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Seasons change, from trout to salmon

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POSTED June 30, 2010 2:42 a.m.
Heading upstream, the Thorne River runs pretty snug, if not tight for the first few miles then opens dramatically after a spot I call ‘the pinch’.

It was to be the terminus of our day on the Thorne, a spot better for salmon than trout from my experience, but Stephen, Steve the cook, and I saw plenty of evidence that the sockeye run was well under way.

It was raining, as it usually does here, but it came straight down, so it was tolerable. Plus there is something I like about fishing in the rain, something great about being warm, dry and comfortable in the elements.

We started at a pool where a creek joined the Thorne, a 30-minute walk below the pinch. It was a mess with swirling currents, but had always been a good place for trout. We caught none.

The three of us cross-stitched the thing with our lines, but hooked nothing. It was a little disheartening, because the spot Stephen took us to was very fishy. Here I was recommending a spot lower on the river and we were without even a hint of fish slime on our cork handles or hats an hour in.

We continued working up, and started catching a few, and by the time a couple hours had passed, we were assembled just below the pinch, watching a monster sockeye delicately hooked by Stephen’s No. 12 prince nymph. Sockeye are notoriously picky fish, but can be hooked with the right pattern and a lot of patience.

The pinch funnels the fairly lazy river into a certain current, so as Stephen was bringing in the fish, the current was providing more stress on his leader and rod. We both have 8-weight rods for the salmon run that have a stiffer backbone and stronger take thicker leader, but it was still trout time, so Stephen was fighting this beast with a trout rod and 3.5 pound test.

It took off downstream, reeling off line and bending the rod into a dangerous arc. A tight drag would have snapped the line or broke off the hook. Stephen had no choice but to let the fish tire itself out, then delicately bring it in. If Stephen pulled while the fish ran, that would be it.

Steve the cook had his trout net pulled which was too small for the salmon but there was no choice. I stood and watched from the other bank as Stephen worked line back onto the spool and the fish to within a few feet. The rocky shore hassled Steve the cook who didn’t see the fish, but rather the red filets smothered in a mango chutney, next to some vegetables and perhaps a dinner roll, pulled open, with butter.

Seeing the net, or Stephen, or not really liking the hook in its mouth, the fish ran again. Steve the cook chased dinner down the shore, hoping for a down river landing. Again line screamed from Stephen’s trout reel until the thin backing that attaches the fly-line to the reel began to unravel as well.

“I’m in to my backing!”

Stephen sounded more excited than concerned. This was not stressful, this was fun. Taking four guests from Delaware that have never fished before, and telling them what to do when a king salmon tries to pull the rod out of their hands while battling six-foot swells; that could be stressful. This was just cool, until...

Stephen worked the fish back, and closer to the cook, but the fish ran again, this time around a rock. It was a matter of time now.

The disappointment was palpable, though catching a salmon in the first place was not even discussed during the drive out that day.

Miraculously, the line stayed heavy as Steve the cook tried to free it from the rock. There was no way the fish could stay hooked in the awkward tension of the snag up, but it did. The fish then helped out the situation, by swimming into the current and once again, the fight was back on. That was sure to be the last complication, the last boulder in the way of the climatic conclusion.

But then, as quickly as it started, it was over. The hook came free and we let out individual sighs.

The end was what we expected, but we felt a little bad for Stephen. As epic as the 15-minute battle had been we thought a better ending was in the net.

The three of us dropped our nymphs into the water no longer hoping for trout, though we still enjoyed hooking them. Trout were now second place to the thought of a salmon on the fly. In the moment that sockeye bit Stephen’s nymph, the complexion of the summer changed, which is good, because Monday, I broke the tip off my 5-weight, which means I have to use my salmon stick anyway.
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