With The Flow: WA Winter Steelheading

rowing the drift boat

Anglers love to quote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “No man ever steps in the same river twice…”.  There are many ways to experience the beauty of the Pacific Northwest’s free-flowing rivers, but a drift boat in the winter is one of the most intimate and powerful. Winter offers a unique opportunity to try and tackle rough, rocky and frigid waters that change from minute to minute. Without a dam to regulate discharge, you have one option: go with the flow.

When you picture father and son fishing trips in a metal row boat, you might picture a pristine lake with a bobber and worms, goofy hats with oversized boots and dozing off in the warm sun. For my dad and I, we picture something different entirely.

5:00am comes early on a frigid January morning in Asotin, WA. I wake up and look at the USGS chart online, seeing that the water levels have jumped overnight as low elevation snow melts into the canyon. I know it’s going to be a beautiful, cold, sunny day with inversely raging water. Basalt boulders the size of Volkswagens, yesterday clearly exposed, are now lurking millimeters beneath the surface. On days like this, there’s about a 5% margin for navigation error as you’re flying through white water, oars digging hard, unable to change trajectory more than a few crucial inches. It sounds reckless (maybe it is), but the payoff is worth every risk. Even the drive from the house to the river winds you down Rattlesnake Grade, a well-named road often attributed with having the most turns per mile that you’ll ever experience in your life.

launching the boat into the river
We arrive at the river right at sunrise, frost glistening on every surface as we plunge the boat over the rocks into the 35 degree water. No other boats are anywhere to be found even on this sunny Saturday morning. Looking straight up at jagged basalt columns that have been chiseled and ripped to shreds by years of ice expanding and contracting is a look into the epic geological history of the Grande Ronde River canyon. Big horn sheep, elk, mule deer, and foxes all come out to gawk at us as we float. Dozens of Bald eagles soar overhead and steelhead swim underneath.

the gorge
father and son rowing the boat
My dad, with many more years of experience on the oars, instructs me with the “invisible-brake-pedal” kind of nervousness as he pretends to be calm. We get down the first rapids safely, jolted awake by the challenge of dodging rocks. The fishing rods get set in the rod holders and we wait for steelhead to strike. Anyone who enjoys cold weather recreation will tell you there’s nothing better than hot food and a fire to warm you from the inside out. We pull over to a beach and enjoy a barbecue and a small fire to warm us up, reflecting on the day. Like most fathers and sons, it often feels we are more different than similar, but when you’re experiencing a day like this, you have everything in common. When the cold temperatures slow down the steelhead’s aggression, we often miss the moment they bite, distracted by the epic surroundings. Politics and opinions are overshadowed by the shared experience of just being present in an epic landscape, gifted the opportunity to just go with the flow. From an often cold yet happy angler, I urge you to remember that you don’t have to wait until Spring to get back outside.