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Editor’s Note: FCO Board Member Jim Hillas sent this story back in the spring and I thought I would hold on to it to whet your appetite for late fall steelheading. It’s been a tough season with the heat, the smoke and the dismal fish counts. I hope Jim’s story takes you back (for some it will be WAY back) to that first tug and run. It sure did for me. LKH
First Kiss on the JD

I am sending a few belated pics from my steelheading trip on the John Day last November.  It marked my first (and second and third) steelhead on the fly so I have very good memories of this outing.  Six prior trips on the Lower Deschutes, the Trask, the Nehalem, and the Clackamas had yielded nothing but a few bumps and blown opportunities.

I went with fellow FCO member Rick Pay and two other anglers on the Rattray Ranch property near Condon.  We fished with guides Corey Koff and Martin Ciszek of Marty and Mia Sheppard’s Little Creek Outfitters.  This stretch of the John Day was recently acquired by Western Rivers Conservancy (a recipient of FFO auction funds) and is soon to be transferred to the Bureau of Land Management, so it’s anyone’s guess how much longer it will be available for private trips.

Our first day on the water was November 17.  We loaded ourselves and our gear into the guides’ pickup trucks well before dawn and ground our way down a rough gravel road for about 45 minutes before reaching the river near Thirty Mile Creek.  Frost coated the vegetation in silver and gray, and a mist hung over the river. Rick and I were paired up with Corey for the first day.  After rigging up my 13’6” Spey rod, I stepped in at the top of our first run (the Equipment hole) and started swinging a blue and black wet fly - I believe it was a Hohbo spey.  The sun slowly emerged over the canyon wall and began to dissipate the mist.  I reached the (not very far) extent of my casting comfort zone and began to step down the run.  Corey patiently offered suggestions for improving my casts and reminded me to mend my line.  Occasionally, mind and body worked together to produce acceptable, even graceful casts, less so after Corey headed downstream to check in with Rick and bad habits reasserted themselves.  

The John Day is stunningly beautiful, and I found myself easily distracted from the task at hand by birds in the air and the play of light on the rugged canyon walls. But the current speed and water looked great, and I was starting to feel like this might be my lucky day.   I was well toward the bottom of my run, nearing the end of the swing when I first felt a bump.  Barely suppressing my “trout strike” reflex, I dropped the loop of line I was holding in my rod hand and held my breath.  Line slowly started to slide through the guides until I was tight on the reel.  I lifted my rod tip and felt the fish shake its head, then begin to run.  Corey heard the reel scream and began heading upstream as I played the fish.  A few heart pounding moments later after some exciting runs and splashy jumps, the fish was tailed and I was posing for a picture with my first steelhead caught on a fly.  Maybe 5 or 6 pounds, it was relatively modest compared to winter-run monsters, but it sure looked good to me.  My hands were still shaking when I started casting again.

My second fish came perhaps 45 minutes later, as I re-stepped down the same run.  The fish took the same fly, but much earlier in the swing and it ran hot.  I was somewhat surprised to see that it was smaller than the first.  Later that morning, we headed upstream to meet up with Martin and the other two anglers.  The Butt Crack run is long enough to accommodate four lines, and we had some time before lunch, so Corey put me into the water at the top of a slower pool.  A dozen or so casts in, and I was fortunate to hook and land my third fish of the day.  Three steelhead in one morning is one of the better fishing days I could ask for, and I know it is not my new normal.  But if a steelhead is the “fish of a thousand casts” then by my count, I still have a few more coming. 

Jim Hillas

Flyfishers Club of Oregon - Literary Angler

Flyfishers Club of Oregon - Literary Angler

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