hopefully you have secured Permission by then.
Then there is the Travel Stage in which the Travel Plan is implemented. However, if the Errand stage was poorly executed, the Travel Stage includes stops for cash, gas, coffee, batteries, booze, bad cigars and more ice. If it wasn't secured previously, Permission can sometimes be obtained during this stage as well. Permission, if it being sought at this stage, may also be revoked, but so far I know of not a single instance where loss of permission has resulted in abandonment of Steelhead Camp during this stage.
The stop at a fly shop is a different stage from both the Travel stage and the Errand stage, but occurs in a complementary fashion to both stages.
It is during the Travel stage that "adventure" can enter Steelhead Camp.
Adventure is equal to
Bad driving conditions
Poorly maintained trailers
Traffic regulations ignored
Critical items forgotten
Failure to secure permission
The Travel portion of Steelhead Camp is broken into the part of the drive between home and the river and the part of arriving along the river to the put in or to camp if you were car camping and not floating.
Then there is the Unpacking and / or Packing stage. If you car camp, you Unpack. If you are going to float, you unpack the rig and then you Pack the craft.
Generally you stand back and let the owner of the craft do the Packing. That does not mean you stand around and drink coffee and/or beer – because, Heaven forbid, you were not reading the mind of the boat owner as to which cooler or dry bag they needed to Pack next!
For some, Steelhead Camp cannot be reached until two things happen – one, you push off the boat ramp and you are on your way to Steelhead Camp; or two, if your car camping, you finish setting up your tent, or cot, or shade tarp or kitchen setup, and you grab a beer and sit down.
You have arrived in Steelhead camp.
The camps take many forms.
Valhalla Lodge on the Babine River of British Columbia. Mecca. The Taj Mahal.
Then there is Porn Camp- born in the mud and wet gravel and dripping ferns of the North Oregon coast where mythical chrome ghosts slide by along steelhead-green ledges and seams all just a few feet beyond your wet-to-the-elbows longest cast.
When the third day of heavy rain collapses your tent and your bag of dry clothes falls into an unseen puddle in the corner of your tent – that gives birth to renting a three-story beach house in Manzanita with a wrap-around deck, pool table with dead bumpers, a driveway meant for a single minivan now full with three cars and four boats within easy reach of multiple coastal chromer highways.
A dusty Subaru with Colorado plates packed to the gills with the entire life's possessions of an itinerant ski bum-trout guide-7-year-plan college kid parked in a pullout along the Mack’s Canyon Road on the Deschutes.
The orderly yet shifting group of anglers and their individual camping units sprinkled respectful distances from each other at Myrtle or wherever the camping is cheapest on the Clearwater River in Idaho.
The mountain biking - burley trailer-pulling couple riding up along the Lower Deschutes from Heritage Landing carrying everything they can - including toilet paper - but without a pot to poo in.
The tent cities that spring forth from jet sled or gear boat guides and bagmen in the prime camps in the prime season on the Deschutes, John Day, Grand Ronde, Salmon, Snake.
The Spartan camps of lone wolves in their unpainted, dented drift boats with an old picnic chair, a hammock, maybe a cot, more likely accompanied by a faithful hunting dog than a fishing buddy because they need the tug so bad they forgot how to share camp and the camp water with even their best friends.
The furthest downstream designated group camp site at Beavertail Campground on the Deschutes - perhaps one of the finest group camps in Columbia Basin steelhead country.
Two cots and a cooler on the shady side of a sagebrush pin-striped 4x4 in the searing heat at the bottom of the Kloan Road on the Deschutes.
The hallowed fly-in lodges on the Dean River with their effective, diminutive jet boats - Blackwells, Stewart's - names still used even though they have changed hands multiple times in the most recent decade.
The American-made wall tent camps on the Kamchatka Peninsula - flown in and sprouting from the tundra bogs - and assembled by vodka-fueled Russians curious about this large trout returning to their volcanic-grown pristine rivers.
The hundred-grand RVs lined up in Maupin City Park during September and early October on the Deschutes where cocktail hour is a grand affair.
A damp $25 per night two-bed room-for-four in a not-quite-a-motel where the floor sags and your waders don't dry before it is time to get after it again on the Sol Duc or the Hoh on the Olympic Peninsula.
A covey of tents around a small fifth-wheel that serves as kitchen, drying rack and poker room on the John Day River in the chill November darkness.
The list could and should go on and on.
All I know is that I am as happy as you can be when I am in Steelhead Camp.
It is a blessing that sometimes, it is a pretty simple place and state of being to get to.
@ Copyright by David A. Moskowitz July 1, 2017