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Mid-September, a few aimless souls wander the Grande Ronde in search of steelhead. I am one of them. So is my friend Katey’s husband, Brad, who lives in North Carolina. But although he caught a few trout the night before on the Wallowa River with a dry fly, he reaches into my small SUV and pulls out my spinning rod, because what he really, more than anything wants is to catch, are smallmouth bass.
For the past hour and a half’s dust eating drive down logging roads and a newly graded Wildcat grade, I’ve listened to him talk about smallmouth. Smallmouth fishing in muddy water. Smallmouth fishing in shallow gin-clear water. “Well,” I keep saying, “I’ve never actually caught a smallmouth on the Grande Ronde, but I bet they are in there. But let me tell you what, hook into a steelhead and I bet you’ll forget all about smallmouth.
Bolstered by a friend’s Facebook post of three nice-sized smallmouth and a handful of crawfish, it seems plausible to me he might just catch a smallmouth, although part of me has doubts. Little things I’ve heard about smallmouth heading out to the Snake River as fall water temperatures drop and steelhead and bull trout move in. If I were a four- to eight-inch smallie, maybe even bigger, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere in the vicinity of a bull trout. Even with my spines. No. Where. Near.
Not expecting Brad’s perseverance to outlast the actual fun of catching fish on a fly rod, we tromp down to the river through some rose hips and stop on the river rocks to rig up. Brad reaches into a plastic box, pulls out a 4-inch black plastic hellgrammite, the meanest, nastiest hellgrammite I’ve ever seen, and in under 10 seconds, before I even have my line pulled through the guides of my fly rod, is into a fish.
A pretty good fish.
“Here smally smally,” he taunts, rod bent to the side. “Oh. Huh.”
And then a 19-inch, steelhead-lookingish fish flops at his feet. We take pictures. I contemplate out loud if it is a steelhead or not. Big tail. Long streamlined body. Not skinny like a trout or fat like a well-fed trout, but streamlined and muscular, in a long-traveling sort of way.
“Well, that was all right,” says Brad, and casts out again.
Thump. Another hit.
By the time I finally get rigged and roll out into the river, Brad, like a bad combination of 1992’s one-hit chart topping wonders of Right Said Fred’s “I’m too Sexy,” Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” and The Heights “How Do You Talk To An Angel,” hasn’t gotten anymore hits.
Fulfilling the old adage of “First Fish, Best Fish,” Brad spends the rest of the day ogling ponderosa pines and catching a few fingerlings which somehow stuff the 4-inch hellgrammite into their half-inch mouths.
As we drive out of the Grande Ronde, Brad replies in his Southern drawl, “Well, I threw the kitchen sink at them and nothing.”
And so it goes. Sometimes in mid-September, when nary a smallmouth or steelhead is to be found on the end of a spin-rod.