Last year at about this same time, me and the Albacore’s ventured to Forks, WA to do a bit of steelhead fishing. We got rained out, and instead of fishing we sat on our asses and watched basketball for 3 days (shoot me now). Here’s a recount.
This year, when it came time to schedule the trip to Forks, I just couldn’t get excited about it (Mrs. UA and I had also already scheduled a trip to Nashville in April to see Schpanky, so my Big Spring Trip was spoken for). I felt a tinge of remorse for taking a pass on the Albacore trip because I do rather enjoy fishing with those boys, so I wished them well. I also figured that, in my absence, they would have a banner year. Steelhead on the swung fly. Many.
Well, I just heard from Large Albacore, and they didn’t touch a single fish. Not only that, they didn’t fish at all—the trip was a bust this year. The difference this year is that they determined it would be a rain-out before even making the trip: a pre-emptive strike, if you will. We should have made that same call last year, but as Large Albacore said this year, “I’m slow, but eventually I catch on.”
I must admit that I’m not surprised. It’s a dicey proposition to encounter favorable conditions in Forks this time of year, any year. Given that western Washington has had one of the wettest, coldest winters on record, and Forks is the wettest that the Pacific Northwet has to offer, the writing was on the wall.
So, as far as I can tell, the best way to not go fishing is to just stay home. It’s considerably cheaper than the cost of gas, ferry crossings, motel and food for 3-4 days, all to not go fishing. And by staying home I can control what’s on the television, and it’s not basketball.
Madness, I say.
This has been one of those winters that beats a person down and has them thinking about moving to Arizona and taking up outdoor shuffleboard.
I just realized the last post on the blog was way back on November 1st, 2016—last year.
That could mean one of a few things:
- I’ve been fishing a lot: I’ve been catching many winter steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, traveling to Patagonia (it’s summer there) to chase sea run brown trouts, and am currently in the tropics fishing for tropical species and drinking fruity drinks on the sandy beaches. I’m just not
rubbing it in your faceswriting about it.
- I spent the last two months in jail and was just released.
- I have recently entered the Witness Protection Program and am keeping a low profile.
- Who cares, really?
- Insert your own reason for my absence
The Sauk River is one of three major tributaries of the once-fabled steelhead river, the Skagit, in North Central Western Washington. I’ve only fished the Sauk twice: the First Time in April 2009, during what was—unknowingly at the time—the last catch and release steelhead season before the WDFW closed that season down. The second time I fished the Sauk was when I dressed as a fisherman for Halloween 2016.
In 2009 (when it was still socially acceptable to wear a fishing vest) I was a greenhorn Spey rodder, and on my first cast of the day, dumb luck struck and I landed my first wild steelhead on the swung fly. I’m glad I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be a long time after that day when I would land my next wild steelhead on the swung fly.
But let’s not dwell on the past, shall we? Jumping ahead to 2016, while no longer a greenhorn to the two handed rod, I am not a significantly better caster: ‘functionally adequate’ is how I describe my Spey casting prowess.
Late October is a bit early for western Washington winter steelhead, and while there may be a few early returning fish in the system, it’s not likely that they’ll be enticed to the swung fly. This time of year it was all about bull trout, or as some mistakenly call them, dolly varden. The difference between a bull trout and a dolly is fairly simple to explain, which I’ve done HERE in the past if you’re so inclined. At any rate, my friend Bob Margulis invited me to join him for what is one of his favorite times of year to fish the Sauk, when one stands a chance at a rather mixed bag of finned quarry: salmon, steelhead, sea run cutthroat trout, and/or bull trout. The bull trout have, at this time of year, recently concluded their annual spawn, during which they migrate from the main river up smaller tributaries. Once they’ve spawned they are spent, and hungry, and they move back down to the main river in search of
a cigarette food.
As a very light, sporadic rain fell, we dropped into a run below a well known bridge and Bob set me up at the lower end of a run while he worked through to the top section. The Sauk was running a bit high due to recent (and current) rains, but not unreasonably so. There was a glacial green tinge to the river and visibility wasn’t horrible. In other words, the river was fishable. We observed a couple of chum salmon spawning in the gravel of an inside channel—a hen raking the gravel, creating a redd into which she was laying her eggs. A male moved in behind her to do his part. Cutthroat and bull trout would eventually move in later to snatch eggs from the redd, and eagles would eventually feed on the chum carcasses. Interconnected, the circle of life becomes quite evident during this time of year on Pacific Northwest rivers.
But I digress.
I laid out the first cast with my Spey rod—rigged with with a Compact Skagit head and type III sink tip—joined to a fluffy white streamer that, for lack of the actual pattern name, would best be described as “bull trout candy.” Just before the fly swung into the hang down, there was some resistance on the line. Naturally I assumed I’d hung up on a rock, but when the rock began shaking its head I changed my mind. There ensued no drag-screaming runs nor acrobatic displays, but the fish did communicate its displeasure and pulled with determination. After a short fight I landed what was a rather nice bull trout—somewhere in the 26-28″ range—certainly my largest to date. As Bob mentioned, “Where there’s one there’s more,” so after releasing the
dolly bull trout native char I continued fishing the run with the hope of finding another fish. Apparently that was the only willing participant in the run as neither Bob nor I touched another fish. We moved upriver, above the well known bridge, to try our luck on a new piece of water.
The rain began to fall in greater abundance as we situated ourselves on the next run. In my estimation, winter steelheading weather is wet and cold—a miserable combination that keeps most anglers inside by the fire reading about summer trout fishing. As the rain increased it certainly looked like winter steelheading weather despite that with temps in the low 50’s it was far too warm to be considered true winter steelheading weather (my hands weren’t even numb).
And that was fine, because we were fishing for bull trout. And I landed two more. These were considerably smaller than the first fish, each stretching the tape at about 18 inches. Despite their diminutive stature, they were game little fighters, one in particular was full of enough piss and vinegar that it jumped twice in protest. That would conclude the catching for the day, and in case you naysayers are screaming in outrage that my success is anything but an unaccomplishment, bear in mind that the day was not without unaccomplished incident: I had left home at 6:40 AM to meet Bob at 8 o’clock. I got 12 minutes from home when I realized I had left my waders back home in the garage. Fortunately I remembered before getting too far up the road. Wet wading would not have been a pleasant endeavor, despite that it wasn’t miserable enough to be considered winter steelheading weather.
Given that this is an election year, this seems appropriate to leave you with this:
Way back in 2011 I went to great lengths to compile a list of the Top Six Stupidest Fly Fishing Cars. I’m confident that my list saved many a reader from making a regrettable purchase. Since then I’ve been giving the matter some more thought, and because there is a whole new generation of cars available, I feel it’s my responsibility to once again be an advocate for the fly fishing consumer.
But Forbes beat me to it, more or less, with their list of 15 New Cars To Avoid.
Their impressive list of unimpressive cars doesn’t specify that these cars would be particularly stupid for fly fishing, but it’s a safe assumption that what’s bad for the gander (everyone) is also bad for the goose (fly angling types). So, there’s no point in me reinventing the stupid wheel since Forbes did it already, but I’ll simply add my brief commentary here:
- BMW 7 Series. While not particularly ugly, one would feel rather out of place pulling into Twin Bridges, MT driving one of these. $80+K buys a lot of something else. And I doubt you can order one with a tow package.
- Cadillac XTS. If you’re going to drive a Cadillac to go fishing, it better have massive fins and be 20 feet long and weigh 4000 lbs. And it should be a convertible.
- Dodge Journey. Forbes says “Dodge’s 7 passenger crossover SUV is long overdue for a redesign…” Long overdue? That means they’ve been out for a while. Never even heard of these. Looks like a station wagon to me.
- Fiat 500L. I remember Fiat for it’s unreliable little boxy cars back in the 70’s (FIAT was a popular acronym before acronyms were popular). Then it seems, Fiat disappeared for decades. Now it appears they’re back, unfortunately.
- Jeep Compass. Not surprising to hear that Jeep gets low marks for reliability—just about every Jeep I’ve owned was plagued with problems, except my 2000 Cherokee, which was pretty much bullet proof. I should have kept it.
- Jeep Patriot. OK, I can confirm that this is a horrible vehicle. We rented one in Nashville last summer, and it was dangerous to drive due to being so horribly underpowered that it couldn’t get out of its own way. Seriously—I pressed the gas pedal to the floor. The diminutive little motor would cry out defiantly but the vehicle would not move. It was as if it had square tires.
- Jeep Wrangler. Well, Jeep is really racking up the points, aren’t they? Still, the Wrangler is quite popular. I guess, with its relatively spartan appointments and boxy sheetmetal that isn’t horribly removed from the days of the CJ, people are attracted to the Wrangler because there’s nothing else out there even remotely like it. (Hint: Hey Ford—bring back the Early Bronco in some form, eh?)
- Lincoln MKS. Not sure why Ford even keeps the Lincoln division around any more.
- Lincoln MKT. See previous comment.
- Mitsubishi iMiEV. What? LOL!
- Mitsubishi Mirage. The definition of ‘mirage’ is, “Something that appears real or possible but is not in fact so.” I wish that were the case with this eyesore.
- Nissan Armada. I’ve long thought that Nissan was making some of the ugliest vehicles the past few years. Turns out they’re not only ugly, but unreliable.
- Nissan Titan. By far the ugliest of all pickups currently offered up in the marketplace, and apparently one of the worst, too.
- Scion iQ. Huh?
- Smart ForTwo. The Smart car was on my list of Top Six Stupidest Fly Fishing Cars. Good to see it’s still getting the attention it deserves.
Thanks to Forbes for
stealing my thunder doing the legwork so I didn’t have to.
Forecasting the weather is not completely unlike forecasting whether or not one is going to catch a steelhead when one goes steelhead fishing: neither is a certainty. The difference is that predicting the weather is a whole lot less accurate, because based on my experience it’s safe to assume that when I go steelhead fishing I am not going to catch a steelhead, and I am seldom wrong in that prediction.
Despite the fact that the weather forecasters were calling for the biggest windstorm to hit the Pacific Northwest since the great Columbus Day Storm of 1962, I packed up my gear and headed east for a couple days of steelhead fishing on Idaho’s Clearwater River. I have to admit that I felt a tad bit of remorse leaving I left Mrs. UA behind to fend for herself during what was sure to be a catastrophic weather event. However, before I left I did get the generator ready to go with plenty of fuel and instructions on how to use it. She would be, in her words, “FINE.”
It was raining steadily when I departed on Thursday morning. The rain increased as I headed east over Snoqualmie Pass, lightened up as I neared Cle Elum, then picked up again and maintained a steady pace all the way across the state of Washington, down the long grade into the Lewiston-Clarkston valley, and another 40-plus or so miles up the Clearwater to the campground known as Pink House. That’s 352 miles without turning off the windshield wipers. Fortunately I had new wiper blades. And I enjoy road trips, especially when I’m going fishing. Just crank up the music and settle in for the long haul.
The first, and lesser of 2 storms was due to hit western Washington that evening. Friday was a bit of a reprieve before the main storm—the remnants of some damn typhoon in the Pacific that was said to hit the Washington coast Saturday afternoon, with “damaging winds” upwards of 50mph with gusts much higher. The weather forecasters had been talking about this storm for days and things didn’t look very encouraging. My hope was that when—not if—the power was knocked out, Mrs. UA wouldn’t have to endure too long before I returned home. Again, the remorse for having gone fishing gnawed at me, but there was little I could do about it now, other than go fishing.
The Albacore clan had arrived the day before, and Large and Junior were still on the river when I pulled into camp. Their pappy, Papa Albacore, had opted to sit out the afternoon in the comfort of the tent trailer, rather than fishing in the rain that afternoon. When the brothers returned they looked as if they’d been fishing for steelhead in Forks, where it always rains (and seldom gives up fish to the swung fly). I wasn’t surprised to hear that no fish had been encountered that day. As the rain kept a steady beat on the roof of the trailer we enjoyed a delicious supper prepared by Papa, and toasted the fact that tomorrow was a new day.
The next morning we decided that we would take two separate rigs and meet up at the Holy Waters just a couple miles up the road. Under the cloak of darkness, Spey rods were stowed in their
appropriate rod holders and we headed out as a moderately annoying rain continued to fall. When we pulled into the parking area there were two vehicles already there, which meant there was no room at the inn for 4 more anglers. We decided the best thing to do was split up, with each team of 2 fending for themselves in the quest for open water. With that, Junior and Papa pulled out ahead of us and proceeded downstream.
When Large and I arrived at our spot to fish I finally realized that the rod in the holder was not mine, but rather Papa’s. That meant my rod was with the others, so we headed down the road in search of them. We drove for miles without seeing their car, passing up several runs along the way. We were burning daylight and Large Albacore was not happy about the whole matter. When we failed to locate the others we decided the best course of action was to get on the river with what we had, and catch a fish. We pulled into the Gravel Pit, parked the truck and hiked toward the river. Armed with Papa’s rod I waded into the head of a run while Large fished down lower. It took some time getting used to a different rod and line set-up than I was accustomed to, but before too long I was producing adequately functional casts—pretty much what I am capable of, even with my own gear.
Despite that the rain had all but completely ceased, there was no bright sunrise, and thus no need for sunglasses, yet (mine were perched
safely atop my hat for later). At least they were safely perched atop my hat until they became dislodged. When the glasses hit the water directly in front of me I instantly lost sight of them. The current wasn’t fast, so I figured I had a pretty good chance of finding them, but the problem was the glare on the water’s surface which made seeing below the surface challenging. If I had only had a pair of polarized sunglasses I very likely would have been able to see my polarized sunglasses as they bounced slowly along the bottom of the water. Despite every effort, I was unable to recover them. That was the second unaccomplishment of the day (the rod snafu being the first) and it wasn’t yet 9AM. Things weren’t playing out the way I had imagined. Neither Large nor I had so much as a bump as we fished through the long run over the course of the next couple hours. We decided to head back upriver to meet with the others for lunch, and along the way we stopped at the Red Shed where, fortunately, Poppy had a pair of sunglasses in stock that fit me well. And he gave me a good deal, which I appreciated. That’s the kind of generous guy he is and what makes the Red Shed stand out as an icon in the Spey community. The future was looking brighter now that I had eye protection, and soon thereafter I would have my own rod back. Cautious optimism ensued.
We met up with Junior and Papa for lunch and chuckled about the rod snafu. When I asked Papa how he liked casting a compact Skagit with a sink tip (sink tips are frowned upon this time of year), he responded by saying that he didn’t even know it wasn’t his rod until he’d made a few casts.
I was relieved to learn that my knots had held when Papa hooked and landed a 34″ hatchery hen—the largest fish any of the Albacores had caught in their years on the Clearwater. The only downside to the fish was that, despite being a hatchery brat, it had to be released as this was the last day before the catch and kill season was to begin. It’s a damn shame to have to throw a hatchery fish back.
That afternoon Large and I fished the Pleasure Palace, without so much as a sideways glance from a fish. While it felt good to be casting my favorite go-to rod (my Sage Z-Axis 7136) something wasn’t quite right. I noticed that the cork seemed a bit cleaner than it should have been, and when I looked more closely I realized it was my Z-Axis 8134, a rod I seldom fish (thus the clean cork). I was sure I had strung up my 7136 the night before, in the dark, but apparently I had not. Thinking I had grabbed my 7136, I had put the right reel and line on the rod, which meant I was casting my 7 weight line on my 8 weight rod (unaccomplishment #3). Despite the mismatched rod and line, my casts remained adequately functional, but fell short of hooking a fish the rest of the day. Large had no better success despite that he was fishing a floating line matched for his rod. The good news is that the weather had improved throughout the afternoon and it turned out to be a mild, dry day, with enough sunshine to make me glad I had new sunglasses.
That evening back at camp—while there was still daylight—the first thing I did was put the proper reel and line on my 8134 so that on Saturday morning I would be ready to go with the right equipment (I continued to use a sink tip, despite warnings against it). After another fine supper, we were able to enjoy a good campfire, around which we laughed, told lies, and talked of Papa Albacore’s superior angling prowess. As the fire burned down we rekindled our hope of a more productive next day, and it was decided that we would meet up with our friend from Lewiston, Owl, at a run far downriver that was capable of accommodating all 5 of us.
We arose particularly early the next morning, properly stowed our rods and set off down river to meet up with Owl, who had, by arriving before 4am, secured the run we had hoped to secure at Lower Log Island. It was still very early when we arrived so we stood around for the better part of an hour waiting for darkness to give way to a sunrise, during which time I sold squares of toilet paper for $5 apiece to those in need, my profits nearly paying for the new sunglasses I’d bought the day before. When it finally became light enough, we spread out along the run and waded into the river to begin
fishing casting practice once again.
Owl had only taken up the way of the Spey a few months earlier and this was the first time he’d actually fished with anyone besides himself, or his casting instructor. He apologized in advance for his ineptitude with a long rod, but his apologies were unwarranted: it was clear that Owl had received some excellent instruction, as his casting was much better than he gave himself credit for. Now he just needs to get a proper wading jacket to replace the rubber Walmart variety he was wearing. But, all in good time, after all breaking into the two handed casting game is not an altogether inexpensive endeavor. Fortunately the learning curve is long, and by the time one’s casting becomes proficient, one may have forgotten how much they’d spent on gear. Then again, angler types are never done purchasing fishing gear, such as new sunglasses. And running line.
The Z-Axis 8134 now matched with its own reel and line, my casting continued to be functionally adequate, and at times maybe a notch better. However, as I mentioned earlier, this rod has seen very little action since I acquired it 3 years ago. Whether due to having spent too much time coiled up on the reel or simply being a problematic line, the Rio Powerflex Shooting Line was constantly twisting itself, causing problems when trying to shoot line. I’ve never had this problem with my Airflo running lines, so I made a note to purchase a new line when I got home. Fortunately none of the fish were so far out in the river that I couldn’t reach them with short casts. Unfortunately there were no willing fish to be found even within my abbreviated casting distance and after a few hours not one of us had so much as a grab or a bump. We split up and moved on to another run, where neither Owl, Large Albacore nor myself had any better luck. We decided to meet up for lunch with Junior and Papa, who had enjoyed no better success on their second run of the day.
After lunch we moved upriver to another run large enough to accommodate all of us. Unfortunately there weren’t enough fish to accommodate any of us and we came away without a single fish to show for our efforts. Owl had to depart early so we bade farewell and shortly thereafter we decided to head upriver in quest of more water. As we drove, the rain began to fall, lightly at first. We dropped Papa Albacore off at camp before Junior, Large and I headed back out into the rain, which was no longer just falling lightly. At around 4PM we dropped into the Pleasure Palace once again, hoping that a late day fish might be inclined to take pity on us. At this point the trip presented itself with another opportunity to unexpectedly spend more money. My Simms G3 wading jacket, which I’ve had for better than ten years, has always had one feature that I found annoying: the storm flap has a frequent tendency to get caught in the zipper, like a slow moving cow jumping in front of an oncoming train. A mild inconvenience at times, this becomes particularly aggravating at other times, such as when one needs to relieve themselves. As Murphy’s Law would have it, I had to pee and the storm flap wedged itself deeply in the zipper (think “beans above the frank”). It was really stuck this time, and Nature was calling—fast. In my desperation I gave a hard tug and the zipper came free, along with several teeth from the tracks. My trip had just gotten significantly more expensive, and my casts, continually hindered by the twisted running line, had begun to take on an angry nature. Dogs can sense when their person is angry, and they tend to give a wide berth when this happens. Steelhead can apparently detect the same thing, and their lips remained tightly zipped, unlike my jacket. We called the time of death at around 5:30pm and limped back to camp.
It continued to rain all night and despite that it ceased by the time we ate breakfast on Sunday morning, it was decided that nobody was willing to subject themselves to more punishment on the river so we packed up and departed. About 2/3 of the way home the stereo in the Man Van started developing problems, refusing to play music on my iPhone. Add one more thing to the growing list of unanticipated fly fishing-related expenses, because you can’t have fishing road trips without music. And when it comes to steelhead, the choice of music is the blues.
Oh, and what about the catastrophic windstorm that was to pummel western Washington? Like the steelhead, it didn’t materialize.