catch and release

The Lucky Dog and the Dork of the Middle Fork

Lately the weather around the Pacific Northwest has been lousy: unseasonably cold and excessively wet. And because of that I have weather on the brain.  Most notably, I am longing for warmer days that lie just ahead, though they seem currently out of reach. I want summer here now.  July typically offers forth the finest weather available in Western Washington. For me personally it’s the month I look ahead to starting at the end of October: the months that lie in between are simply to be endured. If not for steelhead fishing, the winter and early spring months would be unbearable. As I eluded to above, Spring weather does not usually offer much reprieve from the winter doldrums either. Starting on July 5th, however, good weather finally arrives and people from all walks of life celebrate by going outside to recreate.  Outdoor interests are widely varied, but one thing the people who live here have in common is that we tend to complain no matter what the weather is. After bitching about the miserable gray dampness for months on end, July can occasionally get a bit too hot for the pasty-skinned inhabitants who lurk on the west side of Washington state. About the only time we’re ever happy is when the temps are in the upper 70’s to low 80’s, with no wind worth mentioning, and crystal clear blue skies. Perry Como had it right when he sang,“the bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle.”

It’s on these perfect days that there’s no better place to be than 30 or so miles east of Seattle, along the banks of the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River, chasing small native cutthroat (and some wild rainbow) trouts with a lightweight fly rod. A 4 wt is overkill for these little fish, which average about 9 inches. A 12 inch fish is a rare trophy, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve actually caught one of these elusive hogs and they sure are beautiful.

The Middle Fork is open to catch and release fishing year round, but its fish aren’t known for their playful ways until the river drops into it’s svelt summer shape. Throughout the year the river fluctuates with rainfall, and can rage like a swollen monster when fueled by heavy winter storms. During summer she is a medium/small sized freestone river that flows through an area that is king-sized in beauty. So incredible is the scenery that it’s important when fishing to look up from the water and take in one’s surroundings. I’m not sure what the annual rainfall is in the valley of the river, but it’s certainly more than the 70 inches per year that falls in nearby North Bend. And because of this, the flora is lush and plentiful – in some of the deeper reaches of the area, moss clings from trees and conjures up images of a rain forest. The mountains rise directly front of or behind you, and it would be easy to forget that the big city is only 30 miles away and the suburbs much closer. I live 30 miles in a different direction that takes me thankfully nowhere near a big city. My route involves rural and semi-rural backroads through the lower Snoqualmie Valley, and the drive is almost as enjoyable as the destination. But 30 miles is 30 miles, which is too far to quickly dash home when you forget something you might need. That is, if for example, you forgot something. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

And so it was on one of these perfect July days that I loaded my gear and set out in my Jeep to hit up the Middle Fork for some of it’s small, feisty fish.  I hadn’t been up there the previous summer, and the preceding winter had been a doozer: Old Man Winter and Mother Nature must’ve been drinking heavily because they unleashed a collective wrath  that  included record rainfall and a series of damaging floods.  A section of the Middle Fork Road had washed out and remained closed through the summer. In fact I don’t know if it’s been fixed and reopened to date (luckily the Lake Dorothy Road provides a detour). This particular trip was as much of a scouting mission as a fish outing, as I really didn’t know what to expect. Driving the several miles up the dusty, pothole-riddled Middle Fork Road I passed a few rigs that were parked at all the typical spots along the river. Most anglers park where they can see the river, but I have a favorite area that requires a bit of a jaunt to find the river. It’s not exactly secluded, but it is far enough off the beaten path and I can usually find solitude. However, when I arrived there was another rig parked at my favorite pullout. I would have preferred no company, but the river could accommodate more than one angler and I am not territorial so I resisted the temptation to lift my leg on their tire. It was 5pm, which would give me several hours of good fishing. I would be where I wanted to be when I wanted to be there: as shadows fell across the water and the long summer day drew to a close. This is the prime time to be on the Middle Fork, when the fish start hitting just about any dry fly that drifts drag-free overhead: Humpies, Royal Coachmen/Wulffs, Stimulators, Adams- they all get it done. It can be silly fun, and what the fish lack in size they make up for with gumption. They’re like terriers of the fish world.

Wet wading is one of the benefits of summer fishing, but since I would be out until dark, standing in a mountain-fed river, I opted for my waders and headed down the familiar trail toward the river. As I approached the river I came upon an encampment obviously belonging to the owners of the vehicle I had elected not to defile. The camp was empty of inhabitants, but I respectfully gave it a wide berth and headed toward the river. I waved to a group of twenty-something year-old folks who were sunning themselves on the gravel bar just a short distance upstream. They’d picked a great spot to camp and frolic at the river’s edge, but not a fly rod was present anywhere. The young man and his two female companions were apparently just enjoying some good, clean outdoor recreation, and as I waded across the river I thought to myself, “That Lucky Dog…”

I made my way downstream to the first of several favorite runs.  The winter floods had deposited some impressive logjams and gouged away at the bank in several spots. One gravel bar had been completely washed away, but there remained a lot of really fishy looking water. There was no hurry, so I took my time and soaked in the beauty of the river and its surroundings.

I had ample opportunity to reflect on all things fishing, and for some reason my mind turned to a particular day a couple years earlier when I’d pulled one of the most bone-headed moves I’ve ever pulled…

Jimmy and I had decided to fish a small lake about 12 miles from my home.  We arrived at the lake, inflated our float tubes and began to gear up.  When I reached that point where one would typically don their wading boots, I  realized that I’d left them at home.  No worries, I wasn’t going to be walking more than a few yards to the water’s edge: I could strap my fins over my neoprene booties and make due just fine. What I could not make do without, however, was my fishing license, which I’d also left at home. I debated calling the very unsympathetic Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler to inquire about the possibility of her meeting me halfway with my license and boots, but thought better of it.  Instead I paddled around all afternoon in my float tube without a fishing rod, watching as Jimmy hooked a few rainbows. I felt a little bit like a fool, but there’s more to fishing than catching fish, and frankly being without a rod wasn’t much different than if I’d been fishing anyway.  That was a day to remember, if for no other reason than to be more careful about packing all the gear I needed in the future…

After I’d sufficiently reflected on that unfortunate incident, I meandered downstream about a half mile to the confluence with a small tributary. Not surprisingly there’s a good hole right there that normally produces some good action on a small woolly bugger. Rarely do I fish beyond this spot and I decided to turn around and make my way back upstream. As the cool evening air settled in, the Middle Fork was heating up: under the protective cloak of the long shadows fish began rising in all the likely spots.

As I approached the camp of the Lucky Dog, it’s occupants were apparently partaking of the cocktail hour and greeted the return of the man in waders by offering me a cold beverage. “Thanks, but I brought my own,” I replied as I reached into a vest pocket and extracted a luke warm Bud Light. They certainly seemed friendly enough, and we chatted for a few minutes. “So, are you a biologist or something?” asked one of the young ladies. I chuckled out loud at the suggestion.  “No, I’m no biologist. I’m just– “

“So what are you doing wading around in the river then?” she continued to press the matter. “Are you studying something?”

“Well, sort of,” I replied. “I actually came up here to–“

“Why are you dressed like a fisherman?” she asked pointedly. Standing there in my waders, boots, lucky fishing hat and my fanny pack of assorted tippet and gadgets, it wasn’t an altogether stupid question.

“Well, I am a fisherman. It’s just that–“ I was cut off again.

“Where’s your fishing pole?” She demanded to know.

“We fly anglers prefer use the term ‘fishing rod’,” I corrected her. “And it’s in my car. The problem is that my reel is at home.”

“What a dorky thing to do!” she quipped good naturedly.

I had to agree, but then the conversation quickly took an ugly turn. The young female asker of many questions declared that the whole catch and release thing seemed cruel and hurtful for the fish. I tried to calmly defend the practice of proper fish handling and release, but she seemed intent on proving me to be an animal abuser of some sort. I tried to present my side of the argument in an intelligent and rational manner, but it was probably difficult to take me too seriously as I stood there dressed like a fisherman without the essential tools to actually do any fishing. The Lucky Dog tried to defend my stance as a conservation-minded fisherman by declaring that letting the fish go was better than flat-out killing them, but his companion would have none of it. “Well I think it’s mean,” she declared. I can’t be sure, but she may have had a PETA tattoo on her lower back.

With that I bid them a pleasant evening and made a hasty exit. On my walk out I thought that perhaps the Lucky Dog wasn’t so lucky afterall.

I’ll never forget that fishless day and hope that it serves as a lesson. No doubt there are more fishless days ahead, but hopefully not for a lack of necessary equipment.

This year, my Stocking is half full.

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 PC210434special 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).

Whitefish

Whitefish

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.

Sucker

Sucker

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.”

Carp

Carp

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.

Squawfish (Northern Pikeminnow)

Squawfish (Northern Pikeminnow)

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.