Chasing Chrome

When steelhead are running, nothing else matters to Mikey Dvorak. We went along for the ride.

Steelie Gaze Dvorak rows his drift boat on California's Smith River. Photograpsh by Ian Allen

The first time I met Mikey Dvorak, he asked if he could borrow fifty bucks.

At the time I thought he was a bum. I still think he’s a bum, but in the same way that an itinerant Buddhist monk is a bum. Except Mikey’s spiritual path was chasing steelhead.

I met Mikey through Kirk Lombard, a hardcore angler in San Francisco, who told me that if I really wanted to meet a “true fishing nomad” I should meet Mikey, a steelhead addict who had no fixed address and never seemed to have more than a few bucks on him. But it didn’t seem to bother him. “All he cares about is being where the fish are,” Kirk said. That’s why Mikey often slept in his truck—not on a pad in the back so he could stretch out, but upright in the driver’s seat because the rest of the truck was too full of gear. “And he’s such a maniac that he sleeps on the ramp.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

“When Mikey’s steelhead fishing, he wants to be the first guy on the river. So, the night before, he backs his drift boat down the ramp, puts the truck in park, and conks out. The next morning, the first guy at the ramp finds Mikey there. The guy is pissed and bangs on Mikey’s window to wake him up. At which point Mikey wakes, apologizes, and launches. So he’s on the river ahead of anybody else.”

I had to meet this guy.

A few days later the three of us headed down the California coast to chase white seabass, a highly mobile fish that migrates up from Baja California as the ocean warms in spring. We hoped to intercept some around Monterey. I dug myself a hole in the backseat of Mikey’s truck, which was crammed to the roof with fishing and camping gear, as well as a great deal of stuff that should have been in a landfill. Mikey said that the police had recently stopped him on this very stretch of road because his truck fit the profile of a meth user’s vehicle. The cops had searched it thoroughly. Actually, Mikey said, the stop had been a good thing. The cops turned up tackle that he’d given up for lost.

I was already captivated by the guy. He named every bird we saw at surprising distances, and when I asked how, he explained that he was doing it by the birds’ flight characteristics, which were generally more distinctive than markings. He talked about all kinds of fish, their life cycles, what biologists knew and what they still hadn’t figured out.

It was just outside Monterey that he asked for the fifty bucks. I gave him the money, but I also pointed out that I was leaving in three days and asked how he proposed to pay me back. “No problem,” he said. “I just need a battery for the boat.”

“You’re losing me, Mikey.”

“Oh, right,” he said, as if the connection was so obvious that he hadn’t bothered to explain. “We need the battery. So we buy one, fish for two days, and then return it for the refund.” In my world, owning a motorboat implied that you also owned the battery needed to start the motor. In Mikey’s world, I soon realized, only the present mattered. The past was done, the future abstract. If you live in the moment and care about fishing, there are only two important questions. Where are the fish? What do I need to go fishing for them right now?

Love Scenes Left, Dvorak high above the Smith. Right, choosing a winner.

In a way, I admired that Mikey had freed himself from the unproductive worries that so often kept me, like most people, from being fully present in the moment. Mikey, Kirk had said, was a barely legal walking disaster in the real world. He had a cellphone only because his sister, frustrated at never knowing where he was, bought him one. He forgot things, lost things, routinely showed up late or not at all, and failed to follow through on promises. But put him around a fish and he became focused, intent, and tireless.

For the next two days, the three of us and our new battery bobbed around on 6-foot swells in the Pacific in a 14-foot skiff, jigging our brains out. The only other boats we saw were tankers and container ships on the horizon. Just half a mile away, waves that had traveled thousands of miles across the ocean hurtled against the coastal cliffs with thunderous claps. At some point I realized that we had nothing but life jackets if anything were to happen. And no safe beach to swim to. I didn’t want to think about this too hard, so I asked Mikey what it was about steelhead for him. He shrugged, as if to say that the answer was ineffable, but he gave it a try. “They’re the most mysterious, smartest, toughest fish I’ve ever seen.

“Think about it. A steelhead gets born in a particular patch of gravel in the river, spends a couple of years growing, and then decides to head down to the ocean. Which is not a safe place for a smolt. Everything out there wants to eat it. It spends a couple of years fattening up at sea, maybe swims halfway around the world. Then—if it’s the one or two fish in a hundred that makes it—it’ll beat its brains out to return to the same patch of gravel. To the same square foot of gravel, you know? Amazing. And you don’t know when or if they’re gonna show up. They’re just really tough, smart fish.”

Over the years, he’d had steelhead strike so viciously that they yanked rods out of the holders on his drift boat. “Three times that’s happened. Right outta something designed to hold your rod no matter what. And they were good outfits—$500 ones, Loomis and Lamiglas rods with Shimano Calcutta reels. How can you not love a fish that wild, with that much heart?”

We fished hard for two whole days and never got a bite. By the time I left, however, I’d vowed that if I ever got the chance to go steelheading with Mikey Dvorak, I’d jump on it. The season along the California coast usually ran from late December or January through March, he said. It all hinged on getting enough rain to raise the rivers so the fish could get over the bar and swim up.

The call came two years later.

Hot Pursuit

Left, the Pathfinder at home. Right, happy hour.

It had been an unusually dry year, Mikey told me, but the rains had finally come in mid February. The fishing was fantastic.

By the time I booked a flight, however, there had been too much of a good thing. The rivers were unfishable—high, fast, and muddy. I delayed my departure a week. A week later, as I was checking in at the airport, Mikey called again to ask if I could delay for two more days. I couldn’t.

“What the hell,” he said. “We’ll just have to do the best we can.”

I was standing outside baggage claim at the San Jose airport when he drove up. There’s something about guys like Mikey that threatens certain types of people. I could see every cop within sight eyeballing the truck, driver, and trailered drift boat as if all three might blow up. “Mikey,” I asked, sliding into the passenger seat, “what is it about you that freaks everybody out?”

“Beats me, man.” I got the feeling that Mikey was so accustomed to this phenomenon that it hardly registered anymore.

It was late. We’d sleep that night on the 44-foot boat he kept in a marina near Half Moon Bay, then drive north tomorrow, looking for whichever steelhead river would clear up first. Mikey said the boat was a 1949 naval rescue vessel that he’d bought at auction, along with the commercial ocean salmon fishing license attached to it. It had seemed like a way to make some money. In fact, he’d had a remarkably good first year, bringing in 23,000 pounds of salmon, worth more than $100,000.

Mikey’s boat was a floating version of his truck, the hands-down winner of any Most Derelict Vessel contest in the large marina. I suspected that Mikey was less than an authority on seamanship, and I damn sure knew the boat would have failed any inspection. And yet Mikey had somehow succeeded in a very competitive industry. As long as fish were involved, Mikey found a way.

I bunked that night on a narrow bench in the wheelhouse. Mikey bid me good night and disappeared into the hold. Presumably he had a bed down there somewhere. In a way, it was a shame the harbor police didn’t have a profile of a meth user’s boat. A good search was exactly what that boat needed.

The next morning we rolled north. “We’re chasing the chrome,” Mikey said, referring to the silvery appearance of a steelhead fresh from the ocean. The longer the fish stayed in the river, the more they reverted to rainbow trout colors. Fifty miles north of San Francisco was like being in another state. Everything changed. The towns were small, and each was smaller than the one before. It was redwood country; trees with tops you couldn’t see growing on steep, rugged mountains. Mikey started making phone calls to half a dozen guiding buddies. All the steelhead rivers—the Napa, Russian, Noyo, Eel, Van Duzen, Trinity, Mad, Klamath, and Smith—were blown out. “We’re probably screwed for the next two days wherever we go,” he said.

Which river would clear first depended on a multitude of factors: today’s level; how much rain had fallen and how much more might come; the extent to which degradation from lumbering, mining, and the cultivation of grapes and marijuana increased the river’s runoff; and the river’s record of recovery after rains in recent years. There were so many factors in play that it was impossible to take them all into account. Mikey sifted the data and decided to bet on the Smith, one of the most intact river systems in the state. It had received the least rain and had the most favorable forecast, at that moment anyway. It was also 350 miles north. Off we went.

As we drove, I asked Mikey if this was the same Pathfinder we’d driven in two years ago to chase white seabass. “No, this is the second I’ve had since then.” Mikey, I was to learn, bought Pathfinders exclusively, never paid more than a grand, and drove them until the wheels came off. “But only the first generation, ’85 to ’95. Those were tanks, man. After ’96, they got all round and fruity-looking. Stopped being a truck, you know?” This was his sixth. He’d bought it a year ago, with 200,000 miles on it. He’d put on 66,000 since then. I asked what he’d paid. “Seven hundred and twenty-two bucks,” he said. And smiled.

“Sounds like you’ve got the truck thing down,” I said.

“Yeah, but I got a problem with boats.”

“How so?”

“I can’t get rid of ’em. I’ve got six right now.” These included the 17-foot drift boat we were towing, a 9-foot Avon inflatable, a 14-foot Wahoo, a 16-foot Wellcraft (“in a marina in Ala­meda”), a 20-foot Mako, and the 44-foot salmon boat. This inconsistency—the way he could be brutally practical about trucks and completely sentimental about boats—was typical Mikey. “It’s hard to explain,” he said. “But a boat, it becomes, I don’t know, who I am. And they’re not all great boats. But there are things about my own personality that I don’t like, O.K.? But I’m stuck with them. I can’t disown them. Does that make sense?” Of course it didn’t. But I understood it.

Racing the Rain

Iron Will Dvorak checks the Smith’s level, color, and clarity.

We found a motel in Crescent City, close to the river, and woke the next morning to light rain. By now, having discovered that my phone could get on the Internet, Mikey was borrowing it every hour. The reports he was looking at said the rain might stop. It didn’t. Soon it was raining hard. Mikey decided we should head up into Oregon and check the Chetco. “It’s on the other side of a ridge that sometimes splits weather systems,” he explained. This seemed like a fool’s errand. An unrelenting downpour like this one was anything but localized. But we went anyway. It was raining just as hard in Oregon.

Mikey didn’t despair. The thing, it seemed, was to maintain momentum, keep chasing. He took me to the house of a guiding buddy in the area, Jim Burn. Jim knew the Smith as well as anybody. The two of them sat in front of Jim’s computer for the next several hours, poring over water levels and weather reports while I played with Jim’s dog.

The guides were as different as two guys could be and share the same passion for steelhead. Mikey’s boat, for example, while neater than his truck, was still pretty funky. Jim’s boat was spotless. He even had a “bra” to protect it from debris when towed.

Eventually they concluded that there was no use even trying to fish the river until the next day. They adjourned to Jim’s garage and spent the next two hours in what seemed to be a long­stand­ing ritual, in which each showed off his newest lures while energetically insulting the other’s. Each had hundreds of steelhead plugs, the most prized of which were “pre-Rapala” Storm Wiggle Warts, Magnum Warts, Wee Warts, and PeeWee Warts. After Rapala acquired Storm in the late 1990s, I was told, they destroyed the original Storm molds and moved production to China. The new ones had lost the distinctive “hunting” action of the best Storms. They had steel rattles rather than lead, which resulted in a harsher sound. The plastic was different. They were disasters. Now, they told me, old Storm lures in rare or desirable patterns went for as much as $100 on eBay. Mikey showed Jim one of his favorites, a pearl-colored PeeWee Wart that he’d recently bought for $50 from a seller called Plugwhore. It was a tiny thing, but Mikey maintained that its action was fantastic. “Oh, yeah, I’ve bought from Plugwhore,” Jim said, then explained in detail why Mikey’s lures, both in general and individually, sucked. Mikey returned the favor.

While the finer points escaped me, I did learn a bit of plug terminology. A light-colored lure with a red back was said to have a “rash.” Black glitter was a “Michael Jackson.” Black-and-white was a “cop.” Silver-and-black was an “Oakland Raider.” And chrome pink with a black bill was a “Dr. Death.”

It wasn’t until the next day, the fourth of the trip, that we finally threw a line in the water. And that was bank fishing, throwing weighted clusters of salmon roe rolled in borax, the better to make the eggs adhere to one another, into the Smith. I think Mikey and Jim knew the river was too high, that the fish were hunkered down until the water cleared. But maybe fishing when you knew damn well it was pointless was an act of faith, a demonstration of your humility to the river gods.

The Smith dropped a foot over the course of that day (we marked the changing levels with branches stuck into the bank), but in eight hours of fishing, not one of our three rods got so much as a bump. A few people stopped by to chat with Jim and ask about the river. By this time, Mikey had tired of telling people I was an outdoor writer. His new story was that—despite looking like a middle-aged bald guy—I was actually a Make-A-Wish kid with one of those premature aging diseases who wanted to catch a steelhead before what would be his 11th and, tragically, final birthday. Mikey said that it was his mission to make that happen.

We tried again for a few hours the next morning in a deep gorge of the river, the descent into which required holding my rod in my mouth so I could use all four limbs. The Smith is a gorgeous river, but parts of it were just plain scary. Fall off your rock where we were, for example, and you wouldn’t be coming up anytime soon. Back at the truck, Mikey decided our last, best shot was a small river 150 miles south, which he forbade me to name. I didn’t question his choice. Neither did Jim, who followed us.

Steeling Secrets

Keep on Truckin’ Left, Dvorak picks through one of his many gear tubs.​

When we left the coastal highway, it was like finding another world inside another world, one even more remote and beautiful. We crossed a range of mountains, corkscrewing our way up over dirt roads through country where you’d go for miles without seeing a house. We rounded a bend and were looking at miles of undeveloped coastline, rocks the size of houses in the surf, which broke hundreds of yards offshore. “Wow, Mikey, this is incredible,” I said.

“My happy place,” he said. “It’s known but not really known. I mean people know it’s here, but most of them think it’s just another steelhead river.” I didn’t. I thought we’d landed in paradise.

We got to the river itself an hour before sunset. Mikey wanted to back the boat in and throw plugs from it for a while, get reacquainted with the water, maybe catch a fish. Jim countered that Mikey, as usual, had everything ass-backward.

“Look, we don’t know where we’re staying. We don’t know where we’re going to eat tonight. The way to do this is get squared away tonight and do it right first thing in the morning.”

“C’mon Jim,” Mikey coaxed. “For once in your life just relax and go with it. Fish for half an hour and then we’ll go figure all that out. There’s still time.”

For the next half hour, they argued. Jim was by the book, linear, logical. Mikey was seat-of-the-pants, intuitive, eccentric. It was like listening to the two halves of my brain fight each other. By the time they finished, my head hurt and it was too late to fish.

Since it was all coming down to the next day, Mikey wanted to see if he could get some local intel. About 9 p.m., he swung the truck into a mostly deserted campground. When he saw a drift boat by one of the occupied sites, he made a beeline for it. “We come in peace!” Mikey bellowed. The boat belonged to an elderly couple, who had evidently just finished dinner and were talking quietly by the light of a kerosene lantern, their dishes stacked before them. It was hard to tell what they made of the little dude with a full beard and a bush of hair tucked up into a wool hat. But they smiled as if nothing was out of place.

They listened as Mikey told them the Make-A-Wish story. They knew he was full of it but didn’t seem to mind. At a certain moment, however, the woman looked at Mikey curiously, cocked her head, and said, “Why, don’t you know that you can’t plan to catch a steelhead? Goodness! Everybody knows that. All you can do is go someplace where the fish might be, wait until the water looks right, fish it hard, and hope you get lucky.”

“Absolutely!” Mikey agreed.

No one had bothered to tell me this, the first principle of steelhead fishing. Maybe, to guys like Mikey and Jim, it’s so obvious that it doesn’t bear mentioning. I’d slowly been making my way toward this fact on my own, but it was striking to hear it confirmed by a third party.

The man said that he hadn’t even put the boat in today. Tomorrow would be a little better, but the river needed at least two rainless days to fish well. Back at the truck, Mikey announced that he’d figured it out. If we were to have any chance on the river, it was essential that I ride in the trailered boat, drink deeply of whiskey, and savor the soft night air rushing by. “You need to do this, dude,” Mikey declared. “Trust me. The river needs to know you’re here. Plus, it’s just awesome.”

Mikey went on for a bit, making it sound like a carnival ride one moment, a solemn duty the next. It was, of course, an idiotic thing to do. But something had changed. We were chasing the chrome and I was in the grips of the chase. Mikey had sucked me into his world. What we were doing had become a pilgrimage, a quest. And although I still wanted terribly to catch a steelhead, I wanted even more to be true to the spirit of the trip, which meant giving it everything I had.

Thirty seconds later, I was sitting in the boat’s front chair, a rope in one hand, a bottle of bourbon in the other, both feet braced against the front rail, the liquor burning in my throat as I howled at the moon. I rode the trailered boat over bumps and potholes, around curves and plunging down straightaways. It was, on the one hand, a moron’s steeple­chase, requiring nothing more than a total lack of common sense. But it was also glorious, flying through the night air with only the stars above and the river somewhere close. I realized that whatever happened tomorrow, everything would turn out fine. I had, unbeknownst to myself, entered Mikey’s world, the eternal present. The future would bring whatever it brought. The important thing was now. And no matter how it turned out, I was now taking one hell of a ride.

A few minutes of this turned out to be about all I really needed. I jarred my back pretty hard a few times. Through the back window, I could see Mikey and Jim, gesturing to each other. They had resumed their argument. It had become quite animated. They weren’t looking back and couldn’t hear no matter how loudly I shouted. There wasn’t anything in the boat I could throw onto the roof of the truck except my shoe, which I couldn’t really get to because I needed both feet to brace myself. It was another 5 miles before Mikey finally decided to check on me, at which point I told him to stop the damn truck.

Back at the little cottage we’d rented for the night, Mikey and Jim continued arguing. It was like listening to an old married couple rehash the same feud endlessly. Then, just before lights-out, I heard Jim’s voice from the other room. It sounded different, almost plaintive. “Mikey, you think the river might drop 18 inches overnight?”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“And maybe it’ll even get another 6 inches of visibility?”

“Yeah, could be,” Mikey said. He sounded like a parent reassuring a child that there was indeed a Santa Claus.

“O.K. Good night.”

The next day, we set out early. Mikey was at the oars, while Jim and I were plugging, in which you let out line 15, maybe 20 yards, engage your reel, and let the current impart action to your lure. Meanwhile, the guide rows to counteract the current and put your plug in the spots that might hold fish. In essence, it’s the guide rowing the boat who does the fishing. “It’s not the most romantic way to fish,” Mikey said. “But in this kind of water, it’s your best bet.”

Just then, Jim’s rod arced. “Fish on!” he cried, letting the fish fully take the plug before setting the hook. He passed the rod to me. I suddenly felt like the Make-A-Wish kid Mikey had made me out to be. I’d done nothing to catch this fish. But I dutifully reeled it in anyway. It fought hard, but not remarkably so, and within a minute or two I’d landed what both guides deemed an 11-pound hen, her sides bright. Both guides were adamant about releasing the fish quickly, and did so.

We were pumped at having hooked a fish so soon after launching. As time went by without another hookup, we began to despair of the quick-fish curse, that peculiar deal in which the omen of all-day success turns out to be false. We changed lures. Since we weren’t finding fish in the fishy spots, Mikey began fishing unconventional ones. That didn’t work, either.

Jim hooked another fish late in the float and again handed me the rod. I’m still not sure what I did wrong. Maybe I pressed it too hard. Maybe Jim should have cut more of his line off after the first fish. I saw the fish leap once in fast water, then the lure was gone.

It was over. It was late afternoon, and Mikey and I had 250 miles to cover to get back to the marina. My plane was leaving at seven the next morning.

An Unstoppable Force

A nice steelie from the Eel River.

As we drove south, I tried to sort through what I was feeling. There was some disappointment, but I was surprised at how insignificant it seemed. I would have liked to have caught more fish, but we had succeeded. We’d chased the chrome and landed one freshie. I was tired, but it was the pleasant fatigue of having done everything you could. I had no regrets.

About 150 miles north of San Francisco, Mikey left the highway. Within minutes we were bombing down dirt roads on which we saw almost no other vehicles. “Mikey, what’s up?” I asked.

“This is one of the forks of the Eel,” he said. “Got one last spot we gotta try. We’ll get back later, but you can sleep on the plane.”

I smiled. How, I wondered, could you not love a guy like Mikey?

We arrived at a small house, a little ranch, at the bottom of a dead-end road. “I know these folks,” he said. “Good people.”

It felt to me as if we’d just bailed out of the highway arbitrarily and driven down an anonymous dirt road. “What do you mean, you know these people?” I asked. “There must be hundreds of roads just like this one up and down the coast. What’d you do, drive down every one and ask if you could fish?”

Mikey looked at me. “Pretty much,” he said, “if it bordered a steelhead river. Most of these people have let me park on their land and sleep in the truck at one time or another.” He parked, left me in the truck while he went to have a word with the owners, and returned to tell me everything was cool.

There was maybe an hour of light left. We rigged up quickly, tying on sacks of red roe and slinky sinkers beneath slip bobbers on spinning rods, and headed for the water. The bushes were so thick that there were only a couple of places you could cast from. It had been a long shot from the start, but I cast to a pool on the far side and drifted my bait through it half a dozen times. Then I moved to another spot, which involved climbing a boulder, and threw again. And then it was dark. We’d fished the sun all the way down. We’d given it everything we had. I felt a tremendous exhilaration.

As we drove back toward the highway, Mikey was already talking about how I’d have to come back next year, how we’d nail it. We stopped for gas. Mikey asked if he could borrow a few bucks. I said yes.

Book a guided trip with Capt. Mike Dvorak at 703-946-9567.