Finding Buddha on the Sauk

What do you mean you cannot buy beer before 6AM?
Steelhead fishing in the rain
Photo: Dave McCoy

I work like a dog between two jobs and never get to do any of the things that I'm working so hard to get to do. So when my buddy Buddha asks about fishing the Sauk before closing day tomorrow and do I want to come, I answer “hellyeah.” I refinish floors until midnight, pack, go to bed, get up at 3 and pace until 5:30 when I can take off.

I stop at Safeway for breakfast, lunch, and Ninkasi is making a Helles, so I better grab some of that for post-fishing. I’ve lived in Washington for 30 years now, so how do I not know that it's illegal to sell beer before 6AM? It's 5:57, 5:58 by the time the guy tells me no, this is not Massachusetts, and the cash register is programmed to not even allow the sale for another 2 minutes. Here I am thinking this is the first time, the first freaking time, that I have ever been in a Safeway when there was no line, and goddammit if there was just one person in front of me I could've had beer. But, many things are more important than beer, steelhead falling right between beautiful women and beautiful women who drink and fish, and so rather than wait, I take my two sandwiches and a candy bar and go.

It's the veritable dark and stormy night and it turns out that Arlington is only halfway there and the rest of the way I'm winding through the mountains on highway 530 with one headlight. When I pass through the Oso landslide, it’s like driving on the moon. All that’s left of the “Steelhead Haven” neighborhood is blank destruction as far as the lights can penetrate into the carbon night. It’s hard to keep the mind on the task at hand when such mighty events circle about us on the Wheel of Life just out of headlight range.

I’m a little nervous because Buddha’s one of those guys who gives you directions as if you you’ve already been to the place he is talking about and you find yourself saying "yeah, yeah" as if you do. But I've never been on the Sauk in my life, so I'm driving off my memory of directions which I agreed I understood but certainly did not. But like enlightenment in the mist, I see the bridge (he mentioned a bridge, right?), pull over, and there is Buddha, or Jeff as I've heard the laity call him. It is raining. Pouring. In fact, we moved the trip up a day because Buddha says the river will be unfishable the rest of the week and the season closes on Sunday. I'm a little disappointed because I have sworn to my friend Mauro that it never rains on me and even proved it once when it was raining on him 200 yards down the beach and not at all on me. But I did get a new raincoat just for the one such occasion when I might actually need it and so I put it on.

We do the whole launch-the-boat-take-the-truck-and-trailer-downstream-and-come-back-in-my car shuffle and we are off fishing. I lost all my Spey rods in the fire and have been too busy building rods for other people to replace them, so Jeff lends me some Frankenswitch rod set up with a Scandi sinking head that I have to roll cast two or three times just to get the fly up for my Snap-T. Which, by the way, I’ve never actually learned and cannot parrot from Jeff because the bastard is using the single Spey. So I flail around for a while but might as well have been trying to cast the boat anchor.

Between holes I ask if, my masculinity being somewhat diminished, maybe I could use another rod? Buddha admits that perhaps the switch rod and line are not a good match, and graces me with a 13' Fethastick and a compact Skagit head. Now, we are talking. And hucking. Suddenly, with a few tips from the Enlightened One, the Skagit cast comes to me like Satori and my best ones are almost as good as my worst single Speys, proving you never lose muscle memories but sometimes have to wile away the accretions on top of them.

There is a barely discernible stripe on the water that is precisely 1.5 shades greener than the rest of the water. And I know that it is over a long, deep hole. And in my soul I know there are fish there who dearly want to meet me. Buddha notices that I notice and gives me the run. The only problem is I need to be able to shoot some line to get to it. It takes about 100 casts and when I finally do shoot the line to the seam it feels oh, so good. By now the rain is beating the water into a froth. The pre-wrapped sandwich which is inside the plastic Safeway bag, which is in my backpack, which is stowed in the cubby in the bow, is sopping wet later when I unwrap it.

I also am sopping wet. I keep putting up the hood on my high-tech new coat, but it is so cavernous it falls over my face and I can't see shit. It has doohickey drawstring toggles which I would love to tighten, but they are proprietary to this brand and in the middle of the river, fingers numb from the wet water, knowing, just knowing there are fish in this run, and fighting for every cast, I decide my brimless sponge-like ski hat will have to do.

It's a long run, a couple hundred yards, and at the end, on the last cast, on the very last swing—Buddha is already in the boat and bailing it out—I let the line swing all the way until it stops straight downstream of me on the dangle. It's there, 5 seconds, maybe 10. Okay, enough with the rain already. The 13' rod, counterbalanced with a reel the size of a coffee can, being too big to hold under an arm, gets stashed between my legs and I lean over to wrestle with this hood. My frozen fingers again fail to divine the secrets of the toggles and I'm as blind as a kidnap victim in a car trunk when between my knees I see, I think I see, my rod bend.

Probably just hooked a rock, but best to check. I stand up and take the hood off just in time to see a huge fish, definitely among the top five I've ever caught—okay, the top one—roll just once in the 3" of water where the sink tip line was lying, which I took to be as barren and forlorn as a dry sea bed at the bottom of a Martian crater. I don't feel any tension on the line but the fish is rightfreakingthere, so I lift the rod up high above my head and the line comes sailing back up at me. I hope Buddha did not see it because in all of the hundreds and thousands of hours I've fished, I've never lost a fish to simple neglect of the line. Never. You spend years practicing your mantra: cast, swing, dangle, lift, take three steps, anchor, cast, swing—waiting for enlightenment to strike out of the depths of your meditation—and here I was bent over like a frat pledge when it happened.

It was rightfreakingthere, its belly like an empty mirror mocking me as it rolled, and it was certainly hooked. I know because when I try to nonchalantly anchor the sailing line and make another cast, just in case the all-seeing, all-knowing Buddha might've missed this incredibly brief, momentary roil of failure, I hear the distinct "snap" of a line that has no fly. When I pull the line in, the 10 lb-test straight-mono we are using for leaders was cleanly broken in the middle, by the fish I never fought. I want to feel better about this, like I never had a chance, but still I'm feeling like my ship finally came in and I was waiting standby at the airport. Right about then, it makes absolutely no sense that you can be steelheading at dawn, but not have a beer with you for your moments of triumph and loss because what is Satori without reflection?

"Did you see that?" I ask, thinking he couldn't possibly have, with his head down bailing and me directly in line between him and the fish.

"I did."

I'm having a very Siddhartha moment here, remembering that you can indeed sit with the master below the Bodhisattva tree but never gain enlightenment if you don't chop wood, carry water. And so there is nothing to it but putting your mind into the in-between of total concentration and no-thought until fickle enlightenment chooses to make another appearance, sea-bright on a cold winter morning. Cast, swing, dangle, lift, take three steps ...


Jon, That was a well written the-one-that-got-away story. Joseph Campbell would be proud. I had a similar event pursuing browns within Utah's Bicknell Bottoms on the Fremont. My initial thrashing eventually dropped just outside a hide when the beast hit, drove off and snapped my tippet. The line stretched. The tippet, overpowered, flew back with enough well placed force that it landed on my chest like 20 feet of perfectly coiled silly string. I had been enlightened. However, I had a beer waiting for me back in Teasdale, a Wasatch IPA.

Great article! I'm glad I'm not the only one who has those kinds of days on the river. I had to smile at being soaking wet. Isn't it amazing how you can wear $400+ waders and a $300+ jacket and still get soaking wet? No wonder "normal" people think Steelheaders, and Steelhead fly fisherman in particular, are crazy. Normal is over rated.

Very enjoyable read. I think we've all been there at some point. I'm assuming that's the same Buddha I've followed on WFF for years. Always seemed like a dude I'd enjoy fishing with.

Great stuff, very well written. Thanks for sharing!