Last April on the Wilson River in Oregon, I was introduced to what looked like Bob Sled boat launching. You have to have a long rope to drop the boat. The real danger in getting the boat in the water was in the heavy layer of early morning frost on the launch and metal stairs that looked like a dusting of snow.
I had traveled along the ocean down Interstate 5 many times, but not inland. The Wilson river winds through the Cascades between Banks Oregon and Tillamook. There isn’t even a gas station along the fifty mile drive to the ocean. If you forgot something (like gloves), you are going to have to do without. Also, the meandering narrow canyon highway was a “dead zone” for cell service. Even fishermen who knew the river well, would make a call to let a friend or relative know where they were putting in. Especially during spring run off.
The river banks are high, rocky, and mossy with very few low areas. The trees, bushes, and ferns are extremely dense. We pulled off in a few spots so I could look at the river as clear views of the river are few and far between. I would take a photo or two of the river and then start snapping photos of moss-covered trees. My companion who grew up in this area, could not understand my fascination with the trees shrouded in moss, and ferns growing out of the tops of stumps. The rain forest flora of the Cascades is like visiting another planet to a gal who has spent most of her life in northwestern Montana and eastern Washington.
We made one stop at a friend’s house along the way to pick up a jar of home cured eggs. I thought we were going to be fly-fishing. I was unaware that on the Wilson, and most of the other rivers in this area, using bait and lures are the common method of fishing for steelhead and salmon. We were going to be fishing with coon-striped shrimp and salmon eggs. Catching one of the magazine cover Steelhead was something I had been wanting to do for so long, I didn’t care “with what” I was just delighted with the opportunity to try.
About ten miles out of Tillamook, we drove down a narrow dirt road and backed up. I bounded out of the truck and was stunned to see the boat ramp. I have fished a lot of rivers in Montana, yet there was nothing to compare to this boat launch. I was instructed to go down the metal stairs and as the drift boat was lowered by the rope, if it should move from center I was to pull or push it back into the middle of the ramp. The boat was at such a vertical angle that it had to be launched empty, and then several trips made up and down the slick metal stairs to pack down fishing equipment, gear, and the cooler.
While we were packing the boat, I got to hear a story from my guide friend about the time he and another guide, in their wild and crazy days of youth, launched without a rope. They put a metal drift boat up to the edge of this same launch and with one of them inside, the other kicked-off and jumped in the boat. The boat hit the water stern first and miraculously popped out of the water with very little bailing to be done. He told me it was a moment of impetuous insanity, not to be repeated again, “but an incredible ride” .
The launching was a piece of cake compared to the Wilson spring high water run off, and two icy rain storms. It was in the upper 40’s that day, but bone-chilling cold due to the humidity and rain on the verge of turning to sleet. I had dressed for the cold and rain with wool pants under ski pants, two sweaters under a simms fishing jacket, rain slicker, and hat. However, I did manage to forget a very important necessity, which was my gloves. Luckily, I had a package of chemical hand warmers that went in my pockets for warming up between fish.
The river was not very clear because of the run-off, yet I was assured that we would be able to catch fish. A mile down the river, we encountered some rapids and had to negotiate our way around, and under fallen trees. I was told during that same week, there had been two boats capsize in log jams. Although a little nervous after being told about the boating accidents right before going under the same tree, I felt in safe hands with my guide friend who has been fishing this stretch of river for over thirty years.
It was fun learning a new way to fish. Back-trolling is a lot of work for the oarsman. Rock hard rowing arms are required to fight against a strong current and keep the boat at a steady trolling speed. The shrimp and eggs are tied to heavy lines with bright flashers and then let out slowly for about twelve to fourteen seconds. The poles are then put in rod holders and watched for strikes. It is very obvious when a fish hits, and no setting a hook required, so not enough hands-on for my taste. I felt like a slacker with my feet up on the knee brace while my guide did all the work.
Thanks to my seasoned guide friend, I learned to back drift fish and caught two nice Steelhead. A ten pound wild hen that was released without boating and a seven pound clipped-fin keeper to add to my “fishing” bucket list and inspiration for new, tasty fish recipes to add to my “what to eat before you die” food list. As a bonus, I brought in a nice fifteen inch sea-run cutthroat.