Whenever I bring up a highly interesting topic that has little interest to my daughter, she likes to respond, with a heavy dose of teenage sarcasm, “Yeah, but what does that have to do with fly fishing?” Apparently she finds mild amusement in the fact that I tend to talk about fly fishing with some degree of regularity, as if fly fishing is all there is to talk about. She has no interest in my hobby/obsession whatsoever, but I’m hoping that will change as she matures and comes to realize that fly fishing is woven into the fabric of everyday life. My year in review supports my contention that everything has something to do with fly fishing, whether directly or indirectly: You really cannot separate the two. Well, I suppose you can, but why would you want to?
January. As does every year, 2009 began with me adding another digit to my age. Soon after that came the first fishing excursion of the year which entailed a frigid float down the Yakima with Marck and Sir Lancelot. Yes, the ice flows that had choked the river just a few weeks earlier had subsided, but ice still clung to the bank in all places untouched by the sun (which is most of the lower canyon). It was really a silly time to be trout fishing – if I’m going to be that cold and not catching fish, it damn well better be because I’m standing in a steelhead river. Marck caught a real nice rainbow that just happened to be the only fish caught that day. Looking back it was a Yakima River Premonition of things to come: With the exception of one outing much later in the year, the Yakima was not kind to me in 2009. I should learn from this, and avoid the Yakima in 2010. But I won’t.
February. My daughter’s car (or, rather, the car that I allow my daughter to use) was long overdue for some new tires. Having failed the penny test by a long shot, I probably should have gotten them month’s earlier because we had over 2 feet of snow in December 2008 and her car was incapable of gaining any traction during that time. The good side of this is that the car sat safely idle in the garage instead of being stuck in a ditch somewhere because of the false sense of security good tires might have provided a young driver with no snow-driving experience. But the silver lining in all of this is that by procrastinating on the purchase, I was able to take advantage of Free Beef at Les Schwab Tire Centers (BTW, I chose the steaks and they were excellent). This year my Jeep will need new shoes. Luckily we’re having a mild winter with no snow at the time of this writing, so I should be able to hold out until Free Beef month. What does this have to do with fly fishing? Well, Les Schwab started his tire business in Prineville, Oregon in 1952. Prineville is in Central Oregon, and Central Oregon is chock full of tremendous fly fishing waters. More directly pertaining to fly fishing, I ventured out on the Skykomish for the first time with a double-handed rod in February, and the only thing I caught was a heaping portion of humble pie. I quickly learned to embrace and love the Perry Poke – perhaps the single best technique in the arsenal of a noob Spey caster because it allows one to bail out of a botched cast and still save face, maybe. Remember: If you don’t Spey, don’t start.
March. Caught my first wild steelhead on the Sauk River. It was special then, but seems even more special now because the fishing future for wild steelhead looks even more bleak than just 9 short months ago. Returns for hatchery fish to the Skagit River Basin are down this year, and there has already been an emergency closure on one trib of the Skagit. Additional fishing closures to protect wild steelhead also are likely this spring, according the the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. That means this year I probably won’t even get a chance to have a remote chance at a fish like that. We may be looking at more closures on more rivers in the future. That will mean more pressure on rivers that do have decent returns of steelhead, which could spell trouble for those rivers. Domino effect. It’s quite troubling. Something needs to be done on a much larger scale than just closing rivers to sport angling. On another note, my daughter’s birthday is March 6th, but what does that have to do with fly fishing? I could come up with something, but I ask you, the reader, to chime in, for the benefit of my daughter, and suggest pertinence…
April. Spring-like weather before the runoff meant a visit to the Yak with Jimmy and Hal. If it weren’t for this one photo, I’d have no recollection of the day at all. That means there were probably skunkings all around. But, after a long hard winter, the photo suggests a few things: One, it was a beautiful day to get out and throw some line; two, Hal (right) desperately needs a new fishing hat; three, there’s more to fishing than catching fish. Repeat that several times – “There’s more to fishing than catching fish.” You may start to actually believe it.
May. Runoff swelled rivers in the west, and I missed out on the Mother’s Day caddis hatch on the Yak again. Fortunately Memorial Day weekend brings the annual trip to Yellowstone National Park to fish the Firehole River with Marck and whoever else shows up. This past year it was just me and Marck, which resulted in a lopsided competition to see who would catch more fish: It resembled a slam dunk contest between Michael Jordan and Danny DeVito. While we don’t really compete to see who catches more fish, one can’t help but compare (a form of masochism on my part). This year, to change things up and make the long drive home more interesting, we fished the Madison River below Quake Lake. Water was high and dirty, but one of us managed to catch a lot of fish. It wasn’t me. Gave me some ideas that I thought I might someday use in a blog about fly fishing.
June. This was the second month of runoff and raging rivers. If you’re a lake fisherman, you have that to fall back on. If you’re not, you must find other ways to bide your time. One option might be to peddle books at a small town festival, and that’s just what I did. If you missed me at Duvall Days, and I’m confident that nearly all of you did, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of each of my books featuring Olive the Little Woolly Bugger. Ask for them at your local fly shop or bookstore – if they don’t stock them they should. Regardless, they can get them through their distributor. Or you can get ’em online at Amazon or many other virtual outlets. I guarantee you’ll be hooked on Olive!
July. My favorite month of the year, and this year was the second trip I made to fish the St. Joe River in Idaho. There’s no point in arguing – this is God’s country. So when the fish aren’t biting or even when they are, one should occasionally look up from the water and take it all in. You might, for a fleeting moment or two, forget that you’re there to fish. The water level was absolutely perfect and wading from run to run made for a lot of time with a fly on the water. This year Jimmy and Marck joined me, and while Jimmy and I caught enough fish to keep it interesting, Marck’s catch rate was ridiculous. I’m never taking him back there with me again. Ever. Thought some more about maybe starting a blog related to fly fishing.
August. We usually get one hot week per summer where the temps get into the 90’s. It’s a mild inconvenience that we could live with, and we always managed to survive in the years before we had a cooling system. However, this year after enduring a week of record-breaking temperatures (it reached 107 at our house), we finally decided it was time to fix our heat pump. The cooling mode had ceased to function a month or two earlier, and like everything that costs a lot of money, I ignored it for as long as possible, hoping the problem would just go away. When it didn’t fix itself, and repairing it was declared to be not a viable option, we had to spring for a new one. What does that have to do with fly fishing? Well, I could have bought a lot of fishing gear and even a nice Bonefish trip for the cost. But I’ll admit, there’s no price for happiness, and when Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler is happy, I’m happy. We also took a family vacation to Sunriver, Oregon. It was not a fishing vacation, but somehow a couple rods made their way into the luggage pod. My son, Schpanky, and I managed to steal away for an afternoon on the Fall River, which is a spring creek in central Oregon (not terribly far from the Les Schwab epicenter). If you’ve ever fished a spring creek you know that equates to a steady water temperature, which means ample bugs to support a good population of trout, which means the trout can and do get quite large. And they be quite difficult to catch. It was tough casting, and the Fall River kicked our butts and sent us home hot, dusty, mosquito-bitten and downtrodden. I did hook one 14 inch rainbow, but he busted me off before I could say, “This is a stupid river and I’m never coming back here again. Ever.” Once again I gave some more thought to maybe starting a blog related to fly fishing.
September. The highlight from this month was fishing a section of the Yakima that I’d never fished before, above the town of Cle Elum. It’s a much different river up there compared to the familiar waters of the lower canyon where I usually fish. The river was low and very wadable, and reports were that salmon were in the system laying eggs. The trout were following the salmon. And the fishermen were following the trout – at least Marck and I were. It was a beautiful afternoon until the wind started blowing so hard that casting became nearly impossible. As if the wind weren’t bad enough I was facing a horrible skunk. The Yak had yielded goose eggs for me the past two trips, and now this. It did not look good, and in fact vultures were even circling overhead (you can just make them out in the photo on the left). As it turns out, while I worked my way downstream, fishing hard, trying a wide variety of different patterns and covering lots of water before managing to scratch out a 10 inch rainbow right as the light was fading, Marck had stayed in one spot for 2 hours, using the same fly, without moving an inch. When you’re catching fish on every other cast, why would you move? Started a blog about fly fishing.
October. Ahh, Fall. The beginning of so many good things: Hunting season, for one. But, what does that have to do with fly fishing? Well, this year I skipped my annual muzzleloader elk hunt to go steelhead fishing on the Methow River with my buddy, Large Albacore (not his real nickname), and his kin. I’m a rather unaccomplished hunter, and all things compared, when faced with a choice, I decided I’d rather not catch a fish than not shoot an elk. This was my first time fishing the Methow, and I would bet the same could be said for hundreds of other anglers who all seemed to be there on the same weekend, hoping to cash in on one of the many hundreds of thousands of returning fish that found their way up the Columbia last fall. Fishing was slow, and while we caught a couple fish, it did not come easy. But then steelhead fishing is not supposed to be easy – not like fishing for Pink salmon, which were thick this year. My decision to forgo elk hunting this year turned out to be a wise decision, because I would have ended up spending the night in a vehicle with 3 other cold, wet and grumpy elk hunters who got caught in white-out conditions that prevented them from being able to see the primitive access road that led down the mountain to camp. No elk were harvested, and I am 100% confident my presence would not have changed that. Glad I went fishing instead.
November. The weather starts to really take a turn for the worse around here this time of year, and we usually see at least one big flood, often times more. Nothing substantial happened in that regard this year, so maybe the bazillions of eggs laid in the redds this fall will hatch and produce tons of fish for the future. I fished locally a couple times, hoping for a searrun cutt or maybe a steelhead, but the water was high and off-color each time. The riverbanks were riddled with the remains of what was a big year for the Pinks – I love the smell of rotting fish in the morning. I did make one last trip to the Yak that very nearly ended in Marck’s first skunking. It was the first time in a couple of years that the Yakima actually sent some love my way. The month was topped off with Thanksgiving. So, one might ask, what does that have to do with fly fishing? Well, there is always much to be thankful for: Leftover turkey, for one. Ah, turkey sandwiches: Ate one every day for a week and a half before I was ordered to throw out the remaining carcass because, like house guests who overstay their welcome, it was starting to smell like fish.
December. This was a busy month, and I didn’t have a single opportunity to get out and chase fish. However, I visited a few fly shops for book signing events, and that was a lot of fun. Thanks to Ron and Kristin Torda at All About the Fly, Leland Miyawaki at Orvis Bellevue, and Bill Drewry at Peninsula Outfitters for your generous hospitality. If I couldn’t be outside fishing, it was fun to be inside talking about fishing.
Happy New Year to all you anglers, accomplished and otherwise. May 2010 bring you many great fish and even more great memories. And to my daughter, Miss Smarty Pants: Everything has something to do with fly fishing.
I’m going to go out on a limb and make the general assumption that we all like opening presents on Christmas morning. It’s the kid in all of us that enjoys the surprise of discovering what’s inside that gift wrapped box under the tree, or revealing what special little surprises cause our stockings to swell as they hang by the chimney with care. And even if it’s not what we had hoped for or thought it might be, it’s a surprise nonetheless. As kids, I’m sure we all faced a certain disappointment on Christmas morning at least once because what we had asked Santa for had apparently fallen on deaf ears, like the time a young boy asked for a Billy Blastoff and instead received a new pair of Sears dress slacks (hypothetical scenario only). As we get older, we realize that it’s not what’s inside that counts so much as the thought that goes into it – that’s part of being an adult. And it’s that same sort of rational maturity that allows us to actually believe in sayings such as, “It’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.” Another one comes to mind as well: “There’s more to fishing than just catching fish.”
Fishing is a lot like opening presents because fishing is all about surprises as well. Sure, you might head to a lake known to have just been stocked with trout, but you’re never guaranteed success so catching a fish is a gift. That first cast into a river may or may not result in a hookup (it seldom does in my case), but you keep at it, hoping that the next cast will produce some action. Catching is one thing, but what you catch is another surprise in and of itself. Unless you’re at a fishery that is known to produce one and only one species of fish, what that gift will be simply adds to the surprise factor. You may be fishing for bluegill, but hook up with a fat bass. Rainbow trout might be the intended goal, but you may find an unexpected steelhead on the end of your line (and if you do, good luck with that). Or maybe you’re fishing for cutthroat trout on a mountain stream, but wind up dealing with a bull trout instead (make sure it’s not a Dolly Varden, by the way). There are many possible surprises when you’re fishing, and sometimes that surprise is so glorious that you can’t believe your good fortune. But as it is with material gifts, mature and rational adults are thankful for the gift no matter what it is.
For the most part.
Sometimes, try as we might, that surprise on the end of the line is beyond (or below) our abilities to keep it in proper perspective and appreciate it for what it is: A wild creature perfectly suited for it’s natural environment that, in a moment of poor judgment, actually fell for the imitation food item that we placed in the water for the sole purpose of fooling the fish into accepting our false advertising and engaging us in a bit of sport. It’s called success. A bend in the rod is better than the alternative, right? What could possibly prevent anyone from being pleased with about that?
Well, self-righteousness, for one thing.
It seems that all too often we focus too narrowly on our goal and become blind to the possibility that the fish we catch, while perhaps not what we intended to catch, is worthy of our admiration, respect, and maybe even a hero photo. OK maybe that’s a stretch, but shouldn’t we at least pat ourselves on the back for any successful catch, even if it wasn’t our targeted species? Specifically, you ask, what are we talking about here? Oh, you know – “garbage fish”: Whitefish, suckers, carp, squawfish and the like. If you fish the salt, the list grows to include a whole bunch of maligned by-catch species (dogfish, just to name one).
Who determined that these poor, disrespected species were somehow beneath our approval? Yes, some species are known to feed on juvenile salmonids and others compete for food with the popular fishes on the block, but isn’t that what they’re supposed to do in order to survive? Anglers are like politicians in this regard: Special interests and partisan opinions keep us from being able to objectively see the big picture: Fish are, in the end, fish. The Great Creator of Fish made them all equal, and it was only we high-browed upright walking mammals, with our large brains and opposeable thumbs, who applied a status to the different species (which started by giving them names that sound bad to begin with). Certainly some fish may not make for the best table fare, but if we’re out to practice catch and release, as most fly anglers do, then why not be pleased with an unintended catch? I recall once fishing a section of an Idaho river known as the “Whitefish Hole”. Imagine my surprise (and disappointment) when I actually caught a whitefish there! Looking back, what a snob I was. Sheesh, I’m just sure.
I’ve caught my fair share of whitefish, and a couple squawfish. I’ll readily admit that I’ve been disappointed when I’ve incidentally caught these bottom-shelf species, because I was out to catch a noble gamefish at the time. I thumbed my nose at these disgusting creatures rather than admiring them for what they were: Fish. I even tried, intentionally mind you, to catch some crap- I mean carp, once, but they would have none of it. When those oversized pond guppies wouldn’t show me the love, I judged them immediately for being stupid, worthless, trash fish. As I walked away, I hollared back over my shoulder to the fish, “Yeah, well, I didn’t want to catch you anyway cause you’re…stupid. And ugly!” Reflecting back, as I look forward, I see that this sort of negative attitude puts me into the same camp of doubting Thomases that in other walks of life always see the glass as being half empty: Dwellers of negativity. I strive to be more positive as an angler in the future: To be thankful when I catch something, even if it wasn’t what I was targeting. I mean, with my catch record, who am I to be selective? My new motto is going to be, “There’s more to fishing than just catching what you intended to catch.”
I need the odds in my favor, and if I embrace anything that will hit my fly I’m going to be a lot better off. So no more “garabage fish” for me – from this point forward they will be described as “unexpected treasures”. By embracing this new, positive philosophy I am reducing the amount of inevitable disappointment I’ll encounter as I fish the future.
So, what are you fishing for this Christmas? I hope it’s a good surprise. And if upon initial inspection it appears to be a lump of coal, maybe you can make a diamond out of it.
Merry Fishmuch to you and yourn.
The St. Joe River in Idaho has become one of my favorite places to fish. It’s no Yakima River, mind you, but that’s a good thing. My older brother Hal (not necessarily his real name) and I first fished “The Joe” during the summer of 2008. We’d been talking about taking a fishing trip together for a couple years, and had pondered visiting the Bitterroot River in Montana. The year we were going to go was the same year that half the state of Montana was ablaze in wildfires: If it wasn’t burning, it was being smoked out. We never made it that year, and I figured a fishing trip would become like so many other things in life that never materialize. Maybe next year. Then maybe the year after that. We’d keep talking about it until we’re too old to do anything but talk about it.
During the winter of 2007 Hal forwarded a New York Times article about fishing Idaho’s panhandle. The article suggested that the St. Joe Westslope Cutthroat trout could be easily fooled into taking just about any fly, and that was good enough for me. I needed some stupid catching on some gullible fish and so armed with that information, we booked a 3-day stay with the St. Joe Outfitters. I began putting together a box of highly technical flies especially for this trip: Stimulators, Royal Coachmans/Wulffs, Humpies, and some big Chernobyl stuff. Mostly red, as red was said to be the ticket on the St. Joe. Having only driven through Idaho’s panhandle at 75 mph on previous occasions, I was greatly looking forward to visiting a new area, and enjoying a couple days of easy catching. After recent butt kickings on the Yakima, and another trip to Yellowstone with Marck, my self-confidence needed some coddling. The stupid Westslopes would be just what the doctor ordered.
Hal and I drove from my home in western Washington to St. Regis, Montana the day before we were to meet the St. Joe Outfitters at their base camp operations. From St. Regis it was about an hour drive up the Little Joe Road; a winding, gravel forest service road that climbs to the top of the Gold Pass. Once there, we crossed into Idaho where the road changed over to pavement, and we roller-coasted all the way down to the junction with Red Ives Road. I won’t bore you with the rest of the directions, but suffice it to say it was a beautiful drive the entire way and we saw only one other vehicle, and that was some dude on a dual sport bike who was pulled over to the side of the dirt road wishing he hadn’t because what followed us was a plume of thick Montana dust which quickly engulfed him. Right on schedule, we arrived at the base camp at 10 AM and were greeted by Will Judge. I don’t meet many guys who I can look straight in the eye, but when I shook Will’s hand I did just that. With a welcoming manner about him, Will is a great front man for the operation and I liked him instantly (us vertically challenged guys have a common bond). After introductions had concluded, I made it clear that under no uncertain terms were Hal and I “partners”. One never knows what folks from Idaho think when they meet two dangerously handsome young men from Seattle, and I wanted to set things straight (pun intended) right away. It should also be noted that neither of us are dangerous, handsome or young, and only Hal is from Seattle. With a sigh of relief, Will introduced us to our horses and we set off up the trail. Barbara (Will’s wife and boss) would be expecting us for lunch by 1 pm, and Will was adamant about arriving on time, as if he’d made the mistake of being late for a meal once – and only once – before. He wouldn’t seem fully relaxed until we’d pulled up to the hitching post, right on schedule.
The trail follows the St. Joe for 5 miles, crossing the river six times en route to the St. Joe Lodge. Let me say first off that as proprietors of the St. Joe Outfitters, Barbara and Will have something very unique and incredible – a little slice of heaven nestled in the Bitterroot Mountains. The scenery all around is breathtaking, and the Lodge itself is something to behold.
Situated at the edge of a large meadow, the lodge was originally built in the 1940’s, and has the authentic flavor that only an old log structure can have. Thankfully what you find here is far from a swanky bed and breakfast. It’s rustic to say the least, as the outhouses will attest to: There’s one for the “Bucks” and one for the “Does”. I spent as little time in the Bucks hut as necessary, and only to take care of business – not to spend leisure time with a good fishing magazine as I so enjoy in the comforts of my own home. Curiously, the men’s outhouse has side-by-side seats. Luckily, I had the place all to myself, as the conversation would have been uneasy had another Buck been occupying the seat next to me:
“Mornin’. How’s the fishin’?”
“Great dinner last night, eh?”
Other than the no-frills-but-perfectly-acceptable amenities for lightening one’s load, the rest of the accommodations feel like a home away from home, only with roughened edges. When you gather around the large dining table and enjoy some of the tastiest, stick-to-your-ribsiest food available anywhere, it’s hard to imagine there being any better home than this. Barbara works hard to present the crew and guests with three squares a day and it is my recommendation that if you’re on a diet, plan to throw that silly notion out the window while you’re guests of Barbara and Will. There’s plenty of time to resume your calorie counting after you return home, so eat up and enjoy. Besides, you’ll also burn a lot of calories if you fish hard while you’re there, which we did.
In the afternoon of our first day we didn’t venture far from the encampment: We didn’t need to, as good water is close at hand in all directions. We familiarized ourselves with the lay of the land, and caught some beautiful, modest sized cutties. But it wasn’t a slam dunk like I’d been led to believe, and we each had enough refusals on the first day to conclude that these fish were neither stupid, nor even slightly gullible. Yes, some fish (mostly the smaller ones) would hit a big attractor pattern, but even more would balk and refuse, which made me feel right at home on The Joe. Even when I did manage to fool a fish into taking a purple foam ant, it had to be presented just right – a perfect drift. No drag. Easier said than done on a freestone mountain river with a wide array of current seams.
On our second day Hal and I spiked out to explore and see some more country. A good trail follows the river farther than most would care to follow it, but with the river in sight nearly the entire time, good water beckons at every turn so we didn’t hike more than a couple miles. Plus, my brother is no spring chicken so I didn’t want to wear him out by leading him on a forced march up the trail unnecessarily (I’m gonna catch Hell for that statement). The Joe was running higher than average for this time of year due to a heavy winter snowpack and a long, cool spring, so some of the best water was difficult or not possible to reach. But I like a challenge, which is a good thing, because there is never a shortage of challenges whenever I fish. While struggling to entice a fish with my Stimulator, I had noticed the occasional hatch of small, tan-colored mayflies, and dug through my fly box to find a match, which I didn’t have. I tried close approximations, but the PMD’s and Light Cahills were too light; the Adams too dark. These hatches were not epic events, but when they came off, the fish wanted nothing else, and it had to be perfect. I was not prepared for this sort of encounter. This was an outrage – the St. Joe fish were supposed to be stupid! I thought about running back to the Lodge and demanding my money back, but Hal, always the voice of reason, talked me out of it. I think his exact words may have been, “Shut up and fish.”
As I said, when these little mayflies were hatching in the late afternoon/early evenings, the fish – particularly the bigger fish that taunted me – would look at nothing else. Well, that’s not true. One big fish kept coming up from in front of his rock as my Adams drifted by, only to look judgingly at it, roll his eyes and then make a “pppffffttt” sound before disappearing again. I felt so helpless, and when I trudged into camp for supper that night, my slump-shouldered, pouty lower-lipped body language must have been a telltale indicator of my frustration. I shared the day’s events with the other guests in camp, one of whom was a guide that was accompanying some other guests. When I mentioned the little tan mayfly hatch, the guide raised an eyebrow and smirked in the way that only “One Who Knows” would smirk. He leaned over toward me as if he was going to whisper the key to success for only me to hear. Instead he asked me to pass the mashed potatoes.
That night I dreamed of the secret weapon needed to fool these fish. My dream was more of a premonition, as the next morning after awakening to banjo music (seriously) I was presented with a gift that would change my luck. The guide handed me 3 tan-bodied Sparkle Duns, size 16. Bingo. He also told me to go to 6x tippet. I’d already been fishing 5x, and I shuddered at the thought. But this was our last full day of fishing, and I did as I was instructed in hopes of maximizing the enjoyment as pertaining to catching fish. The fishing had been stellar, but I was consumed by the desire to outwit a big fish. With my secret weapon and spider web-thin tippet, I sought out a run that had previously revealed the presence of at least a couple nice, but uncooperative fish. And so I fished, and I waited for the hatch to start. And it did, and while my hookup rate increased notably, the solution was not without it’s own challenges. As anyone who has fished 6x knows, playing a solid fish in a strong current on fine tippet requires finesse. And anyone who has fished with the Unaccomplished Angler knows that finesse is not one of his virtues. I did land a couple respectable fish that afternoon, but there was also some carnage. Luckily I’d been gifted with 3 of these magical flies, because I lost two of them on a couple of very nice, fat 15 inch fish. The third and last fly nearly landed my best fish of the trip- an honest 17 incher that finally accepted my offering after an hour of ineffective presentations.
I’d observed this particular fish lying just below a large rock on the far edge of the river. Every so often he would casually rise to sip a bug, then vanish back to his hold. If a bug was 3 inches too far out of his zone, the lazy ingrate wouldn’t even give it a sideways glance. He wanted it his way, and there was no negotiating. The challenge was that with the high water there were 3 different current seams to cross before getting to his haunt, and even with the best mending of the line, my fly might get 3 seconds of natural drift before being ripped away by the current. I thought I heard laughter each time I attempted this seemingly impossible feat, and looked over my shoulder to see who was so amused. But I was ¾ of a mile from the Lodge, and nobody else was fishing anywhere nearby. Rather than admit that I was getting loopy, I concluded that it was the fish who was laughing. With the clock ticking, and dinner scheduled to be served in less than an hour, and the fact that we packed out in the morning, the pressure was on. I had one more shot at this beast. I adjusted my Lucky Fishing Hat, cracked my knuckles and gave one last cast. Uncharacteristically, everything felt just right: The cast was spot-on; the mend better than could have been expected. My fly had just enough time to drift right into the feeding lane, and the fish was mine! I played the fish in a manner that defied my true angling skills: I got the fish on the reel quickly and gently gave him line when called for to protect the 6x while steering him clear of the rocks that he so badly sought to wrap himself around. Things were going my way, and for one brief moment in time I felt like the The King of the World – an accomplished angler! However, two paragraphs above where you’re now reading you will notice that I made reference to nearly landing this fish. “Nearly” is the key word. I played the fish close, but didn’t want to drag it across the rocks so left it resting in shallow water a couple of arms lengths away. Right as I reached for my camera to snap a photo of this 17 inch beauty, he gave one last desperate shake of his head, spit the hook right at my feet, and dashed off toward his rock. Luckily I still had the fly. I looked first at my watch, then across the river toward the rock that held the fish, and contemplated making just…one…more…cast…But sound judgment prevailed this time – I did not want to be late for Barbara’s fixin’s (I’m no fool). Besides, those stupid Idaho Cutties were so easy to catch—what would have been the point?
Oh, and I got chased by a moose, but that’s a story for another time.
Pot or kettle? Tomay-to or tomah-to? Dolly Varden or bull trout? I mean, what’s the deal – they’re the same, right? I hear people refer to Dolly Varden and bull trout as the same fish, using the names interchangeably without losing an ounce of sleep over the matter. Then I hear of others who will not stand for such a gross and inaccurate generalization. This second group of enlightened folk point to conclusive evidence that the two fish are genetically unique and therefore separate species. With science behind the separate classifications I don’t know that it can be called a debate, but there is certainly enough confusion as to what the differences are that it’s worth looking into.
Let’s examine some similarities: First, they’re both fish. Next, they’re both of the family Salmonidae, which includes salmon, trout, chars and some other stuff. They are referred to as bull trout and Dolly Varden trout. This is where the confusion begins, as neither are actually trout but rather char (remember kids, trout have a light background with dark spots; char have a dark background with light spots). Until 1980 they were classified as the same species: Salvelinus confluentus. After that the Dolly Varden acquired it’s own separate identity and became known as Salvelinus malma.
According to Wikipedia – the authority on fish biology, period – the bull trout “is native to the cold, clear waters of the high mountains and coastal rivers of northwestern North America. Like other species of char, the fins of bull trout have white leading edges. Its head and mouth are unusually large for salmonids, giving it its name…bull trout are an indicator species…Bull trout reproduction requires cold water and very low amounts of silt, both of which are negatively impacted by road building and logging. Additionally, the bull trout’s need to migrate throughout river systems may be hindered by impassible fish barriers such as dams.” It also points out that the bull trout is listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered species Act.
As pertaining to the Dolly Varden, Wikipedia has this to say: “…is found in coastal waters of the North Pacific from Puget Sound to the Lask Peninsula and into the eastern Aleutians, along the Bering Sea and Arctic Sea to the Mackenzie River.”
Good to know.
At this point we start to see at least a somewhat clear distinction based on the fact that Dolly Varden seem to be more coastal-ish dwellers and are not found as far inland as the bull trout (Idaho and Montana). However, they do have overlapping ranges and similar appearances, so the confusion continues to grow for those who fish in one of those overlapping ranges, such as Washington state (from where I hail). From the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, which is known for publishing regulations that require a PhD in Navigation and Deciphering: “Bull trout and Dolly Varden look very similar…both have small, pale yellow to crimson spots on a darker background…(blah blah blah)…compared to the Dolly Varden, bull trout are larger on average with a relatively longer and broader head. In Washington, both species are present in the Puget Sound area.” Read that again: Larger on average. Which leaves room to assume that one could catch a large Dolly Varden that is bigger than a small bull trout. And what of the “relatively longer and broader head”? Relative to what–each other, or relative to the size of fish that are bestowed with a much smaller head?
Uh…OK. I am not completely bull trout-headed and I accept that they are separate species: Separate species that have overlapping ranges and look so much alike that the average accomplished angler wouldn’t know the difference, especially if that person had never previously caught either clearly distinct and separate species. I read elsewhere that “bull trout and Dolly Varden were confused by anglers and biologists until 1978…” Wait a minute – I thought it was 1980? And who says the confusion ended then (in either 1978 or 1980)? It’s 2009, and after either 31 or 29 years the confusion still abounds. In fact I think I’m more confused now than I was before I started compiling this data. And I doubt I’m alone in my befuddlement.
So widespread is this confusing issue that one can easily imagine the streamside conversation between two fishing persons: One who has just successfully caught a magnificent fish bearing small, pale yellow to crimson spots with a dark background in a cold, clear river that is tributary to a body of salt water; the other, a doubting, resentful and fishless angler:
“Yee, HAW!!! Just done caught me a BULL trout!”
“I beg your pardon? You, sir, are errant in your ways on two fronts: Foremost, that is no trout; bull or otherwise. Clearly it is a Dolly Varden, and your feeble command of the English language abhors me.”
“You beg my Parton? It’s a Dolly? Oh, I git it – yer referrin’ to the nice pectoral fins on this here bull trout! Heh heh. That’s a goodun!”
So there we have it. They are in fact separate species. Referring to both as “bull trout” is inaccurate and displays a lazy ignorance. So if you’re fishing in an area known to support both species, study up. Know the difference. If you catch a Dolly, call it what it is: It is not a bull trout.
In case you were wondering, I’m no biologist so I honestly can’t tell you the difference between a Dolly or a bull by looking at them. And in the event that anyone ever asks me if I’ve ever caught one or the other, I was previously prepared to say yes because I’ve caught one of each. Or so I thought. I caught one on Rock Creek in Montana, so let’s reference that fish as a bull trout. The other one was caught on the Skykomish River, which is in the Puget Sound region, which therefore lies within the range of both species. I was told by the experienced angler who was correcting my casting flaws at the time I caught this fish that it was a Dolly. But now I am beginning to question the accuracy of that, and think perhaps the Skykomish fish may have been a bull trout. It’s safe to assume that they weren’t both Dolly Vardens because those fish are definitely not found in Montana. I was excited when I caught the Montana fish because it was my first bull. When I caught the Washington fish I was excited because it was either my second bull trout, or my first Dolly. They sure looked the same to me. All I know for certain is that I’m looking forward to the day when I have caught 6 of each: Then I can say I’ve caught six of one – half a dozen of the other.
Clear as mud? Just when I thought I was beginning to grasp the difference and was ready to publish my findings, a discussion on an internet fly fishing forum arose about this very topic. I thought the timing was ironic since I had long before started my research for this blog post – so much for my career as a cutting-edge journalist. The discussion I am referring to only served to further cloud the waters surrounding the matter of the bull trout/Dolly Varden debacle. I learned from this particular forum that the Dolly Varden of Washington (the state – not DC – just to avoid any confusion) are found only in the headwaters of a few mountain streams in the Olympic and Cascade mountains, usually above permanent barriers to the migration of anadromous fish species, and that these fish usually don’t achieve any significant size. Usually, just to be very clear. Another participant in this discussion stated that they had caught several Dolly Varden over 20 inches. In my unaccomplished opinion, 20 inches is not insignificant.This discussion also revealed that the large, anadromous char found in Washington rivers tributary to Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean are bull trout (S. confluentus). This same discussion included one participant who actually called the head of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and was told the following: “The fish in the Sauk and Skagit are bull trout. The only true Dolly Varden that are in the state are in small isolated areas and can not be legally fished for…” If you recall a few paragraphs above here I listed information found on the website of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife that is contradictory to what the head of Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife said about bull trout/Dolly Varden. Suffice it to say I am now officially confused, as I am sure you are as well. And for good reason, because even the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife can’t seem to agree on a clear difference in regional distribution between the two fish. So apparently, if one believes what one reads, I may have caught two bull trout and not a single Dolly Varden. Goll durnit – just when I thought I’d done something interesting and noteworthy! Oh well, it’s more fitting this way, what with me being The Unaccomplished Angler and all.
In conclusion on the matter of bull trout vs. Dolly Varden, I recommend you disregard everything I’ve written and just go fish. If you happen to catch something that looks like the fish in these photos, marvel in it’s beauty, handle it gently and release it back into the water quickly: It’s a native char of some sort.
(I’ve been accused – mostly by Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler – of having a tendency, as it were, to employ the excessive use of run-on sentences in my writing, and so to that end I have decided to try something different: To change my ways – please bear with me.)
We pulled up to the gravel bar. We anchored the boat. It was a cool gray (or grey) February morning on the Sauk River. We were just downriver a short ways from Government Bridge. It was probably raining lightly. I’d never been on the Sauk before. I was in the capable hands of Brian Paige. Brian guides on Pacific Northwest “S” rivers. These include rivers such as the Skagit, Sauk, and Skykomish. I don’t think he’s quite gotten the Sammamish Slough dialed in just yet. He may be working it (insert sarcasm here).
(OK, that’s not working for me, but I tried, and it’s always good to try something new, if only to determine that the old ways were, in fact, better. Or at least more effective.)
When he’s not guiding, scouting or fishing for his own peace of mind, Brian can be found doing time behind the counter at All About The Fly in Monroe, WA. Actually, “doing time” might be a poor choice of words because there’s also a state prison in Monroe, and as far as I can tell, Brian is free to come and go as he pleases. Anyhoo, I’d met Brian the year before when a mutual friend (I’ll call him William Fly – not his real name) introduced us. We stood to mutually benefit from the introduction: Brian needed a logo designed for his guide business, Steelhead Fly Anglers, and I was a freelance graphic designer (still am) interested in learning the ways of the two-handed rod (still interested). Over lunch and a beer it was decided that I’d design him a logo in exchange for some time on the water slinging a two-hander. Good trade for both of us, although I’m reasonably sure I got the better end of the deal: Brian was easy to work with, while conversely I think I tested his patience. The month was January when Brian first got me out on the Skykomish River for a day of casting instruction (and the distant hope of a hookup with a winter fish). I’d fished for steelhead enough times with my 8 weight single hander to know that catching was the exception to the rule, and to that end I was not disappointed on this first day out with Brian. The chance encounter with a fish didn’t happen, but l learned more in a day about steelhead, fly presentation and Spey casting than I could have learned in a lifetime of reading books and articles or watching DVDs. I feel compelled to note that I did purchase a copy of Rio’s Modern Spey Casting DVD and have found it to be excellent (I watch it whenever I want to see how it should be done). I also discovered on this first outing that swinging the long rod was an awful lot of fun (and served up with a heaping portion of humble pie). It was obviously going to take me a long while to get used to it, and the fact that I felt reasonably proficient with a normal fly rod didn’t mean squat (see prior post: If you don’t Spey, don’t start)
And so a few weeks later I found myself on the banks of the Sauk River with still very little idea as to what I was doing with this long rod gripped tightly with both hands (and therein lies part of the problem – I need to learn to relax and loosen my grip a bit). I was properly rigged with a red and black marabou streamer provided courtesy of Brian (when you fish with Brian, black and red is the go-to combination, with the exception of course being red and black). “Start fishing about 60 feet below the boat, and fish close to shore first,” instructed Brian as we stepped onto the gravel bar. I did as I was told, which worked well for me because I really wasn’t capable of more than a short cast anyway. “Cover the tight water first.” Roger that. The plan was for me to molest the run first and Brian would drop in behind me and pick my pocket. I peeled the length of the Compact Skagit head from the reel, and laid out a very unimpressive switch Spey. I gave it a quick mend and let the fly swing in the current of the reasonably clear waters. It should be noted that the Sauk clouds quickly and easily after a rain, but we hit it on a day when the water was nicely colored with a few feet of visibility. As the fly settled into the “hang down” I pondered how the day might turn out. Word on the street was that it hadn’t been a particularly productive winter steelhead season to date, and these fish were hard to catch regardless. Add to the equation the fact that I was a hack (still am), I stood very little chance and held out virtually no hope of catching a fish. No matter, I was here to practice casting and there would be plenty of that. It was all good. There’s more to fishing than catch– well, you know the drill.
Standing knee-deep not 10 feet from the water’s edge, the tip of my rod dipped gently and I felt a bit of tension in the line. Naturally I assumed that my fly had hung up on a rock, but something felt a little different – I’d hung up on rocks enough to sense that this was no rock. Maybe a stick, instead. Remaining uncharacteristically calm, I laid the tip of my rod toward shore and that’s when it became clear to me that there was a fish on the other end. I forget precisely the exchange of wordsthat passed between us, but I seem to recall Brian saying something about “FISH!!!” I jumped to the assumption that it was a Dolly Varden – common to these waters – until the fish rolled near the surface and presented a dark, olive-colored backside and a flash of silver flank. “Steelhead!” declared Brian. He was certainly enthusiastic, whereas I remained seemingly calm, in much the same way that a deer in the headlights appears calm (when in all actuality they’re so scared they simply can’t move to save themselves). Sensing the significance of the moment, I pumped myself up with a good pep talk: “Alright, Jackass – do not lose this fish – given your fishing prowess you’ll likely never get another chance like this.” With me, fishing is nearly always about the ill-fated pursuit of elusive fish: I wade often in the shadow of a dark cloud of fishless despair. But as I began playing the fish the clouds parted, figuratively and literally.
I entered into what seemed in retrospect to be something of a dream state: A dream in which a dime bright wild steelhead, still oozing with salt and harboring sea lice, comes to the stark realization that it’s hooked and immediately freaks out and does it’s very best to put maximum distance between itself and the angler who is also freaking out. The fish takes off downstream, leaping and tail-walking and generally displaying impressive aerobatics. The reel sings and the drag is pushed to its limits. The fish is running as if shot from a cannon and takes the angler deep into their backing: The angler realizes that this is why reels are loaded with a half mile of the stuff – because with a fish like this, the backing is actually needed for more than just filling up the spool and reducing fly line memory. The steelhead angler sprints downstream at breakneck speeds, across ankle-twisting river rocks and wader-shredding fallen trees in an attempt to keep up with the fish. The fish is hell-bent on getting back to the salt and doing so in double time, and if that means dragging a fisherman along for the ride, so be it.
Yeah, well this was not quite how my experience played out. There were no acrobatics or drag-smoking runs, nor did my wading boots see double duty as track shoes. My backing never left the spool, though the fish did take line from the reel at will. Thankfully the drag on the Ross was smooth and proved worthy, and eventually I managed to steer the fish toward the shallows, where Brian was able to tail it and quickly remove the barbless hook. It was a beautiful native hen in the neighborhood of 32 inches and an estimated 14 pounds (these were, by the way, Brian’s estimations and not mine, so if you have an issue with the accuracy, please contact Brian through his website). Chrome bright she was not, but I’d like to think that she hadn’t been in the river for too long. While the fight was perhaps not quite the epic struggle one envisions, I have to give the old girl credit: She bore scars indicative of a close call with a gill net, and she’d likely made a fast run up the Skagit and into the Sauk: Who wouldn’t be a bit tired after all that? She’d beaten the odds in an era when fewer and fewer wild Puget Sound steelhead survive the round trip to the rivers of their birth. As I released her back into the river, a turd-eating grin spread across my face. There would never be another first steelhead – I had lost my innocence. And while I felt just a little bit dirty, I was OK with that.
It should be noted that after the drama of the first cast, the day turned mostly clear and beautiful. Fishing remained exceptional, but catching returned to what would be considered normal. Thanks to Brian for a great day and ruining my life.