January 28, 2022
This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
It’s mid-January and I’m learning that living in a bigger cabin helps with the symptoms, but does not cure the fever. The weather outside is the same whether you’re in a single-wide trailer or a mansion. I drive upriver to the Trading Post to buy my fishing license; then, all the way to Smith Springs before I realize I forgot my boots. I haven’t fished since late October on the Williamson and I need to be retrained. Two and a half months of too few fish and too much river. I drive back to the house—boots by the door—then head upstream again.
The river is high, 18 inches below the top of the bridge abutment. The color is khaki green with snowmelt cloudiness. At Mill Run it’s too cloudy to spot fish. I fish anyway and catch cold hands.
I’m wearing the black beret (boina, in Spanish) I bought at the Gaucho Festival in Junín de los Andes, Argentina. It’s the first time I’ve worn the wool beret while fishing.
To many anglers, hats are the most individual type of fishing gear. Hats make statements about the people whose heads they crown. Statements like, I’ve fished here, and there; I’m proud to use such-and-such a rod or reel; I sunburn easy; I’m a conservationist, traditionalist, whitewater cowboy, a Ducks supporter, a baseball fan; and, I’m so dead serious I need a long-brim.
Even a plain hat trying not to make a statement makes a statement. And going hatless, although rare, is a big, minimalist statement.
There are hats that catch fish and there are hats that don’t; that’s to say, there are lucky hats and there are hats that need to be worn elsewhere. You have to give them a trial period, see how they do. On the Williamson, you have to give them a fair trial, a month maybe, because on this river there are days when, under perfect conditions, catching a steelhead seems impossible.
In 15 years of guiding on this river, I’ve never had a hatless client.
I’ve taken high-level corporate executives who showed up with hats that made them look like Jed Clampett. They must want to be mistaken for one of the more eccentric locals—certainly an idealized version of one—except that if a local had that kind of money, he would have bought himself a new hat.
A client showed up once—a doctor, nice, intelligent guy—wearing a baseball cap that read “Master Steelheader.” Wide-eyed, I asked him where he got it. He said he’d taken a steelheading course and at the end they’d given each participant a hat. It speaks of some Wizard of Oz logic where you give the Cowardly Lion a medal and, all of a sudden, he’s got “C-C-C-Courage.” Might work in Oz, didn’t on the North Fork.
In this neck of the woods, with 30 miles of fly-only water, a lot of hats have flies stuck in them. My friend, Dave Hall, has a deteriorating visor that holds enough flies to fish for five years.
One afternoon, when the fishing was slow as refrigerated molasses, I was in The Blue Heron fly shop with five other steelheaders and Joe Howell behind the counter. No one had caught a fish that morning, and these were some good, veteran fishermen.
A Suburban drove up—we all knew the rig—and a guide who worked this and other southern Oregon rivers got out wearing his waders. None of us had seen him all season. He came in the store wearing a baseball cap advertising his guide service; a bit tacky, I thought, but I liked the guy. He was funny.
Joe asked him how he’d done and the guide said, “I hooked eight upriver.”
We all looked at each other complicit in the knowledge that this was utter bullshit. Some of these good fishermen hadn’t seen eight steelhead all season, and it was the first week in September. And of the abominable fishing, the absolute worst was upriver.
I’m a quiet guy, but, for whatever reason, I said, “Boy, you know it’s a bad season when ol’ (name withheld) can’t even tell a credible lie.” To his credit, even the liar laughed.
The first steelhead I ever caught on the North Fork was nearly twenty-five years ago.
I came from downstate, where I lived, to visit Dave Hall on the river. I arrived in the afternoon and found Frank Krebs already there, and the three of us walked across the highway to fish the Tavern Pool.
Since I was an absolute novice, I fished the long run first. I’d had exactly one casting lesson in my life and it lasted about a minute. Call it beginner’s luck, but on the way down the run I hooked a fish.
Frank and Dave waded down in to help me land it because that year in the Tavern Pool there was nowhere to beach a fish.
As I was concentrating on fighting the steelhead, out of the corner of my eye I saw Frank step off a grassy hump and disappear underwater. Only his straw cowboy hat floated on the surface.
When he popped back up, spewing water and a string of expletives, Dave placed the hat back on Frank’s head and said, “Nice of you to drop in.”
I landed the fish, a beautiful native six-pound buck, and released it.
It was my first North Fork fish. It should dominate my memory, but I can’t forget that straw cowboy hat floating on the water.
So, I’ve got this gaucho boina on and, catching-wise, it’s 0 for 1, but for some reason, I’m really liking it.
I’ve never had a beret before, but I’ve seen enough to know that there are different ways of wearing them. Low on the forehead. High on the forehead. Straight back. Straight up, or angled jauntily to one side or the other.
I wear it high on the forehead and straight back, like Che Guevara. It fits snugly, it’s warm, and I like the way it makes my head feel.
I drive downriver and pull into the big turnout at Boundary, where there’s still a patch of sunlight. I get out and lean against the warm hood of the car and eat half a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. Standing in the sun overlooking the river, I think there has never been a more delicious moment. And I’m wearing a beret. Way cool, right?
Hands thawed, I get back to fishing. I fish through the upper part of Fox Creek, then I keep heading downriver because it’s starting to get late. My last pool of the day is at Baker Park. I walk down from the turnout and see that there’s too much water to fish the upper part of Monty’s Run, but the tail-out looks good.
There’s an old Yiddish song, at least I learned it in Yiddish, which goes: “Sunday nothing, Monday nothing, Tuesday and Wednesday nothing, Thursday and Friday a whole lot of nothing, even on the Sabbath . . . nothing.”
I’m starting to think that song is the mantra of steelheaders. I start with a weighted fly, and for my second pass I choose a colorful, unweighted John Matthews fly.
Logic might dictate that I should use a heavier fly, but why should steelhead react to human logic? Case in point, I hook a screaming 10-pound hen that jumps all over the pool and, as I’m beaching her, slips the hook and releases herself. Perfect.
This beret is telling me that it is the right hat for the right time, and definitely a keeper.
Larry Levine is a steelhead guide on the North Umpqua, a writer, and an avid mushroom hunter.