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gavin bush steelhead

Here's the story of my North Umpqua Devil fish-
As we drove up river, past the Steamboat Inn toward the fabled camp water of the North Umpqua we discussed our game plan. It was just past one-thirty in the afternoon and was perfect winter steelhead day warm, yet overcast, and the river was on the drop. Eric Figura and I both knew that all the water surrounding the camp water would have seen at least two or three anglers through, likely more than that.  Not exactly prime conditions to maintain a high degree of confidence while swinging flies.  However, we both agreed that the water did deserve a once over because lets face it you never know when you'll catch lightening in a bottle.
We pulled the truck over at the confluence of Steamboat Creek, the North Umpqua's most significant tributary and host to thousands her summer steelhead, decided that Eric should fish the aptly named confluence.  Confluence always holds fish it is just a matter of finding one in the right mood. This was our third day and the first fish of the of the three days came a few hours earlier to my fly, a beautiful egg wagon doe of about ten or eleven pounds, I was sate.  This meant that Eric had dibs on all the primo water the rest of the day.
We reached the end of trail and I sat down on a log to watch Eric fish through.  Then decided that I might as well go and check out Sawtooth, a run about three hundred yards above confluence. As I picked up my rod Eric agreed with my decision and added that, "You have better chance of catching fish up there than sitting on the bank watching him fish."
I laughed and countered, "not much better,but it will be good casting practice."
Sawtooth is a fairly deep run lined with ledge rock at its banks. This ledge rock is what makes the North Umpqua such a notoriously difficult river to wade, it is slick and undulates with very deceiving angles.  The water at the casting station was just over my calves and from my vantage point I could see over the drop off into roughly six feet of water. Below Sawtooth, through tailout there is a long section very fast water riddled with small islands and deep channels in the bedrock as the majority of the river makes its way into confluence. The tailout of Sawtooth is a relatively long ways, 80-90 yds, from the casting station and serrated with ledge rock out-croppings that give the pool its namesake. The pool has plenty of room for a fish to tire and be brought to hand, at least I thought so. However, I was just there for some casting practice not an ass kicking.I began to work line out, starting short with only the sinktip out of rod, adding three feet with every subsequent cast.  My eyes were trained down river at confluence waiting for Eric to appear with a bent rod and a fish thrashing about.  I had worked out enough line to cover the pool from bank to bank. 
I added three more feet and casted further down river.  As the fly began swim behind a large boulder I extended my arm to slow the fly's progress.  Thought to my self that this is fun, then bump! not a hard arm jarring grab, but a soft almost trout-like bump.  My reel spun off some line in a slow controlled pull, I clamped the line against the cork and swept the toward my bank. He was there.  At this point, I was not sure whether I had a steelhead or a trout.  My suspicions dissolved as my fly line did when the fish turned headed for the tailout.  He stopped there and began sulk. This was when I realized that I was dealing with something much more substantial that the doe I had encountered earlier in the day.  In fact, I thought to myself this feels a lot like a big fish from the Skeena.  I began to work him back up toward me ever conscience of the relation of the fish to the tailout.  Big fish will sometimes leave the pool.  as the fly line had just began to make its way into the guides, he ripped right back down to where he was.  I knew at this point that I had to get below him and try to swim him back up into the pool.  I began to walk and reel, but I didn't make it far  before he decided that he no longer liked the refuge of Sawtooth and rose up boiled the surface, turned and burned down river. My reel hit an octave that I have never heard before in saltwater or freshwater.  I lifted the rod up in air and flattened it out and began to run as fast as could down the bed rock ledge.  My foot caught a rise in the ledge and down I went. I emerged soak wet, but the fish was still attached. I checked the reels capacity and found it harboring only about twenty-five yards of backing.  I could see metal. I thought to myself this is bad.
I looked out to see if I could figure out where my fish was and instantly noticed that he had wrapped my line around a small island, really just a clump of grass that sees the air in summer flows, in the middle of the river. This is really bad. Luckily, the fish's run had subsided and he was sulking, or had released himself.  There was still a pull on the line, but it was just a solid dead pull. No signs of life. Between me and the fouled line was a trough about fifteen feet wide, twenty-five long, shoulder deep, and moving at a pretty good clip.  I was already wet so why not get soaked. I jumped in.  The current grabbed me and spun around so I could see Mott bridge as I floated away. Once I righted myself, my feet touched bottom and I began to tip-toe like ballerina across the trough and literally climbed up onto the ledge.   As fast as possible, I worked my way out to the island reeling, tripping and slipping as I went. When I was close enough to lift the rod and free line I noticed that he had fould me on a second rock a little further down river, and upon freeing the line from the second rock felt a few headshakes caught a glimpse of the fish and then watched the backing melt off the reel again.  "Holy Shit" I said loud enough for Eric to hear me, He reeled up and headed my way. I looked down and followed my line to third rock.  A large rock in deep, heavy current,  but I was already wet so in I went again. Just as the water began to seep over the top of my waders I held the rod out and lifted the line free.  Again, the fish began to take line as I waded back to the safety of an ankle deep ledge.  At this point, I all I want is my fly line back. I was ready to yield to this Devil Fish and part ways.   
This is where it ends I tell myself, I am stuck.  Go swimming here and the fish will head on down into Upper Boat and I'll definitely lose my fly line.  even if I waded back up river and made it to the bank the over hanging trees and water depth through Sweetheart would make passage impossible.  Eric comes up to me and from the bank asks "how'd you get out there?" 
"I swam" I told him.
"From Sawtooth?"
"Sort of" I stammered.
"Where is he?"
" Oh probably pushing his into Station or at the very end of Confluence."  Close to 100- 125 yards below me.
I told Eric that "this is it, the fish gets no more line. either he comes or he goes, but I'm not losing my fly line!"
With that I pushed the rod tip into the water, put a slight bend in the rod, and began to reel.  The fish began coming toward me, but surged, rolled and shook his head.  I quit reeling but didn't give him an inch of line.  I have never put that much pressure on a fish without breaking him off or "walked the dog" through such heavy current.  He settled down and I commenced to reel again. Three more sessions just like this and finally, the fly line began to accumulate on the reel.  As the sink-tip came into view he dug hard for safety of confluence, this time I yielded him a small amount of line which was quickly regained.  He was now just below me holding just off the ledge I was standing on.  He rose up toward the surface and wavered for only a second.  I Dropped the tip hard and toward the bank and he slid into the shallows of the ledge.  I stripped some slack off the reel and ran down to tail him.  It was done.
Eric made his way out to me and we taped him, took one quick photo and then focused on reviving him.  As I held him  in the soft water it was very gratifying to watch and feel his energy return to him.  He began to kick but I held him tighter, on the fourth kick he was too strong for me to hold and he bolted for the comfort of deeper water.  I thanked him for the most epic battle I have ever experienced, wished him well, and told him to go make many babies just like him. We high fived and headed back to the bank.  Upon reaching the bank I had to lie down. That fish took everything out me, I was tired. I lay there hoping that future generations would have the opportunity to experience what I just had.  Eric fished through the rest of confluence, well because you never know when you'll catch lightening in a bottle.  Then it was Miller time.
This buck was 36" in length and 19.5" in girth.  (L(G*G))/690= 19.96 lbs.  He ranks 3rd or 4th of the biggest steelhead I've encountered, but far and away 1st in fight and will more than likely be the largest fish I will ever see on the North Umpqua. I know now why there is a 200 yds of backing on my reel, I damn near needed it all. He was a fish of a lifetime in every sense of the word, and will remain a cherished memory for the rest of my days.




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