My God Bones What Have I Done By: Jim Stenson

It was 1974. I was seventeen years old and hell-bent on fishing the Great Northwest for steelhead. Three weeks earlier, I left Sarasota, Florida. I pulled out of my parent’s driveway and pointed the Bronco north by northwest. I knew where I wanted to end up, but other than that, I had no preconceived plan. Except one! I dearly wanted to catch a steelhead on a fly. I was flying by the seat of my pants. Considering I was only wearing a pair of shorts, a worn-out t-shirt, and a pair of flip-flops. I didn’t have much to fly by. In the immortal words of James T Kirk, “I was out of control and blind as a bat.”          

Three thousand seven hundred and one miles later, I crossed the Ross Island Bridge. From there, I made my way to Beaverton and checked into the Shilo Inn on Canyon Road. I choose Beaverton because it was on the outskirts of Portland but close enough to Tigard to visit one of the most iconic fly shops on the planet, Kaufmann’s Streamborn fly-fishing. If anybody could point me in the right direction, it would be Kaufmann’s.

For the last four of five years, I had devoured everything I could find that had anything to do with catching a steelhead. From what I could make out, steelhead fishing was not that difficult. Little did I know at the time that it was either a juicy rationalization or a figment of my youthful imagination? It’s essentially about spending enough time on the water and learning the nuances of a particular watershed. At some point in time, you have to learn to read the water, wade, and make the cast, then hook and land the fish. The most aggravating thing about the sport is trying to wade through all the local jargon. It’s almost as aggravating as translating ancient Chinese poetry from the Song Dynasty into something an average person might find interesting.

                                                                           The Clackamas River

Portland was a beautiful city in the early seventies. The city was experiencing a cultural renaissance of sorts. In some ways, it represented the second coming of the beat generation, not precisely the same, but close enough to attract a handful of poets and writers from San Francisco that would later influence a new generation of scribes. Years later, you could find them scattered throughout all the small towns that dot the Oregon Coast. Portland was not exactly what you might call conducive or inspirational for poetry and prose, but the coast, on the other hand, was dripping with it. Years later, the small towns along the coast grew famous for their mom and pop bookstores, local writers, and the arts and crafts festivals throughout the Summer and Fall.

Oregon was also home to every known pseudoscience imaginable. It was difficult to get away from all the bloodsucking leeches. The streets were bustling with faithful members of the local Hare Krishna movement begging for money. Members of the Church of Scientology standing on every corner searching high and low for runaways or people that just wanted to go west for some reason or the other and didn’t have any place to stay. They were ripe for the picking, especially the runaways. The city bus station was ground zero. The parasites lined up three deep at times. In the early seventies, Portland would lead the nation in homeless children and runaways. The cults kept growing, and the kids kept coming, and no one seemed to know what to do with them.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out I needed to find a job and a permanent place to live quickly. I was spending way too much time at Kaufmann’s. I was hoping someone there would offer me a job. I can’t think of a better way to learn the local fisheries’ ins and outs than a local fly shop. Unfortunately, I was just another name on a long list of people waiting for the same thing.

A few days later, I was having lunch in a little diner in downtown Portland. It was only several hundred yards down the street from the Church of Scientology, which would probably explain all the unusual people in the diner. Out of nowhere, a tall, well-dressed man sat down beside me at the counter. I didn’t think much about it at the time. The diner was almost full, and the seat next to me was open, and what the hell did I care. I have no idea which one of us started the conversation, but one thing lead to another, and for the next several hours, we sat there and talked about and anything and everything, but nothing significant. He seemed fascinated that I would jump in a truck and drive all the way to Oregon to fish for steelhead. His name was Kyle Olinger, and he was the general manager of Bill Olinger Lincoln-Mercury, which just happened to be a few blocks down the road from the Shilo where I was staying. You can’t make this stuff up. He offered me a job selling cars. I laughed, and at the same time, I was somewhat interested. After all, I did need a job.

The next day I met Kyle at the dealership and completed all the paperwork. The only obstacle I could see was I owned one pair of slacks, one dress shirt, and one pair of spiffy loafers. Finally, I told Kyle, “thanks so much for the offer, but I just don’t see how I can make this work.”

The next thing I knew, we were walking into Washington Square Mall. Not to make too big a deal about it, but Kyle bought me four or five pairs of slacks, shirts to match, two dress jackets, and a new pair of shoes. When we returned to the dealership, he handed me the key to a new Monarch. Evidently, this was my new demo. Even though I have to admit, I didn’t have a clue what a demo was. Then he handed me his business card and pointed to a new apartment complex down the road, and told me, “If I had any problems to have the manager to call him.”

It was a strange set of events. Looking back, I kept thinking there had to be an ulterior motive behind Kyle’s kindness. The next day I moved into a new apartment. Friday morning at eight a.m. I showed up for my first sales meeting. I was wearing a new suit and tie. I had a notebook in one hand and a fresh cup of coffee in the other. Kyle started laughing. He told me, “You don’t look like a rookie. Whatever you do, don’t let these idiots give you a hard time. Most of them are assholes.”

By the time I arrived, the automobile industry was just coming out of the doldrums caused by the gas embargo of 1972. Car sales were climbing, but the recurring gas shortages essentially changed the industry forever, at least for the next thirty or forty years. Demand for big cars like the Lincoln Town Car were almost nonexistent. The smaller four and six cylinder cars were on fire. I made more money the first month than I had made working an entire year for my stepfather. I was what they called a liner. I would meet and greet the customers, shake their hands, then take them to the type of car they were interested in, and then excuse myself. I would turn and tell the potential customer, “Excuse me, I just started here this week, and I don’t know much about the car business. Let me get you a real car salesman. Someone that knows what they’re doing.”

Then turn and walk away and never look back. Then I would find one of the better salesmen and bring him back to the customers, and per my script, I would say, “Mr. and Mrs. Suzy Cream Cheese. Let me introduce you to Bud Dresser; he has been here for years. I’m more than sure he can find you the right car at the right price.”

Then Bud would step in and sell them the car, and for that, I would get half the commission. On a good day, I could have four of five salesmen working for me and sometimes at the same time. I made enough money the first month to almost furnish my new apartment. My first piece of furniture was a full-wave waterbed (A waterbed without any baffles). The next month I bought a new Kenwood stereo. Hey, it was 1974, and I was seventeen.

On the one hand, the salesmen loved me because I was young and full of energy, not to mention I was putting a tremendous amount of money in their pockets. Then again, I was taking half their commission for little more than a handshake and a smile. No one knew exactly how to solve the dilemma or even if they wanted to. Little did they know at the time, but I kept notes, and every day, my spiel was getting better. I had no idea how long this would last, but there must have been fifteen or twenty car dealerships in Beaverton and ten times that many in Portland and the surrounding suburbs. Salesmen seem to come and go like the tides.

                                                                   The Clackamas River

I was always bugging the other salesmen about the local fishing, and finally, Buddy Garry, one of the few salesmen that took the time to educate me on the fine arts of the sale, introduced me to John Nuttle if for nothing else, but to shut me up. It seems the local nightclubs, strip joints, and card rooms were more conducive to a salesman’s lifestyle than the local fisheries. The first time I met John, I was a little taken back. Even though I had seen him around the dealership many times and at the sales meeting, of course, but I don’t remember seeing him on the lot chasing customers like the other salesmen. He spent the majority of his time in his office on the phone. John was in the neighborhood of six-five and somewhere in the three hundred pound range. Later I found out he was an offensive lineman and an All American at the University of Arizona. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted him in the early seventies, and unfortunately, he blew out his knee in spring training and sent packing several months later.

The first thing I noticed about John was he had a tremendous appetite. God help you if you got between him and his food. The first time we went out to breakfast, he ordered a large stack of pancakes, a side order of bacon, another side order of sausage, and finally, he topped it off with a huge slice of apple pie. The next thing I noticed about John was his proclivity to run his fingers through what little hair he left and then rub his nose when he realized he just screwed the pooch.

We spent the next several hours discussing the local steelhead fishing and an excessive amount of time talking about pro football. I was a huge Miami Dolphin fan at the time. Of course, it wasn’t difficult to carry on a conversation about the fins considering Miami had been in the last three Super Bowls and Miami just happened to win the previous two. John was the kind of guy who was always telling jokes that no one seemed to understand. He was one of the most passive people on the planet; he never seemed to get angry with anyone. And if he did, he never stayed mad very long.

In some ways, he was the perfect fishing partner. He was off on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and he usually went fishing. The problem was John primarily fished with conventional gear. Even though I didn’t mind using traditional fishing gear, I wanted to catch a steelhead using a fly rod. I had no idea how this was going to work. To do my thing, I needed running water and the occasional pool with a decent tailout. It didn’t seem to faze John in the least. He kept telling me about the Sandy River, and at the right time of the year, the steelhead fishing was just about as good as it can get considering it was only a short drive from Portland. I didn’t know if that sounded depressing or promising. It’s been my experience fisheries that close to a significant city usually suck. Not necessarily the fishing as much as the fishing pressure, which is essentially the same thing.

When I finally had the chance to look at a map, the Sandy was a tributary of the Columbia River. For some reason, I thought the coastal rivers and streams sounded much more productive. Especially for winter steelhead, and they were relatively close as the crow flies. It never occurred to me that the Pacific salmon and steelhead migrated up the Columbia as far as the snake and the salmon rivers in Idaho. John and I planned to hit the Sandy the following Thursday morning. It gave me five days to find a decent pair of waders and boots.

Later that week John introduced me to G.I. Joes. I didn’t know it at the time but I was looking at the future, essentially the end to the mom and pop fly shops. G.I. Joes was the quintessential box store that carried everything for the modern outdoorsman. It was the West Coast version of L.L. Bean. I bought a pair of neoprene waders and wading boots and later that day I stopped by Kaufmann’s and loaded up on flies and tippet material and a few other odds and ends like thermal underwear and a “waterproof” jacket, fishing license and as much advise as I could garner from the boys. When I mentioned that I planed on fishing the Sandy Thursday morning, Randle didn’t seem surprised. He asked me if I knew what section of the river we were going to fish, but sadly I didn’t have a clue where John intended to fish. Randle mentioned, “The Sandy was fishing well, but the water may be a little high. It’s been raining hard off and on the last several days, but you still have a few days for the river to drop. If it doesn’t drop the Sandy is not worth the time and energy.”

I had exponentially more questions than they had answers. I stayed up late Wednesday night, rigging my  Shakespeare saltwater fly rod, putting a new fly line on my Ted Williams fly reel, and tied up a half dozen new leaders. That’s the problem with fly shops; if you ask for their advice, you’re almost obligated to buy something.

I woke up early, took a shower, loaded my gear into the Bronco, grabbed a cup of coffee, and hit the road. John asked me to meet him at seven that morning in the G.I. Joe’s parking lot. John didn’t show up, and after what seemed like a half-hour or so, I had to find a payphone and call him. He was still half asleep when he finally answered the phone. I wanted to read him the riot act, but I didn’t have the heart to complain. After all, he was taking me fishing. He made up some feeble excuse and promised he would be there posthaste. The problem was John lived on the other side of Portland and assuming he already had his fishing gear packed, under the best of conditions, it would take him an hour to make it to G.I. Joe’s parking lot. Even then, he still had to navigate the morning traffic. I called him back, and I suggested we meet at Carrows Restaurant on Canyon Road. That way, I could have a leisurely breakfast and read the Oregonian, the local newspaper. If nothing else, I could peruse the local fishing reports.

By the time John managed to drag his sorry derriere into Carrows, I had already finished breakfast and devoured most of the Oregonian. I finished off an entire pot of coffee and managed to work myself into a tither. I was past the point of caring. When John finale made his way to the table, I stood up and grabbed the check and was about to pay the bill and make my way to the Bronco when John sheepishly asked, “Do we have time for breakfast?”

By this time, it was almost nine o’clock, and for all practical purposes, what difference did it make, “Sure, knock yourself out. It’s only nine O’clock. We have all day.” 

Somewhere in the background, a busboy slipped and dropped a bus lug full of dishes in between two tables. It sounded like the proverbial runaway bull in a china shop. John kept asking, “What did you say? I can’t hear you over all the noise.” 

I said, “Sure, knock yourself out.”

I looked around, and by this time, the restaurant was almost full. There was no telling how long it would take John to get his food and finish his meal. I was beginning to wonder if this was still a good idea. Sometimes it’s better to throw in the towel and call it a day. John seemed oblivious to the time. At this point, I would have considered it a minor victory just see the damn Sandy. When his food finally arrived, he wolfed it down and grabbed my check, paid my bill, and made his way through the crowd like a pulling guard looking for an outside linebacker to block. For a big man, he was light on his feet. It wasn’t difficult to see what the Bengals liked about John when they first scouted him at the University of Arizona. I jumped into the Bronco, expecting him to throw his gear in the back of my truck and pile in, but like everything else that morning, he jumped in his demo and told me to follow him. It didn’t make much sense, but I did it anyway.

A few minutes later, we pulled into the G.I. Joe’s parking lot. At first, I thought we would load my Bronco and get the hell out of here, but no, John needed to pick up a few things. I was about to get introduced to the thousands of various plastic baits, spin and glows, spoons, spinners, and a multitude of plugs that were explicitly designed for steelhead, not to mention live sand shrimp and cured salmon eggs. Of course, John had to work his way up and down every aisle and explain the nuances of all the techniques created throughout the years to catch a steelhead. At some level, it made fly-fishing seem rather dull. About this time, I was ready to get down on my hands and knees and beg John to stop the insanity. Let’s go fishing. I was beginning to think this was just a cruel joke. But he walked out of G.I. Joe’s with several hundred dollars of junk. He transferred three rods and a pair of boots and several jackets into the Bronco and locked up his demo, and then dumped two bags of God only knows what into the back seat. Finally, we were headed in the direction of the Sandy River; it was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

Fifteen minutes later, I pulled into a coffee shop and picked up a couple of cups of java and an assortment of doughnuts while John stayed in the truck. When I finally climbed into the Bronco, John seemed aggravated. Then he started to give me a ration of cow manure about taking so long. Finally, he looked at me and barked, “If you keep stopping every ten minutes, we are never going to get the Sandy, much less catch any fish. By the way, did you pick up and cream and sugar.”

It was everything I could do not to pull over and leave his sorry ass on the side of the road. I had to bite my tongue, and a few minutes later, I replied, “You do know it’s ten-thirty, and we were supposed to be on the water and fishing by eight o’clock this morning. Yet you want to give me a ration of crap for stopping for a cup of coffee.” 

The day was starting to look like a Laurel and Hardy movie. It was walking talking clusterfuck, and yes, reality can be stranger than fiction, especially when it came to John. Eventually, we made it to Sandy River, and up until that point, I thought John knew the river well enough to know exactly where he wanted to fish. I was wrong on so many levels.

The river was running several feet over the banks, and even though you could see it was a beautiful river – I didn’t see anywhere we could fish much less wade. We started working our way up the river, hoping to find a more suitable place to fish. Then we started working our way down the river as if the lower river would be in better shape.

For the next several hours we did what most despondent fishermen faced with a river that was for all practical purposes unfishable. We kept hoping, praying and begging the sun to come out and the river to miraculous drop. Then John suggested the Clackamas River. The Clackamas was even closer to town. By this time, it was drizzling again, not quite raining but enough to puddle up the pullouts. Of course, it had been drizzling since the day I arrived.

For the life of me, I will never understand why John thought the Clackamas would be in any better shape than the Sandy. As far as I was concerned, the day was a flop, but I didn’t have anything else better to do, and for the most part, John was good company. If nothing else, I knew where the Sandy River was. According to John, the Clackamas fished better than Sandy in the fall. One can only ask then why did we waste or time on the Sandy when we could have gone directly to the Clackamas. It had something to do with the summer run fish versus the winter run fish. Some of the rivers had a good run of summer fish and, for some reason, didn’t necessarily get a run of winter fish and vice versa. Then some of the rivers were lucky enough to have summer and winter runs.

Believe it or not, the Clackamas was in better shape than the Sandy. Even though the water was still high, the river was exponentially cleaner. Later that day we bumped into a few drift boats dredging some of the deeper pools. It seemed like everyone we stopped and talked to seem to be using conventional gear and cured salmon eggs or some kind of plastic thingamajig. What made the Clackamas so appealing was the access. For the most part, a two-lane road followed the river as it meandered its way through the small canyons. All you had to do was find a place to pull of the road and park.

We finally found a good run that actually had plenty of parking and easy access to the river. Pullouts can be interesting in so many ways, sure they can be busy at times, but then again they provide easy access to the river. One can only assume because the pullout is empty that section of the river doesn’t fish very well. The first thing I noticed about rivers is no one actually fishes the pullouts. And yet any access to the river is to be appreciated, if nothing else it gets you in the water and actually fishing. Which happens to be the only way I know to actually hook and land a fish. We eventually found a reasonably decent pullout that was actually rather dry, wet or dry, I didn’t care anymore, this is where I was going to plant my flag, and if John didn’t want to fish here then he could sit in the Bronco and eat donuts and drink cold coffee.

This was also the first time I have ever tried to put on a pair of neoprene waders and boots. Personally it was a miserable experience and rather embarrassing at times. It must have taken twenty minutes or so to climb into my waders and another twenty minutes to slide my boots on. By the time I had finally managed to the tie boots I noticed I was soaking wet. Between the rain and the perspiration I was drenched. I grabbed my rod and my official fly-fishing vest and headed to the river. I worked my way down current looking for what I considered a good stretch of the river to fish. Then again what the hell did I really know?

About sixty or seventy yards down river I found what I thought was a good looking stretch of water. About thirty feet from the bank I noticed a huge boulder just underneath the surface of the water. The water was sliding over the top of the boulder and on each side there seemed to be two deep seams. Up until this point I had never waded a river with any significant current, but I had seen this scenario in a multitude of fly-fishing books, especially the ones that concentrated on steelhead.

I was lucky there was nothing behind me but some tall grass. I stripped off forty or fifty of line and made a reasonably good cast. The fly landed ten may twelve feet up current of the boulder. I let the fly swing down current and as it passed the boulder something grabbed my fly and turned downstream. Several minutes later I heard John rustling through the woods and by the time he arrived I was sitting on my ass with my legs spread in about six inches of water with a nice six or seven pound steelhead between them. I admit it wasn’t necessarily a big one, but it was a steelhead nonetheless. Then I heard john say,” I told you I would put you on a steelhead.”

It took me two years to hook and land another steelhead on the fly.


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2 Responses to “My God Bones What Have I Done”

2 Comments so far
  1. by Walter V Combs

    On June 29, 2021 at 11:34 am

    Jim, your wonderful story mirrors my own first steelhead, not on a fly but on a spinner. This was a very large Quinault summer-run hen that blew the water apart as she porpoised down the run and broke my line. Years would pass before a Skeena October hen became another bigger than life steelhead. Trey

  2. by jim

    On July 19, 2021 at 8:50 am

    Hi Trey
    Thanks so much for the kind words. It’s incredible how much detail you can remember about a specific day on a beautiful river and your first encounter with a steelhead. I wrote the following poem many years ago, and as simple as it might be, I think it’s appropriate.

    The Tug is the Drug

    I have caught more than my fair share of fish in my lifetime
    All special in many ways, but none make the heart beat so fast,
    and the blood run so hot as the Pacific steelhead

    Connected by flimsy twine, screaming drags and dogged runs
    pool to pool, his life, your life, it all flashed before my eyes

    What a noble fish, born in the river, raised at sea, then back to the river again to complete
    that precious cycle of life, once, twice, maybe thrice
    no one knows for sure

    The steelhead is a rainbow trout by any other name
    What makes this mighty bow turn its nose downstream, I will never know,
    wanderlust I guess, old and mystic genes at work here

    Such a proud fish, strong and sleek, shining armor
    broad shoulders and keen eyes make the steelhead true game

    Hours on end, season after season, I stand and wade famous rivers,
    and watch the time drift by like the tide

    Cast and mend, I ply my trade with vigor, always knowing, hoping, wishing, ok praying
    for that subtle tug

    If the moon, sun, and the stars all line up in cosmic bliss, and on such a day,
    I hook and land such a noble fish; then the choice is simple

    Release this beautiful fish and watch it swim away. Then thank those lucky stars that
    I was meant to catch such a noble fish on this day

    Jim Stenson

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