Under the best of conditions, steelhead fishing in Central Oregon, or anywhere for that matter, is an endurance test in which an angler pursues for days, weeks and even months at a time, a creature that is blissfully unaware of its pursuers existence - that is until that one fleeting and magical second when a fish moves invisibly from its holding lie, driven by some instinct that even the most dedicated angler can only begin to understand, and grabs your fly with a take that can be as sudden and violent as a slap on the face or as a subtle as a whisper in your ear.
Many a steelheader have confessed that, "The tug is the drug." But it's not just the tug or the fight, which in most cases is usually over hyped, it's the time on the river spent in places that possess some of the last refuges of our wild heritage. For me that place is the Deschutes River, which despite its popularity and resulting crowds, still manages to produce some of my most memorable moments of the year, be it a bald eagle gliding over my head at dusk or a gleaming wild steelhead breaking the surface after taking a fly.
For most Central Oregon steelheaders, the season on the Deschutes begins around September or October and finishes around Thanksgiving. For the past two years, though, I've made it a point to get out on the final day the season, Dec. 31. It's more of a gesture, a tip of the cap to the river gods and a manifestation of my steelhead fishing addiction than it is a traditional fishing trip in which the angler sets out with high hopes for the fishing or, at least, the weather. But on New Year's Eve on the Deschutes, there's slim to no chance of either decent weather or fishing. Last year, two friends and I fished a not so-secret spot on the lower Deschutes. Our reward was a driving snow storm and temperatures that hung stubbornly in the mid-20s. Amazingly, we weren't alone. A father-and-son duo rolled in behind us, piled out of their rig and into their neoprene waders. I'm not sure we even commented on the weather, which seemed a fitting punctuation for our collectively ill-conceived expedition. But as is customary, we exchanged scouting reports on the river and wished each other luck, at which point I climbed back into the cab and poured myself another cup of coffee and waited for the digital thermometer on the rearview mirror of my buddy's truck to inch up a degree or two. It never happened. I eventually made it out of the truck and into my waders, stringing up my rod with numbing fingers. I found my friends about 200 yards downstream looking like stream-bound snowmen as the powdery flakes accumulated on their jacket sleeves and hats. After a half-hour of perfunctory casting punctuated by fits of pressing hot breath into clasped hands, we all agreed that it was time to call it a day and a season. Within an hour and a half, we were parked at the Cascade Lakes Brew Pub in Redmond where our newly thawed fingers clenched frothy pint glasses. We all agreed it was a better choice than pawing at frozen fly line.
Still, the experience stayed with me. What should have been a lesson in propriety and planning instead planted the seed of a year-end ritual. Steelheading has a way of doing that to you. The more you suffer, the more you want. So last week I sent an 11th-hour text to another steelhead junkie, Seattle-area native Carl Christoferson, who I knew would be game if he could convince his wife to give him a hall pass on New Year's Eve. Within a few hours, we secured all the necessary domestic permits and laid our plans. We would meet at our usual rendezvous spot on Bend's north end and head up to Mecca Flat near Warm Springs. That evening as I threw my gear together in the garage I was struck by one overwhelming reality - it was seriously cold. Not the kind of mild chill that passes for cold in the Northwest, but real honest to goodness cold like I remembered from my years in the Midwest. I checked the temp: 13 degrees in Bend. Tomorrow's forecasted high: 25 degress. I sent Carl a last-minute text with the forecast attached, opening the door for reconsideration. It was something to the effect of, "Are we crazy???"
After half an hour or so the reply came back. "Yes nuts... Gotta give it one last shot. Right?"
I took the last sentence to be more of a statement of fact than a question. We were going fishing.
I'll spare you the blow-by-blow account of a day of below-freezing fishing. But suffice to say that no fish were caught, save the one redside that we saw a grinning 20-something pull-out for a shallow riffle that he was plying with a 13-foot double handed rod - clearly in search of something more substantial than a late season trout, but grateful for anything.
Maybe it was the fact that New Year's Eve fell on a Friday this year, but we had plenty of company. There were three trucks in the lot by the time we pulled on our waders and a total of seven with another rig on the way in when we pulled out a little after noon. Then again, maybe this half-thawed New Year's Eve ritual is catching on. If so, we'll see you next year.
P.S. A note to the guys on the river with the awesome propane tank at Poplar. Please remember to pack whiskey next year. We'll bring the toddy fixings. If we can't catch fish, we could at least catch a buzz.