Boxcar Blues: Steelhead Fishing in the Wake of Wildfires

After wildfires destroy the familiar landscape, the author begins to wonder if this will be his last trip to the Deschutes. If only a steelhead would strike, to remind him of what still remains.

Illustration by Tim McDonagh

The basalt cliffs were chipped and scarred by the fire. The gnarled arms of the sage, the red splashes the sumacs had made on the walls of the canyon, all were gone. Even the surface of the earth had burned off. Of the country I remembered, the fires had left not a trace. Only the river was the same—the roaring rope that invites you to drown but you fish anyway, because the steelhead run to 30 pounds and they are born in America, and I didn’t have the money to drive into British Columbia to find a canyon as grand or fish so frightening.

The trail was 20-odd miles of stony path that deteriorated in two ways: the farther you went and year by year. Except for two vintage boxcars, the trail was all that was left of a railroad line that had been abandoned in the 1930s. I wondered if the boxcars would be gone. It was hard to believe the fire would have spared such fine kindling.

You wouldn’t have known one of the boxcars had ever been there. It was only charcoal now. The other, farther down the trail, bulked against the skyline as I approached, a testament to the mercy of the winds, for the sage had been burned to within 3 feet of the door. I got off my bike and stepped inside.

For a half dozen years, my son and I had pitched a tent a mile or so downstream near the head of a rapid, and we’d climb up to this boxcar after fishing to cook our dinner and listen to the World Series on a transistor radio. The reception was poor but better than on the bank. We’d catch a pitch count here, a run there—then a train whistle on the far side of the canyon, the white eye of the locomotive illuminating ghostly snarls of trees, then a reverberating silence and a sky so shot with stars it seemed to pulsate. We’d played cards once with a deck decorated with ’50s pinup girls that I found in the rafters inside the boxcar. It was part of a geocache that included a paperback edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a troll doll with pink hair, and a steelhead fly called the Purple Peril. I’d clipped a few strands of the doll’s hair and tied it into a fly of my own design.

I stood on tiptoe to run my fingers along the rafters. The cigar box that served as the geocache was still there, though a mouse had eaten its way inside and gnawed the wing off the fly. I replaced the cache and poured water over my hands from the bottle in my pack.

By the time I walked my bike into the bottom of the canyon, a layer of mist had risen from the river. The sky was leaden, and I went about getting the tent up before it rained. There was still enough of the evening left to run the line through the guides of my rod, but I was exhausted. I had the camp secured now, a stretch of river in front that I’d taken a dozen steelhead out of in years past, and it would be there in the morning.

I boiled water for hot chocolate. I had a flask of peppermint schnapps and doctored a little in. It was hot chocolate according to my father, something I remembered him making when I was a boy and we camped on Michigan trout streams. Now it was a part of the tradition and I’d keep it up, even if I had to drink alone. “You’d have liked this place, Dad,” I said.

While sipping the chocolate I felt the sense of loss come back—the empty feeling that had haunted me even before the bike ride and the 12-hour drive that preceded it. The fires that blackened the canyon had started two summers ago, a few days before my son’s wedding. Now there was a baby on the way, and it could be a long time before the stars aligned and he would fish here again with me. True, I’d once gone camping with buddies four days after my daughter was born, but that was a transgression my wife has not entirely forgiven me for in 29 years and counting, and I knew my son was too smart to duplicate the mistake. I zipped up the tent and got into the sleeping bag to read. On the ceiling, a half dozen October caddisflies didn’t know that it was November. A solitary spider hung inches from my face on a gossamer thread, my headlamp casting its shadow against the wall of the tent, where it looked as big as a tarantula.

Ever since seeing the burn I’d been reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s story, “Big Two-Hearted River.” Nick Adams also had crossed through burned-over country to get to a river, the Fox in Michigan’s U.P. True, he was shell-shocked from the war and looking to nature for the restoration of his soul, whereas all I suffered from were the overloaded circuits of the era and a father’s loss as his children leave home to start adult lives. But it was the same feeling of solitude and holding tight to yourself that makes brothers of all men who sleep alone in wild places, and with the coming of night I felt the absence of my son all the more. I recalled that in the story Nick moved a match up to the canvas to incinerate a mosquito before going to sleep. I let the spider off with a stern warning and switched off my light.

Flight of Fancy

Photograph by Brian Grossenbacher

In the dawn a long lavender fly looked as good as any other, and by sunup a blue one looked better. At noon I was fishing orange and not at all discouraged. If you have to feel the tug of a fish every hour, then you have no business fishing for steelhead. The river was almost pleasant to wade, as low as I’d seen it this time of year. Perhaps the steelhead were waiting for a little more rain to make a push. I stayed on my feet right up until it was time to climb to the boxcar and catch the end of game five, Koji Uehara closing out the ninth to put the Red Sox up three games to two over the Cardinals.

By the end of the second day, I was getting discouraged. Part of the attraction of the river was a coldwater release from a tributary dam that encouraged steelhead destined for other streams to turn into the mouth of this one and hang around awhile. The transients included the B-run steelhead that had spent three years at sea putting on pounds, and they were largely the reason I made the trip. But the state had canceled the release, and if the pessimists in the angling forums were right, then perhaps this was the end of more than a family tradition.

The river did nothing to dissuade me of my apprehension. By the following afternoon, I couldn’t find a fly in the box that looked worthy of a swim. I broke for lunch and began searching the ground for feathers. It’s good luck to tie a fly with materials found along the river, but when I didn’t find any I hiked up to the boxcar to retrieve the Purple Peril. Back in camp, I shaved the chenille body off and clamped the gold hook into my vise. A praying mantis swayed from a tall stalk of grass as I tied. It was strange about the mantises: Until this fall the ones you saw were tan colored to match the autumn grasses. Now with the new shoots growing from the scorched earth, all the ones I’d seen were green.

The pattern I eventually came up with was a variation of a Dead Man’s Fancy, a fly of my own design that I’d used for the title of a mystery book. This one got a mint-green butt to appease my insect critic, which watched me with its compound eyes. I’d once fished with a man who saw a steelhead rise to a cigarette. To hear him tell the story, he was about to reprimand his girlfriend for littering when the butt she’d flicked into the water disappeared in a swirl. Inspired, he’d sat down at the vise and tied a whole box of cigarette flies, using white rabbit-fur strips with turns of pink hackle to represent lipstick. He’d given me one, finishing his story by saying that the girlfriend had gone her way and he’d gone his, but he didn’t regret the relationship. After all, he’d caught a 30-pound king on the fly. He named it the Kispiox Kiss. I tied on my Dead Man’s Fancy, and it did no better than any of the others.

That night the Red Sox won the World Series. Reception was staticky, but I caught most of the game and thought my luck might be taking a turn. A patter of rain during the night encouraged me all the more, and then the wind started. I’ve weathered winds in small tents and have had two, unattended, rip out the stakes and tumble end over end into rivers. This wind was as bad as any, bending the poles flat so that I was cocooned in a nylon shroud. About an hour before daylight it stopped as suddenly as it had come up. I ventured outside and found rocks to place in the tent corners, but the wind had blown its last breath, and by the time I pulled on my waders, a wafer of pearl was expanding steadily on the horizon, false dawn losing its lie.

Kiss Good-bye

The author (right) with his son and brother at the boxcar. Dead Man's Fancy.

First cast, a pluck. I went right back there with the fly and caught a leaf. The overnight wind had blown millions into the current; they winked like coins going down a well. Not only would the leaves be a nuisance, snagging on the hook, but any steelhead that decided to open his mouth would probably sample a leaf; my fly would get lost among the clutter. “Oh ye of little faith,” I muttered, and worked out more line. And the line stopped. A heartbeat later, the water silvered in a boil and I was looking up at 8 or 9 pounds of steelhead coming down. This was a typical two-year salt hen, and I landed her and backed out the gold hook, my hands shaking. I’d say I was surprised but it had happened like this before—conditions going to hell, hope dwindling, then the jolting strike that erases the world and paints it all anew. Anything can happen when you keep your fly in the water. Even steelhead.

I worked my way down to the tail of the run, a sense of expectation building with each swing of the fly. There it was, another tug. I made a second cast, got the same tug at the same point of the swing, and retreated a few yards upriver. When you get a player, wisdom says to rest him and then come back down with a smaller fly. I rifled through my box for something less ostentatious. A No. 8 Street Walker had the silhouette I was looking for, but too much flash, so I settled on an old Lady Caroline. The Lady didn’t exhibit her customary allure, and a half dozen fly changes later I was swimming the Kispiox Kiss. Why not?

What fishermen fish for is a series of moments, and the first came when the steelhead took solidly. Early in the fight, when the rod was pointing down the river and the fish was jumping 40 yards upstream, that was another moment. The third passed when the fish came undone. I waded to the bank, consoling myself with the thought that a fish lost is still a moment caught, for the hollow feeling in the chest that is counterpoint to the elation of beaching a fish remains an essential touchstone of the sport. Or so I told myself. A steelhead, especially a big one, will make a philosopher out of you.

I didn’t catch any more fish, but when I broke camp the next afternoon I was feeling better about life. There would be a next season, and a next. Fires could sweep the canyon again, but when the smoke cleared the river would be there. Surely my son would find a few days to fish with his old man.

On my way out, I retrieved the geocache from the rafters of the boxcar. The policy is when you take something, you put something else back of equal value. I did better, leaving the Dead Man’s Fancy and the Kispiox Kiss.