KERNVILLE — The steamy summer rain forests of the Oregon coast are hot, bug-infested and brutally uninviting unless you are looking for wild cutthroat trout that will strike with every cast.
Fifty years after loggers razed the steep slopes of the Siletz River basin, a thick barrier of trees and solid vegetation in a hundred shades of green guard invisible tributaries with names like Cedar, Wildcat and Savage creeks. Diamond rivulets seldom more than six feet wide, they coarse through secluded canyons of the Siuslaw National Forest and spill into countless gem-like pools teeming with angler’s treasure: audacious, hard-fighting bluebacks.
Permanent residents of the tortured scar of colliding geologic forces we call the Coastal Range, they are a reflection of their savage environment: wild, bold and itching to challenge any intrusion to their remote safe holds. Striking featherweight spinners, dry flies and streamers in all patterns, Siletz basin bluebacks are ready to feed any time of the day.
Wizened graybeards who don’t have time to embroider fantastic yarns portray these streams as God-forsaken throwbacks to a distant era when anglers packed sidearms for trouble and roomy creels for the trout.
Fishing those secret creeks with their tricky covers, tangled blowdowns and brushy banks is one thing. Getting there is another.
The old Forest Service roads that disappear into a white veil of morning clouds above the river valley are in good condition, but there are few trails and hardly any worthwhile maps that say ‘Fish here.’ Maps such as a USFW topo reveal the best access points for streams — typically a horseshoe bend with a brush-choked culvert.
Exactly four miles from the Siletz River Highway (Oregon 229) along USFS Road 84, for example, the gravel road hooks over Cedar Creek at the only place you won’t need a gullible mule or a reliable parachute to reach the stream. While Cedar Creek winds invitingly for miles alongside the road, breaching its protective cover is a task requiring sturdy legs, leather gloves and layers of bug juice.
Beneath dense canopies of alder and fir, a wall of chest-high ferns and lush forest plants spiked with tiny barbs seems impenetrable. Insects swarm anything warm-blooded, probing unbuttoned shirts for palatable skin. Coastal breezes that rescue lazy anglers on the banks of the Siletz wither and die in the treetops high above the river.
Descending the sheer slope on the downstream side of this humid greenhouse, sweat comes in waves. Footholds on old stumps yield suddenly to decades of decay, while the butt of a lightweight rod is the only tool to arrest an unexpected slide.
The payoff comes quickly, though, as you stumble onto the rocky streambed below. Here, Cedar Creek gurgles amid the raucous noise of forest birds. The air at streamside, so torpid and moist in the brush, is clean and cool. In midsummer, pools the color of jade are full of darting shadows.
The only sign of other anglers may be a matted wad of old fishing line, caught high on a branch from the spring runoff. A carpet of unbroken shamrock reaching to the water’s edge suggests the stream has not been fished for months — perhaps not at all, this season.
In these primordial hollows, buggy eye-catchers like a mottled 1/16th oz. Rooster Tail, a miniature Blue Fox or the tiny Mepps French spinner require accurate casts. With an abundance of overhang, the presentations are seldom over 30 feet.
Making your way downstream, hit the small pools and riffles until you encounter an inky-black hole that is broad and long, often puzzled by bus-sized logs as white as old bones. These bottlenecks of dead wood are havens for big, voracious trout but are also snares for casually-introduced lures. One trick is to swing your artificial into fast water and let it briefly ride the current into a hidden place before setting the blade. Wham! You should be into a fight as soon as the line goes into action.
These creeks pool-up with advantageous holes every 50 yards or so, and you’ll work them slow as a plumber going for his tools. Be prepared to ford the stream in terrain sandals, sneakers or old boots you don’t love to take advantage of the best casting spots.
Getting the breadbox cutts is largely a matter of stealth. A wide and surreptitious approach to these honeyholes is a mandatory tactic. Snaking through the dense foliage is painstaking, but it hides your movement from the bigger, smarter fish. Along many streams, big game makes the job easier. Check for an “elk highway” 15 or 20 feet from the bank that may parallel the stream.
Smaller cutts in these coastal brooks will answer to all invitations, but platter-sized cutthroat are wary as blackjack dealers. A sloppy entry will play to their suspicions, and they will simply retire. A slow, deep retrieve over their lair, with subtle pumping from the crouched position, will draw fish like filings to a magnet.
Compared to its overlooked tributaries, the Siletz River is popular as pie a’ la mode with its year-round steelhead runs and monster cuts smart as Rhodes scholars.
But at the end of the day, when your moss-lined creel holds fish from a neglected mountain stream high above that legendary river, you’ll be glad you climbed into the clouds.