Rivers have soul. They wind, and drop and rise by nature’s clock, not by man’s. They sway, breathe, protect, give, and take. Despite our best attempts to control them, to reroute and fortify their banks where they flood, and care about their ecosystems, the soul of a river reflects the harsh reality of how temporary conditions can be. The soul of a river is beautiful, and each river carries with it our own memories and reflections. It is true, that one never steps into the same river twice, because it changes, and so does our own soul.
River guides know the souls of these rivers more intimately than most; the ability to predict its attitude based on the factors that anglers measure moving water by – cubic feet per second, temperature, clarity. We know that the souls of our rivers stir when these factors conspire to make trout feed. For blossoms to shine, for grasses to again dig deep to fuel springtime’s growth. It is springtime now, in the Pacific Northwest. The sun just broke through the clouds above my home away from the river, leaving the ground wet and my short-sleeve shirt wet after a quick run to the truck to close the windows. Change, at a speed not dependant on the time on the clock or the day on the calendar, comes painfully sometimes and touches our souls. River banks, strong and dry, quickly strain and are scrubbed by cold snow melt high in the Stuart Range above the Yakima River, in Central Washington.
It was red hot, and then it was not. After a mild winter, showing it’s first signs of life, Skwalas were on the menu that day – 11 am and the boat launch is a mat of adult midges. At High noon, the sun is out and it’s a beautiful day – the first fish comes to hand. The river is in prime condition, and the wild fish are hungry. Through the deep canyon walls, past the charred stumps and brush of last summer’s late fire that leaped from bank to bank – not dirty run-off yet from the blackened ground. Past leaking tributaries that are beginning to creep up as the day warms. On a hot summer day, this is the place to be; colder water with more oxygen has the fish lined up here, but not today. Today the river is beginning to change, and as we near the end of the trip, and the wind and clouds begin to fall, it feels different. The river’s soul has changed again. A few days ago, the soul of this river lost one of it’s true champions.
This past week has been particularly hard on the guide community in the PNW, with two of it’s fine souls and champions of wild fish, passing away. Each leaving a legacy of conservation, of change – from the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula where wild steelhead are loved and their future’s fought for, and the beaches of Puget Sound. The dry, high plains of Central Washington mark the split of the Evergreen State into two here – souls of these rivers in the Northwest are richer now with the spirit of these fine men. Their losses will be felt, seen – more than a few drams of whiskey will flow as an offering to the souls of these rivers. There will be empty chairs in the fly shops and coffee houses where rained out trips stalled to re-plan; when, where, what to expect.
The fishing report is one way to measure what’s happening on the river. When I looked at the forecast, and reflected on my experiences on this river, this was shaping up to be a fine week of dry fly fishing. A warm front approached, dark and menacing – but far enough out. And then, the soul of these rivers called out and reclaimed for good what had been shared over the last 30 years. Conditions change, and it’s expected to fall below freezing for the next few nights – slowing the melt of snow, and the rivers will drop. When I step foot in the Yakima again, I’ll think of these guides and how they shaped the future of these fisheries by caring about them in the past – and saving their souls.