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 the 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 first 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.
Each 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.
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.