Fishing with Frank - Lucas Holmgren

Fishing with Frank - Lucas Holmgren

 

I had been telling Frank about my trips with Keith and he was very interested in getting out in the Grays Harbor region to fish. As Keith Johnson had been reading STS for decades, he was well aware of Frank and was excited at the prospect of having Frank aboard his drift boat.

 

Frank guided Lucas into his first ever fly-caught salmon, teaching how to cast and swing. Keith Johnson image.

 

The opportunity to fish with experienced anglers has improved my abilities in ways that I could never have imagined. Tips, tricks, little subtleties and wisdom from many years on the water is something that I forever treasure from every angler that I’ve come across.

I had the ability to not only meet Frank Amato, but work for him, modernizing Salmon Trout Steelheader’s online presence. I felt a special kinship to him, as I often thought about his beginnings and the difficult task of starting a fishing magazine back in 1967. Frank had to have a passion beyond just fishing in order to undertake that type of a mission.

I’ve enjoyed Frank’s deep knowledge of history, beyond just fishing history, his love of literature and above all, continuous learning. From the first time I started showing him pictures of various steelhead I’d recently caught, he’d be right there asking questions about colors, depths, flows and all the tidbits of information that us anglers like to know. I was a bit dumbfounded that a fishing hero of mine would be interested in what I’d been using to catch fish, as he’s fished almost everywhere a steelheader could dream of, and seen every technique in the book. Yet, Frank, like most talented anglers I know, never stops learning. And he’ll even take a page out of my book just to stay on top of things. Every time I have the pleasure of talking to him on the phone he wants to keep tabs on reports, and loves to hear of streams that he used to fish that are still producing.

Yet he’s still out there fishing. Every day gets a little more difficult due to health concerns, but Frank takes the time to climb in his Watermaster and float his favorite streams, or takes to the bank to fish a fly or a spoon. Often, when spoon fishing, he’ll bend out the hook and de-barb it so that he can feel the strike, briefly fight the fish and let it go. I remember one day he called me up regretting that, as he had hooked one of the largest coho of his life from the bank, and would have liked to have held and released it, but he was satisfied just to have seen it and confirmed its size.

Frank says he likes to just sit on a bridge or a river bank and know that there are fish holding or migrating through. He has a feel for the river that could only come from a lifetime of learning and appreciation. He’d rather see someone else catch a fish than get one himself, although he does like to join in on the fun. Guide Keith Johnson asked Frank “How’s that feel” on a first bobber-down on a trip I’ll discuss shortly. Frank responded “Just like it’s sup-posed to.” with a smile.

 

The Top-Ten Trip

With that said, this brings me to what I consider one of my top-ten trips of all time, if not top-3. A good friend of mine, Keith Johnson, has continued to amaze me over the years with his intense dedication and knowledge of the many rivers he fishes. Every single trip with him has been noth-ing short of a wonderful time. We get along well, and he’s not afraid to cancel if he thinks our opportunity is limited. He wants us to hook fish, every trip. Keith is almost always first on a fresh new bite, and first to leave when the river crowds, on to the next hot bite. I had been talking with Keith back and forth about getting out in the fall of 2019, if memory serves right. Keith had been having excellent success on a number of rivers but was switching over to a mostly wild fishery that included chum and coho salmon, with the occasionally possibility of a Chinook.

I had been telling Frank about my trips with Keith and he was very interested in getting out in the Grays Harbor region to fish. As Keith Johnson had been reading STS for decades, he was well aware of Frank and was excited at the prospect of having Frank aboard his drift boat.

We set the date and weather was appearing to cooperate. We decided on a slightly later start than normal, as Frank prefers not to fish right at daylight and instead likes a more relaxed fishing experience. Plus, with the cold onset of fall, a daytime bite was probable. I had no problem with that and Keith was agreeable, although he’s certainly the type to start very early. Frank and I drove separately up to the Chehalis region of Washington and met Keith at our typical gas station meetup point. Keith was all smiles and his usual ready-to-go attitude and had some kind words for Frank immediately. Frank was a consummate gentleman as always, with no ego, and only a very current interest in what was happening as of late. We got in Keith’s truck towing his drift boat toward our target launch. Frank peppered Keith with questions about guiding, rivers, runs and techniques. Always inquisitive and always learning.

As we arrived at the launch, waders were put on and we got in the drift boat ready to slide off into the current. Keith’s drift boat wasn’t fancy or squeaky clean, as he’d been running trips 7 days a week sun-up til sun-down, but it was efficiently setup with everything we’d need for the day. As Frank loves his fly-fishing, he brought a beautiful custom 11’ 7 weight switch rod to fish in various runs. Frank isn’t opposed to other methods though, and so Keith handed him a 9’4” float fishing rod with a bobber and egg setup, with trailing bead. This was interesting to Frank and a technique he hadn’t yet used.

 

Frank’s First Fish of the Day

If you watch the video on the STS channel “Float’s Dropping…Fish On! Baits and Beads” you’ll see this exact moment, with Keith demonstrating how the bead and the eggs present in the water. Keith selected an excellent bucket on the side of the river and Frank set the eggs and bead through. I believe it was first or second cast and the bobber vanished, Frank sort of half-heart-edly set the hook and on was a gorgeous wild coho. He reeled it to the boat, and with high-fives all around we had quickly witnessed Franks first salmon of the day!

 

 

He told us he was happy with his fish for the day and he’d like to watch us catch fish from now on, and would possibly follow us with a fly rod on select runs. The day was chilly but the sun was starting to show behind clouds and we didn’t experience hardly any rain.

As we floated gently along the mid-sized river in medium-low flow, the conversation was wonderful. Keith and I asked Frank about experiences through the years and Frank leveled excellent questions about Keith’s guiding and techniques. Constant interesting, but quiet banter that I could listen to for hours.

We landed a few other coho and then slid into a run that had a long riffle at the front. Keith pointed and said “Here Frank, here is the ideal run. It’s loaded with chum. Go ahead and pick it apart with your fly rod.”

 

A Fly Fishing Memory I’ll Never Forget

I setup my camera, albeit slightly shakily, and Franks first fish can be seen on the STS Youtube channel under the video “Swing-ing Flies with Frank Amato.” Frank waded out to about waste deep and started casting and swinging the run. It didn’t take long. With a few gentle shakes and mends the line grew tight and Frank simply swung upward.


“Hey fish on, what do ya know?”


With a smile one his face he landed the fly caught chum and we all gave fist bumps and high fives! After this fish, Frank told me “Alright Lucas, let’s get you fly fishing.”

 

Keith and Frank after landing a double—silver and chum. 

 

I was a bit nervous in a good way. I’d done some hacky trout fly fishing before and enjoyed it immensely, but I had never fished for or caught a salmon on the fly. But if my first opportunity was with the one and only Frank Amato, how could I say no? I positioned myself in the place Keith and Frank motioned to, and both of them started walking me through how to cast the switch rod. It was surprisingly effortless to cast, although I’m not sure it looked the best to a seasoned caster, but I was getting the fly to where I wanted it to go. With ample float fishing experience and a lot of time swinging a spoon, I had a good sense of how to present the fly.

It was a special fly that Frank had tied up, nothing I’d seen before, and it was fully his design. I have it somewhere in my storage in a frame, along with a signed Bill Herzog spoon (fishing with Bill is a story for another day…but here is a sneak peak: he’s as good as people say he is. Maybe better.) The fly had two chrome beads, a chrome head, with pink and blue marabou. Not too long of a tail, but enough to give it a streamer feel.

With how many chum were in the run I was surprised to not get a grab on the first few casts, but then I cast farther upstream to let the fly sink a bit more and started a swing. Midway through the swing it suddenly stopped, and then I felt the headshake. They say there is nothing like a swing grab, and I’d have to say—I can still feel it in my memory. A quality 10-pound chum started burning line and I struggled to keep up. As they do, it fought all the way to my feet, and made a few runs before I finally subdued it. My first salmon on a fly! I got a photo with Frank, that I’ll forever cherish, and then quickly clipped off the fly and said “I’m taking this one home Frank!” He agreed with a smile and said “I’ll name that pattern the Holmgren.”

 

Afternoon Bite & Lunch

With a few “firsts” out of the way, we relaxed even more and floated down, getting out of the drift boat to pick apart runs and try different techniques. Bobber and eggs were by-far the most effective of the day, but we fished a few other lures along the way. It was astounding how many fish we were catching. Frank would make a few casts and hook a fish or two, but he kept relinquishing the rods to Keith and I and said he much preferred watching us catch fish. So catch fish we did. We ran into another excellent guide I’ve fished with Jared Cady, who had two elderly gentleman onboard running plugs, but otherwise there was very little traffic.

One spot we came to was a downed tree running parallel to the river flow. There was just enough depth in front of it to be the perfect bobber run. This produced fish after a fish, a steady mix of coho and chum. Frank kept chuckling and enjoying the show while chewing on a cigar. His relaxed attitude and encouragement kept us excited to be putting on a show for a long-time champion of salmon trout and steelhead.

After that run, which produced approximately 15 fish including a few doubles, we decided to take a break, get out on the gravel bar and have some lunch. Frank had a sandwich if I remember right and we continued to talk about our day and how amazing the bite was, yet we still weren’t in a hurry, and it felt relaxing somehow.

 

Otter Failure

At this point our arms were tired, bait was running out, but we decided to fish a few more holes on the way down. The subject turned to beavers and otters. Frank and Keith exchanged a few stories, and one thing Frank said is that in all his years of fishing, he’d never had an otter grab a fish on his line. This ended up in one of the strangest coincidences I’ve ever seen on the water. Something that probably had God laughing as we had one incredible turn of events.

First off, Frank had been putting a small steelhead jig on, a Yakima Bait 1/32 or 1/16 oz jig, with a peach color to it. This was the fly of choice after I decided to retire the “Holmgren” prematurely. Frank uses this technique quite often and does very well on it. We dropped anchor above a hole on the left side of the river, with a nice tree and root wad flanking it. I stepped out of the boat with bobber and eggs, ran through without a sniff. Keith and I ran through spoons and twitching jigs without so much as a tug.

 

Franks first coho of the day, testing the egg/bead trailer combo. 

 

At that point I figured it was time to move on but Frank wanted to have a go at it. He made a small swing into the head of the hole and immediately hooked a chum. I was incredibly surprised that he had just mopped up behind us with just a little buggy presentation, but it was obvious that’s what they wanted! The chum took off with surprising aggression and flew straight down river with a fin out of the water. Out of nowhere, an otter jumped off the bank and swam straight toward the fish—it felt like slow motion! The otter grabbed the fish and started struggling with it, as more line pulled out of Frank’s fly reel. Our mouths were agape, as we had just discussed hav-ing never gotten an otter to grab a fish of ours!! What a turn of events. Keith jumped out of the drift boat with a net in one hand and waded faster than I’d ever seen someone go. Frank kept reeling and walking toward the fish and the otter. I watched it all amazed.

Keith was ready with net and went for a swing…right when the otter let go. He netted the chum and the otter swam off disappointed. We couldn’t believe what had just happened and when we all rendezvoused at the boat, we laughed and wondered at the odds of what had just happened. It seems Frank had spoken it into existence.

Without much water left to float, we decided to give the rods a rest and float down to the launch and reflect on our trip. We weren’t there to kill fish. We were hardly there to catch fish, more so to enjoy a float in the beautiful nature that Washington State has to offer. But with a few “firsts” under our belt, some great video footage and photos, it was a beautiful time.

As we took of our waders, Frank told Keith “You know, this was one of my top-ten trips of all time. Just the experience, the fish, the river, the float. Top-ten.”

For someone with so much experience and time on the water, I couldn’t help but smile at how I’d been able to be a part of it. And Keith was pretty stoked to say the least.

I could say many things about Frank, and this is his magazine, but I think even if it wasn’t I would write this article anyway. What I appreciate most is his love for learning, his ability to enjoy the moment, his curiosity and care for fish, and the fact that after all this time, he still loves to go fishing.

A year or two later I got to do a float trip with Frank during less than ideal conditions, very little fish in the system and plunging water temperatures. We floated in Watermasters down the river and never fought one fish, but that trip was the best skunk trip I’ve ever been on. Frank has a way of enjoying fishing that can only hear-ken back to an understanding of making the most of every fishing trip. I hope to get out with him again soon.

 

The following is what Guide Keith Johnson had to say about the trip:
“I was really impressed with how humble Frank was, his wealth of knowledge and his ability to catch fish on a Spey rod was amazing. We got three takes on video on a fly rod which never happens. It was one of those days we didn’t have to try too hard. We’d pop into a spot, catch some fish and leave a couple, moving on to see what else we could find, sometimes bobber-dogging in between spots. I’ve read STS forever. I cut my teeth reading every article I could get my hands on, and so it was a special moment fishing with the man that started it all, I never foreseen that happen. To make it even sweeter, he told me it was one of the “top-ten” fishing trips of his entire lifetime, you don’t hear that every day! It was really cool to see Frank give Lucas that fly that caught those chum. It was a pretty cool moment. I hope to fish with Frank again someday, and its a honor to guide Mr. Amato and have such a quality day.”

 

—Keith JohnsonKFish Guide Service

 

 

   
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 MORE GREAT ARTICLES FROM STS

PLUGGING BIG WATER FOR FALL SUMMER STEELHEAD THE SNAKE RIVER SOLUTION - BILL HERZOG

THE GUIDE SPOTLIGHT: JOHN KAISER JR. (TENACITY OUTDOORS) - BRENT KNIGHT

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