north fork snoqualmie river
There are many things that can interfere with a day of fishing: yard work, project deadlines, honey-do lists. These are things one can control, sort of (or at least ignore and set aside for another day). Other things, often dictated by Mother Nature, present bigger challenges. For example, heavy flows from Spring runoff force trout into hiding. Cold water can turn them into troutcicles that are either uninterested or incapable of feeding. These conditions affect the fish themselves, but high, cold water does not prevent an angler from having a go at the fish. Road blockages, however, are another matter.
I’d grown weary of sitting around waiting for summer fishing to turn on. Everywhere across the West, rivers were running much higher than they should be this time of year, and the state of WA was no exception. Spring had been almost non-existent this year as winter seemed to extend it’s ugly reach well into May and snow continued to fall in the mountains (I’ll avoid bitching about the weather for fear that Junior Albacore will come out of the shadows and leave a comment).
In recent weeks it had warmed and the melt was on. In its liquid form, snow runs down hill where it joins with other melted snow in channels called streams, or rivers. Three of these rivers converge near the town of North Bend: the South Fork, Middle Fork and North Fork of the Snoqualmie River. From here, the Snoqualmie River tumbles over Snoqualmie Falls and becomes a sub-par steelhead river for a few miles before becoming a lazy, fishless slough further downstream. The Forks, however, are small to medium sized mountain streams that run from high in the mountains, down through the foothills.
On any given year, one can expect fishing in the Forks to get productive around the first of July. The fish consist mostly of coastal Cutthroat trout, although a smattering of rainbows and even some Westslope Cutthroats can be found in some areas. They’re not large fish. Most are in the 8-10 inch range, with an occasional 12 inch bruiser being caught and mysterious secondhand reports of even larger fish are passed along though the ranks of anglers with seldom any photographic proof. No matter the size, these fish are all voracious eaters of imitation flies, as well they should be: they have a narrow window of feeding opportunities in streams that are not particularly nutrient-rich. This equates to fish that will typically rise to most any dry pattern you toss their way, although the bigger fish tend to be pickier. After all, a fish doesn’t get to be 12 inches by being stupid. Wet wading on warm days, tossing dry flies to these willing fish amidst beautiful countryside is what I define as a rather enjoyable time. It’s what I was longing for and perhaps hoping to encounter on my trip (save for the warm weather, which I knew ahead of time was not an option).
The South Fork is the most easily accessed of the Forks as it follows I-90 (or rather, vice versa) for most of its course. The Middle Fork is the bigger of the three, and while access is not difficult it does require a bit of a drive off the pavement. The North Fork is the most secluded of the three, and in many places it is not a large river by any means. I’ve only fished it once before—late last summer—and decided that it was worth the long drive for the beauty and solitude. On that trip with my brother we saw one other vehicle after leaving the pavement. Granted it was a week day in September, but I expected to see at least a few other anglers playing hookey. We did not. That solitude was what beckoned me to go back on July 3rd of this year, and without anyone willing or able to join me, I set off on a solo excursion. I anticipated the river would be running a bit high, but I needed to go fishing. No more sitting at home wondering, waiting. You know how it is.
It was a cool, off-and-on drizzly drive on the gravel road, which kept the dust down. “Lush” comes to mind as an accurate description of the countryside as I made my way past clear cuts filled with wildflowers. I was in no hurry, so I stopped several times to smell the roses (actually Foxglove). A pair of cow elk (one with a radio collar) jumped across the road in front of me. A short while later a ruffed grouse did the same thing, fluttering to a branch 15 feet up and sitting there pretending that I couldn’t see it (grouse are intelligent that way). That was the extent of the wildlife I saw, but if wolves move into this area, and there is a strong chance they may (despite what this article says), it’s going to add a whole new dimension to back country excursions. A 4 weight rod and a pair of hemostats isn’t going to offer much security when a pack of wolves eventually call this area home.
I passed a half dozen or so other vehicles along the way: some were hikers, others campers and of course some were fishing. But being the Sunday of a 3 day Holiday weekend, the area was remarkably devoid of human activity. Being a bit
antisocial reclusive, I wasn’t bothered in the least.
The trip odometer indicated 15.5 miles since I’d left the pavement behind as I turned onto a certain Forest Service road of a specific numeric designation and headed up the incline. If my memory served, I had about 3.5 miles to go before I came to a certain trailhead which would be my turning around point, although the road continues past that point for another few miles. I planned to fish down from that point as I’d done the year before, hoping to duplicate my previous experience.
At about 2.5 miles I came upon a large windfall lying across the road. Fortunately the Forest Service crews had been here before me and had removed a section of the tree so that most vehicles could pass. A Hummer probably couldn’t have made it through, but then again who would drive a Hummer way out here, off the pavement? They are, after all, one of the Top Six Stupidest Fly Fishing Cars.
Relieved to not have my progress impeded, I proceeded up Forest Service Road #XX. A short distance later it became apparent that no matter what vehicle a person were driving, forward progress stopped here.
Not to be deterred, I executed a 15-point turn and parked the Fish Taco off to the side of the road. As I did so I questioned my reasoning. Surely I could have left the truck parked in the middle of the road without presenting a problem for anyone else, but I supposed that there was a remote possibility Forest Service crews would show up at any moment to clear the trees, and if my truck were parked in a manner so as to block their passage, it would be a bad thing. I was alone, without anybody to discuss the situation with, so I did what I did. Then I geared up, applied some bug spray to keep the mosquitos and biting gnats at bay, and headed up the road. I scrambled around the fallen trees, expecting to find open road around the next bend.
Around the next several bends in the road I encountered more of the same: large trees lying across the width of the road. Some were on the ground, while others were suspended above the road. Where I was able, I walked around the fallen trees. Crews had obviously been in here with saws recently, but they’d hardly made a dent in the devastation. They had cut a convenient foot notch into one log, which made stepping over it quite easy. I paused to ponder why they hadn’t simply made two cuts and removed an entire section of the log? Probably budget cuts.
Where I couldn’t go around, I had to either go over…
Or under. Honestly it’s a lot more work to crawl under a log, and the thought of the log shifting while I was underneath it was a little unnerving.
So I opted to go over whenever possible.
Photos hardly do justice to the destruction. For 3/4 of a mile the road was littered with trees of varying sizes. Obviously a violent, condensed windstorm had blown down the mountain and hacked an angry swath through the area. Some trees were uprooted. Others were snapped off like twigs. Piles of trees lay like toothpicks across the road.
I imagined what it would have been like to be standing here when the storm was raging. I wondered if it would have been classified as a small Microburst? I’d seen the devastation of a Microburst when fishing Rock Creek in Montana a few years ago. This wasn’t nearly on that level of destruction, but it was more than just a casual windstorm that had caused this. Maybe a micro-microburst? Discuss.
But the point of all this log-hopping was to reach my destination and do a little fishing, which I did. And as expected, the river was running higher than ideal. Certainly much higher than September of the previous year. It wasn’t possible to wade to some sections that I wanted to reach, and others that I could reach didn’t hold any fish. None that wanted to play, that is. With the water registering a chilly 44 degrees, that wasn’t surprising. I gave up 2 tan elk hair caddises to the trees before switching to a yellow humpy, which I also snapped off on some brush.
Yes, things were going quite well for me. I noticed some small creme colored mayflies coming off—PMDs I concluded—and reached for a creme colored mayfly pattern. Having nothing to match the hatch, which wasn’t really a hatch as much as just a few sporadic bugs, I tied on a tan bodied Sparkle Dun and continued to see no fish rising. It was tough to get any sort of presentation in conflicting currents. I worked downstream as best I could before hoofing it back to the truck.
The road was still blocked by the fallen trees so it took me a good 30 minutes to make the reverse journey through the tangle. Once back at the truck I scarfed down an unsatisfying sandwich and drove down the road a ways, stopping at two access points to not catch any fish. At the last spot I encountered some seductive looking water that begged for a woolly bugger, which I offered. In another month after the flows drop and the water warms a few degrees, I’m sure a woolly bugger will entice a nice cutthroat from this logjam, but not on this day.
It didn’t matter that I got skunked, or that I didn’t even see a single fish. I didn’t need to catch fish, I just needed to go fishing. And I could have stayed out there all day. I’ll admit, however, it was nice to return to civilization. After 36 miles of gravel road, listening to the squeaky front shock on the Fish Taco, which chirped with every tiny bump in the pothole-riddled road, it was nice to get back to the pavement and relative silence. Oh, and you may be wondering why I didn’t cut some firewood while I was there? Well, a sign posted says you can’t.
So I didn’t. But I did bring home a chunk of contraband as a souvenir.