Unicorns and Trout Unlimited

I started the week by leaving the comfort of my cube life to venture north into the headwaters of the Yakima River. Traveling the distance with my boon companion Dannyboy is a treat since he loves to travel as much as I do. Our first leg took us to the canyon of the Yakima River below Ellensburg, where we camped out under the stars. If you have a chance to make it up that way for any reason, bring your fly rod and camera because this place is special.

On Wednesday morning, I met up with a couple of new friends who actively work the Yakima Headwaters and want to start a Trout Unlimited Chapter. Darek Young and Erik Hayes are some great people – period, but not the end of the story. Their passion for the waters they call home is as profound as any people I have ever met while being involved with TU. They so happen they thought my adventures here in Central Oregon could help propel the rest of the community to get involved in changing the culture and foster new leadership to step up and create a positive change for these headwaters’ future.

We spent the entire day on the Yakima, floating along, casting lines, having libations, and spending a lot of time discussing the different issues we all share when we decide that what is happening isn’t nearly good enough. We have the opportunity to do better. That is not to say there isn’t any good work going on; we find that there is more to do and each of us has the opportunity to help however we can. All it takes is raising your hand, pulling up a chair to the table, and saying, “I want to help, and this is how I can.”

As I said, we floated and fished – that never means you catch, but in case you were wondering… Yes, a couple of beautiful Westslope Cutties came to hand this day.

That evening I got to cross off one item on a generalized bucket list of places I always wanted to visit. The Brick in Roslyn is just one of those places you have to visit if you get the chance. Yes, this is where Northern Exposure was filmed, and yes, the mural for the Rosalyn Cafe is there – but The Brick is where you go in this town of 900 if you want to experience what it means to live in this area for multiple generations.

The crowd gathered and got lubed up on local libations and frosty beverages from around the Northwest. Darek gave a brief outline of the new Chapter’s vision and then introduced me to the group. In attendance were fly shop owners, guides, outfitters, local anglers, and businesses who find themselves at a crossroads for the Yakima Headwaters’ future. Their issues are as complex and varied as most places I have seen, but the common theme always is present in these gatherings: We want to make a change.

I presented items from our successes last year, including the Bend Fly Fishing Festival, the Marshall High Program, and of course, the Fish Salvage efforts we made in the Fall of 2014. Great questions were asked, and I hoped that I provided the push to help this area work toward some fantastic accomplishments.

Darek, Erik, and I had some breakfast the next morning and went over the previous evening. All said and done, and they tell me my efforts were exactly what the group needed to take that final step forward. It turns out that they could get full commitments from a large group of people who will comprise their board, with officers and committee chairs. While I don’t take credit for the efforts they have put in to get these people rallied to their cause – it was gracious for them to say I helped make it possible.

Pulling up an app on my phone, I saw a strong chance that a stronghold for wild steelhead was reaching a perfect confluence of flows and temperature. That being said, while sticking around in Washington to fish, some more might be a great thing – I was itching to chase these magical creatures, so I headed south.

For the past few years, I have made a conscious effort not to chase these fish. They are a threatened and endangered species in the West, so my reasoning always came back to, “Well, I could also go hunt Bald Eagle, but why?” This year I decided that to protect these fish and the fisheries where they live, sometimes you have to allow people to see these places and the unicorns that live there. Then they can appreciate why I do what I do for them, and hopefully, by bringing awareness to a broader audience, we can protect them.

I spent the day driving to meet up with a staff member of Trout Unlimited who graciously offered to let me stay at his place on my way to the enchanted river where I would get a chance to see the mystical creature we call a steelhead. Now I have caught steelhead in my life, but never with the conservation-minded. I have developed over the past 5 years of my life as an angler. It so happens that this staffer for TU is involved with a new initiative called the Wild Steelhead Initiative.

If you haven’t already visited the site and seen the amazing amount of work that went into creating the atlas showing winter and summer steelhead ranges on the west coast from Mexico to Canada and into Idaho, do it. These atlases show you the range and depth that these marvelous creatures inhabit and provide you information about what conditions affect their habitat.

On a similar note, locally, we face a steelhead issue that we can be part of. At Opal Springs resides a dam where the municipal water utility Deschutes Valley Water District operates. An agreement was created during their re-licensing of the dam under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). In contrast, the water utility wanted to modify their ability to generate power and create a fish passage for steelhead into the Crooked River system.

Historically the Crooked River and the tributaries at McKay and Ochoco Creeks were prime habitats for spawning steelhead. Yes, these fish are being re-introduced into the system, and therefore not a wild strain any longer – but eventually, these fish will have free travel from the Columbia to these spawning areas, making them wild again.

So there I sat on the river, which contains the largest run of wild steelhead in Oregon. Thinking about all the people I have met over the past few years, the future of conservation-minded anglers who are coming forward all over the Northwest saying, “I want to help!” and dreaming of taking the skunk off my Spey rod.

The fundamental difference between steelhead and trout fishing came to my mind as clear as the bright blue sky, “If I had to suffer this much and fail this much to catch trout – I would probably quit fishing.” It’s pretty much that simple, and that’s what makes steelhead so addictive and such a wonderful journey. You hear people talk about it, and they say, “I’ve been steelheading my whole life, and sometimes I can go a couple of years without even seeing one – but I keep trying.”

This is where the commonality between conservation and angling intersect. That one thought. Conservation is much like steelheading in that you can go for years without seeing success. Still, you keep trying and moving forward because eventually, an opportunity arises, making it all worth it.

So I swing my fly into the seam, throw mend in it and watch my line drift casually through the deep cool water where a unicorn lives for a time. Or at least I think there is one in there… Hmmm, step – step – step, roll, snap, mend, drift….. I think to myself, “This is why these fish are considered magic. They travel hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean, through the barriers of the Columbia, and eventually find their way to these headwaters where the next generation will be created.

BAM!! FULL STOP… THINKING TIME IS OVER!!! Is that a log on the bottom? Better give it a little pull and see… HEAD SHAKE!!! Set that hook!!! WHAM!!! Up and out of the water springs to life, a unicorn in light spawning color, causing a tremor of waves over this slow-moving pool. A monster has breached the surface and seeks to remove my hook from the corner of her jaw.

The flash of color comes crashing back to earth and seeks to run fast and furious to the snags at the bottom of the pool. Rod tip up, rod tip up, I keep telling myself – then here she comes again… Lower the TIP!!!!!! BOOM – out of the water again, spinning furiously. I scream out in excitement, “YESSS!!!” She’s hooked and will be tiring out soon, I hope.

After a few minutes of this, this beautiful lady and I come face to face. Her glowing body seems to fill me with energy as I gently grab her tail while keeping her in the water. A friend comes by with his camera, and we take a few moments to share in the magic of the moment. This friend is from Wyoming and has never had the chance to handle the species in this way. He gets his chance to handle the fish while I pull out my phone to take a couple of pictures.

Successful interaction with a magical creature who was released back into her home with a swish of her tail back into the depths of the river. Thank you, my dear friend, for the steelhead. You have given me an experience like none other I can fathom right now. You decided to become connected to me by fly line and rod, and I will cherish this moment for the rest of my life.

Now I have the heart it will take to continue pushing on for hundreds of miles and thousands of hours each year for my conservation-minded goals. Now I appreciate what my role in the conservation community can be with helping a new Chapter of TU start the process. Now I have the wisdom it takes to provide the opportunity to share this experience with friends.

Thank you, my wonderful friend, for the steelhead, thank you. Now let me do what I can to pay you back for all you have given me.