steelhead fly anglers
When I was a kid I liked comic book superheros, and my favorite was always Spiderman. I could easily identify with his alter ego – an unpopular, skinny kid by the name of Peter Parker. But once he donned the crime fighting tights I marveled at Spiderman’s ability to shoot his webbing between buildings and catch bad guys, very much in the same way that a skilled fly angler can fire a tight cast between overhanging branches and catch hiding fish. I’ve always wanted to be able to do both. Hey, a guy can dream can’t he?
Sea run cutthroat (SRC), or coastal cutthroat trout, are common to these parts (Western Warshington). When I was a comic book-reading kid I trolled for them along the beaches of Hood Canal, and later in life I’ve fished for them in the lazy stretches of the Snoqualmie River. I’ve known all along that SRC like the slow moving “frog water” and lie near structure so that they can ambush prey. I’ve also known for many years that there is a special fly tied just for these fish: the Reversed Spider. But knowing these things, and even possessing the fly with alleged super powers hasn’t brought me any good luck. The few times that I’ve gone after them have resulted favorably for the fish and left me feeling more like an unpopular skinny kid than a superhero. Recently, however, my SRC fortunes improved a little bit.
Brian Paige, who is a real life fishing superhero, recently invited me to join him for a steelhead float on the Wenatchee River. Unfortunately rains had caused the Wenatchee to rise and it was decided that we’d save ourselves the gas money and fish closer to home on the Skykomish River. As for what finned quarry we would be pursuing, Brian said, “Bring a 4 wt, an 8 wt and your Spey rod.” Apparently we’d be chasing SRC, Coho salmon, and steelhead. The prospects of that trifecta sounded rather enticing to me, so I grabbed my Sage Z-Axis 4 wt and Spey, and my Sage XP 8wt. I am admittedly a Sage whore Poster Boy, as I also have a few other Sage rods besides the ones employed for duty on this day.
I met Brian at the Sultan launch and we were joined by none other than the mysterious man who goes by the moniker, “Flybill”. There were enough rods in Brian’s boat to outfit a fly shop as we headed downriver under cloudy skies that threatened drizzle. There was even a spinning rod with the cork still in shrink wrap. I’m still not sure what that rod was doing there – all I know is that it didn’t belong to either Brian or myself. It had rained most of the night before and unfortunately the Skykomish was slightly on the rise. As we all know, fishing a river that’s rising isn’t what one would prefer to do, but to date I’ve not tapped into the superpowers needed to alter nature’s course. The weather forecast had indicated that the day would be clearing so we weren’t expecting much if any rain and hopefully the rising river wouldn’t become unfishable.
We immediately began casting toward the slow water for cutts. Brian guides for a living and fishes when he’s not guiding, so he’s on the river a lot. In between time on the water he works at All About The Fly, so fly fishing pretty much consumes his life. Brian starts fishing for sea run cutts in July, and had caught over 100 fish this past summer, even with a 5 week hiatus to do some guiding in Alaska. Bottom line: he knows how to fish for these SRC. Since I don’t, I was all ears when he described the tactics needed to trick these trout.
I watched as he demonstrated a technique developed by none other than the Reverend Mike Kinney , a northwest fly fishing legend who just so happened to create the Reversed Spider. With the rod tip close to the water, a quick flip of the wrist lifts and drops of the rod tip, followed immediately by a strip of the line. This gives the Reversed Spider the undulating action that drives these fish crazy and lures them into its web of deceit, and it didn’t take long for the fish to start hitting the fly tied to the ends of Brian’s line. It’s a fast-paced, visual type of fishing with rapid casts, frantic stripping and split second hook sets as these silver-sided fish rocket from their hiding places to hit the flies. It took me a while to get the proper technique dialed in, but finally I had a fish on! I was about to declare myself a bonafied Web Slinger, but when I finally landed a fish it wasn’t the species we sought: instead of a cutthroat, I had done a stellar job of fooling an 8 inch steelhead parr. Brian seemed hold my antics in contempt as if I was some sort of child molester, but I assured him I wasn’t trying to catch baby steelhead. Once again I felt like a skinny, unpopular kid.
Eventually I did manage to land a SRC, and my lifetime of being skunked at this game was over. The fish wasn’t impressive in size, but nobody had landed anything over 10 inches so I was holding my own in size if not numbers. Over the course of the day the rain that wasn’t supposed to fall, fell – sometimes hard, though it didn’t last long. I caught another couple small cutties, but it wasn’t enough to make me feel like Spiderman. We covered a lot of fishy looking water, and whenever Brian cast to a spot, he nearly always hooked a fish. At one point while I sat and watched, Brian went 5 fish for 7 casts. I had chances on what would have been the nicest 3 fish of the day – fish of about 12 inches, but I couldn’t seal the deal and ended up striking out. If I’d just landed one of those fish I could have worn the red and blue tights of the friendly neighborhood Web Head. It was probably best for all on board that I didn’t.
We saw a few Coho jumping throughout the day, but we never rigged up our rods for these tight-lipped fish that were in the river not to feed but to breed. And then die. I’ve never actually fished for silvers in the rivers, but I’ve heard that catching them on a fly is not impossible, just difficult. We decided not to waste our time to instead keep fishing for SRC, and occasionally pulled the boat over to the shore when good swinging water offered a chance to do a little Spey casting for unicorns steelhead. Not surprisingly, none of these anadromous rainbow trout were caught although Flybill had a good bump. Or so he said. I’ll take his word for it. I have no reason to doubt Flybill. Afterall, he’s a fisherman and fishermen never stretch the truth.
By the end of the day the rain that wasn’t supposed to fall finally stopped for good. I didn’t count the number of SRC landed, although Brian was into double digits and Flybill was well ahead of me. The fatigue in my casting arm confirmed that the total number of rapid fire casts I made was near 1000, which is the number of casts it usually takes to catch a steelhead. In that regard I’d done pretty well, as I’d caught at least a half dozen steelhead parr during the course of the day. Oh well, Peter Parker suffered many hardships before earning his Spiderman tights.
(I’ve been accused – mostly by Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler – of having a tendency, as it were, to employ the excessive use of run-on sentences in my writing, and so to that end I have decided to try something different: To change my ways – please bear with me.)
We pulled up to the gravel bar. We anchored the boat. It was a cool gray (or grey) February morning on the Sauk River. We were just downriver a short ways from Government Bridge. It was probably raining lightly. I’d never been on the Sauk before. I was in the capable hands of Brian Paige. Brian guides on Pacific Northwest “S” rivers. These include rivers such as the Skagit, Sauk, and Skykomish. I don’t think he’s quite gotten the Sammamish Slough dialed in just yet. He may be working it (insert sarcasm here).
(OK, that’s not working for me, but I tried, and it’s always good to try something new, if only to determine that the old ways were, in fact, better. Or at least more effective.)
When he’s not guiding, scouting or fishing for his own peace of mind, Brian can be found doing time behind the counter at All About The Fly in Monroe, WA. Actually, “doing time” might be a poor choice of words because there’s also a state prison in Monroe, and as far as I can tell, Brian is free to come and go as he pleases. Anyhoo, I’d met Brian the year before when a mutual friend (I’ll call him William Fly – not his real name) introduced us. We stood to mutually benefit from the introduction: Brian needed a logo designed for his guide business, Steelhead Fly Anglers, and I was a freelance graphic designer (still am) interested in learning the ways of the two-handed rod (still interested). Over lunch and a beer it was decided that I’d design him a logo in exchange for some time on the water slinging a two-hander. Good trade for both of us, although I’m reasonably sure I got the better end of the deal: Brian was easy to work with, while conversely I think I tested his patience. The month was January when Brian first got me out on the Skykomish River for a day of casting instruction (and the distant hope of a hookup with a winter fish). I’d fished for steelhead enough times with my 8 weight single hander to know that catching was the exception to the rule, and to that end I was not disappointed on this first day out with Brian. The chance encounter with a fish didn’t happen, but l learned more in a day about steelhead, fly presentation and Spey casting than I could have learned in a lifetime of reading books and articles or watching DVDs. I feel compelled to note that I did purchase a copy of Rio’s Modern Spey Casting DVD and have found it to be excellent (I watch it whenever I want to see how it should be done). I also discovered on this first outing that swinging the long rod was an awful lot of fun (and served up with a heaping portion of humble pie). It was obviously going to take me a long while to get used to it, and the fact that I felt reasonably proficient with a normal fly rod didn’t mean squat (see prior post: If you don’t Spey, don’t start)
And so a few weeks later I found myself on the banks of the Sauk River with still very little idea as to what I was doing with this long rod gripped tightly with both hands (and therein lies part of the problem – I need to learn to relax and loosen my grip a bit). I was properly rigged with a red and black marabou streamer provided courtesy of Brian (when you fish with Brian, black and red is the go-to combination, with the exception of course being red and black). “Start fishing about 60 feet below the boat, and fish close to shore first,” instructed Brian as we stepped onto the gravel bar. I did as I was told, which worked well for me because I really wasn’t capable of more than a short cast anyway. “Cover the tight water first.” Roger that. The plan was for me to molest the run first and Brian would drop in behind me and pick my pocket. I peeled the length of the Compact Skagit head from the reel, and laid out a very unimpressive switch Spey. I gave it a quick mend and let the fly swing in the current of the reasonably clear waters. It should be noted that the Sauk clouds quickly and easily after a rain, but we hit it on a day when the water was nicely colored with a few feet of visibility. As the fly settled into the “hang down” I pondered how the day might turn out. Word on the street was that it hadn’t been a particularly productive winter steelhead season to date, and these fish were hard to catch regardless. Add to the equation the fact that I was a hack (still am), I stood very little chance and held out virtually no hope of catching a fish. No matter, I was here to practice casting and there would be plenty of that. It was all good. There’s more to fishing than catch– well, you know the drill.
Standing knee-deep not 10 feet from the water’s edge, the tip of my rod dipped gently and I felt a bit of tension in the line. Naturally I assumed that my fly had hung up on a rock, but something felt a little different – I’d hung up on rocks enough to sense that this was no rock. Maybe a stick, instead. Remaining uncharacteristically calm, I laid the tip of my rod toward shore and that’s when it became clear to me that there was a fish on the other end. I forget precisely the exchange of wordsthat passed between us, but I seem to recall Brian saying something about “FISH!!!” I jumped to the assumption that it was a Dolly Varden – common to these waters – until the fish rolled near the surface and presented a dark, olive-colored backside and a flash of silver flank. “Steelhead!” declared Brian. He was certainly enthusiastic, whereas I remained seemingly calm, in much the same way that a deer in the headlights appears calm (when in all actuality they’re so scared they simply can’t move to save themselves). Sensing the significance of the moment, I pumped myself up with a good pep talk: “Alright, Jackass – do not lose this fish – given your fishing prowess you’ll likely never get another chance like this.” With me, fishing is nearly always about the ill-fated pursuit of elusive fish: I wade often in the shadow of a dark cloud of fishless despair. But as I began playing the fish the clouds parted, figuratively and literally.
I entered into what seemed in retrospect to be something of a dream state: A dream in which a dime bright wild steelhead, still oozing with salt and harboring sea lice, comes to the stark realization that it’s hooked and immediately freaks out and does it’s very best to put maximum distance between itself and the angler who is also freaking out. The fish takes off downstream, leaping and tail-walking and generally displaying impressive aerobatics. The reel sings and the drag is pushed to its limits. The fish is running as if shot from a cannon and takes the angler deep into their backing: The angler realizes that this is why reels are loaded with a half mile of the stuff – because with a fish like this, the backing is actually needed for more than just filling up the spool and reducing fly line memory. The steelhead angler sprints downstream at breakneck speeds, across ankle-twisting river rocks and wader-shredding fallen trees in an attempt to keep up with the fish. The fish is hell-bent on getting back to the salt and doing so in double time, and if that means dragging a fisherman along for the ride, so be it.
Yeah, well this was not quite how my experience played out. There were no acrobatics or drag-smoking runs, nor did my wading boots see double duty as track shoes. My backing never left the spool, though the fish did take line from the reel at will. Thankfully the drag on the Ross was smooth and proved worthy, and eventually I managed to steer the fish toward the shallows, where Brian was able to tail it and quickly remove the barbless hook. It was a beautiful native hen in the neighborhood of 32 inches and an estimated 14 pounds (these were, by the way, Brian’s estimations and not mine, so if you have an issue with the accuracy, please contact Brian through his website). Chrome bright she was not, but I’d like to think that she hadn’t been in the river for too long. While the fight was perhaps not quite the epic struggle one envisions, I have to give the old girl credit: She bore scars indicative of a close call with a gill net, and she’d likely made a fast run up the Skagit and into the Sauk: Who wouldn’t be a bit tired after all that? She’d beaten the odds in an era when fewer and fewer wild Puget Sound steelhead survive the round trip to the rivers of their birth. As I released her back into the river, a turd-eating grin spread across my face. There would never be another first steelhead – I had lost my innocence. And while I felt just a little bit dirty, I was OK with that.
It should be noted that after the drama of the first cast, the day turned mostly clear and beautiful. Fishing remained exceptional, but catching returned to what would be considered normal. Thanks to Brian for a great day and ruining my life.