Wednesday 12th September, 2007
The steelhead are in, but I needed a break after my trip to Canada. So, on Sunday Kim and I went for a drive over to the Oregon Coast to hang out on the beach and enjoy the unseasonably warm weather. I've been wanting to try my hand at fishing the coastal surf for a while now, so I brought along some gear, arming myself to try for a fish called a Surf Perch, which has been rumored to inhabit the turbulent waters off the sandy beaches of the Pacific NW. Kim cleverly armed herself with sunscreen, a book, a camera, and a beach chair, and prepared to watch me attempt something foolish. This wasn't just imaginary saltfly. This was imaginary saltfly in the surf.
Everyone has their fly fishing comfort zones. For most of us, it's on a river or stream, fishing for trout that feed on insects, or maybe even the occasional small fish. Fish hold in the current and remain fairly stationary, feeding on drifting food items. I could go on. The point is, even though each river has its subtle quirks, it's easy to feel at home on a trout stream just about anywhere in the world. I know, within reason, what to expect. I'm confident that a well presented nymph or dry with result in a few hooked fish.
Wading out into the surf on Sunday, it quickly became clear that I was out of my fly fishing comfort zone. The waves were breaking hard and the water was moving in every direction around me. I could feel the undertow currents scouring the sand from under my feet. Any loose fly line was quickly swept away to be tangled around my legs or pulled out to sea. I made a guess at where to fish based on some things that I'd read about surf perch. I looked for a mellowing of the breakers that might indicate a trough in the sand just offshore where the surf perch would be feeding. The tide was changing, dropping from high to low, quickly, noticeably. Was it a good thing? A strong offshore wind blew my casts far into the crashing surf, but the waves just seemed to turn the presentation into a wild pile of slack or a rapidly swinging mess during the retrieve. Still, I cast the Clouser Minnow out again and again, trying to get it to run deep, just above the sandy bottom. There were pelicans working the surface outside the breakers where I could not cast, and I saw some packs of baitfish in the waves that were breaking hard on me, swamping my homemade stripping basket and soaking my face with a salty spray. The waves were anything but uniform. For five minutes they would come in low and wading and casting was easy. But then, from nowhere, they would double in size. It seemed like every time I took my eye off the surf I got pounded by a rogue breaker that sent cascades of frigid salt water down into my waders. In the couple of hours I spent fishing, I had to retreat to shore several times to regroup. I never had a grab or landed a fish. I was physically exhausted from two hours of fishing.
Not once during that time did I feel like I had things under control. I never got that feeling that I was going to hook a fish like I do on a trout stream. I felt completely lost, confused, and out of control. I hated it, and I loved it all at the same time. It was not easy or relaxing, and I was constantly questioning what I was doing. But, if I never left my fly fishing comfort zones I would never experience new waters or fish, or learn and discover new techniques. I doubt that I'll ever become a specialist in the surf, but the challenges and beauty of that environment are more than enough to keep me coming back once in a while. Any fish that thrives in this harsh environment deserves some respect. Maybe someday I'll luck into a fish or two, and all the pieces will start to come together. Until then, the wind, waves, and tides, the sun, sand, and the birds will remain a wonderful mystery.
Until next time,
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