Thursday, July 22, 2010
How high's the water, papa?
Hiring a fishing guide is a big deal for me. I don't have the budget for guided trips and I prefer to do it my way anyway. Nevertheless, I decided to take advantage of a half-day guided trip for a very reasonable price through Steven Bird of Northport, Washington (Upper Columbia Flyfisher ). Steven has lived on the Upper Columbia since 1974.
Most folks hire guides in order to catch more fish, a worthy goal. I've only been able to hire guides on a limited basis, but my goal is always to learn how to do it myself, whatever "it" is. I hired Steve in order to learn about the Upper Columbia River near the U.S. border with Canada. Most importantly, I wanted to know about the potential for fishing the Upper Columbia solo. Do I have the boat that can handle 180,000 cfs? Are the rumors true about this section's deadly currents? Etc...
When we arrived, Steve remarked that the river was as high as he had seen it, but the caddis hatch was just turning on, and he had landed 6 fish the night before on emergers. I already was having my doubts. I've never seen great fishing in high water, especially not great dry fly fishing. Indeed, the fishing was not so great. The hatches never seemed to materialize. A few fish might rise here or there, but most activity was sporadic. I hooked one fish the first night, and matters just seemed to deteriorate from there. As Steve floated the river with us, he pointed out that most of the good fishing spots were so far under water that they were impossible to identify.
Finally, on our last night some fish started to rise more consistently. I hooked and fought a 4 pound rainbow. What a fish! It took a soft hackle emerger on the swing. I quickly got the fish on the reel, but it came straight at me so fast that I had to stop reeling and strip line as quickly as possible. Next, the fish went under and around the boat several times. Finally, I got it back on the reel only to have my 6 lb. tippet fail. Both Scott and I landed smaller fish later that evening.
So, I fished the Columbia for about three days straight only to land one decent fish. How would I rate the trip? On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give it a nine. First, Steven Bird is a fantastic guy and a super guide. Steven and his wife, Dorris, own a beautiful piece of property along the river where they can accommodate guests with cozy tents and home cooked meals. The food was wonderful and the hospitality was unprecedented.
As for the fishing, what an experience! Steven likes fishing spey rods and switch rods. He recommended that we swing streamers or caddis emergers on our 8 weights. Meanwhile, I'm a light tackle aficionado, and before this trip, I was not so interested in spey casting. I know that swinging flies can be effective, but I always figure I can catch more fish on nymphs or dry flies. I am glad that Steven approaches fishing so differently. Otherwise, I wouldn't have learned nearly as much!
It turns out that swinging wet flies is a superb tactic for this river because, although fish rise and rise often, they move around constantly. Most of the good fishing on the Upper Columbia is in back eddies. Multiple currents conflict with each other. The river is so large that it breathes. Thus, the water rises and drops several inches over and over again throughout the day. A dead drift dry fly presentation can be quite challenging. The wet fly swing allows one to present a fly to more fish more effectively. The fish often feed in the top foot of the water column on the Upper Columbia, thankfully, because the back eddies are far too deep to present a nymph along the bottom. Consequently, Steven has found that he has more success with unweighted flies fished with a 12 foot leader dressed with Xink. The Xink causes the leader to break the surface, and the wet fly swings just under the surface.
Steven just published Upper Columbia Flyfisher, a wonderful book with great stories, unique fly patterns, and good information about the river. I recommend Steven as a guide and I recommend his book for anyone who loves fishing, the outdoors, and literature.