River of Lesser Gods

The possibilty of steelhead--and redemption-- in one corner of British Columbia.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The hand-lettered sign in front of the roadside vegetable stand read cabbages, acorn squash, tomatos, pumpkins. There was a line painted through tomatos. The gnarled hands clasped on the counter were as weathered as the signboard, the face that peered down at me sculpted with an eagle's nose, like the Indian on the buffalo nickel.

"I don't have no prices up. I didn't know there were nothin' left till yesterday."

There wasn't much left at that. I picked out a pumpkin for my daughter for Halloween, a week down the road, and wondered if the border guards would let me keep it when I crossed back into the States. The man couldn't figure the change for the bill I handed him. His pen trembled in his fingers.

"That's worth more than you're asking," I said. "Tell you what, you tell me where I might find a fish around here, and we'll call it square."

"I haven't fished for 30 years. My son, he fishes sometimes¿¿¿he's out huntin' a moose," he said after a pause.

"Well, where was a place 30 years ago?"

The corners of his mouth tugged into a smile.

"That Gray Horse Run was good. I caught one there that fed everyone at the bingo." His veined wrists shot out of his sleeves as he spread his arms to show the size.

"Gray horse," I repeated.

He shook his head. "Ain't no horse there. That country's all back to grown woods now." He said it would be no problem finding the run, though. Up the logging road about 12 kilometers, there were wooden crosses with the Ten Commandments on them. The path to the river struck off to the right, just past the first cross.

The once white boards marched down the rutted track. Weathered gray, the crosses stood at odd angles, buckled by thick knots of tree roots where the forest had encroached on the road. The lettering was burnt deep into the wood: thou shalt have no other gods before me.

A muddy trail pocked with moose tracks skirted the road and wound past a second cross-thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image-then turned darkly into stands of poplar. After about a quarter mile the trees thinned, and I could hear the running water that had brought me 2,000 miles from Montana. The mist was lifting, and I forgot all about crosses and started to remember why I'd made the trip.

Yesterday, driving my truck up the valley to the south, I had paused at a high span that overlooked this watershed. Here, four tributaries merged to form the mighty Skeena River. Two of them could be accessed only by helicopter. The third I had fished years before, but it was on the map now, and northern British Columbia was a long way to drive to have the wake from a jet boat lap your waders. The fourth river, the one I stood beside now, was subject to intense runoff from rain and seldom fishable more than one week in four.

It was the smallest of the tributaries in every regard except for the stature of its steelhead. In any other place a 30-pound buck was the figment of a fertile imagination, but here such leviathans were real. Or so I had heard.

Running between narrow banks through boreal forest, the Gray Horse Run looked more like a trout stream than a steelhead river. Peering through it I could discern a riverbed of black boulders interspersed by angular rocks the color of Black Hills gold. As sunlight penetrated the surface, the river looked lit from within, the gold rocks beckoning like lanterns glimmering through the depths.

A long lavender fly looked quite as good as any other-for steelhead, which aren't feeding, choice is made in the realm of the theoretical-and I sent it searching through the elbow of quiet water at the head of the run. The line swung below me and stopped, taut, as if the hook had hung on a rock. I lifted the rod as a yard of silver muscle twisted up into the air and then ran my heart out through my fingertips ile the line pulled downriver.

Twenty minutes later I clasped the steelhead at the wrist of its tail. It twisted free and ran 30 yards into the current before I could turn its head and slide it to hand. This time the grip held, and for the first time since it had jumped, I took a full breath. It was a hen of 17 pounds, the silver flanks set off by the palest pink infusion along the midline-a hint of the rainbow's stripe that would broaden and darken as this fish remained in freshwater.

Steelhead are like the phoenix, consumed by their own fire and risen in dreams, and when this one had kicked from my hand, it was as if she had never been there in the first place. I built a cairn of stones at the water's edge to honor her and walked around the bend to the tailout.

Given first choice of water anywhere in the world, I would pick a tailout in a river such as this one, with a headlong rush of current below. Steelhead ascending from lower reaches will stop in the tailout to rest in the smooth flow that trout fishermen would never give a second glance. I cast across and mended line to slow the fly as it swung, pulsing, through the broken reflections of the aspens. A dozen casts later a bulge of water marred the surface below the fly. And then a fish took the fly hard, sunk with it, and, by doing nothing at all for several minutes, scared me as no steelhead had ever done before.

Slowly then, but with implacable power, the fish swam upstream to a position directly opposite me. There it held deep, while the butt of the rod bent into the cork. Minutes passed, stretched. When my arms grew so tired that I began to shift the strain from one to the other, the steelhead, perhaps feeling the change in pressure, rushed downriver and jumped at the lip of the pool. It bulked against the sky, its body twisting on several planes before crashing back to the surface. The sight of it was so shocking that I involuntarily called for help, although there might not have been another person within a mile.

A minute after submerging, the fish jumped again, flipping upside down, and then lunged back in the opposite direction. Its massive shoulders cleared the surface as it wallowed, and the water underneath churned pewter. Down it went and held deep. Just when I thought it had snagged onto something, the line moved. The fish swam upriver and stopped, no more than two rod lengths away, as if to get a look at the source of its irritation. I felt as if I was hooked to a ticking bomb.

There are some fish that your heart knows you'll never land, that are placed in the path of your fly only for the memory. After the steelhead jumped for the third time, it put its head down and bolted, broke through the lip of the tailout into the water below it, and headed for Prince Rupert on the Pacific coast, 300 miles downriver.

I stumbled after it for several hundred feet, to a bend in the rapids where the fly line thrummed with tension. I reeled up as far as I could, lifting an arrow of line to the surface that pointed at a submerged bush. For a few moments I let myself hope the fish was still on, then I wrapped my hand around the line and backed out of the water until it snapped. I sat down on a rock, drained of energy, my hands shaking like the hands of the man who'd sold me the pumpkin that morning. "You're going to need a bigger rod," I muttered to myself.

In the next three days I explored the river with very different eyes from those which had first set sight on the Gray Horse Run. Where before I had seen serenity on the surface of the pools, I now noticed an undercurrent of tension, a sleeping darkness like the tips of rain clouds hanging on the teeth of the mountains. Where before I had cast my fly without thought of the consequences, I now scouted the river below, envisioning where a fish might take me and how I could best follow.

I would hook only one more steelhead-another mismatch, and a mercifully short one. Before I could back out of the river, the fish ran 30 yards into the backing, disappeared beyond a bend, and returned me my fly.

On the drive back,I stopped once more at the vegetable stand. The man who sold me another pumpkin was about my age, with a broad face and black and silver hair in braids. I asked if he was the son of the old man I had talked to before, and when he nodded, I asked about the moose hunting. He said he had got one, a young bull, but "any moose makes a meal, eh?"

"I hooked a couple fish in that Gray Horse Run. Would you tell your father I said thanks?" I said.

His eyebrows arched. "He give you that bull about the gray horse? He does that to everybody. Ask him where to fish? Gray Horse Run. Hunt grouse? Gray Horse Run. Never was any gray horse. It's a grave site. Gray Horse was my uncle. We buried him up by the river."

"The crosses," I said.

"That's the headstone Dad put up to absolve his brother of his sins. He figures anybody he sends there, he gets a sermon, maybe he gets the absolution, too. I find it sort of a strange thing to do," he added.

"Which of the commandments did he break?" I asked. It seemed a personal question, but then, the entire conversation had taken an oddly personal tack.

He said, "Oh, take your pick. More than one."

I thought about that later when I stopped at the high bridge for a last look at the water below. For three days I had parked between a cross that read thou shalt have no other gods before me and one that read thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. Perhaps I hadn't worshipped the steelhead. But I had dreamt of their thunder. I had driven 2,000 miles to find them. And I had built altars of stone to commemorate the ones I'd hooked.

What deities had I offended as my fly searched from one lantern to the next, from one unholy hope to another? What bones had I disturbed in that river of lesser gods?

I put the truck into gear thinking there were higher priorities in life than drifting a fly for steelhead. But as the road unrolled endlessly before me, I found myself drifting back time and again to the river. I knew I'd come back to it, drawn as inexorably as the steelhead to the cradle of their birth. And as for bending commandments, I comforted myself with the thought that the disciples in the New Testament were fishermen. Perhaps my quest would be understood.

For what is fishing, I wondered, but a prayer cloaked in water? only one more steelhead-another mismatch, and a mercifully short one. Before I could back out of the river, the fish ran 30 yards into the backing, disappeared beyond a bend, and returned me my fly.

On the drive back,I stopped once more at the vegetable stand. The man who sold me another pumpkin was about my age, with a broad face and black and silver hair in braids. I asked if he was the son of the old man I had talked to before, and when he nodded, I asked about the moose hunting. He said he had got one, a young bull, but "any moose makes a meal, eh?"

"I hooked a couple fish in that Gray Horse Run. Would you tell your father I said thanks?" I said.

His eyebrows arched. "He give you that bull about the gray horse? He does that to everybody. Ask him where to fish? Gray Horse Run. Hunt grouse? Gray Horse Run. Never was any gray horse. It's a grave site. Gray Horse was my uncle. We buried him up by the river."

"The crosses," I said.

"That's the headstone Dad put up to absolve his brother of his sins. He figures anybody he sends there, he gets a sermon, maybe he gets the absolution, too. I find it sort of a strange thing to do," he added.

"Which of the commandments did he break?" I asked. It seemed a personal question, but then, the entire conversation had taken an oddly personal tack.

He said, "Oh, take your pick. More than one."

I thought about that later when I stopped at the high bridge for a last look at the water below. For three days I had parked between a cross that read thou shalt have no other gods before me and one that read thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. Perhaps I hadn't worshipped the steelhead. But I had dreamt of their thunder. I had driven 2,000 miles to find them. And I had built altars of stone to commemorate the ones I'd hooked.

What deities had I offended as my fly searched from one lantern to the next, from one unholy hope to another? What bones had I disturbed in that river of lesser gods?

I put the truck into gear thinking there were higher priorities in life than drifting a fly for steelhead. But as the road unrolled endlessly before me, I found myself drifting back time and again to the river. I knew I'd come back to it, drawn as inexorably as the steelhead to the cradle of their birth. And as for bending commandments, I comforted myself with the thought that the disciples in the New Testament were fishermen. Perhaps my quest would be understood.

For what is fishing, I wondered, but a prayer cloaked in water?