Wednesday 28th May, 2008
The word conjures up images of nefarious and uncivilized behavior.
I suppose that's not too far from the truth. The alarm sounds several hours before dawn. Just enough time for coffee, and a brutally long and bumpy drive to a boat ramp at the end of some unmarked dirt road. The driftboat hits the water before there is enough light to tie on a fly. Fortunately, we rigged the rods last night back a the house.
Seven weights, sinking shooting heads, and big streamers. Far from a spring creek finesse kit. The fish we're after don't eat dry flies. But when your headhunting, you have to sacrifice some pleasures to experience others. Sometimes it seems like the sacrifice doesn't outweigh the benefits.
Cast after cast after cast. A flash behind the fly or the heavy pull of the occasional log or boulder keeps me in the game. We take turns on the oars, switching every hour, or after each fish. Usually every hour. On these rivers, my typical success rate is worse than winter steelheading. Dreadful. These are typically rivers that see very little fishing pressure. Marginal fisheries, really, with dismal fish counts. Most people don't even bother. Sometimes we know there are big fish there, even though there are only a few per mile. We've hooked them before. Other times, we're just chasing rumors overheard in a smoky bar room or statistical outliers on the Fish and Game Department's electro-fishing survey plots.
Success is so sweet, but it comes at a cost, and not always in the form of a landed fish. Peace and quite, a big river, bald eagles, deer, and stories of last years summer steelhead are all more common than hookups.
Last time out...
I wish I could have converted on that fish. I was stripping a huge yellow streamer over some bedrock trenches. When I started to lift the rod for a backcast this long shape just appeared behind the fly, charged, and grabbed it. But I was moving the rod to cast already and pulled the fly away. I felt a tiny prick and the fish turned and bolted back into the trenches. It was my only confirmed shot in two days of fishing.
Big "gatorhead" browns are awesome creatures, masters of their environment. Every encounter is something I treasure, even if it doesn't always end the way that I had hoped. That fish was definitely in the 5 or 6 pound range. I should have continued stripping the fly until it was right at the boat. Lesson learned. Missing that fish was not better than landing it. You won't be able to convince me of that. Missing this one will, however, make landing the next (bigger) one even sweeter.
I guess the whole "headhunting" thing seems odd and juvenile to most people. I know a lot of people say that it's just me/us being foolish and trying to compensate for something or prove something. Whatever. Big fish kick ass. Those critics say I/we will eventually make peace with ourselves and be happy with normal small fish. But that's what I don't get. I'm happy with small fish. They are so pretty and colorful. They love dry flies. They are just different than the giants. Not better or worse. Doing the same thing every time out gets boring.
It is, dare I say, too easy to fish exclusively for normal fish. I guess I just enjoy the added level of commitment, skill, preparation, and intensity that is required when intentionally targeting the largest and rarest trout in the river. You need to be ready and focused at all times to take advantage of each opportunity. These are the fish that have proven themselves against eagles, otters, and anglers long enough to reach extraordinary size. When I fool one I feel like I've beaten the odds and overcome a great personal challenge. At least when I fail I have a notion that I've challenged myself fully and put in a solid effort, which is satisfying in and of itself.
Coming away from the day fishless isn't necessarily a bad thing either. One thing about hunting big fish that I like is that you don't ever catch very many fish. It sounds weird, but there have been a few days where I've caught so many little guys that I have started to feel bad about it. The number of fish that I need to annoy/poke holes in in order to satisfy my own selfish urges (that is all they are) is much smaller if the fish are much bigger. How's that for some bollocks environmentalism?
PS - A word of explanation. To all you NZ guys that have lots of big browns that eat bugs, I am jealous. It's just not like that here in the states. At least not very many places.
And, hey, in case you forgot, if you believe that wild & native steelhead are worth protecting, and that without solid science conservative fisheries management is the only answer, please, take a moment to sign the petition in support of the existing regulations that prohibit killing wild steelhead on Oregon's Umpqua River. Over 500 have already signed online and who knows how many more have signed the paper copies.
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