Last week I took off downriver to host my first trip through the shop at Morrison’s Lodge on the Rogue River by Galice. Being my first trip like this, I wasn’t quite sure what all to bring or how prepared to be. So I packed up four rods, two sets of waders, all my fly tying stuff and enough warm clothes to survive for a month in the cold. I remember being a bit nervous how it was all going to workout when I arrived at the lodge, but I was warmly greeted by Morrison’s staff when I arrived. They gave me a lay of the land and soon after I met up with our group for the trip. Instantly I knew this was going to be a good group of people.
After greeting one another we headed off to the dining area for our first meal, which for most of us was a beautifully cooked Prime Rib. I can say this of the whole trip, Morrison’s goes above and beyond from the dining, to the organization of the guided fishing – it’s really a well-run operation. As we got to know one another over our first dinner it was evident that our group had people in it from all over the country – different upbringings, careers, ways of seeing the world. What was cool though was that we were all together enjoying a meal and telling stories about fishing and all sorts of other things too.
Each morning starts with an alarm at 5:45 and the anticipation that today will be the day that you connect with a wild steelhead. We left the cabin each morning optimistic. For our first day of fishing, I fished with guide Brandon Matthews in the piece of water surrounding the lodge. This section of river is interesting not only for its sporadic and memorable swing runs but also for its scenery and feeling of wildness. Although we didn’t hook any steelhead the first day, it was still great to see a new piece of water and see the river through an experienced guide’s eyes.
After we got off the river the first day, we all met for dinner and it seemed the pleasantries of unfamiliarity were gone. We spent the dinner cracking jokes and telling stories like we have all known each other for much longer than twenty-four hours. We even had a few drinks and ended up being the last ones in the lodge. Even the waiting staff left us there alone after thoroughly vacuuming around our table and implying nicely that it was time to go.
The second day of fishing I spent with my friend James Sampsel. In all the years I’ve known James we’ve had a friendship I think built on mutual appreciation of one another, but we’ve never had the opportunity fish share the river together. Our morning started off with a bang when James sent me upriver to fish above our fishing partner Gareth. They were both downriver and I remember feeling my fly swinging in this run and just knowing I was going to hook a fish. Sometimes it’s just like past experience and future events don’t matter when the swing is that good. It can be all consuming. That’s how this swing was, and as the fly was just starting to come through the run the line came to a dead stop, and a fish pulled about ten feet of line off my Hardy. After the fish righted himself, he didn’t do all that much, but as I put pressure in him and could feel him swimming slightly in the current, I remember a distinct “Oh Shit” feeling. James came up behind me with the net, just as I was saying, “dude, I think this is a Chinook.” Briefly after those words the fish went on a strong run downriver and lunged from the water. It was large native steelhead buck with two red stripes along his sides – the type of fish I’ve spent years looking for on this river.
There was one point in the fight where both James and I were pressed against this downed tree along the bank, waded in up past our waist and the fish was right at our feet. As we got around the log jam, we ended up in a nice area to seal the deal. But as I started to lift the brute’s head, he went on slapping his head from left to right along the surface of the water, the fly popped out and that was that. In all the excitement, I just broke out laughing because it was such an amazing moment to be a part of. For me, I don’t need any photos of the fish or my hand around its tail, just feeling the pull of that powerful wild animal and seeing him briefly above water was enough for me. In the end, it’s the one that get away that keep you coming back.
Our third day on the water we spent with Kait Sampsel, who I have long wanted to fish with as well. I was constantly impressed by her willingness to go the extra mile, both as a casting instructor and guide. About half way through the day, I was far up river from Kait and Gareth, working a soft tailout with a dry line when I started to hear distinct howls coming from downriver. As fast as I could, I reeled in and took off downriver. When I got there the excitement was over but Kait told me of an 8lb Hen that Gareth hooked that went leaping from the water numerous times.
In steelhead fishing, the moments where we encounter fish are brief, sometimes lasting just seconds. I remember a time in my life when those brief moments were all that I used to measure my fishing trips by. But as I grow up a bit, I realize that the fleeting moments when the line comes tight are not what steelhead fishing is all about. Our group on this trip reminded me that fishing is largely a communal experience and is meant to be shared with others. In that way, we all build a common story through experiencing these wild places and wild animals together. And that common story is what helps break down the walls we all put up at times, so we can really get to know one another and share these moments as friends.
Special thanks to Fly Water Travel, James Sampsel, Kait Sampsel, Stuart Warren, Brandon Matthews and all the staff at Morrison's Lodge for helping make this trip a memorable one!
Words and Images by Marcus Mattioli