This is a fish story. Actually, it’s a fish story possibly eclipsed by a meatball sandwich and a chocolate milkshake. Oh, and there may or may not be any fish in this fish story.

I recently visited Portland to attend a dog show with my wife. We made the 20-plus-hour road trip from Denver with our two large Bernese Mountain dogs happily wedged in the backseat of our Volvo station wagon. My wife (and the dogs) allowed me a portion of the cargo space to stow my fly-fishing gear. One does not drive more than 1,200 miles to a place like Oregon without bringing one’s fishing gear.

Upon settling into our accommodations in a north Portland hotel on the banks of the Columbia River, I had to figure out two things: when and where was I going to fish. After some back and forth with my friend Kevin, a Portland resident, he convinced me I needed to chase the elusive steelhead.

Kevin loaned me his 8 wt. rod and reel (if by chance I hooked a steelhead with my 5 wt. rod, it would not be pretty) and a box of flies. He printed for me a Google satellite map with three spots pinpointed on the Wilson River adjacent to the Wilson River Highway on the way to Tillamook. (Note: Per Kevin’s request, this map has since been destroyed.)

The day before hitting the river, I needed to pick up a fishing license. While there are plenty of places to purchase a license in Portland, I strongly suggest a trip to Andy and Bax. Andy and Bax is the quintessential military surplus/outdoor gear retailer, complete with its peculiar mix of gas masks, hand grenades and thermal underwear. The staff is friendly and the inventory is mind-altering, but what really sold me was the store’s close proximity to Bunk Sandwiches.

At Bunk, I encountered the aforementioned meatball sandwich – or Meatball Parmigiano Hero, as it’s called. Let it be known, the people at Bunk are not messing around. I walked in the door right at 11 a.m. (lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., breakfast is served all day) and a young woman was teetering atop a chair, updating the chalkboard menu. With an intriguing sandwich selection that includes things like salt cod with chorizo and black olives, porchetta with fennel onions and olives, and Oregon albacore tuna with balsamic and olive oil, deciding could have been a challenge. Fortuitously, one of the owners working the line was putting the finishing touches on a meatball sandwich and he held it up for my inspection. Sold!

Served simply on brown paper with a handful of crispy kettle chips, it was a thing of beauty. The bread was crusty-soft, the meatballs were delicately-punchy, the sauce was spicy-sweet and the cheese was molten-lava hot. And that’s a good thing. With a sandwich this good, it’d be easy to devour it too quickly. The hot cheese is there to remind you to slow down. By the time I finished and got up to leave, there was a line of people out the door, hungry-eyed and ready for a Bunk experience. I envied all of them.

With meatball memories lingering, I set out the next morning in hopes of finding a steelhead. Traveling south through Portland in the rush-hour fog, I had a smug satisfaction. It was Thursday, I was going fishing, and everyone else was driving to work. Giddy-up.

As I made my way northwest on Highway 26, rolling hills and wineries punctuated the landscape and the fog gave way to blue skies and bright morning sun. From Highway 26, I followed the signs for Tillamook and Lee’s Camp via the Wilson River Highway, or Oregon State Highway 6. It’s a pleasantly meandering road that winds through towering forests of dappled sunlight. This was the Oregon I had hoped to see.

Somewhere past Lee’s Camp Store, which sits right on the highway, I found a pullout with walking access to Wilson River. Kevin asked — okay, he commanded — that I not share exactly where to go, but if you find a spot where the water is crystal clear and the trees line the water, and the wispy clouds linger in the nearby hills, it’s probably the place.

So here’s the truth: I didn’t catch a steelhead that day. I didn’t see any. I didn’t feel a feisty tug on the line. And I didn’t mind a bit. They’re not easy to find, let alone land. Kevin later admitted it’s been over a year since he’s brought a steelhead into his net. Before I walked back to the car, I stood in the Wilson River and took it all in. The fresh Oregon air, the cool water and the blue sky cherished by those fortunate enough to call this place home. A good day fishing isn’t always about the fish.

The story could have happily ended there, but there is still the chocolate milkshake to address. On the road back, I pulled into Coleman’s 9N Shady Rest (55660 NW Wilson River Hwy, Gales Creek), a quaint roadside café advertising cocktails, steaks, shakes and burgers. They have their priorities straight. The menu featured, among other things, a dozen or so specialty burgers, steaks, chile verde and — cue the heavenly harps — milkshakes made with Tillamook ice cream. I ordered a burger and a chocolate shake. The shake was spoon-thick, filled a pint glass and came topped with whipped cream and a bright red cherry. It was glorious. I sat, enjoyed the serenity of a friendly café on a slow Thursday and contemplated the day.

I know I’ll be back for another visit. The promise of steelhead will draw many a fisherman back to Oregon. I’m certain the promise of a really good meatball sandwich and chocolate milkshake will do the same.

Ryan Johnson is an advertising copywriter. He lives with his wife in Denver, Colo. He enjoys fishing, food and spending time with his dogs.

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