Jet setting on a quest for unicorns, bigfoot, and steelhead.

Not being much of a world traveler, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been on a commercial flight: In other words, about eight times. I’ve only flown first class once and it was purely by accident that we were offered a free upgrade due to an overbooked flight. And once seated in the hoity toity section, I felt more than a little out of place being surrounded by people who were there intentionally. But anyone who has ever flown first class knows that you don’t pass up a free opportunity like that, and so it was when I was invited to go fishing aboard the Alumaweld Express – a river sled belonging to the man who, to protect his true identity, I shall refer to as “The Reel McCoy”.  P2070430

What constitutes the first class luxury of this craft is not Barcalounger seating or top-cabin beverage service, but rather the efficient manner in which the craft takes the angler on their quest. Now I acknowledge that many who fish the rivers consider jet sleds to be noisy, raucous beasts, and that drifting under the power of the current itself is part of the serenity and appeal of fly fishing. But when you’re aboard a sled, it’s easy to forget all that, at least temporarily. It was a privilege to be on board, and like flying first class I felt a bit out of my element: McCoy is the genuine article – an accomplished angler – and I really had no business being on the same water as him.

On a few occasions McCoy and I had previously talked about the need to get out and fish together, but good intentions are not always met with resolve. Fortunately a recent chance encounter gave us the opportunity to actually do more than talk, and we laid down plans to fish the Skykomish for a few hours on a particular day which happened to be the morning of a particular pro football championship game where advertising costs over $2.5 million for a 30 second spot and is often better than the game itself (although that would turn out to not be the case this year). We decided to just fish for a few hours – I had to be back for a Sensational Bowl party, and every indication was that fishing would be slow anyway – afterall, it had been a rather bleak winter steelhead season on all Puget Sound rivers. So bleak, in fact, that two other rivers would be closing the following weekend and the Skykomish would be closing shortly thereafter. Like nearly every other Puget Sound area steelhead fishing folk, we were fish-deprived and running out of time, and even though expectations were nonexistent it would still be good to get out and do a little practice casting.

We hadn’t planned an early start, so I figured Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler wouldn’t mind fixing me a hearty breakfast, filling my thermos and sending me out the door with a kiss on the top of my head.  I was, of course, misguided in my assumption so I fixed a bowl of oatmeal, forgot to fill my thermos, and headed out the door with my lucky fishing hat on top of my head. I would be meeting McCoy at 8:30 just a few miles up the road from where I live, so I didn’t have but a 10 minute drive. Admittedly it was a little later than seasoned anglers like to hit the water, but remember – this was just a very casual outing and really just an excuse to get out and exercise the Spey rods, perhaps one last time, before the river closed for the season. I didn’t even pack a lunch, as we planned to be back at the boat launch by 1 PM.

I’d fished the river the weekend prior and save for Junior Albacore’s skunk-eliminating bull trout, not a fish was seen or touched as we floated peacefully downstream in a beautiful wood drift boat. Today was a little different because the vessel in which we would be navigating the waters had the ability to go both downstream and upstream. Quickly. This was not my first time in a boat powered by jet-propulsion, but it was still a treat because we were able to make the most out of just a few brief hours: It allowed us to quickly get to the run we wanted to fish, which would have otherwise required a long downstream float. We launched at the Lewis Street bridge in Monroe, and headed upstream for 15 minutes before arriving at the hole named for the government agency known to cause anxiety around the 15th of April. Along the way we zipped past the Ben Howard launch where a few folks were just beginning to congregate for the Sunday Spey Services. I thought I recognized the Reverend Kinney, but at such blinding speeds it was all a blur. I made the sign of the cross and acknowledged that I probably should have been attending those services to cleanse myself of casting impurities. But alas I was where I was, with my hat pulled low and my hands buried in the pockets of my jacket. It was a mild February morning, but when you’re scooting along a river at 25 knots on a damp February morning, mild is a relative term. As we continued our ascent, it was through watering eyes that I noted the trees were strangely devoid of eagles, whereas the week before there had been large laughing raptors occupying nearly every other tree along the river. I assumed they’d all flown the coop for waters that actually held fish – where ever that might be. Or maybe they were enjoying a buffet breakfast at a landfill somewhere nearby. Whatever the case may be, I took the lack of eagles as a bad sign.

As we rounded the bend below our destination I was relieved to see the run vacant. It’s a popular spot for some reason, even though I hadn’t heard of it (or any other run for that matter) producing any fish recently. There was one angler fishing the opposite bank, but we had the desired run to ourselves. After securing the vessel, we strung up our rods and hit the water: McCoy fished down while I walked to the head of the run.  I was using my type 8 sink tip, (which sinks at an estimated 8 inches per second), and that seemed to be working well in the slightly faster-than-ideal water.  I was ticking a few rocks but not hanging up. Amazingly, my casting felt pretty good too:  maybe I was finally getting the hang of it, although one missed anchor sent my pink and orange marabou streamer buzzing dangerously close by the side of my face, causing me to flinch and return to reality. After about an hour, I noticed that McCoy had a strange bend in his rod.  Assuming he’d dredged up a rock, I stripped in my line and was preparing to make another cast when the rock suddenly splashed on the surface of the river.  Assuming a bull trout, I reeled my line and made my way toward McCoy’s position to lend a hand if need be. As I approached, it was clear that whatever was causing the bend in his rod was big.  And when it broke the surface again it was clearly neither bull trout nor Dolly Varden. Chrome flashed under the dull gray skies and line peeled from McCoy’s reel as the fish made a downstream run. McCoy carefully picked his way along the rocky bank while I stumbled behind him. We followed the fish, which jumped a couple more times. This was a nice fish, and McCoy slowly but steadily gained advantage, eventually turning the fish to shore where I tailed the big native buck.

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The fish was an impressive specimen: Long and thick, and I could barely grab around the base of its tail (insert small hand jokes here). While I held the beautiful chrome anadromous rainbow trout, McCoy quickly ran a tape measure down its length: An honest 38-39 inches!  The Big Buck would be a dandy on any river, anywhere.  I felt honored and unworthy to have been in the presence of such a creature, and it was rewarding to get the smell of fish on my hands, even if it wasn’t a fish of my own doing.

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After the fish was released to go about his upstream migration, McCoy and I walked back toward the boat. It was decided that I’d work the lower run that had just produced the Big Buck, so I set up in position and began thrashing the water with my line (but not before switching out my fly for a special black and blue marabou tied by Large Albacore).  On my first swing – and I kid you not – a banana peel drifted downstream and across my line. We all know what they say about bananas and fishing, and I am not making this up for the make of journalistic grandeur. It did, however, prove to be a bad joo-joo, as things quickly began going south on me. In this softer water my sink tip was finding a rock to get hung up on with each cast, and my rhythm was interrupted: My D loops crumpled and my anchors were missed as I began peppering the back of my head and shoulders with my misguided fly. I’m sure McCoy was enjoying the show, but being a gentleman he kept his laughter concealed. At one point I wondered if the banana peel had come from him, but he’s a lifelong fisherman and I’m certain he wouldn’t allow a banana on his boat. I clearly needed a timeout, so I headed to the boat to sharpen the hook on my rock-dulled fly and switch out my type 8 tip for a type 3, which would sink less rapidly and be better suited for the slow water that I was plying.  This was a wise decision and I got back into the swing of things quickly.  Casting, swinging, stripping and taking two steps, I approached the very water that had yielded the Big Buck 20 minutes earlier.

Suddenly I felt a tug on my line, saw a disturbance on the surface of the water, and promptly stopped breathing.  Then, nothing. I reeled in line until my rod tip bent P2070447sharply, and waited. Still nothing. Certain that I was hung up on a rock again, it felt safe to exhale.  But how could I be – I’d seen something splash…hadn’t I?  I paused, dumfounded.  Then I held the tip of my rod upstream just a little bit to see if the rock was really a rock.  Yep, clearly a rock.  But then the rock abruptly started to take line from the reel. I held on as what appeared to be a fish took off at a run. Bull trout?  Big bull trout, perhaps?  Then she lept out of the water and showed herself completely – the bright chrome sidewalls did away with any notions of a bull trout, and she peeled line so fast my loose drag almost allowed for a bird’s nest in my reel. After tightening down the drag it took several minutes to turn her to shore, by which time McCoy was ready with a steady hand to tail the beautiful 28” wild hen.  This was my first steelhead on this river, and my second wild fish ever (the first coming from the Sauk river a year earlier). She immediately earned a special place in my book of the coolest things I’ve experienced, so we honored her with a quick photo and sent her on her way.  Maybe she’d meet up with the Big Buck and they’d tell stories to their offspring someday. OK, that’s admittedly ridiculous, but being a children’s book author my mind works that way. Furthermore, catching a beautiful bright fish, out of the same spot and within minutes of one’s fishing buddy catching a beautiful bright fish, on a day when expectations were nonexistent, in a year when the overall situation was gloomy, will make a man say stupid things.

Giddy to each take a chrome deduction on our steelhead tax forms, we toasted the day with a cold beer before boarding the Alumaweld Express for our return trip. We pondered stopping to quickly fish some lesser-quality water, but decided to quit while we were on top. The Alumaweld Express made a rapid descent, and by 2:00 I was hanging my waders in the garage. Upon entering the house, and announcing my presence by beating my chest with both fists, I proclaimed of our good fortunes. Busily preparing a salad for the party, Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler gave me a sideways glance and asked, “So, does this make you accomplished?”

Not hardly, as I was once again bested by the better man. But being out-fished felt pretty damn good on this particular day.

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On a Serious Note: On February 12th the Washington Dept of Fish & Wildlife announced that in addition to previously announced closures for the Skagit and Sauk rivers, more Puget Sound rivers would be closing effective February 18th (the date on which I am publishing this post) to protect low fish returns.  This closure includes the Nooksack, Stillaguamish, Snoqualmie, and the Skykomish, which produced these beautiful fish. By the time you read this, winter steelhead fishing for this year will be a thing of the past on Puget Sound rivers. What makes this a tough pill to swallow for sport anglers is the fact that closing the rivers early to catch and release fishing is like putting a bandaid on a gushing artery. It’s easy and politically acceptable for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to shut down sport angling, whereas doing something that would actually make a huge difference (like reducing commercial and tribal netting) would ruffle some big feathers. Until something is done on a much larger scale, the state of affairs for our wild steelhead is only going to worsen. I fear that one day, sooner than later, these treasured icons of the Pacific Northwest truly will become nothing more than mythological creatures.

Fishing interrupts a Pity Party.

When one has a bad head cold/flu, the worst part of the day is waking up. After sleeping fitfully for a few hours and breathing through one’s mouth, when the alarm goes off it signals the beginning of conscious misery.  However, if one can manage to fight their way out of the phlegm cocoon in much the same way that a stonefly emerges from their nymphal shuck, then maybe – just maybe – they stand a chance of making a productive day out of it. Such was the case on a recent Saturday morning:  Knocking a wad of spent kleenex from the nightstand as I reached to silence the alarm, I cracked one eye just to see if it would open, and peeled my tongue from the roof of my mouth.  Then I lay completely still as I ran through a complete systems analysis:  Results were not favorable.  My first inclination was to go back to sleep, but it was too late for that as the door to our bedroom was nudged open and my dog’s face appeared over the edge of the bed. Having heard theDSC_0001 alarm, Eddie knew it was time for his breakfast, and when Eddie has chow on the brain, there’s no refusing him. Besides, I had to get up- I was supposed to go fishing.  And so, harkening back to the old college fraternity wake-up duties, this was a “Red Tag” and called for “feet on the floor”. OK, throw off the covers. Get the motor runnin’. Eddie spun circles and pounded the wall with his tail waggage as I followed him to the garage and filled his bowl before stumbling back inside. I hoped I had remembered to open the side door so he could get outside after inhaling his food.

There’s no shower on fishing days, and so with diminished motor skills I donned my long johns, fleece pants and shirt, grabbed my lucky fishing hat and made my way to the kitchen to make coffee and throw together a pathetic lunch.  At this point I acknowledged that I should have made my lunch the night before when I was thinking a bit more clearly. But on the previous evening all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and die – having the chills and aches tends to have that gloomy affect on a person.  If only Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler were a more supportive and nurturing wife, she’d have gotten up and made my lunch for me…I poured water into the coffee maker, added enough grounds to fill my cup and my thermos, and hit the brew button. Dayquil substituted for my morning juice, and did a fair job of washing down the vitamin pills. I returned to the task of assembling my lunch only to be interrupted by the coffee maker overflowing: Too many scoops of coffee had plugged the filter drain, and brewing coffee bubbled out onto the counter and over the edge, into the drawers and down the cabinets.  Yeah, it was going to be a good day.  I should have called in sick, but my fishing compadres were counting on me to be the shuttle vehicle, so I grew a pair and made my way out the door without so much as a supportive “good luck, honey!” from the slumbering Mrs. UA. As I exited the warmth of the kitchen I traded my lucky fishing hat for a baseball cap, which would fit better under the hood of my wading jacket.  Judging by the heavy drizzle falling outside, the hood was going to be a necessity on this late January day. Oh well, I was going steelheading, so the lucky fishing hat wouldn’t make a difference: It’s powerless under the spell of those mythological fish. Besides, nobody would notice anyway.

I was scheduled to meet Chunky Albacore at our take out point, where he would leave his rig and trailer. Then we’d drive to our launch point and meet up with his brother, Junior. I arrived ahead of schedule, which gave me time to slip into my waders and boots. It’s a little cumbersome driving a vehicle with waders and felt soled boots, but I wanted to be ready – nobody likes waiting for someone to gear up when they’ve been ready, standing in the rain for half of an hour.  There’s always a certain sense of urgency to get on the water, even though 5 minutes wouldn’t make a bit of difference to the fish, who may not even exist and likely aren’t planning to cooperate anyway.

Chunky arrived right at 8:15 and after several ill-fated attempts he managed to get the trailer backed into parking spot (remember: turn the steering wheel the opposite direction of where you want the trailer to go). He climbed into my truck and off we went to meet Junior. I hadn’t seen Chunky in over 20 years (though I’d fished with his brothers, Large and Junior, recently), so we exchanged the obligatory “Been a long time” comments and then jumped immediately into the sad state of affairs surrounding our Puget Sound steelhead. Nothing like that to get the blood boiling and adrenaline pumping, which in turn helps to temporarily clear sinus congestion.

Junior Albacore awaited us, standing guard over the drift boat co-owned with Chunky. I’d heard of the boat, but this was the P1300444first time I’d seen it.  And it was a dandy:  Wood construction, beautiful finish work.  It was the type of gentleman angler’s boat one might expect a couple of attorneys to own – not a couple of  grizzled steelhead fishermen.  I assumed my perch in the rear of the boat, cut loose with a repertoire of rapid-fire sneezes, and we were off. “You don’t sound too good,” Junior noted.  “I sound worse than I feel,” I replied. I was being optimistic, but truth be told I was feeling better now that I was on the water.

The Skykomish was clear and nicely tinted an emerald shade of green (about the same color as the stuff that drained from my nose). We hadn’t had much rain recently, and although it fell on us this day, the river was pretty low for this time of year. It would be a ways before we came to the first good run to stop and fish, so as we drifted downstream we engaged in social niceties. I heard of the brothers’ ill-fated trip to fish the Situk River in SE Alaska which was so miserable in every aspect that they cut the trip short and returned home to finish their vacation fishing a local river. Theirs was not the Alaska fishing adventure one reads about in the angling magazines, and made me question whether I would ever want to go to Alaska. Then they took turns (OK – interrupted each other, as brothers will do) telling me of the debacle involved in acquiring their boat, which began in September of ’06.  They’d ordered the boat on EBay. It hadn’t yet been built so they could have it customized to suit their needs. The completion was delayed and they didn’t receive the boat until May of ’07. However, it was less than what they’d been promised, and they rejected the boat for a variety of reasons. They convinced the builder to swap the boat for a new one, which they finally picked up in Missoula in August of ’07. What they noticed was that while the structural construction was excellent, the finish job was not. The current beauty of the craft was due to the fact that once they’d returned home with the boat, they stripped the original finish and redid it themselves. This is what Junior said, but according to Chunky, he did most of the work. A year and a half after it all began, the boat finally had it’s maiden voyage on the Yakima River in the Spring of ’08. And here I thought the dark cloud of misfortune only followed me.

P1300441Each equipped with Spey rods, we stopped and fished the runs that offered decent swinging water. Admittedly there was a meat pole on board (not mine), strung up with a bobber and jig “fly”, but we kept it’s employment to a minimum, bringing  it out only as we drifted from run to run.  We knew fishing would be slow – it almost always is.  But this year was a particularly lean one for winter steelhead.  It had already been declared a month earlier that two other rivers to the north – the Skagit and Sauk – were closing in mid February due to low fish returns, and the announcement had just been made that the Skykomish would also close early for the same reasons.  We knew our chances were slim, but we had to give it a shot.  I viewed it as a day of casting practice, which is something I always need.

At one point in our drift a familiar white boat scooted by, occupied by a couple of desperate men, one of which was my casting mentor, Brian Paige.  After exchanging obligatory inquisitions as to the catch rate thus far, Brian called out, “Where’s the lucky fishing hat?”  Damnit – nobody was supposed to notice! Too late to do anything about it now. “Just trying something different today,” I replied, before coughing up a portion of lung.

As the clouds lay low over the valley and drizzle fell off and on, we saw a few other anglers, but not as many as one might have expected.  We counted more bald eagles than fishermen, and wondered what all the eagles were doing for food since there didn’t seem to be any fish in the river. Well, that’s not true: There was at least one fish in the river, and Junior landed it at the head of a nice looking run.  He thought it was a steelhead, and from my vantage point downstream I thought it was a steelhead. Chunky is an agreeable fellow, so he also thought it was a steelhead. (Disclaimer: Nobody present thought it was a steelhead after the fish had revealed itself. Any references to the fish being a steelhead came well in advance of present anglers having established visual contact with the fish. Once a visual was secured, all present immediately knew, without a shadow of doubt, the identity of the fish). Turns out it was a Dolly Var– er, bull trout.  Recent reports seemed to indicate that a lot more bull trou– er, Dolly Vardens were being caught lately.  It could be that they’re doing well and their numbers are way up, or that there are just so few steelhead left that the chances of catching one of these native char is better.  Either way, it was a beautifully spotted fish, about 18 inches: Nice and thick.  With the skunk off the boat the air smelled better, even through my congested nose. However, that would be the only fish caught this day.P1300438

To celebrate the catch of the day, we broke for lunch. This proved even more disappointing than I’d thought when I realized the quality of the food I had packed early that morning: Nearly expired ham on nearly stale bread, carrots, unsalted chips and a piece of string cheese.  Luckily, Chunky produced a slab of smoked steelhead which he passed around for all to enjoy. So succulent was this offering that even my dysfunctioning taste buds couldn’t ignore the savory goodness. I washed it down with a shot of Dayquil, chased by the remnants of my thermos, and then quickly retreated toward the brush-lined bank to relieve myself, thankful once again for my Dan Bailey EZ Pee Guy Waders. As I embarked on this endeavor one of the many eagles we’d seen during our float was watching and screeched from his perch. Clearly he found great amusement in what he saw, because there was no mistaking his screeching as avian laughter.  I didn’t mind the taunting – after how I’d felt the past couple of days, I was just glad to be out on the water, enjoying the company of the Brothers Albacore, and actually throwing some casts that didn’t, for the first time, completely suck (knock on a wood boat). Had I stayed home I’d have just dwelled in a state of self pity surrounded by an unsympathetic Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler, kleenex boxes and whatever was on the Lifetime channel.

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The Wading Kilt.

Bear with me here as I’m breaking with standard protocol for a moment. Rather than posting about a fishing misadventure of some sort, or a gear review (which I don’t do, by the way) I’m going to wander off course and talk about something that might initially seem a little out of place on this blog: Kilts.

No, I’m not of Scottish descent, though my maternal grandfather did describe himself as being “Irish, Scotch and Dutch.” My father’s side of my family is fairly well German, and so to claim any Scottish heritage would be blasphemous and wishful. But there’s a lot I like about the Scottish people:

•Their accent is the best (and particularly Robin William’s imitation of it)

•Scotch. While I’m not a huge fan of their whisky, preferring a Canadian blend, I have done some extensive taste testing of several breeds of Scotch at my brother-in-law’s house (he is Scottish, by the way), and a couple weren’t too bad. Recently I had a chance to sample some Glenlivet, and if forced I could probably become a fancier of the stuff.

•Golf. I loathe the game of golf, and if the Scots did in fact invent the game, I won’t hold it against them.The Highland Games more than make up for the shortcomings of golf anyway.

•Bagpipes.  They rock, literally – AC/DC, while from Australia, made sure of that. And Angus Young was born in Glascow.

•Lassie.  She saved Timmy countless times.

Furthermore it’s been said, and Wikipedia (the internet authority on all things everything) supports the assertion, that modern fly fishing is “normally said to have originated on the fast, rocky rivers of Scotland and England.” That’s good enough for me. Then of course there’s the matter of a certain river in the northeast of Scotland, which happens to be the second longest and the fastest flowing river in that country: The River Spey. There is no refuting where Spey casting originated. Suffice it to say there’s plenty to like about the offerings of the Scottish people. Now, add the kilt to the mix.  I’m comfortable enough in my own heterosexual skin to admit that I think they’re cool.

The traditional kilt is, as I understand it, part of a formal Scottish dress uniform. Maybe they’re also worn for casual occasions, but like I said, I don’t really know much about them other than I think they’re cool. I will, however, admit a bit of practical skepticism, as the traditional wool would seem a bit uncomfortable on hot days, and certainly there is the itch factor which cannot be dismissed. But the kilt has evolved over time, as the American made Utilikilt is a testament to.  Men are free to embrace their inner Scot by wearing a garment that would make Carhartt proud.

For those who poke fun at the kilt as being somehow feminine, I would ask you to reconsider your position.  Mel Gibson’s character in Braveheart, William Wallace – was he somehow a limp-wristed cross dresser? What about Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Scottish folk hero Rob Roy MacGregor – just another girly man in a skirt? I think not. I’ve never been one to think of a kilt as a “dress” as a few of my less secure friends on Facebook referred to them in a recent and lively “wall discussion”.  I had simply posted mention of the fact that if I were of Scottish descent I would get me a wading kilt: One made of breathable Goretex-like material, similar to our waders. My statement was met with less enthusiasm than I had imagined. In fact, I’m fairly certain that at least a couple people have dismissed me as being completely daft. Frankly I’m a little surprised at the less than warm reception of my idea. Anyone who thinks a wading kilt would look ridiculous needs to take a good long look in the mirror the next time you’re wearing your chest waders – at least the kilt wouldn’t make your butt look big, and it would be perfect for the wet wading months. A wee tad chilly for winter steelheading, perhaps, especially since nothing is supposed to be worn underneath a kilt (or so I’ve only been told). But if you’re man enough to wear a kilt you won’t be bothered by a little cold weather, and a fleece-lined model could be designed for certain applications.

And the functionality doesn’t stop there. Anglers are constantly searching for the perfect gear-carrying device, be it a vest, lumbar (fanny) pack, chest pack, lanyard (for the minimalist), shoulder sling, etc. So, why not a wading kilt? It could have waterproof zippered pockets for fly boxes and flasks of single malt, retractors for things that go on retractors, a fly patch, loops for spools of tippets, etc. And it could even boast an integrated feature found on fish fighting belts:  One of those reinforced slots for the butt of your rod when you’re playing that really hot fish. Like a big tuna.

Laugh all you want – I think I’m on to something big here. And in a year when Orvis announces their new breathable River Kilt, who’ll be laughing then, eh laddie?

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In the meantime I’ll be digging deep into the roots of my family tree to see if I can’t unearth just enough Scottish blood to warrant my wearing of a wading kilt.

Gird your loins, and stay tuned.

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It’s a rock. No—it’s a fish…Maybe.

Everyone gets hung up from time to time, whether it be one’s hopper pattern catching on a bit of riverbank shrubbery, or one’s streamer snagged on a rock or submerged log. When it happens, credit yourself with simply having put your fly aggressively where it needs to be: In the case of a hopper, tight to the bank–not 4 inches from the bank, but right there; with your streamer, in the money zone–right where the fish are holding behind the structure. Sometimes we flirt with disaster and get just a little too close. Gotta push that envelope, however, because fish are a lazy bunch (especially when they’ve been gorging on plentiful bugs) and often they won’t move more than a couple inches to take a fly. Therein explains my lack of catching – often times I’m too concerned with snapping off my fly and losing it. Sue me for being practical and fiscally conservative: I’d undoubtedly catch more fish if I were a bit more wreckless. I fault my parents for not allowing me to talk back, run with scissors, or act before thinking. Damn them.

Still, I’m no stranger to losing flies to all manner of obstacles, and when I started swinging  streamers on a sink tip with my Spey rod, IMGP0180one of the first things I learned to do was get a fly un-stuck from the many rocks I encountered. There’s an art to it that I haven’t fully mastered, but it’s safe to say that my fly un-snagging is better than my Spey casting. On a recent steelheading trip I was working a run below a tailout, swinging a streamer at the end of my Type III sink tip, and hanging up on rocks with amazing regularity.  Now before you take pity on me, let me state that I felt pretty good about this because at least my fly was getting down where it needed to be. Having covered the run with no bumps from fish, I decided it was time to run with rusty scissors, and reached for nymphing rod–the “Meat Pole”- belonging to my buddy, Large Albacore. He had recently landed a fish employing this savage device, and now it was my turn to get dirty.

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Large Albacore with a wild steelhead

Working the inside seam of the tailout, I rather quickly, and surprisingly, had a fish take the plastic bead egg dangling 18 or so inches below a brown stonefly nymph. I’d like to think that my keen angler’s eye caught the subtle dip in the strike indicator, signaling a fish on and invoking a reflex-like hook-set. However, I am honest if not talented, and admittedly the fish took the dropper so hard I didn’t have to do anything but hold on.

After a respectable fight lasting several minutes, Large Albacore stood at the ready to tail the hatchery hen after I had steered her into the shallows. She was all mine–just waiting for a stone shampoo and ultimately the smoker. I savored the moment, licking my chops and watching intently as Albacore hesitated just a split second too long, which gave the fish a chance to see his oversized hand extending toward her. With one last effort to save her genetically inferior life, she thrashed violently and gave a series of head shakes, slipping the hook and wiggling off into the current from where she’d just be pulled against her will. Albacore sat down on a rock and beat himself up over the incident. But being the forgiving type, and an eternal optimist, I simply tossed the whole messy assortment of end tackle back upstream, threw a series of stack mends into the line, and watched the indicator bob in the current (ah, fly fishing at it’s best!).

Not 5 minutes passed before I felt tension on my line. Not the good kind of tension associated with a fish, but the other kind of tension when one’s fly snags on a bit of structure. The hook was clearly anchored pretty well, and I gave a gentle tug to see if it would pop loose. Nope (and by tugging as I did, I’d probably just buried the hook deeper into whatever if was that held it). This wasn’t going to be easy, and I began attempting to roll cast some slack line toward the problem in hopes of freeing the hook from the vice-like grip of the rock or log. This was particularly challenging from my vantage point because I was precariously perched on some slippery rocks, hip deep in water that was doing it’s best to dislodge my footing. I struggled a bit more before it became clear that I was hung up pretty good, which Albacore pointed out by shouting, “I see you’re hung up pretty good!” I gave him a quick glance as if to say, “Thank you, friend, for that astute observation!” as he waded out next to me to offer some assistance (the water was only up to his shins because he is nearly twice my height). With his additional wingspan he would likely have better success throwing some slack and getting the stuck fly unstuck, and I very carefully handed him the rod, worried that he might lose his grip and release the rod into the water just as he’d done with my fish. As I delicately passed the rod to him, the line quivered and the rod tip bounced.  “There’s a fish on!” we yelled in unison, and the rod was abruptly passed back to me in a manner reminiscent of the old “Hot Potato” game.

While the fish did let me know it was on the end of my line, it was not putting up much of a fight–certainly not what one might expect from a steelhead (even a hatchery brat).  I was able to get the fish on the reel quickly and steered it directly toward shore, where Albacore was waiting again. This time he wore the furrowed brow of a man keenly focused. His grab hand quivered slightly as might a gunfighter’s preparing to draw his six-shooter. The big man was to cockd and loaded, ready to pounce on the fish…which was another hatchery hen. Exactly the same size as the one I’d nearly landed 5 minutes earlier. Same coloration. The resemblance was, in fact, uncanny.

PA180802Signs posted along access trails to the river make it clear: “There’s a mandatory retention of adipose fin-clipped hatchery origin steelhead”. As if they needed to remind us to kill hatchery fish, it would be good to take a fish home for the grill: Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler would be pleased with my  offering since 95% of the time I come home empty handed (due in part to the fact that the majority of my fishing takes me to catch & release waters, and also because I rarely catch anything). So after the fish was quickly dispatched of, I took my turn at sitting on a rock. I removed my lucky fishing hat and scratched my head, trying to make sense of the whole thing. It evaded me then, and I still have no rational idea as to what was going through the fish’s head during the entire 2 minutes that I assumed I was hung up on a rock.  I had stood there in the river waving yards of slack line–in essence trying desperately to remove the hook from it’s mouth–but it never moved during the whole ordeal. I gave that fish every opportunity to simply open it’s mouth and slip the hook–a virtual green light to freedom–and it did nothing. Maybe the fish itself was stuck–wedged between two rocks? No way–not possible. Maybe I was hung up on a rock or stick intitially, and then unstuck the hook and as it popped free it landed right in front of the fish, which casually opened it’s mouth and slurped the hook.  Not likely. Steelhead anglers acknowledge that hatchery fish don’t fight like wild fish to, but this fish was exceptional even in that regard–it was a veritable sloth. My current theory is that perhaps the fish was just too tired to move, because that theory also maintains that this fish was the same fish I had nearly landed 5 minutes prior–you know, the fish that Albacore allowed to get free?  Yeah, that fish was this fish.

That’s my story, and like a hook buried in a rock, branch, or gumption-free hatchery brat, I’m stickin’ to it.

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Hatchery Rockfish

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Dinner

Something’s bugging me.

At some point in one’s journey deep into the abyss of the of fly-fishing obsession, the angler reaches a point where they cease being a normal person. Now let me back up for a moment here and suggest that chances are the person in question was a little off center to begin with, and that may be what drove them to take up the quest for whatever it is that fly anglers are questing for: Sanity, the meaning of life, or maybe just a fish, and so on. But let’s agree that no matter how normal their inclinations before taking up the way of the fly, once they’ve crossed over the proverbial line, their outlook on life in general changes: One’s vision becomes narrowed, and everything in life begins to revolve around fly fishing. Suddenly they become fascinated with things that, when they were a normal person, never commanded much, if any, attention:  That rambling river alongside a road traveled countless times was just a flowing body of water; that weird looking boat with a curved bottom on a trailer being towed behind a vehicle on the interstate headed in the general direction of Montana was just a weird looking boat with a curved bottom (and where’s the motor, anyway?). And things that crawled or fluttered in the air were just bugs.

But that was back then. In the previous life.

Now that rambling river holds spiritual promise and beckons one to stop at the next pullout, string up the rod (that is always in the trunk), and see if perhaps the river also holds fish. Or answers. That drift boat headed to the mecca of trout fishing is something one covets and hopes to one day own, if only the purchase requisition would be approved. And things that used to crawl or fly unnoticed for the most part suddenly become things that cause excitement, or at the very least, some degree of interest.

Those things are, of course, insects. And once bitten by the fly fishing bug, insects forever lose their anonymity and insignificance and become trout food in the eyes of the angler. Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler is just as likely to grab a fly swatter and smack anything that carries the label of “bug”, and while I am certainly not opposed to crushing a pest, I can’t bring myself to do that if the bug in question is one of the noble trout food variety: Mayflies, caddisflies or stoneflies. They deserve better than to have their short lives snuffed out by an ignorant human–they deserve the privilege of sacrificing themselves to a hungry fish: To die in honor.

Obviously it makes sense that fly fishing peoples should have some degree of interest in bugs. After all, we’re doing our best to imitate those bugs with the flies we tie to the end of our tippet. Certainly one has to occasionally engage in the art of  “matching the hatch”, so it goes without saying that observing bugs is an important part of being a fly angler.  Whatever is in, on, or above the water, or crawling on the rocks or in your ears and up your nose, is natural and necessary.

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Now, before you accomplished anglers roll your eyes at me for stating the obvious, allow me to point out that there’s another type of fascination with bugs: The irrational type.

Mosquitos and grasshoppers are common. I see them all the time when the seasons allow for it, and even the layperson knows a skeeter or a hopper when they see one.  But what of the other bugs that nobody other than a fly angler or perhaps an entomologist becomes remotely familiar with?  Those are the bugs that get me all worked up. Now I don’t exactly live in Troutville, and the nearest moving water is, by way of the crow (or mayfly), a good 3/4 mile away, through dense timber, a broad valley floor and a two lane highway (filled with speeding windshields just waiting to collect low-flying insects). The lower Snoqualmie River is a lazy, meandering slough of a river near where I live, and it doesn’t hold any resident trout. Searrun cutts, steelhead and salmon move quickly through this stretch of river en route to more oxygenated waters upstream, and from my experiences the only resident fish are Squawfish (alright already– Northern Pikeminnow!). While I am probably wrong, I always figured that the bugs which trout feed on live in the same waters where trout live, and since trout don’t exactly live in the waters near my house I don’t expect to see trout bugs around these parts. And I don’t – very often. But occasionally  when there is a rare trout bug sighting, everything else can wait while I take a photo, download it to my computer, administer Photoshop adjustments to make up for poor photography skills, then send it to my favorite back alley entomology enthusiast for a positive identification. Thanks to Roger Rohrbeck for always being there with answers.

While there may be no real qualitative value for me in discovering what the bug is, I find it interesting to know that the small mayfly I discovered crawling on the side of our house in March of one year was a male dun of genus Ameletus! It’s not like I was out looking for bugs, either – I was actually engaged in something very important when I happened upon this delightful looking little specimen, so I set aside the task of cleaning my fly line and moved in for a closer look.  Or what of time I was again deeply engrossed in something of critical significance (rearranging the contents of one of my fly boxes) when I observed a much larger mayfly specimen crawling on another side of our house in May. This time it was none other than Ameletus female subimago, which became clearly identified by the forewing veinlets attaching longitudinal vein CuA to the rear margin! Both of these mayflies are commonly called Brown Duns, though they were quite different in size. If that’s not enough to make you say “WOW!” then consider the bug that landed on our window during late October. Looking up from my peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich and the latest edition of one of the many fly fishing magazines I subscribe to, I immediately noted the swept-back wings of a caddisfly and was so overcome by intrigue that I actually pushed aside my lunch, grabbed a footstool, and went outside in a drenching rain to photograph what would later be identified as a Summer Flier Sedge, genus Limnephilus! There are (25) species present in WA, usually present at higher altitudes but apparently not always.

Male dun of genus AmeletusAmeletus female subimagoSummer Flier Sedge, genus Limnephilus

Now THAT right there is riveting stuff – and there’s more! However, sensing a certain lack of enthusiasm on the part of my readership, I’ll stop while I’m ahead, if in fact I haven’t fallen way behind already. But before I return to one of several very important tasks, I wanted to briefly address Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler: You know that “gross thing” on the bookshelf in my office? It’s the nymphal shuck of a Hesperoperla pacifica and no – I will not “get rid of it”.

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