Barb and I dropped Zeus at Glacier National Park where he was going to spend the summer working for very little money and making lots of friends. We continued westward toward the coast. On the way, we went through the upper right hand corner of Oregon where the Grande Ronde River flows northeast into the Snake River. Just before it gets to Washington, it flows through Troy, a town, if you want to call it that, made up of: a two room hotel with a bar/cafe, a kindergarten through eighth grade school house and a laundry/bath house/sugar bias grocery store which services river rafters, fisherman, hunters and kindergarteners through eighth graders. Troy also has a small area where you can pay to camp, a small area where you can camp without paying and ten or fifteen houses. If you don't come into town on a raft, the only way in is by one of several gravel roads with more switchbacks than a ten-foot snake in a two-foot cage.
I discovered Troy on a previous trip when I was randomly wandering back roads from Minnesota to the Oregon coast. My first impression was that I had discovered the most remote place in America. Later I learned the rock star, John Fogerty, owns a ranch on the edge of town and he used to give free concerts once a year. These concerts drew thousands of motorcyclists from all over the Pacific Northwest.
I had just told Barb this story and we were getting out of our car about to go into the Philo Inn cafe when I met the Gibbs. Mike and Mary were getting out of their pickup and some guy obviously named Larry was getting out of his pickup on the other side of us. Mike said "Hello Larry!" to this guy and without thinking I said, "Hello!" which plunked me into a conversation. It didn't take long to figure out we had lots in common, so Mike and Mary and Barb and I went into the restaurant and sat down together.
I told Mike about my project of fishing for a different fish in each state and he told me he is a fishing guide and that he would like to take me Steelhead fishing. I told him I was going Steelhead fishing in Idaho and that I really wanted to fish for Squawfish1 in Oregon. He wrinkled up his nose but agreed to take me fishing for Squawfish. He said they catch Squawfish constantly when they are Steelhead fishing and he considers them to be a nuisance.
After Mike and I finished making plans for our September fishing trip, Barb and I headed westward once again toward the Oregon coast. A couple of days later, half way between Corvalles and Newport, close to the little town of Blodgett, we were driving around on gravel roads when we saw a farm house we had seen twenty minutes earlier. While we were stopped at the next tee-intersection looking at the Oregon map, a couple of people drove up to the side of our car and asked if we were lost. I sheepishly said, "Yes." They said their names are Earl and Jean and they told us how to get to the coast, then he told us they live only a block away in the house that tipped me off that I was lost. He told me he is a silk-screen printmaker and I told him I too am a silk-screen printmaker. Pretty soon we were touring their house and garden and silk-screen printing studio.
Since then, Earl and I have kept in touch. A year later, a couple months before Jean unexpectedly passed away, Earl sent me the following note, which reads like a poem.
Caught a fish on opening day in May
Fixed up an old pole; eight feet of line, small hook
Dug one worm from the garden
Walked across the driveway to the river
Dropped in the line
Bam... 10" rainbow
Took it in the house to show Jean who was still in bed
Fish still on line wiggling
falls off onto the bed onto Jean
A lot of screams and laughing
Cooked and ate the fish
I decided to leave them alone in the river
We'll see how big they are next year
In September, I picked Zeus up at Glacier National Park and we headed for the Oregon coast. After we fished in Montana, we stopped to fish for Squawfish in the Grande Ronde River with fishing guide Mike Gibbs.
Mike met us at the Philo Inn cafe and we did a bit of chatting. I asked him how to pronounce "Grande Ronde".
He said, "It sounds so much like ground round, the locales call it hamburger creek."
After a lot of small talk, Mike said, "Well, I hope we don't get into any Steelhead today!" He went on talking to another man in the cafe about Steelhead and how the season will probably be cut short this year because the count is low at the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Someone else asked, "Are you going to float the river today?"
Mike said, "Yep, but we have to remember what we're fishing for."
He asked the guy if he had ever caught a Squawfish and the guy said, "No!"
Mike told him, "They are actually a fun fish to catch-They fight quite a bit. They eat a lot of Steelhead and Salmon smolt."
I said, "And that's why there's a bounty on them", referring to the three dollars a head the Oregon DNR will pay for each Squawfish turned in to them.
Next we went to the sugar store/bathhouse place where Zeus and I purchased fishing licenses. The man said, "I'll need your driver's license and some money."
I asked, "Do I need a Squawfish permit?"
Ronnie, Mike's step-father-in-law, drove us to the put-in spot. As he was about to leave he stuck his head out of the car window and asked, "Squawfish?"
I said, "Hey! At three dollars a head, There could be a lot of money to be made."
As we slipped the boat into the water, Mike said, "We could start a new business". "Speaking of new businesses, there's a lot of money to be make in the fishing industry."
"There sure is, if you could just figure out the right thing you could talk people into buying."
"I got an idea. A fish call."
"A fish call?"
"Yeah. You stick your head under the water and blow it and it attracts the fish. I'll bet we could sell those."
"I'll bet you could, Larry. Especially to bass fishermen."
We were ready to shove off when Mike told us, "You shouldn't dangle the hook over the side of the boat. You should cast as soon as possible to keep the fish from jumping up at the hook and then flopping into the boat." Then he asked, "How old are you, Zeus?"
Zeus said, "Eighteen, old enough to know a story when I hear one."
We shoved off from shore and Mike said, "You’re in fast water now. When the Steelhead...I mean Squawfish takes the bait, it will bend that rod in half." It sure sounded good to me.
Mike has an aluminum Mackenzie River boat, which he controls by rowing upstream as the boat drifts downstream. I asked how much these boats cost and after I was told, I asked if there was any way of getting a cheaper one. He said, "The older wooden ones with a trailer go for around two grand, but they are like old Harleys; beautiful, high maintenance and uncomfortable."
About a half hour into this float trip, Mike anchored the boat and re-rigged my pole with what he called, "A Squawfish special that hopefully won't catch a Steelhead."
I asked if he ever had any famous people as clients. "Only one", he recalled. "Jack, who was with the original Kingsmen group. He had written the song 'Louie Louie', but he wouldn't sing it for me2. He was here in November on a day it was 15 degrees and it snowed like crazy and the water was freezing in the bottom of the boat. Jack caught a fish within the first couple of minutes and we didn't catch another thing all day. The next day it jumped up to about forty degrees and we went fishing on the Washington/Oregon border. We landed thirteen Steelhead. It was a good trip. It was a good day."
I asked if the vacant house next to his house was for rent and I said I might be interested in moving to Troy and spending a year writing and fishing and exploring. He thought for a while then said, "It may be for rent. In a year's time you could get acquainted with the people and learn a lot. The first year would be pretty interesting, seeing the different seasons and seeing what happens during these seasons. You'd see how important the hunters and fishermen are to the economy. After that it would pretty much be repetition."
We weren't out too long when we anchored and dug into Mike's sandwiches and chips and pop and pudding and apples and grain bars. With a mouthful of sandwich I said, "I'm surprised we haven't seen any deer. Do you ever see them near the river?"
"Oh yeah!" Mike responded with a mouth full of chips, "You can see them on the ridges and along the river's edge. You will also see bears bathing in the river with their cubs. And the rattlesnakes come to the river's edge too."
I have a snake phobia, so I thought, "I'm not moving out here" and I said, "I'll have a pudding. How big do the snakes get?"
Mike handed a pudding to me and said, "They generally don't get over two feet long, but the boys at the next ranch up stream killed a four-footer. It's not just snakes and deer and bear that come to the river. Even cougar come down to the water in the wintertime. I had a cougar take a big chunk out of one of my cows last year. It took the hide right off her leg."
I asked, "Did the cougar think it was going to eat the cow?"
Mike laughed and said, "I imagine it did, but it was a fifteen hundred pound cow. Then we had a bobcat in the hay barn. Ronnie called me at work and said, 'Come home and shoot this bobcat.'
'Where's it at?'
'In the hay barn and it won't let me feed the animals,' Ron complained.
''Ron, don't give me that crap... Yeah right!'
Ron went on, 'It won't leave and it keeps attacking me.'
'All right, don't worry about it, I'll feed the cows when I get home.'
I got home about three hours later and forgot all about this crazy cat. I went down to the barn and grabbed a bale of hay and heard a screech. I jumped back and saw a cat that looked like a small cougar. I made snowballs and threw them at the cat. It hunched its back and screeched even more. I had this can of what's called Horn Fly spray. It's a poison, an insecticide that shoots about fifteen feet. I'm shooting the cat in the face with this stuff and the cat's screeching and walking sideways toward me with a hunched back and swatting at the air. I went next store and borrowed a 22-caliber rifle and I didn't want to put a hole in the barn roof, so I tried to get the cat on the ground. Finally it started coming at me and I shot it. Later I found out it had killed two of the neighbor's three pet geese and it had them under the porch and was waiting for night fall so it could eat them."
As soon as this story was over, I caught a Bull Trout on my fly rod. This was the first Bull Trout I’d ever caught. Then I caught a small Rainbow, which Mike said was a Steelhead fry. He could tell by looking at the back top fin. Oregon state stocks the river with rainbows that have their back top fin clipped off. These are the only trout you can keep. The others are either Steelhead fry that go to the ocean or they are other native fish, which the state wants left alone.
As he pulled the anchor at a spot where we didn't even get a bite, I wondered out loud, "What happens to kids after they graduate from eighth grade here in Troy?"
"They have to go to Enterprise, where they live in people's houses. For two hundred dollars a month they get room and board. That's what the school board pays, two hundred dollars a month."
I thought about how difficult it is to keep a handle on a teenager when he or she lives at home. I couldn't even begin to imagine how you would watch after your kids when they are living an hour and a half away in someone else's house. Maybe you pay another two hundred dollars each month in long distance phone bills.
Soon we were heading down a set of rapids, getting almost to the end before we hung up on some rocks. I really don’t know why something like that seems so funny, but we couldn’t stop laughing, even after we broke loose.
Mike said, "Squawfish capital of the Grande Ronde River coming up." I caught another small trout, threw it back and re-baited the hook with another night crawler. He let me put a whole worm on the hook, since we were about to enter the "Squawfish capital of the Grande Ronde River."
We got close enough to Mike's land he could point out its boundaries, "Eighty acres, but the county road takes up a lot of it. I have sixty-seven acres left."
We fished the "Squawfish capital of the Grande Ronde" for some time, not talking, concentrating on the moment, trying to raise a fish from the hole that wasn't about to give up any fish. When we finally pulled anchor and moved on, Mike said, "I guarantee a Squawfish at the next spot."
I said I thought that was a risky statement, but he really believed it would happen, "We catch them there all the time when we're fishing for Steelhead." We drifted through the next rapids into the guaranteed Squawfish hole. This hole was in front of Mike's house and Ronnie was out front watching us fish, waiting to hear if we had caught anything. Eventually he couldn't wait any longer and he yelled at us, "Catch any Steelhead?"
Mike yelled back, "No and we haven't caught any Squawfish either."
We got out and fished from shore for a while. We didn't get any fish, so we got back in the boat and almost immediately I hooked a fish.
Mike asked, "You got one?"
"I might have", I teased.
"If you do, it's a Squawfish." Mike thought out loud. "Oh God, look at that thing go. Oh! It's a Steelhead. Take your time. It's a Steelhead! Larry, it's a Steelhead. Oh no! It's a Squawfish. It's a big one. Don't let it break the line. It's a big one. Oh, it's a sucker. Oh well."
I asked Mike, "What determines a good fishing day?"
I put a new worm on and Mike called it "Rambo worm", because of its liveliness. "I get my worms from a bootlegger who feeds them scraps from his bootlegging operation." Zeus questioned that statement and Mike defensively said, "He also has the fattest pigs around".
As we drifted further down the river, I could see the remains of an old logging trail going up the side of the valley. This one was obviously inactive, but some of the other roads going in and out of the valley looked like they were still used for logging. I asked Mike where the trucks take the logs they haul over these roads.
Mike responded, "The logging has pretty much stopped, because the trees were mostly all logged off. Also, there are a couple of wilderness areas near by and they can't be logged."
Toward the end of the day we were getting lots of hits, but no fish. While I was getting a bite which Mike thought was another sucker, he told us, "The Philo Inn has a sucker fishing contest every Memorial Day weekend. I won it the first year and the last year. It wasn't easy; I had to fish some to catch a sucker."
Zeus put his hands in the water and compared it to the water in Glacier Park, "In Glacier you dove in and you couldn't breath until you got out."
Mike pointed at the cliff between his house and the river. "See the tall point where Ronnie was standing?"
Zeus and I looked back toward his house and seeing that it was fifteen to eighteen feet from the point to the river we both said, "Yeah?"
"Well! When it snows and rains and snows and snows, that whole point gets covered in hard packed ice. Back when we lived in the other house up by the road, the river had been frozen, but the ice was breaking up and the water was still cold, about thirty-three degrees. The river was heaving ice; the bigger pieces were breaking into smaller pieces and those pieces were breaking into even smaller pieces until it became slush. The water was also very high.
“I came out with my new fishing pole, wearing insulated overalls and great big insulated pack boots and it was about 20 degrees outside. I hooked a big fish and I played it and played it and when I started walking closer to the river I slid on the ice and fell. I was on my butt and sliding and the next thing I knew, I was in the water. I had wool gloves on and the water was so cold that when I grabbed at the rocks on shore, they turned to ice. It was like trying to grab ice cubes. I figured I was dead, but I didn't throw the fishing pole and I bobbed and headed toward the big whirlpool, which has the big undertow. Because my clothes were full of air, I bobbed around the whirlpool and down to the next rock bar where I got out of the water and landed the fish. I was dripping wet when I went into the house, which was about seventy-five degrees with the fire going. I took the fish to the sink and washed my hands. Our well water is fifty-two degrees and it felt like it was burning my hands. My wife helped me take off my cloths and when we got to the flannel shirt it was frozen. The ice on it was cracking as we tried to get it off."
"Look it there", Mike shouted, "You had a bite. A Squawfish no doubt."
Zeus said, "It was 'Rambo worm' that got that bite." Trying to get more of the story from Mike, Zeus pointed to the rock formation in front of Mike's house and asked, "You mean that cliff?"
Mike said, "Yep! That's the one."
I suggested Mike was real lucky,
"I could have hit my head and knocked myself out." Mike acknowledged.
"There were a lot of things that could have gone wrong in that story. Zeus and I could be out here fishing with someone else who was telling us the story about good old Mike Gibbs who fell off that point and when they found his body, he had fishing line wrapped all around him and a Steelhead on the hook. It would have been a modern day Moby Dick story."
Mike laughed as Zeus said, "Your mom probably told you, 'You could have poked your eye out!'"
This conversation stopped when I caught a rainbow. It was big enough to keep, but it didn't have the back top fin clipped off, so we let it go. Zeus and I got lots of bites at this spot, but neither one of us could land another fish. Mike thought the bites could be from Chisel-mouth, a fish similar to the Squawfish. My "Rambo worm" was shorter each time I brought it into the boat. Finally Mike said, "Eventually the fish will be far enough up the worm to take the hook."
It was almost dark when we drifted into Troy, where the Wenaha River flows into the Grande Ronde. A Department of Natural Resources guy was doing a creel survey and he asked us if we had caught any Steelhead. We told him we were fishing for Squawfish and that we hadn't caught any. He asked if by chance we had accidentally caught any Steelhead and we told him we hadn't. Just as he walked away, a fish hit Zeus's line. Mike and I both yelled, "Steelhead, Steelhead!" We looked at each other and I said, "You tricked me, Mike, we weren't fishing for Squawfish, were we?" We started laughing as Zeus worked on bringing in his seven-pound Steelhead. Zeus was excited, but he must have been embarrassed to be in the boat with Mike and I laughing and yelling "Steelhead on the line!" over and over. Mike almost lost control of the boat as he laughed and coached Zeus on how to land his fish. When the fish was finally landed, Mike said, "It's a keeper!" I suggested we try to find the creel survey guy and have him change his daily records. We all laughed again and Mike said, "And that's a nice one too. Was that a good fight or what?" Mike screamed one last time, “Thank you Zeus! I was feeling quite inadequate, so I thank you for catching that fish."
We made so much noise the creel survey guy returned to see what was going on. Mike yelled at him, "A Steelhead, probably twenty-seven or twenty-eight or maybe twenty-nine inches." I said, "It will probably be thirty-five inches before the end on the day." Then we yelled, "thirty-five inches, forty inches, one hundred inches, two hundred inches." We were happy fishers. I even forgot we were fishing for Squawfish.
Mike's car and trailer were parked on shore right where Zeus caught his fish. Talk about leaving things to the last minute.
As soon as we got to shore, we measured the fish and it was twenty-seven and a quarter inches.
We went to Mike and Mary’s house for a fish dinner. They hadn't yet finished the kitchen in their new house, so we cooked the fish on the barbecue grill in the front yard. After dinner, Zeus and I left to go to Astoria for my next Fishing America adventure.
1 Subsequently renamed the Northern Pikeminnow
2 I have since been told that Richard Berry wrote this song.