A few weeks ago, I got a chance to meet friends on my old home waters; the Wenatchee River. The river was perfect and we all were excited. When I lived in Wenatchee in the 90’s, I learned the Wenatchee River and learned to love it. I would start fishing it for steelhead in August and my earliest fish caught was August 14th. It usually got better until the end of September to mid October and would then fish ok until late November. I would get up at 4:00 am in the summer and get to the river by headlamp; wait until I could see and then start fishing. I loved this waiting time watching the night sky slowly give way from black to grey to color. I always tried to watch any certain star disappear into a blue sky. I never saw the exact moment it happened. I would stare and stare and then something made me look away and when I looked back it was not visible. Great game I didn’t mind losing. I didn’t have to open the store until 10:00 am, so I had a good amount of time on the river on any day I wanted to get up.
I was in a perfect world for several years until 1997. The Steelhead were then declared an endangered species and the season was closed. I never understood why a fish that was declared an endangered species in the Wenatchee River, wasn’t endangered in the Columbia River at the Wenatchee mouth all the way to the ocean. Same fish, but only endangered in the Wenatchee.
Now the river opens for steelhead usually in October, sometime after enough wild fish have made it upstream. Understandable, but past prime time. It is still a chance to fish the uncommonly friendly river for steelhead.
This year it was open on October 8th and it was in great shape. There was a rain freshet the day before we got there and raised the level about 200cfs, but was still clear and inviting. We fished, first, on the lower river and my friend, Johnny, hooked two silvers and two steelhead, landing a silver of about 12 pounds. A very strong fish. We spent the rest of the day trying various other runs upstream hiking a mile or two to get there and back. Johnny had the answer to the “how” question that day by fishing a single hand rod, with a floating line attached to a long leader knotted to a weighted fly. He also waded nipple deep into the run to get the perfect drift. I love to watch him fish. The day ended with a beautiful sun setting long shadows on the sagebrush covered hills with the quail whistling their familiar tune of contentment. We celebrated the day’s end with a wonderful grilled steak dinner and with some 18 year old single malt.
The next day we all went upstream to another favorite place where Johnny hooked another steelhead, but only danced with it for a moment. My other friend, Darc, was leaving about 3:00 PM, so we got him on his way and then I decided I wanted to fish the lower river again. Luckily, no one was there so we had the runs to ourselves. The evening was even more beautiful than yesterday. The setting sun took a long time to descend behind the hills forming the Wenatchee River Valley. I enjoyed every second of it. I was casting my way to a favorite stretch. The water slows after a faster run and contains some huge boulders along with smaller ones on the inner side of the main current. The last two fish I’ve take on the Wenatchee have been taken here. I kept working my way deeper into the run. I looked up the steep cliff of the opposite shore to the house of my late friend and Wenatchee River Mentor when I arrived to the area in the early 90’s. It is almost a ritual to fish here on any trip I make there. I almost feel like he is still there coaching me on the nuance of swinging my fly through this river run. In the sunshine spotlighting Johnny between the long shadows of the tall poplars I could see him working the riffle far below me. It was fun, again, watching him working it.
I kept working my way in the shadows of the shoreline trees. I finally decided to speed up my swing by pointing my rod tip toward my shoreline. I couldn’t believe it when I felt the fish mouth my fly and set it in the corner of its jaw and then pull line toward the center of the river. It jumped a few times and stretched some line from my reel. It was a smaller steelhead, but thought it was much bigger. I was thrilled (it doesn’t take much to make me smile with a steelhead at the end of my line). I couldn’t see Johnny downstream anymore, so I figured he was making his way back to the truck. I played the fish and had it close in when I heard Johnny coming through the trees behind me. He thought I was tricking him by pulling the line against the click-drag of my CFO VI. He was as surprised as I was when I first hooked this fish when he saw my rod bent toward the river’s middle. I wanted a picture of the fish, so I asked him to land my fish so I could get some pics. He did and I did. What a perfect ending to a beautiful evening. We went back to the truck, had a beer and went back to Johnny’s home for another wonderful dinner and single malt.
My trip back home the next day was full of past memories of fishing and guiding the Wenatchee. It is always good to revisit a past home river. But do so with no expectations. Just take what it has to give you.