The Woman of Passion

By Scott Richmond

What does the word passion mean to you?" I asked my wife, Barbara.

I glanced across the car at her. In the twilight I could see she had turned to face me. "What are you getting at?" she said, arms folded across her chest. "What kind of passion?"

"You know," I said. "Artistic compulsion, patriotic zeal, religious fervor. Passion for sports."

From the corner of my eye, I could see Barbara's shoulders had relaxed and her hands had dropped to her lap. "I suppose," she said, "it means strong emotion, an intense driving force. Devoting your whole self to an ideal or a goal. Why do you ask?"

The two-lane road turned sharply, matching the twists of the river canyon. I concentrated for a moment on steering, then said, "Remember last Tuesday when I took David Herington fly fishing on the Deschutes? Afterwards he said he'd never realized I was such a 'man of passion.' I don't think I know what he meant."

"Oh," said Barbara. "Fly fishing. Now I understand."

I'm a mild-mannered person--an engineer by training and disposition--and not at all passionate, in my view. On this September evening, Barbara and I were driving to the Steamboat Inn on Oregon's North Umpqua River for our annual weekend of fine food, no kids, and the pursuit of steelhead trout. Barbara didn't usually go fishing with me, although not because I didn't want her along. In fact, it was my hope that someday she would view fly fishing with as much enthusiasm--yes, even passion--as I did.

"You could be as enthusiastic about fly fishing as I am," I said, voicing my hope.

"And get up at 5:30 on a cold morning?" she replied. "My idea of a good fishing trip is to wake up at 10:00 with no kids around, have a leisurely and delicious breakfast, go out to the river about noon and enjoy the scenery while casting a fly. After two hours of fishing, I'm ready to sit on the river bank and read a book. I make this trek with you because it's my kind of fishing trip."

We passed a car parked along the riverbank. A man and a woman, both wearing waders, were unstringing their fly rods. I couldn't see the man's face, but the woman was bright-eyed and smiling, as if spending a day fly fishing for steelhead was the most wonderful, satisfying activity in her life. This suggested to me that women could enjoy fishing as much as men. At the same time, I could see why so many women didn't fish, and I explained to Barbara the nature of her problem.

"You've been conditioned by centuries of men trying to make their women more lady-like," I said. "Today's woman should feel free to be who she wants to be. I see no reason a woman couldn't be as good at fly fishing as a man."

"Tell me something" Barbara said. "Do you feel that you are free from any masculine drive to show your superiority over women?"

"Aren't I?" I said.

We arrived at the Inn in time for dinner if not for fishing. The Steamboat Inn is famous for its cuisine, and since the clientele are mostly fly anglers, dinner is served after dark when fishing has ended. Guests sit at a single long table cut from an enormous sugar pine. The informal seating and common interest in steelhead fly fishing begets comradely conversation among the guests.

Although many of the Inn's guests are men, tonight we were seated across from a couple, Bill and Connie. I recognized them as the people we had passed along the road. They looked to be in their late thirties, about the same age as Barbara and me. Bill said they lived in Eugene, where he was an accountant and Connie sold real estate.

I asked how the fishing had been today. "Connie hooked two and landed them both," said Bill. He didn't volunteer information about his own fishing. He was no doubt proud of Connie's success and didn't want to upstage her. After all, women need all the encouragement they can get when they go fishing.

"What were the hot flies?" I asked.

Connie brushed her blond hair back from her face. "I used a Green Butt Skunk on the fish I hooked this morning," she said. "I tie them with an orange tail, instead of the usual red. That seems to work better here, although on the Deschutes I use the red tail."

I was impressed. Connie was a serious and skilled angler, and I envied Bill. Perhaps she would light a fly-fishing spark in Barbara.

"What time are you two going to hit the river?" I asked Connie and Bill over dessert.

"Actually, I was thinking of sleeping in," Bill said, looking at Connie.

Connie rolled her eyes. "No way!" she said. She turned to me. "We'll be casting at first light. We want to fish the upper part of the river."

"That's too brushy," Bill pleaded. "It's hard to cast."

"Exactly," said Connie. "That's why fewer people fish there. The steelhead are less wary because they're not hammered like they are downstream from here." She wiped the corners of her mouth with a napkin. "But if you'd rather fish the lower river, that's OK with me. Whatever you want, honey." She got up from the table and stretched. "I'm off to bed," she said. "I want to get up at 4:30 and check my gear." Bill sighed and followed her.

"Not me," Barbara said after they left. "The last time I got up that early it was to have a baby."

My alarm went off at 5:30. Barbara slept while I dressed in the dark. I closed the door quietly as I went outside to crisp, pine-scented darkness. Gravel crunched under the calks of my wading boots, the sound mingling with the ceaseless roar of the river. I knew that hundreds, of steelhead lay in the river, quietly finning their way upstream, moving from boulder to boulder, ready to halt at first light. A few would be receptive to a well-presented fly. Could my skill and stealth overcome their wariness?

I love the pre-dawn hours of a fishing trip, when the day waits to reveal itself, and the river flows bank-to-bank with promise. As I unlocked the car, I glanced up. The eastern sky was losing its indigo hue, and a new moon had risen over the ridge. Most of the moon faced earth, and the only hint of its unseen mass was a thin crescent of light like a hunter's bow. That made me think about the Diana, the moon goddess, mistress of the hunt.

Southward, the constellation Orion hung over the dark shadow of the canyon's crest. Wasn't Orion a hunter, too? If Orion and Diana could share the same sky, why couldn't men and women share the same river?

I put my rod in the car and drove to the Tree Pool, about two miles below the Inn. It's good water, and I explored it thoroughly. After an hour of fishing, I was approaching the end of the pool. I cast my fly about 20 feet upstream from a mid-river boulder, then roll-cast five feet of free line above the spot where my fly hit the water. The fly swung across in the current, and just downstream from the boulder, the line straightened. I tightened the line and was met with the surge of a steelhead.

After 10 minutes of careful play, I had the fish close enough to tail. He was a fine eight-pound buck with a hint of a red stripe beginning to show on his silver sides. As I released him, I wished that Barbara could have felt the thrill of catching that beautiful fish.

I found no more steelhead that morning, and by noon I was back at the Inn to meet Barbara. She had just finished her breakfast of eggs scrambled with sun-dried tomatoes. She was nursing her second latte while reading a mystery novel.

Encouraged by my early morning success, I thought the steelhead might be easy to catch today, and I wanted to get Barbara on the river quickly. I ordered a bowl of soup because it would be quick. However, Barbara was at an exciting part of her book, and by the time she finished another chapter and donned her waders, it was 2:00, the worst time of day for catching steelhead.

We tried a couple of pools without success, and by 3:30 I could tell she was losing interest. "Give it one more try," I pleaded, and took her to Upper Coleman, a broad, flat pool that offered easy casting.

I positioned her at the head of the pool and let her cast to her limit--35 feet. She worked her Umpqua Special down the pool, looking bored all the way. Suddenly the water erupted in a huge boil and her rod throbbed and bent as a steelhead grabbed the fly and raced hell-bent for the ocean 100 miles away.

"Oh! My goodness!" Barbara shouted in surprise. "What do I do now!"

"Keep the rod tip up and let the fish run!" I shouted back. This was it, the chance I'd waited for. The steelhead tore line off the reel, and 150 feet down the pool the big fish jumped and shook itself, all silver-pink in the sunlight. After 15 minutes of coaching from me, Barbara was able to bring her steelhead to the beach. I snapped a picture of them both, then released the fish.

Barbara was shaking with excitement. "Wow! That was something! Did you see how that fish jumped! Whoa! And the pull on my rod--I didn't think a fish could swim so hard and fast." She took a deep breath and said, "Now I understand why you do this." She leaned her rod against a huckleberry bush and sat on the bank. "You go fish," she said. "I want to sit down and recover."

I walked downstream to the next pool. As I approached, I saw two anglers, one on the bank and the other in the river.

"Do any good?" I asked the man on the bank.

He turned and I recognized Bill; the angler in the water must be Connie. "I hooked one, but I lost it," Bill said. "Connie tells me I should sharpen my hooks better." He pointed at Connie. "She's hooked three and landed two."

"Good for the lady!" I said. "Nice of you to let her have the best water first."

"Actually," Bill said, "I've already fished the pool. Connie is going through it again because she can cast to the slot off the far bank."

"But that's . . ." I sputtered.

"I can't cast that far, either," Bill said.

I stared at Connie. She was casting with effortless grace. She did a final double haul, then reached her arm out straight as she released the cast. Eighty feet of fly-line shot to the far bank in a tight loop. The fly dropped on the water, and she executed a perfect upstream mend.

I was awe-struck. "I wish Barbara could cast like that," I said.

"Do you really?" said Bill.

We were both quiet as Connie's fly finished its drift, and she cast again. I wondered if Barbara could be as good as Connie. I asked Bill, "Do you and Connie fish together often?"

"All the time. Can't get away from it. I used to fish with some buddies, but now it's just Connie and me. Back in the old days, Connie didn't fish much and just tagged along sometimes. Then one day she hooked a steelhead and she's been passionate about fly fishing ever since. She got better and better, and now my friends won't go fishing with us anymore."

I saw Connie's line straighten, then her rod bend and throbbed. She whooped as a ten-pound steelhead left the water and did a back flip. It was her fourth hook-up of the day. In all my years of fishing, only once had I hooked four steelhead in the same day.

Then it hit me like a blind-side tackle: Connie was a better fly fisher than any of Bill's buddies. She was better than Bill. And she was better than me.

"Uh, I have to go," I said to Bill. "See you at dinner."

I walked quickly back to where I had left Barbara. I looked on the riverbank, hoping to see her engrossed in her mystery novel. No Barbara. Then I saw her. She was in the river, casting 50 feet of line, going back through the pool. She was trying to catch another steelhead. She stared at her fly as it swung in the current.

"It's getting near dinner time," I hollered across the water.

She looked at her watch. "No way! Dusk is coming soon and that's the best time to fish. Anybody at the next pool?"

"It's taken," I said. "Don't go there."

We fished unsuccessfully until 7:30 and barely made it back to the Inn in time for appetizers. Over dinner, Barbara described her exploit to a fisherman sitting across from us. "An Umpqua Special," she said. "That's what I hooked him on. Used a 2X tippet. Isn't that right, dear?"

I looked at the ice cubes in my water glass and nodded my head. I took a few bites of the main course, then excused myself and went to an easy chair near the wood stove. I thumbed through an old magazine, looking at the pictures of people fly fishing in New Zealand or Arkansas or someplace like that. One of the old-time river guides was in the next chair, staring into the dining room where Connie was telling Barbara how to build a fly rod.

"I've seen it happen," the guide said to me. "Women and fly fishing. There's no in-between with them. Either they piddle away at it or they attack it with more intensity, more energy, more . . ."

"Passion?" I volunteered.

"Exactly. More passion than a man."

As Barbara and I walked to our room, I wasn't sure I felt well enough to fish the next day, but I set the alarm just in case. "I'm getting up at 5:30," I said. "Do you . . ." I cleared my throat. "Do you want me to wake you?"

"I enjoyed catching that steelhead today," Barbara said. "Maybe I'll turn into an expert fly fisher like Connie. Would you like that?"

I paused, then took a deep breath. "It isn't my decision," said. "I enjoy your company when I'm fishing, but what I want most is for you to do what suits you best. I can't decide for you. If you want to be a fly fisher like Connie, that's okay." I swallowed hard.

Barbara didn't answer. She seemed to be waiting for me to say more. Then I glimpsed another thought, as if a braided river current momentarily cleared, revealing a steelhead holding quietly behind a rock.

"If you want to get up at 10:00 and fish from noon to 3:00," I said, "that's fine, too. It's your choice, not mine."

Barbara pulled back the comforter on the bed, then faced me. "I want to get up at 10:00 and have a long, delicious breakfast," she said. "I'll meet you at noon. And I'll bring my book."

She took my hand. Her touch was warm and gentle. She drew me close, kissed me quickly, then took a step back. "Thanks for the nice day," she said. "And thanks for not pushing me. Either way."

We stood quietly. I touched her hair, then her cheek. She stepped to me, and I held her close.

After a moment she pulled back. "My goodness," she said. "What passion! What does it mean?"

This is the first fishing article of mine that was published, appearing in 1987. It is fiction; it was not until October 2005 that my wife, Barbara, caught her first steelhead. Since then I've noticed a marked uptick in her enthusiasm for fly fishing. Hmmm.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).