The stars were fading in the cold gray sky. The river looked like a smoking cauldron of black water oozing through a canyon of frozen rock beneath a tunnel of leaning trees. Causing questions to be asked like, what on earth are we doing floating down a river in the darkest days of winter?
The answer is simple enough. We are fishing for the winter run steelhead.
These have been called the fish of a thousand casts but no one who fishes for them bothers to count. Sometimes it's better not to know just how much effort is required to catch a steelhead. Whether it's1,000 casts in the river, oar strokes on a drift boat or white-knuckle miles of ice-covered road, people who fish for steelhead just don't seem to care.
In fact once you start accounting for all the time and effort steelheading demands it may be time to hang it up and get a life.
Real steelheaders actually like the nasty weather. They cling to the false hope that freezing temperatures will keep the competition at home where they belong near a good hot fire in the wood stove.
Judging from the crowds fishing the West End of the Olympic Peninsula these days, the weather has not been cold enough to make a dent in the hordes of anglers that invade Forks every year at about this time. Some of the locals claim steelheaders are insane but, compared to what?
Some of my seasonably depressed fancy friends, use winter as an excuse to vacation in a tropical paradise. They think that if they can get away from the endless gray of the Pacific Northwest winter, life will be worth living.
This is a bad mistake.
You still have to come back home from your tropical vacation. There to face what's left of the dark and dreary winter with it's bills, leaky roofs and pipes that froze in your absence. As the slush melts into a pond in your basement, you wonder just why you returned from that tropical paradise, to a world where it never seems to stop raining.
Meanwhile, a steelheader who has just spent the week on the verge of hypothermia is thrilled with the prospect of a nice warm rain. It will make the rivers rise and bring in more fish. What if we have another nasty Canadian cold snap on the way?
That's great news to a steelheader.
It will make the rivers drop back in to perfect shape. All weather is good weather for the delusional steelheader. Many of them have grown an extra layer of fur and blubber as a physical adaptation to the arctic conditions of winter fishing.
Some fishermen even claim they have heated drift boats. Anyone who says that is either an optimist, a liar, a guide or all of the above. An open drift boat is impossible to heat.
Boat heaters can be tricky. Usually about the time you feel your feet starting to thaw out in front of the heater, your boots are on fire. This can be a bad time to hook a fish.
A silver torpedo jumps out of the river. People start screaming at you. You try to reel in the fish with icy fingers in frozen mittens that accidently push the reel's free spool button. Causing a huge bird's nest of tangled line that breaks with a crack like a pistol shot as the fish heads back downriver.You sit in a cloud of burning rubber smoke and can't wait to do it again.