Ups and Downs on the Old Siletz by Richard Bunse
In the spring of 1969, I returned to Oregon from a year in Vietnam.
My plane landed in Portland just before dawn. A young man on my flight had noticed my uniform and told me he had a brother in the service. He was full of questions, and although I wasn’t interested in talking about Vietnam, he seemed genuinely interested and concerned for his brother. He also generously offered to give me a ride back home to Salem.
We left Portland and headed down the freeway just as the sun was rising. The Cascade Mountains were silhouetted in the red sky.
As the Willamette Valley awoke the cool air smelled of grasses and blossoms. The contrast was surreal. Just days earlier, I had been in the sweltering heat a few miles from the Cambodian border. I was a radio operator at a small mountain top communication site. Despite the long hours, hard work, and the chaos of the war happening around me, there were moments when I would think of home: my family and friends, the young woman I loved, the times spent fishing and hunting with my dad.
One of the main things that kept me sane were thoughts of returning to my favorite creeks and rivers—and there were dreams of the fish-filled waters yet to explore.
During my tour in Vietnam, I was able to send home most of my monthly paycheck, including the extra combat pay. My first purchases with my savings were a little silver Datsun 2000 roadster, a brand-new Wright McGill Sweetheart fly rod, and a Pflueger reel loaded with a Cortland double taper fly line.
I spent that first summer frantically trying to catch up with all of those things that I had thought and dreamed about. Much of the time was spent fishing the streams and rivers from Oregon’s Coast Range to the Cascades, and up and down the Willamette River.
By late September, I was nearly broke and needed to find a job.
It was pure luck that I ran into Norm, an old high school friend that told me about an opening for a draftsman where he worked. I was an artist, so the work appealed to me. Norm asked me what I had been doing since I got back. “Pretty much fishing,” I said. Norman told me he had been hunting along the upper Siletz and the river was full of steelhead.
“We saw one pool that was teeming with fish,” Norm said with a smile.
The very next day, with a map drawn on a napkin, I drove my Datsun 2000 roadster convertible thirty miles over rough, dusty gravel roads, around potholes and past logging trucks, to a spot he had described. It was fly fishing only water, and I had never caught a steelhead on a fly. I had my 7-weight Wright McGill Sweetheart, a handful of trout flies, and enough optimism and determination to count as luck.
A beautiful clear pool at the base of a small falls didn’t reveal any steelhead, so I strung up my rod, tied on an orange Bucktail Caddis, and began casting.
I immediately caught a small cutthroat trout. Then I wandered up above the falls to a long riffle and caught some more. Satisfied with cutthroats, I tied on a 2lb tippet and a fresh Bucktail Caddis. I fished my way up around the bend to a long shallow pool and saw a pair of summer steelhead.
Without thinking or taking time to change my tippet, I cast above the fish.
As my little fly floated over them, they seemed uninterested. Then the smaller fish turned and swam slowly downstream past the fly. The fish turned again, opened her white mouth, and grabbed that Bucktail Caddis.
With very light trout tippet, I played the fish a long time, though she was a lazy summer run fish and I eventually pulled her up to the river’s edge—when the tippet broke. Not wanting to lose my first steelhead, I jumped on it. A pair of hunters watching from the road applauded.
After driving Jeeps and trucks in the army, I sure loved that quick little Datsun, but it wasn’t a fishing car. I sold it and bought a ‘63 Plymouth Valiant for $600. The old Valiant was a great fishmobile: it always started, had a roasting heater, a radio, and a trunk big enough for all my fishing gear, a couple of steelhead, and two spare tires, both of which came in handy more than once. I drove that Plymouth over potholes and rocks and through seasons of dust and mud, madly chasing steelhead on the North Fork and Upper Siletz above the falls.
Below the Siletz Falls was a long mysterious stretch of river called The Gorge, a deep canyon with very little access. I had often planned to explore this new water but the beauty and solitude of the fly only water on the North Fork was hard to leave.
Early one June morning after a long dusty drive over the mountain, I pulled into the small mill town of Valsetz. Buried deep in the Oregon Coast Range, the company town had a small school and a large lumber mill surrounded by a cluster of houses. The town center was a grocery store, cafe, barbershop, meeting room, and a two-lane bowling alley, all contained in one long barracks-like building. I ran into the store for a couple Almond Joys and an orange soda, then stopped in the cafe for a loggers’ breakfast of eggs, hash browns, and toast. But I was so eager to start fishing, I gobbled down the hash browns and made a bacon and egg sandwich with the toast to finish on the road.
Leaving Valsetz, I passed the mill and drove along the lake filled with floating log booms, then crossed the dam and headed downriver to The Gorge.
Turning off on a spur road that led to an old high-lead log landing, I parked, walked over to the edge, and looked into the steep canyon.
The river looked small at the bottom, and despite years of over logging, it was still a hauntingly beautiful place. The canyon had been clear-cut in the 1920s, leaving a tangle of bleached logs among the vine maple, devil’s club, and blackberry bushes. The remnants of the huge stumps, some with their springboard notches still showing, evoked images of what a magical place it must have been when the river ran cool and clear through stands of giant fir, red cedar and hemlock.
It would be a long hard climb down to the river so I decided to wade wet and pack light.
I stuffed the pockets of my bib overalls with a fly box, a spool of tippet, a knife and my snacks, and stepped down into the steep canyon, carrying my new Rivermaster fly rod. Climbing over logs and through the vine maple while trying to avoid the blackberries and devils club made the descent slow and difficult. As I neared the bottom of the canyon, I could hear the river; but the canyon wall became so steep, I had to lower my fly rod ahead of me and use both hands to grab the vine maple and rappel down the steep bank.
Three hundred feet below the road, I emerged at the boulder-strewn head of a beautiful pool.
Morning fog still blanketed the river, and the bank was thick with fireweed and foxgloves. Everything seemed right, and I was filled with optimism as I made each cast. The June river was still running cool and clear. In a few weeks the water would warm and the fish would become lethargic and school up in deep pools. But these summer steelhead were at the peak of their run, restless and scattered throughout the stream. I thought there should be fish on the bite.
The bright fish hung ghost-like in the riffles and tailouts, their presence only revealed by their shadows on the rocks below. In a run between two boulders, a pair of steelhead nervously jockeyed for position, opening their white mouths’ as though they were feeding.
From upstream, I made a long cast and swam a Silver Hilton over those fish—once, twice, three times—each time expecting a strike. Nothing.
After several more casts, I decided to try a pattern with a little more color. I searched my cluttered box and chose a small Brad’s Brat with its orange and white polar bear wing. The two steelhead were still holding between the boulders. I made several more casts over the fish, and just when my attention began to wander, one of the steelhead charged the fly, pushing a large wake as it turned just short of its target.
This kept my hopes high, though I fished for three hours without a strike.
I waded and rock-hopped downstream, stopping at each pool, spotting, casting over, and spooking several more fish. Seeing so many fish was exciting, but I hadn’t had a genuine take.
Tying on a Steelhead Muddler for a shallow riffle at the head of another long pool, I cast and saw the flash of pink cheeks. A steelhead turned on the fly. Then I felt it.
My rod doubled under the throbbing weight, and the powerful fish ran into the pool and jumped, glistening in the morning light.
The big hen’s strong fight ended as I grabbed her tail and slid her onto the rocks. After a crack on the head with a river stone, the fish stilled. I sat there for a moment thinking about the beautiful creature and how it all happened. Then I picked her up and continued down the river, catching one more fish before the sun-drenched the canyon and the action slowed.
Kneeling in the gravel next to the river I pulled out my jackknife and cleaned both fish. I lay them on a bed of ferns, pulled a can of soda from my pocket, and sat down on a log. Reflecting on the morning and the luxury of casting over undisturbed fish in the solitude of this beautiful canyon, I puzzled over those fish I couldn’t catch, and I marveled over the strength of the ones I did.
A few years earlier on that mountain top in Vietnam, I often dreamed of being back home in Oregon, fly fishing on a beautiful river. But those dreams paled to what happened that day on the old Siletz River.
I gazed down at the two bright summer steelhead. Why had I killed these two fish?
I love eating steelhead, and as a student living on the GI Bill, they were always a welcome treat. I didn’t need two fish and it certainly didn’t cross my mind that I would have to haul both of these heavy steelhead up the same canyon that had been so difficult to descend.
With a steelhead in each hand and a fly rod under my arm, I found a game trail through a tangle of alder and buckthorn that seemed to head in the right direction.
But the trail soon disappeared and I began blazing my own, climbing over logs and through the thorny devil’s club and blackberries. Stopping at each log, I swung the fish and the fly rod over, straddle-stepped, then fought my way to the next downed tree and did the same.
My arms ached from carrying both fish, and I could not find a good way to manage the fly rod. I even tried to stuff it down the back of my overalls.
Then I got the bright idea to hang a steelhead on each of my overall straps by putting a strap through the gills and out the mouth. Doing this left one hand free to carry my fly rod and the other to negotiate obstacles.
The steelhead swung back and forth, soaking my arms and bib overalls with blood and slime. I was sweaty and beat, my hair was full of stickers, and the sticky gore began attracting clouds of blowflies. It seemed like an hour when I spotted the road through a tangle of brush and leaves. Hallelujah. I stumbled over the steep gravel berm exhausted.
My car was still three miles away.
Before I could catch my breath, I noticed a big white Lincoln Continental parked thirty yards down the road. Inside was a man wearing a dark suit. He seemed to be reading something. Maybe he could give me a ride? He glanced up, noticed me, and drove the car up to where I was standing.
His electric window—a real luxury in those days—smoothly descended. He was still looking at the map in his lap when he asked, “Where am I?”
I stood there admiring the spaciousness of the white leather interior and the bright white side walls of the new tires. He won’t want to give me a ride, I thought. He went on, “The map shows this road going all the way to the coast, but I’ve been driving for . . . .” He stopped mid-sentence and looked at me in my blood, slime and sweat-soaked overalls, surrounded by a cloud of blowflies, two gutted steelhead hanging from my chest.
“What’s a guy like you doing up here anyway?” I said with a smile.
With the push of a button, his window rolled up, and the man and his white Lincoln roared away in a cloud of dust. Now that would be a great fishing car, I thought, as I turned to walk three more miles back to my old Plymouth with the two spare tires in the trunk, and room enough for two steelhead.
- written by Richard Bunse