if you don’t spey

Fishing hopeless waters

It was another of those “I’m going fishing without any hopes whatsoever of catching a fish” days. I do that quite a bit.

I live in the once-sleepy little town of Duvall, Washington, and a river runs through it. The Snoqualmie River, that is – a lazy, meandering, silt-laden slough of water with barely any visible current. Twenty or so miles upstream the river spills over Snoqualmie Falls, making its way north past the Tokul Creek fish hatchery and through the town of Fall City. There actually is some current in these upper stretches of the river, and it can hold some steelhead: mostly tight-lipped, dour hatchery brats that afford the angler a false sense of hope.  Below Fall City the river snakes its way toward the town of Carnation, losing gradient along the way. The farther north the river flows the less the river actually resembles something that might hold a steelhead or two. Past Carnation and all the way to Duvall and beyond, the Snoqualmie becomes more of a frog water ditch. There are stretches of the river where I actually think the current flows backwards (it’s that slow). It’s like this until it joins the Skykomish to form the Snohomish a few miles farther North. I shouldn’t be too hard on the lazy Sloqualmie, as it does give up the occasional Squawfish (at least two in my experiences).

The Lazy Snoqualmie looking north.

The Lazy Snoqualmie River looking south.

When the need to fish becomes overwhelming and I don’t have time for a proper day of angling, I’ll drive the 8 short miles toward Carnation where there are a couple runs that have enough current to swing a fly. It’s been reported that a steelhead has been caught in this area but it’s more mythical than anything else. However, I can be there in 15 minutes and if I time it right I can have the water to myself, which is how I prefer it.  There’s a good reason I can nearly always have one of these runs to myself: accomplished anglers go where the chances of catching fish are actually somewhat favorable. So now that I’ve wasted your precious time telling you about the sub-standard steelhead fishery that I call my home waters, let’s get right to the matter of actually fishing.

The weather was cloudy and the meteorologists had predicted rain. Looking skyward that morning it didn’t take much convincing for me to grab the Goretex jacket, and I even threw on a pair of lightweight long johns under my waders. I was actually hoping for rain. Jimmy showed up at my house around 9 AM (there’s no reason to be in a hurry when you’re just headed out for some casting practice on a river that rarely gives up fish of any kind). Fifteen minutes later we were parked near the river and gearing up.  I grabbed my Sage Z-Axis 7136 Spey rod and the spool containing my floating summer line, a 480 grain Airflo Compact Scandi. The river was low and clear, so I figured I’d swing a small fly just below the surface. No point in dredging for fish rocks with a sink tip.  Jimmy grabbed his 5 weight rod – he has not yet succombed to the evil temptress that is the two-handed rod. This is probably best since has 4 daughters and two of them are into horses. Equine endeavors leave little time and even less money for something like the dark side of fly fishing. In fact, so innocent was Jimmy that he’d never seen anyone cast a Spey rod before, and he simply wanted to come along and see how it’s done. I cautioned him that I was not the person to observe if he wanted to see how it’s done, but given no other options my casting would have to suffice. Sorry for that, Jimmy.

We set up along the first run and began plying the water.  Jimmy quickly noted the benefits of Spey casting: “It sure looks a hell of a lot more efficient at getting the line out farther.”  True that, but I cringed at his words.  I did not in any way want to be responsible for the financial downfall of another angler, and the beginning of the end comes when the angler acknowledges first hand the benefits of Spey casting. Jimmy, if you’re reading this, then please read THIS. Let my cautionary essay against Spey casting serve you well. Walk away while you can and say these words: If you don’t Spey, don’t start. Repeat.

It took us less than an hour to fish through to the bottom of the run and being par for the course we didn’t have so much as a bump. We did, however, bump into another Spey casting man who said he’d been up around Fall City earlier in the morning. He noted that there had been someone in every run.  This wasn’t surprising for a couple of reasons: First, every steelhead fly angler in the region had been chomping at the bit to catch a fall fish. The weather had recently been warm and dry, and few fish were moving throughout the rivers. That doesn’t ease the need to fish, however, so on this first cloudy day that promised rain, every steelhead angler was out hoping to put another notch in their catch card. Secondly, up around Fall City is where the best water for not catching a steelhead can be found.

That was enough to convince me that we wouldn’t be driving to Fall City, so we headed downstream a short ways to my other favorite spot that doesn’t produce fish.  As we hiked in a half mile or so we both commented on how warm it was – almost freakishly warm, and the sun was actually trying to burn through the clouds. So much for the weather forecast and the need for Goretex. Before we started casting I cautioned Jimmy that about all we could hope to catch here would be steelhead parr. It’s not that I go out to target these toddlers intentionally, but they often hit a fly being swung for their adult kin or for sea run cutthroat.  There’s only a short section of the river that presents decent swinging water, below which is a large, annoying eddy followed by vast expanses of frog water. I took up residence at the head of the run and fired off my first cast. Midway through the swing, sure enough I was once again a child-molester.  The 5 inch fish really had no business hitting the Large Albacore Special (black and blue marabou streamer), but those little fish have piss and vinegar coursing through their cold blooded veins and they attack anything resembling food. It’s this same overachieving spirit that will one day ensure they survive a journey to the ocean and back. Even if they are just hatchery brats, one has to admire their spunk.

After removing the fly from the parr’s face, I cast again, gave a mend and let the fly swing across the current. Suddenly there was a solid hit at the end of my line that I knew came not from a troutlet. In fine steelhead angling fashion I laid the tip of my rod toward shore to let the fish set the hook itself, then held on.  The head shaking and thrashing that ensued told me this was no Squawfish, and then the fish turned toward mid-river it took line from the reel in a quick burst. However, I knew it wasn’t a real big fish.  Sea run cutthroat (SRC) came to mind, though this wasn’t typical SRC water – too much current and too little structure. Small steelhead was more likely, since I was targeting steelhead after all. Whatever it was, it fought good for its size.

I played the fish to shore and was not expecting what I saw. It had the typical coloring of a rainbow; not of a steelhead fresh out of the salt. The adipose fin was in tact so that indicated it was no hatchery fish, not to mention that it was simply too small to be a West coast steelhead (maybe a Great Lakes fish? Sorry Midwest anglers, I just couldn’t resist). I determined that it was a 15″ resident rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), which is the same species of fish that would have been called a steelhead had it simply left the river for the ocean. Now some of you may be rolling your eyes and thinking, “Hey Unaccomplished Angler – catching a rainbow trout is no big deal, and a 15 inch fish isn’t that impressive. And besides, weren’t you suppose to be fishing for steelhead?  What an unaccomplishment, you hack!”

There’s no need for name calling, so let’s address those inquiries.  Resident rainbow trout in this river are not only not common, in fact they’re quite uncommon. I’ve heard that they are around, though fairly rare and I’ve never met anyone personally who has ever caught one.  Regardless of size, it’s relative rareness made it a very interesting and unexpected catch. And it’s been a long time since I caught a trout over 15 inches in the state of Washington, so I was impressed. And given that there are fewer resident rainbows than steelhead in this river, I’d go so far as to say that this was an angling accomplishment.  I just wish I could have played that fish on a 4wt rod instead of m 7 wt Spey, because no matter how game the fish was, it was terribly outgunned.  As for being a hack, I’ll not contest that accusation.

The other thing I wish iss that my camera hadn’t been set on macro focus mode. You see, I had just snapped the photo of the steelhead parr from a distance of about 10 inches. When the camera is shut off, it doesn’t default back to the standard focus mode, so when Jimmy snapped the photos of my rare, resident rainbow the results were less than stellar. While I’d like to hold Jimmy at fault, I have to accept the blame for not knowing my camera.  The photos were as unexpected as the fish itself, although I wasn’t the least big disappointed with the fish.

As for the rain that was hoped for and predicted? It showed up two days later and fell with such ferocity that it blew the river out.