Stream trout snuck up on me this year. It hasn’t always been so. There was a time when a frantic feeling of anticipation accompanied opening day of trout fishing, when I’d wake up in the dark before the alarm went off with butterflies in my stomach.
My high school buddies and I hit a river trail before the morning sun lit up canyon walls, with a goal to be first on the water. When rivers ran high and roily, we’d hop barbwire fences and drop a worm in feeder creeks that ran through pastures surrounded by “No Trespassing” signs — back when catching the biggest and most trout was the closest most of us got to sex.
Nowadays I’m more apt to start the season on the Umatilla River near our family cabin. The river runs bank-full, still charged with high-elevation snowmelt. Evidence of the February 2020 “100-year flood” is everywhere: brush pinned shoulder high in the crooks of streamside alder, meanders straightened, deep pools gouged out, log jams that stem the flow, and long, wide stretches of exposed cobble.
It’s 6 a.m. opening day of trout season, 2021. No longer able to ignore light creeping under the window shade, I roll out of bed and start a pot of coffee. The cabin’s porch thermometer reads 38 F and rain drips lightly from the metal roof. Three hours later, after a hearty breakfast of sausage, scrambled eggs, and day-old doughnut, I shove a fat log in the woodstove and head upriver. Air temperature has warmed to 42. The tops of fir trees toss in an upriver breeze.
The first stop is a braided section formed where rushing flow meets an immovable basalt formation and splits in two. To get to the best hole requires fording knee-deep water so cold my teeth chatter. The next challenge is tying a clinch knot against muted light when I put together a two-fly tandem: Renegade lead fly (its white hackle allows me to track my offering) and Prince Nymph dropper.
Light rain sprinkles the water’s surface. A waterproof jacket would have been a better choice than a hooded sweatshirt. My favorite stream bird, the American dipper, chatters past. Cottonwood and willow shoots poke out from crevices of bare cobble as if to promise a riparian corridor will once again provide cooling shade for trout during the heat of summer.
The next hour is spent working current margins, pocket pools, and shallow runs. There is no flash of trout on my best casts. I reflect back to Boy Scout days when I held “Atlas” salmon eggs in my mouth to speed up the process of re-baiting. (And a Band-Aid container stuffed with red wigglers in my canvas creel as backup.) Unfortunately, I’m stuck with a pair of wet hackle flies that trout show no interest in.
A half-mile hike warms my bones and leads me to a 50-yard-long, low-gradient pool that grandson Liam favors because it’s always good for a brace of keepers. My latent casting skills improve. Trout usually look up for something to eat, but not today with dark clouds overhead and a smattering of rain. Grandpa Harry was a smart man. “Let me know when the river comes down,” he always said, as an excuse to not bring his fly rod out until an insect hatch was on the water.
Much has changed since I first wet a fly from streams that flow from the western flanks of the Blue Mountains. What was once a 10-trout harvest limit is down to two, where take is allowed. Opening day shifted forward from late April to late May and the minimum catch size of rainbow trout was increased from 6 to 8 inches. Both measures help increase the survival of steelhead smolts tardy in their seaward migration. Although these conservation practices have been in effect for more than 20 years, trout and steelhead populations remain low.
Two hours later I find myself 50 yards up a nearby tributary creek, on my hands and knees to maneuver past a majestic fir uprooted by the force of raging flow. Rainbow trout often seek temporary refuge in headwater or “feeder” creeks when mainstem discharge is high. I hooked a dozen small trout dabbing a fly in a quarter-mile stretch of the creek’s stairstep pools one spring. Washtub-size boulders now stand on end. Shoreline vegetation is laid bare, leaving a path of loose cobble 20 yards wide. Lacking recent rainfall, the creek runs low in a newly carved channel. There’s not enough water to hold a trout longer than 4 inches.
I come up empty but vow to return on a summer afternoon when the river has settled down and wild trout eagerly rise to the fly. The pleasure of opening day is not so much measured by the number of trout put in the creel as it’s a welcome reminder the best days are yet to come.