I’ve always been drawn to fish places I have never fished before. That mindset has also been the driving force for me when arriving on local waters as well, where I tend to avoid the beaten path. Like many others, I search out destinations, which tend to be identified known landmarks on or near the intended fishing location. It could be a bridge, or a nearby farm or intersection. But nonetheless, there is always a reference point, and it tends to be the closest point to the most popular hole. And while these reference points are much appreciated when seeking out new waters, they are usually the last place I will actually cast a fly. For me, they are a “stepping off” point.
Pulling into a location on the East Fork of the Lewis River, the forests around Mt St Helens remains majestic to say the least. I was seeking a bridge where the river switched back across the road. It was noted on the USGS map as well as having been referenced by the local sporting goods shop. Fishermen it seems are for the most part creatures-of-habit. They will find their comfort zone, and remain in it, oftentimes dependant on the type of fly fishing they enjoy most. This fact was not lost on me as I stood looking over the water from the bridge. Upstream there was a deep pull that emptied into a long run crossing under the bridge and tailing out downstream of the parking area. If I were a nymph fisherman, the head of that hole, where a large rock and fallen tree choked the river down would be my focus. The water dropped over a small shelf at that point, and certainly a weighted nymph tight-lined through that section would dredge up some fish. That would allow me to work downstream along the channel under the bridge and probably do well. If I was swinging streamers or wets, the run below the hole that emptied into the large flat tail-out would be my target. The current and depth would be perfect. Yet if I was a dry fly fisherman, my eyes were instantly drawn to the short run above the pool, and then back down to the pocket water that meandered through a smallish boulder field below the tail-out. Granted, this was all on my first glimpse of new water and could prove far from correct. But the first impression could not be avoided, and like noted was at least for me predicated by the type of fly I would be casting first-and-foremost.
But for me that first hole, while seductive in its own rights, loses me. Mainly because I know that every other visiting fisherman sees pretty much the same. And most will settle in right there, giving the location quite a bit of regular pressure. I had already noted on the map that about 1/4mile downstream the river began a few tight S-curves, which I knew would form excellent water. And upstream about 1/2mile was a set of falls that were said to be about 15ft high. Both stretches also noted a forest service trail along the entire stream and continuing on. My focus was upstream towards the falls.
In short order I was rigged and walking the trail upstream. A short walk began to show a flat strewn with boulders, and the falls could be heard in the distance. It was almost by template, and rather predictable for the area with the gradient you could expect to find following a set of falls. I stepped into the pocket water and quickly drummed up several fat 10” cutthroat. For me the day was now a success regardless of what happened going forward. The falls were growing louder now and my patience got the best of me, so I left some promising looking water to go check them out. A short walk later and after dodging some mountain bikers that gave last minute warnings, I was staring at a picturesque view of the Mt St Helens rainforest. It was a gorgeous set of falls, and the blue-green pool below fed out to a real nice table rock shelf. I stood staring at it for some time, took a few pictures, and then catalogued it for a possible visit on the way back downstream. For me, the target was above the falls.
On the map, it showed the hike/bike trail departing the stream by a hundred yards or so heading upstream. This I knew would thwart a huge percentage of fishermen from hitting it. It also looked to be even smaller water above the falls. Another fact that I was sure would make it much more to my liking. So, I climbed up the grade along the trail, and looked for an opening in the timber of substantial size. I was quickly able to find an elk trail and off I went back in towards the water. Upstream about 100yds past the falls the water did get smaller, and it wasn’t long before I was into fish. At the 2nd hole I was checking out the gravel along the edges and realized that there were no footprints save for elk and deer anywhere to be seen. And while checking further, much to my delight I spotted a 3 point Blacktail deer antler sticking up out of the St Helens ash. It was stained and uniquely bleached in some areas, which meant it would soon find a place on my tying bench. I took off my vest and sat on a nearby rock to stow the antler in the back pouch, when I looked down to see an odd formed rock. Picking it up it was the exact color of the ash, but instead was a 5” piece of petrified wood. Smiling at my luck, I stowed that as well. The day just kept getting better. All told, I caught a solid dozen fish on that upper stretch, all on dry flies. And not once did I see a single human footprint.
At the hint of dusk I began my trek back downstream toward the falls, stopping to take it all in one more time. But I quickly decided that today was not the day to visit there. The falls, and downstream of the bridge would have to be for another trip. This day had been meant for another stretch of river and the things that can most often only be found…beyond the falls.