RWONWF: Truly Happiest On The River

Editor’s note: This December marked our 7th Annual Real Women of Northwest Fishing feature! Once again, we turned the issue over to the women and girls who are quietly and very successfully joining the ranks of Washington, Oregon and Idaho fishers, making Northwest anglerdom all the stronger. And as we do each year, we share their stories and photos on our blog. Enjoy this year’s edition of Northwest Sportsman’s Real Women of Northwest Fishing! 

By Sara Ichtertz

Being out of range – before there was such a thing – was pretty much how I spent my childhood. Raised on an old ranch with five sisters, we were encouraged by Mom and Dad to frolic and have adventures safely in our pastures, barns, ponds and, my favorite of all, the creek! Throughout my life, I’ve definitely found myself happiest when I am on the water. It has always drawn me to it. Traveling the creek, building forts, catching eels, baiting tiny trout set-ups with worms and periwinkles my sister Joni and I found, dragging trout out of that creek each summer – I am very thankful for the love and support my parents gave us girls growing up. They gave us the freedom to find comfort in nature, and to this day it is by far the place I prefer to be!

Western Oregon’s Sara Ichtertz holds her favorite fish of all, steelhead, “so majestic, beautiful, full of fire and will.”(SARA ICHTERTZ)

Western Oregon’s Sara Ichtertz holds her favorite fish of all, steelhead, “so majestic, beautiful, full of fire and will.”(SARA ICHTERTZ)

Today, if someone were to ask me what it is I do, I would tell them I am Mom to Nate and Ava and what I do is fish! Nearly four years ago I discovered something that truly made me tick and three years ago I decided it was time to stop dreaming and get after it. This amazing sport brought things out in me I never even knew existed! It allows me to pursue my lifelong passion of nature photography, all while chasing that killer adrenaline rush. Each season’s backdrop is almost as stunning as the fish and the fight itself. But to capture that moment perfectly from behind my camera is where it is at for me.

In a sense, it is a lot like what my sister and I did so long ago, but on a much broader scale, where my passions are constantly tested, challenged and rewarded beyond my wildest dreams. The pursuit of the rivers and what lies beneath them is my pursuit to happiness. I believe I have found a true joy that will last my lifetime through the sport of angling, all while finding the balance of being a busy busy mom and the wife to my high school sweetheart.

I WAS INSTANTLY intrigued by the majestic winter fish. That first trip down the river, that first tug, head shake, run and eruption of power as she jumped out of the river just as the sun began to touch the water was too much! I was gone. I had never ever seen or felt anything so amazing in my entire life. And in that moment I was forever changed. I am so thankful my brother-in-law humored me, shared what he knew with me and took me downriver, side-drifting the very river my entire life has been spent on.

Timing in life is a funny thing. I waited an entire year before I attempted the river once more. In that year I learned nothing as far as angling goes, but in the one that lay ahead I learned everything I needed to believe that I could and would in fact learn to fish! Unlikely strangers turning into friends. Life-changing inspiration and guidance waiting for me on that bank, like it was destined to be. What a beautiful thing.

My first, most crucial inspiration came from a 76-year-old woman. I believe it was no coincidence the river brought Barbara and I together that January morning. She taught me the basic concepts, all while sharing beautiful stories of she and her husband’s life together, fishing from here to Alaska. Though we did not hook any fish that day, I left the bank full of inspiration and desire. I wanted to feel what I saw in Barbara’s eyes as she spoke of the rivers and the fish she loved so much. I went home that night, learned my knots, and truly believed I could and would do this.

SHARING THIS PASSION with my babes has got to be the greatest angle of the sport for me. I fell in love with fishing just before I found out I was pregnant with my first child. Free trout weekend and one sweet husband was all it took. What I truly wanted in life more than anything was to be a loving, supportive wife and eventually be a mom, and when my first little blessing came, motherhood came first. But the flicker of the water and fish still simmered deep within me. I dove into growing gardens and loving my family. Time flew by, the babes grew faster than the gardens and life was good.

A panel of images shows Sara’s success the past few years on hatchery and wild winter- and summer-run steelhead, as well as her “babes,” son Nate and daughter Ava who accompany her on the rivers. (SARA ICHTERTZ)

A panel of images shows Sara’s success the past few years on hatchery and wild winter- and summer-run steelhead, as well as her “babes,” son Nate and daughter Ava who accompany her on the rivers. (SARA ICHTERTZ)

My opportunity knocked when they were still quite little. The first hatchery steelhead from the bank I ever hooked, they were there. My knots held and I was thrilled! I remember how happy I was, jumping for joy, hugging my babes tightly after I landed that chrome-bright hen. They were there for my largest springer to date too; the only fish landed out of that North Umpqua hole that night was by the only mom on the river who was independently fishing with her 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.

As winter’s and spring’s stocks swam on, my addiction was in full swing and I realized another run of beautiful fish was just around the corner, my favorite on the North Umpqua system. My babes cheered me on and together we learned how to fish for summer steelhead on our beautiful river. Two Junes ago it was just us on the bank, hooking and losing fired-up summers. Those fish, they are just so hot! I hadn’t a real clue how to handle them. But I had been giving fishing my best for six months and my riggings were legit. I was in good shape, good enough to know I would rather spend our summer days on the river sharing nature together than anything else. Unplugged from it all – that’s what kind of mom I wanted to be and strive to be. Yes, I am home-raising my children, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explore and fish while Dad is off making a living. We could fish and have fresh meat by the time he arrived home for dinner! I had what I needed: them, my gear, and a small amount of knowledge to fish independently. And so we did!

I hadn’t experienced anything like summer steelhead, though springers had worked me over right before those little beauties came into my life. The babes would let me know, as if the fish hadn’t already: “Mom! You lost the fish!” They were right; I did lose fish. Death rolls snapping my leaders at the bank; spit riggings after one too many leaps out of the river; trying to figure out how to land them solo; touching them for a split second just to have them say, “Try harder, Sara!” One after the other, I lost more fish than I landed.

But in that summer I started believing in myself, just as my babes did. And by the end of that run. I was fighting and landing those beautiful fish, babes in tow and with not another soul in sight! I felt I didn’t truly know enough to guide Nate, but the times, they are a changing, and my son now fishes strong!

MY BOY LOVES it, and I feel my time on the river is paying off. He has that true, hardcore, travel-across-the-state, wait-on-the-sunlight, semifrozen-bodied, thrilled-with-anticipation, 45-minutes’-worth-of-sleep passion it takes to get after these fish. He has a love for nature, and total respect for the rivers and what lies beneath them. It’s an honor and a privilege to be sharing my greatest passion with him. To feel he loves it as much as I do makes it that much sweeter as I watch his skills grow. Since winter 2014 he has landed four winter-run steelhead and two summers, as well as countless trout and bass. This past spring, we experienced surf perch as a family, and that boy outfished us all! When I think about the journeys and adventures that lie ahead of us, well, that is surely something for this “Reel Mom” to smile about!

My daughter Ava fought her first steelhead with me at the age of four this past winter. It was a beautiful wild hen, just like her mom’s first fish, and just like her brother’s. Though she was screaming at the hen’s strength with each run she made, unsure as to what she thought of it all, she did amazingly well.

The past two summers, as the steelhead bite turns off, I tone it down some, focusing on positive time with the babes, and we’ve fished for bass. Ava said she would like to cast when typically she just fights them. Her ability blew my mind! With only a small amount of direction she stepped up to the bank and not only cast, but hooked, fought, landed, unhooked and released a good majority of the 30 fish she caught. She has always been a trooper, but I could see the joy of fishing in everything she did that evening. And just like that, I get to hear those sweetest words from my baby girl: “Mom, take me fishing!”

I am a believer in fate. I believe both motherhood and fishing the rivers were chosen for me and presented into my life at exactly the right time. Every angle of the sport helps me. It drives me to try harder. Learn more. Share more. Show my children that anything is possible if you truly want it. Being their mom and being able to pursue the fish brings a true joy in my daily life and you cannot put a price tag on that.

SINCE THE DAY I met Barbara in January 2013, I have independently tended to my own riggings, gear, bait and rods. Though my first fish was out of a boat and the set-up not my own, that was my one and only. Over the last three runs I have landed 48 big fish off of river banks. I have dabbled over the bar of the Pacific rockfishing, and was blessed to experience tuna last August. What a massive and amazing thing the ocean is! But the rivers are my heaven on earth, from the waters 173 miles up my river targeting the ever-temperamental spring salmon, to the mouths chasing after fall fish, to the small coastal streams that have changed my entire perspective on winter. I find myself constantly dreaming of winter and the drop that will cram-pack those amazing streams full of my favorite fish of all, steelhead! So majestic, beautiful, full of fire and will. In the cold of winter and the heat of summer, they keep their fire. Steelhead stole my heart and they feed my soul. Chasing them fulfills a part of me that nothing else compares to.

Through true desire and want I’ve become a Reel Mom, a true fisher, and I am proud of that. Hearing my children say their mom is the best fisherlady in the world warms my heart beyond measure.

Fishing the rivers allows me to be a better woman and a better mom. I can step away from the bank feeling at peace and thankful for my time on the water, ready to take on the day and whatever might come my way. Fishing is the first thing I have ever done solely for me, but as it continues to unfold, I realize this isn’t just for me. I am meant to share this passion and my photography with others – my children, my husband, my niece, my friends, anglers and other women out there who might be a little scared to get to the bank on their own. So if I can inspire other women to follow their dreams, no matter the dream, then that is awesome. I feel a true sense of happiness that comes from pursuing and catching the fish, so my advice to every man, woman and child alike is, if you have the desire to pursue something, pursue it! Go outside your comfort zone, explore a new side of you, be willing to learn, give yourself the chance to see what you are made of. Chances are you just might surprise yourself.

The journey that lies ahead is a mystery, but I like that! I am thankful to be who I am, embracing my life on the rivers with my children. I have found my calling. My heart is on the river, and I couldn’t change it, even if I tried.

Editor’s note: For more on Sara’s adventures, see For The Love Of The Tug on Facebook.

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