Waterman's Journal

Oct 19, 2010

Capt. Josh Temple Unleashed: Steelhead Satan

I started off the first steelhead fly fishing trip I've embarked upon in nearly a decade thinking a lot about Mexico. Sunshine, warm tropical waters, fancy state of the art equipment that rarely breaks down, and my usual team of collaborators and coconspirators around to assist me when I found myself in trouble, or in otherwise need of immediate help. Yes, Mexico sounds very good indeed when you are laying beneath your truck on a desolate highway in remote British Columbia in the pouring rain, fighting off the first stages of hypothermia, and bleeding profusely from a fresh wound to the head.

As I alternated wiping the rain, oil, mud, and blood from my eyes I thought a lot of Casa de Casas, the Maximo, and all of my friends and family down south. The weather would surely be better than the near-freezing temperatures, 35 knots of wind, and driving sideways rain that haunted my journey this morning. And despite all of the crazy, harrowing experiences i've endured in Latin America over the years I've somehow stopped short of dying on the side of a highway, alone, dripping blood, bone drenched and freezing.

On this particular morning, dreaming of better times, I found myself stranded on highway 19 between Port Alberni and Tofino, a scant forty five minutes from home, but a very long goddamn way from anything in any direction. The journey, scarcely begun, was not off to a favorable start.

The plan was for me to drive from Tofino to Nanaimo, take the ferry across to Vancouver, meet up with my friends Mike Steiny and Mike Eng, pick-up a canopy for my truck, load up the jet boat, pack all the gear, and vamanos for Smithers, British Columbia on Friday the 25th of September. If all went as planned, and we managed to drive all night from Vancouver to Smithers, we should have had camp set up, the boat in the water, and flies shooting forth from Spey rods towards prime wild steelhead by Sunday morning, forty eight hours later. Oh the best laid plans of mice and men....

Below: No great adventure would be complete without vehicular trouble!

Thanks to two cups of coffee I drank while leaving Tofino at six am on this particular morning, I made it past the junction near Ucluelet, across Kennedy Lake, over the switchback mountains and the upper Kennedy River, and damn near all the way to Port Alberni before I had to take a dump. I pulled my trusty 1996 Chevrolet 2500 Sierra over into the entrance to an old abandoned logging road, shut the truck off, and hopped out of the cab to go dig a hole. Given the severity of the rain, relentlessly pouring in amazonian-like sheets, my plan was to make it a quick one.

For some strange reason I had this nagging feeling while I urged my lower intestine to hurry that I shouldn't have shut the truck off way out here in the wilderness. I finished up, reached for some freshly fallen leaves, re-boarded the pick-up, and went to start ol' Betsy up when that little man on my shoulder yelled "I TOLD YOU SO ARSEHOLE!" in my ear as the starter went CHICK-CHICK-GRIND-RATATTATTTATTAAA-FUQ!

Always one to appreciate some of life's little ironies, I actually laughed out loud for a second. But as the rain continued to pour, and the windows began to fog from within, and the cold began to creep into the cab, I stopped laughing and started calculating. Ok, no big deal - it's just a starter. But do you have a spare? No, of course not. Tow truck? Unfortunately. Do you have BCAA? (Canada's equivalent to AAA roadside service) Yes, good. Cell phone reception way out here in the boonies? After a quick check of the phone, no service. Chit. Time of day? Early, won't be any traffic for an hour if I'm lucky. Tools? Yup. OK then you can kill time ripping out the old starter to hasten repairs once the tow truck arrives to take ol' Betsy to town for a quick starter swap-out.

Below: Trading in the trolling lures for some well crafted flies

I dug out my tools, squirmed under the truck in cold, thick, juicy mud and got down to business. I told myself to keep a sharp ear turned for any oncoming traffic in either direction. As I was a good fifty feet from the highway, tucked down the entrance to a decommissioned logging road, i'd have to run out to the main road to flag someone down, give them the number to BCAA for me, a general description of my location, and hope that they would pass that along to the tow truck company, whom would allegedly then come and save me. Seemed like a simple and straightforward plan of action, until the first car went by.


Chit, i thought. I didn't even hear that one coming! I squirmed out from under ol' Betsy and ran to the main road. Gone. I waited for another ten minutes in the pouring rain until I convinced myself that I would certainly hear the next car coming, now that I was prepared to expect it. I got back under the truck and went to work removing the old starter. Two minutes later WHOOOSH! Another car blows by on the highway. FUQ!

I run back to the road, gone. I wait another ten minutes in the driving rain, nada. My mind is beginning to play tricks on me now. Stand at the road, wait for a car, or rip the starter off and see if miraculously i can fix it. There is a part of my brain that knows all too well that there is no way in hell i will ever be able to rebuild a starter on the side of the road in the wilderness without parts or proper machine tools, but that little man on my shoulder does a good job of convincing the rest of me that I am a very good wilderness mechanic and by all means can I fix the goddamn thing myself.

Below: Creating the weapons of mass destruction by hand!

Back under the truck i go. The rain has created a series of rivers that run beneath the truck now. They converge under the engine and create a makeshift reservoir where my body weight has indented the mud. I crawl into the lake. It is cold, very cold, and i am shivering.


CHIT! That's four cars in a row!

Again the little man on my shoulder assures me that all i have to do is remove the starter, fix it, reinstall it, and i'll be on my way.

I have never removed a starter, let alone rebuilt one, before in my life. The little man on my shoulder dismisses these facts and passes me the 1/2" socket.


I hear at least six more vehicles go by in either direction, I am hip deep in the lake under the truck by now. It's raining harder. The water is rising.

I manage to get one of the mounting bolts off with ease, the remaining bolt is not cooperating. The little man on my shoulder offers encouragement. I go for the hammer.

Below: Josh hooked up on the fly...

On the third or fourth whack i miss the handle on the ratchet and smoke myself square in the mouth with the flat part of the hammer, opening up a nasty gash in my mouth, now I am bleeding. And swearing. The little man on my shoulder is knocked unconscious by the blow and i squirm out from the truck, dripping muddy water, and stumble towards the main road. The blood is really coming out of my mouth. I am freezing, wet, and spitting out bloody chunks of gum tissue. Swearing makes me feel a little better.

About ten feet from the main drag a large truck carrying fish farm food WHOOSHES by. Then another. It is a goddamn convoy and I am running for my life towards the road but when i get there they are gone. With all the rain, and wind, and nastiness in their mirrors they never look back, or fail to stop for the bloody, muddy monster running after them in their side-views. I really swear this time, but it is no longer making me feel better.

I wait for ten minutes on the side of the road. Nothing in either direction. I manage to light a cigarette. After a few drags it is covered in blood too, and I remind myself that i should finally quit smoking. The bloody cigarette is a metaphor, i throw it into the mud.

Below: Josh posing with his beautiful Steelhead ...

Finally, after nearly twenty more minutes a lone white pick-up truck comes down the road. I run into the middle of the highway and make the truck stop. The driver rolls down his window and asks me if i'm okay, if there's been an accident. No no no, i tell him. I'm going steelhead fishing, everything is fine.

He takes one look at me, at the mud and the blood, and asks how he can help. I give him my BCAA information, tell him to let the roadside assistance operator know that i need a tow into Port Alberni to replace a blown starter, and make sure that he knows how to give them directions to my location. Okay, he says, and asks me again if I'm sure I'm OK. No problem, I say, I'll be here waiting for the tow truck. He drives off.

I crawl back under ol' Betsy, pick up the hammer and ratchet again, and start dreaming of Mexico. My thoughts are warm, but my soaking wet and bloody body is shivering. I almost think i hate Canada, but i stop short.

Below: A perfect fly is irresistable!

Two hours later when the tow truck finally arrives i have succeeded in removing the starter. I am holding it on the side of the road like a proud daddy when the tow truck driver shows up. The operator is a large, overweight Native guy. He asks me if i've been in an accident. No no no, i tell him. Showing him the failed starting motor, I'm going steelhead fishing, i say, and i need to get to Port Alberni to buy a new starter. You're bleeding, he says. Yes, i tell him, i had some trouble with the starter. He nods. I think he knows what i mean.

He wastes no time hooking up my truck in the rain, i dig out a fresh change of clothes from my gear and change while he's busy. We spend the remaining forty five minute drive to the parts store in Port Alberni talking about fishing. When we arrive he unhooks my truck in the parking lot of the parts store and sticks around to help me install a new starter. I have trouble with the shims so he calls one of his buddies who comes down and finishes the job in the parking lot. I finally get on my way at two in the afternoon, eight hours after i left Tofino earlier that morning. The little man on my shoulder regains consciousness and says - hey, that wasn't that bad!

Below: Josh posing with another impressive fish...

Mike and Mike are wondering where the hell i am. I tell them the story over the phone during the ferry crossing. They both express concerns that my truck won't stand up to the two weeks ahead. Don't worry, i tell them, Ol' Betsy won't leave us for dead. I meet them in Vancouver, buy a used canopy, load the jet boat and all of our gear and we depart for Smithers, and the 800 mile journey ahead.

We lose the speedometer an hour into the trip, it's nothing i tell them, happens all the time. It's never happened before. I touch my lip with my finger, it still hurts, but it's stopped bleeding. We press on.

Somehow, we make it to Smithers fourteen hours later without further incident. As dawn breaks it's evident that after nearly sixty hours of non-stop rain the rivers are completely blown out and running with mud. The will be no fishing today, or tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after. The little man on my shoulder starts singing in Spanish. I ignore him.

Below: Josh releasing a quality Steelhead...

The two Mike's and I set about getting our camp situated, and put the jet boat in the water. We decide to go work on our spey casting later that afternoon, on Sunday, but the river is shot and there is nary a bite to be had. We start drinking whiskey. We don't stop for ten days.

After such a torrential rain it takes a loooong time for the rivers to clean up and somewhat clear. In the meantime we go grouse hunting with rocks, get lost in the woods, drive to any creek or river we think might be fishable in the area, and generally sauce ourselves up. It is a good thing we are in the wilderness. We are allowed to act like savages here.

We see moose, bears, deer, and more green beret grouse than you can imagine. Armed with river rocks the grouse are making us look like fools. We whack them with stones the size of softballs and they flutter farther into the woods, chuckling their little grouse chuckle, outflanking us on all sides. We keep drinking.

Below: Flyfishing is the most primitive form of sportfishing art...

Back at camp our compadres are all wondering when the river will come back into shape. There are Germans, Brits, fellow Canucks, and plenty of Americanos. Our camp becomes the Pentagon, we have scheduled nightly meetings around the campfire. The war chest comes out. We talk strategy long into the night. Nobody is immune to our plight. The gods are against us. Somebody eyes a deer across the river, drinking from the mud. There is talk of a bloodletting.

James Brown somehow becomes our theme music for the trip. We dance around in our waders, casting to muddy waters, screaming "HAAAAAAY! GET ON UP!" and "PAPA DON'T TAKE NOOOOO MESS!" in the spirit of the godfather of soul. I am becoming James. I feel good. I am sure other people think we are lunatics. We are.

I run into my old friend Chris Fischer in the middle of nowhere along the river and he smells of whiskey. I tell Mike and Mike it is a sign from James in the spirit world, and that we must go with Chris. We follow him to his lodge and tell tales of better days and cleaner waters. We spend a few days with Chris before he bolts back to the states to go tag Great White sharks somewhere in his mothership. He asks me if i want to go. The little man on my shoulder sings "Farewell and adieu my fair Spanish lady..." More whiskey takes care of him. I tell Chris, thanks, but i'm staying. He laughs at me. I tell him i'm not ready to be led off the stage like James just yet.

Below: Tools for Success ...

We are going crazy now. Even the Germans back at camp are keeping their distance.

Finally, on the fifth day I start hooking steelhead. We cannot believe it. We are finally catching fish. They are wild, beautiful steelhead between 8 and twenty pounds. Except that I am the only one catching them. Mike and Mike are happy at first, but after the third day in a row, the eighth day since we left Vancouver, I am still the only one with fish to the beach. And I am slaying them. Despite the fact that i am fishing behind both of them. I can do no wrong.

Mike and Mike begin to get angry. The whiskey is talking. JT is not a good friend anymore. He is catching fish, and Mike and Mike are not. JT is the devil, he has made a deal with Steelhead Satan. It is a rough few days before Mike and Mike finally get a few small fish to the beach. I am still kicking the chit out of them. I am catching 35" fish on a daily basis, they are catching rats. The little man on my shoulder tells me to rub it in a little, i keep my mouth shut.

Below: Yet another impressive fish gets released back into the wild...

Back at camp I become somewhat of a legend. Everyone is having a hard time out there. I am certainly not. What flies are you using? What weight line are you throwing? I tell them nothing special, that i just kind of fashion things up as i go along. This doesn't sit well with anyone. There is no way that one person can have this much irrefutable luck. It must be something. They get me drunk and keep me talking. But they are drinking too, and are not very good at listening. The HEX is on them they say. I am now Steelhead Satan. I am a God, but a bad one. I learn that it is not wise to make so many people look bad all at once.

As the trip wears on it is apparent that i have the golden touch. Day after day, after DAY i just keep catching them. I fish third person through the run, i fish one hour to every three of theirs, it doesn't matter. The steelhead come. More and bigger by the day.

On day eleven I am firmly in the zone. I already have two fish to the beach by ten in the morning. Mike and Mike have yet to move a fish. We move to another spot further up the river. The pool is small, there is only room for the two of them to fish. I sit in the jet boat drinking beer, sipping fireball whiskey. It's still early, but I am already slightly buzzed.

Below: The fun continues ...

I am enjoying a private celebration in the boat, I have caught a lot of fish during the trip, and already two this morning. I chew my lip where the hammer got me, the pain and blood is long gone. Life is good. I doze off.

I wake up a while later, Mike and Mike are still fishing the run. It's been about an hour. I grab my spey rod and walk up to the very top of the run, wade into the river and prepare a cast. There is nothing like a well executed spey cast, and my first one is a beauty. My line shoots out over one hundred feet across the water, i smile.

I move the rod upstream, creating a huge mend in the line, allowing the fly to sink and begin it's swing.

The fly, something of my own design that Mike and Mike and the rest of the boys at camp were laughing at earlier in the week, gets demolished again. It's already taken some big fish in the past few days, but this fish is bigger.

Below: An adventure of a lifetime continues...

My line rips from the reel and a monster buck steelhead goes airborne in the middle of the river. Mike and Mike both look in my direction in time to see the steelhead cartwheel through the very same water that they have been flogging for over an hour, again. This is the fifth or sixth time this scenario has happened. Something within them breaks.

I wade back to the shore and begin to run downstream in pursuit of the fish, who by now is working his way through the rapids, still jumping. It is quite a show, I am yelling. Reluctantly Mike and Mike reel in and give chase with the camera. I feel sorry for them, but not really. They were talking a lot of chit on the drive up, now they are silent.

Mike Eng is dumfounded that somehow, I have done it again. Another fish caught behind them, and after waking up from a nap and making only one cast! How does he do it? he asks Steinman. Steiny lights another cigarette, shaking his head.

This fish is a particularly nasty creature. It makes me run a long way after it down the river. Finally i guide the beast to the shore, grab his tail, and we snap a few pictures. It measures 39 inches, a monster. I give ol' Johnny Buck a kiss on the head and put him back in the river, taking simple pleasure in the wake he causes as he powers away from the shallows. Eng hands me back the camera, and follows Steiny back up to the run.

Below: Josh posing with yet another trophy Steelhead ...

I sit down on the bank below them and watch them wade back out and begin to cast. After a while i head back to the jet boat, take another shot of fireball, and go back to sleep. I dream of tow trucks, and the Maximo. When i wake up Mike and Mike are still casting, nary a fish has moved for either of them.

The whiskey is running dangerously low by the twelfth day. It is nearly time to go home. Mike and Mike have somehow turned the corner and no longer hate me. They actually laugh about the fate of the gods. I am sure it still stings that after all these years in Mexico i still have the steelhead touch, the little man on my shoulder wants to point that out to them, but again, i keep my mouth shut.

The rains come again with a vengeance, and with a rising river we decide to go home. We throw all of our gear back into ol' Betsy and hit the road towards Vancouver. The heavens open up with biblical fury, but this time, all the way home, Ol' Betsy holds.

Below: One final photo of one of MANY incredible specimens caught on fly by Josh...