Catching the Rhythm and Music of the Cowlitz River

A thin mist hung low over the Cowlitz River, glowing eerily in the dark shadows created by the rising light of a freezing Friday morning.

The only sound that could be heard above the roar of the river was the unhealthy sputter of my son’s Honda as he pulled away to leave me standing alone at the top of the boat launch at the Barrier Dam.

“Are you the guy?” I asked the man sitting in a drift boat at the bottom of the launch.

“I’m the guy,” he answered.

As I made my way down the ramp, I wondered if I was crazy to put my trust into a man I had never met and only talked to over the phone. But any anxieties I had carried with me to the lonely boat launch were easily outweighed and overwhelmed by a deep and looming hunger to land my first winter-run steelhead.

It Started With a Phone Call

I receive several calls from readers each week, this call was from a neighbor I’d never met.

“I’ve been catching up on my Chronicle reading and just wondered if you’ve caught a steelhead yet,” said the voice on the other end of the line.

“I haven’t,” I answered, “I’m still working on it.”

“I’m your neighbor up here in Cinebar and I’ve got a drift boat. I’d like to try and help you land one,” he said.

I didn’t even have to think about it. I jumped at the chance.

“I’d like that too,” I said.

I jotted down his name and number, wondering what I was getting myself in for — I didn’t know him from Jay Goon, as my Southern-born mother would say. And taking a wild ride down a river running high isn’t something you want to try tackling with an inexperienced oarsman.

I must be crazy.

The Lure of Familiar Friends

But when Friday the 13th rolled around, our scheduled drift day, and I stood at the top of the boat ramp looking down at my new friend and long-time neighbor, before I stepped into the boat, I already knew I was in good hands.

This guy was obviously a fishing guide — a fact he either hadn’t shared or I hadn’t fully taken in if he did.

And when I saw the full fleet of round Abu Garcia Red baitcasting reels seated on vintage Lamiglas and Eagle Claw rods, all lined up along the bow and across the seats — I knew I was in for a good trip with familiar equipment.

“This old gear has never let me down,” he said, appreciating my enthusiasm and appreciation for the gear. “This boat’s never let me down either, let’s go catch some fish.”

He handed me a life vest as I stepped into the boat. “Safety first,” he said.

This was Steven Bean, life-long outdoorsman and part-time river guide, a familiar and well-liked face among the other fishermen along this river — and my good neighbor.

Acoustic vs. Heavy Metal

Bean owns a jet sled, but he left it at home that day.

As we shoved off, Bean explained that he hoped we would haul in some nice fish that day, but his main purpose for bringing me on a drift was so I could experience Cowlitz River from the seat of a drift boat.

“In drift boat fishing,” Bean explained, “it’s all about the river and the experience. It’s the difference between acoustic guitar and heavy metal. Catching fish is just a fraction of the experience.”

“I knew from reading your stories that you would enjoy this trip,” he said. “It’s quiet here and not heavily travelled this time of year. We’ll see a lot of birds and wildlife on the six-miles from Barrier Dam to Blue Creek.”

A peaceful drift in a non-motorized boat sounded like a lot of fun, but I worried about Bean rowing this big boat over high rolling water all morning long and I told him as much.

He laughed, “I’ve got a light load today. I’ve been rowing four men with eight dog salmon and all their gear through the Nisqually.”

Taking in the Sights and Sounds

As the only customer on the boat, I was recruited (happily so) into deckhand duties between holes and casts. He rowed, switched out lures and baits, then rowed some more. As I worked the bait, he kept up a constant stream of chatter and encouragement. I was sorely in need of instruction, I felt like a fish out of water, standing in that boat (please excuse the pun) and I could use all the help I could get.

“We probably won’t see another boat until we get close to Blue Creek,” Bean said. “That’s what I like about it here. The sleds hover around Blue Creek, it’s kind of nice to get away from all the noise and not have to listen to the motors running all day.”

As we drifted down the river, stopping in well-known holes like Timber Trails, Ethel Bar, Baker Rock and others, we saw a lot of wildlife. There were times when I would get so distracted with the beautiful surroundings, that I would forget we were fishing.

Eagles soared overhead, herons traveled upriver sounding like flying pigs, kinglets flitted through low branches that dipped into the water. We heard a whole slew of goldeneye duck’s wings whistle as they were startled out of their hidden coves, passed a gaggle of geese resting on the bank, watched a deer prance across a summer home lawn and listened to a full concerto courtesy of an American Dipper as it sang to the glory of the sun.

We drifted quietly past cascading waterfalls, beneath high canyon walls and old growth trees dripping in moss.

It was a spectacular, memorable trip, worth every moment of effort and bitter cold — but we were fishing. I put down my camera and picked up a rod.

Tossing Out the Tackle Box

We side-drifted eggs, threw spoons, pulled plugs, bait diver and shrimp and threw everything in the tackle box at the water without even a tug of recognition for our efforts — until we hit The Pumphouse area.

“You never know,” Bean said, “you can float the whole stretch of river and not hit anything until you get to The Pumphouse Hole — then it’s ‘Fish on!’”

We had a few moments of excitement when the rod took a hard bend. Bean sent me up on my feet to grab the rod from the holder and set the hook.

But I wasn’t quick enough. I reeled in to find the bait gone and a few scales hanging on the end of the hook.

That was the first steelhead of my own that I’ve even come close to touching. I kept the scales as a memento from the trip. (I think he thought I was a little crazy to want to keep them.)

And we went back to work.

“The fish don’t travel alone,” Bean said. “When you get hit once, it’s a good idea to go back through and see if you can get his buddy to hit.”

We tried working our way through the area again, but to no avail.

Unlucky Friday the 13th

The water was running high that day — it’s still high and doesn’t look like it’ll come down any time soon — not too many boats were coming in with fish that unlucky Friday the 13th.

Bean was surprised and a little disappointed that he hadn’t been able to help me land my first steelhead.

I wasn’t disappointed in the least.

“My back was to you most of the trip, Steve,” I said, “You couldn’t see the perma-grin I was wearing. I had to remind myself to shut my mouth and quit smiling before it froze that way.”

I have heard from other well-seasoned anglers that you don’t know winter-run steelhead fishing until you’ve been out there when it’s so cold the rod spits ice chunks at you as you cast out into the icy waters.

Now I know, thanks to Steven Bean, experienced river guide — and my good neighbor.

    Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer based in Cinebar. She can be contacted at kz@tds.net.