Under the Open Sky: Stalking the Mighty Steelhead on the Cowlitz

At 5 a.m. on Friday morning near the height of the summer steelhead run on the Cowlitz River, the Blue Creek Boat Launch parking lot roared to life under the mists of a lingering fog.
The phrase “Gentlemen, start your engines!” came to mind as the snarl and roar of the revving motors on sleds filled my ears and an excitement built up inside my chest that drove the beating of my heart up into my throat.
Everyone is in a hurry to get started and to be the first one to arrive at the best fishing holes and lay claim to them, but there were smiles all around. Yes, in spite of the hasty pace and anxious minds of the anglers, we all knew it was going to be a good day.
It doesn’t matter that the water is running fast and high. It doesn’t matter if a single fish is caught. Any day on the Cowlitz River is better than a day at work.
As my son and I rushed through the jungle of head-high grasses, shoved our way through the blooming shrubs and ducked beneath the low hanging branches of the towering trees crowding the long, narrow pathway that leads to the mouth of the Blue Creek, I was always 6 or 20 paces behind him.
He was hoping to be the first one there and capture his favorite spot. I was just hoping to keep from getting lost in the woods on the way.
The trip required us to wade hip-high through a small inlet. One slip, I thought, and my life — my camera and cell phone — are doomed to drown. Each time I make that same crossing I wonder if it’s worth it to carry my camera to the creek, but the thought of capturing another shot of a great blue heron, a tiny chickadee or an osprey keep the camera on my back and my feet moving slow and steady over the slippery rocks.
We weren’t the first to arrive at Blue Creek, but we were only beaten by one other fisherman.
On Friday morning the river was still high and fast and the air was chilled with the fog in the air — air that seemed especially chilly after I took a dip up to my neck only two hours into the day.
As my feet slipped out from underneath me, I could see the other angler’s eyes widen and jaws drop as they watched me go down into the water. I quickly recovered, however, but wasn’t surprised at all to see the looks of shock turn to laughter.
I have to give those men the credit they’re due, they saved at least a small shred of my dignity when they kept their laughter short and sweet.
My new friend Jerry even offered to rig up my line with the gear that had brought him success only moments before.
“Come on now, it’s your turn,” he said.
I gratefully accepted any help he could offer, but I was afraid that I had probably scared any chances of success out of that hole with my mighty splash — for all of us.
Nobody caught a fish in the next three hours I stood shivering in the knee-high waters, but we had an enjoyable, companionable day.
And any day on the Cowlitz — with or without a fish — is better than at work.

Combat Fishing
There are a few rules of etiquette in river fishing I have learned to follow that tend to keep the “combat” of competitive steelhead fishing in the water and against the fish, not on the banks against the guy standing next to you.
Rule 1: Wait to cast your line until the guy downstream from you has cast his.
Rule 2: Don’t let your line drift too far downstream. Reel in before you hook the fisherman next to you.
Rule 3: If you notice your line drifting faster than everyone else, add a bit more weight to slow your line down.
Rule 4: If someone moves out of line for whatever reason don’t move into his spot unless you are sure he has quit fishing that area.
Rule 5: If someone hooks a fish, reel in your line and be ready to move out of the fisherman’s way in case he has to work the fish up or down the bank.
And Rule 6 (I haven’t had the chance to use this one yet): When you get a fish on the line, yell “FISH ON!” loud and clear so everyone can have a chance to get out of your way.
May your lines stay tight and your feet stay underneath you. Happy fishing.
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Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer who enjoys watching and photographing the wildlife in her own backyard in Cinebar. Contact her via email at kz@tds.net.