A Close Call On The River

He laughed hysterically.

For a full minute, if not more yesterday, Jason stood in the front of the drift boat and just laughed.

The sound carried downstream and then slipped below the spruce, alder and maples that had been thrown into the river to shore up an eroding bank.

It wasn’t Jason’s first brush with death. He’s been in numerous sketchy situations. Has faced ugliness all too often.

His laughing was a release. We might have found ourselves under those trees.

Grant, our oarsman, and I were quiet but still shaking. The boat bobbed in the safety of the shallows and every so often we looked back up at that log- and stump-filled jam that stretched well out into the river and had tried the snatch the fathers of seven young children.

We’d waited until very late to try and run between it and some large sticks sticking out on the right side. The safer play would have been to just walk the boat through the riffle behind the sticks.

When I’d begun to realize the trouble we were getting into, I put my rod down because fishing had suddenly become very unimportant.

Jason thought, “Well, at least I’ll die steelheading.”

He’s been bit by “steelheaditis,” and hard, since catching his first ever, a fish that went into the midteens, on this river last month. It was flowing lower then by half, but was still very driftable yesterday.

Grant dug as hard as he could in the constricted channel, and Jason and I held on and pivoted around in our seats with wide eyes to see what was coming next, maybe fend it off with our hands.

Halfway through the squeeze, the boat spun and we were suddenly going downstream backwards towards trailing logs that could hang us up in the powerfully upwelling current.

We all wore lifejackets, but even so, where might we pop up if the boat dumped? Underneath a tree that knocked us out cold before we surfaced?

It wasn’t the first time I’ve been in a bad spot on a river. Drifting sideways on the Hoh, the guy on the sticks dug too deep in too shallow water and the paddle popped out, sending us spinning one-oared into a logjam.

Drifting sideways on the upper Wynoochee we hit a rock and nearly were thrown out.

Those experiences as well as Amy’s insistence has led me to wear a life jacket on all boat rides.

We were lucky yesterday, hardly touching the logs. The only thing the river took was my pink-worm setup when my trailing hook caught on the last stick. The reel’s drag screamed as we floated away.

That’s when Jason started laughing.

When he spoke again, Grant said that it had been a very, very close thing for about three seconds.

It’s said that a hair-raising moment or two is standard while floating Peninsula rivers for steelhead. The “lumber yards” these fish hang out in can also constrict channels and throw unexpected obstacles in the way.

Then there are projects, like this jam, to shore up banks near homes, pastures and roads. It hadn’t seemed so bad a month before, and as good of a job as Grant did all day yesterday, far more experienced hands had been on the sticks that trip.

As we sat there in the shallows reflecting on the past 10 minutes, a fish broke the surface back towards the logjam, reminding us why we’d gotten up at 2 a.m. and made the long drive in the first place. That fish didn’t bite, but further down, I hooked a pair of steelhead side-drifting a pink worm.

I landed the first, an 8-pound-or-so hen. It had been sitting in a seam between the main river and a side channel.

HAPPY TO BE ALIVE AND FISHING FOR WILD COASTAL STEELHEAD. (JASON BROOKS)

WILD STEELHEAD. (JASON BROOKS)

The other, which I lost, also bit midriver and appeared slightly bigger before rolling and spitting the hook.

We were all using the worm, though Jason and Grant’s were on longer leaders than mine (40-plus inches to 30 inches or so); I was also using pink- and clown-colored Winners to get my baits off bottom while they pegged theirs with Corkies. However, I think my lure just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Overall it was a really great trip. Jason still wants to buy a drifter, and I’d step into Grant’s boat for another run.

But while most times, it’s the fish, the camaraderie and something in the scenery that makes a trip memorable, I’ll always remember the upper Quinault for another reason.

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