Spudnuts, soft spots and steelhead: All in a great day’s work

Overwintering steelhead seek refuge where submerged wood, overhanging alder or even abandoned car bodies provide cover.
Overwintering steelhead seek refuge where submerged wood, overhanging alder or even abandoned car bodies provide cover. For the Herald

My morning drive to the Walla Walla River starts off with a long wait for a slow moving train. A light breeze brings the stale odor of processed onions my way but hints that fog will soon lift. Stream flows have dropped after the first freshet of the winter, and I am anxious to get a steelhead on my punch card.

First things first, though. I park my truck and stride across a crowded parking lot to the Spudnut Shop where a man with wiry gray hair greets me. “I’ve got a serious sweet tooth that needs satisfying,” he says.

The inside lineup includes a father clutching a small child, an older couple picking up a call-in order and a red-haired woman wearing plaid pajama pants who can’t make up her mind. I peer through a plate-glass window to where the baker rolls out a ball of fresh dough. Behind him a pan of hot oil smokes. “I’m the same weight I was in high school 47 years ago,” my wiry-hair friend says, patting his stomach. “I keep in shape hunting pheasants.”

“My exercise is walking the bank of the Walla Walla River for steelhead,” I reply. “That’s where I’m heading this morning.”

What I didn’t offer up was that I operate 10 pounds above my high school weight due to a fondness for pastry. My granddaughter and I arrived at the Spudnut Shop once just as a hot batch of donuts got ladled with frosting. “Let’s eat one here and not tell the others,” I said to Sofia. We found an empty booth and savored a warm glazed donut that melted in our mouths. The taste brought back poignant memories of mornings I spent perched on a stool in Weston’s A&F Cafe, a bundle of Oregonian newspapers in my lap, waiting for fresh-made sourdough donuts (two for 15 cents) to cool. And yes, my newspapers were sometimes delivered late.

Halfway down the road to Wallula Junction, fog lifts and one donut disappears down the hatch. Meanwhile, a double-haul semi has been riding my hip ever since the Snake River Bridge. One eye on my rear view mirror and one down the road for “Smokey,” I speed up to widen the space between us.

Arriving at the Walla Walla River, my first look finds it running off-color and high. The situation is disturbing. A battered pickup pulls up alongside me, and a young guy wearing a camo jacket gets out. No longer in a hurry to fish, I wander over to B.S. “Looks like the river came up overnight,” I say.

“I scouted out several soft spots when the water was lower,” he replies.

corkiesteelie WW
Steelhead enter Blue Mountain tributaries in late fall and winter when flows increase and hold over until they spawn the next spring. Corkies and yarn or jigs tipped with shrimp are favored by anglers. Dennis Dauble For the Herald

It isn’t until the man shoulders a backpack and grabs his 12-guage do I realize he is a duck hunter. A soft spot to a jump-shooter is where high flows carve out a backwater refuge for over-wintering mallards. I seek soft spots of a different nature, ones in the main river flow where current slows and steelhead seek relief — downstream of a cottonwood snag, beside a giant boulder, the bend of a channel.

Unfortunately, the only soft spots I encounter on this day are on dry land, where beaver tunnels, and alder branches and blackberry vines hide in the dense reed canary grass to trip me up. Finding no one at the “rope hole” — so-called because it’s deep and wide enough for bold swimmers to swing from a tattered rope — I finally settle in for a few casts. The current is strong, requiring twice as much weight as usual to get down to where steelhead lay, but my options are limited.

I wade in up to my ankles and cast sidearm to where current swirls under overhanging branches already adorned with gear donated by past anglers. It’s the kind of hero cast made when your hopes are dashed and daylight is fading fast. Anyway, my corkie-and-yarn rig bounces across the bottom and stops, so I jerk and feel resistance. Snagged. Dang! I mutter to myself and pull up hard, after which the drag on my spinning reel sings like an Irish tenor on fast forward.

There is a flash of silver as a large fish rolls at the surface. A steelhead! I steer a six-pound wild hen to the bank where a soft spot in the current allows for safe release and opt to quit, knowing a thermos of hot coffee and a Spudnut glazed donut wait for me in the truck.

Dennis Dauble is a retired fisheries scientist and outdoor writer. For more stories about fish and fishing in the mid-Columbia region, see DennisDaubleBooks.com