My family has had a place on the shores of Hood Canal since I was 4. It was the summer of 1967 and at that time I was a bit too young to do much fishing, but gradually over the years I branched out with friends who lived there year around and we dabbled in much the way that kids will dabble with fishing: We’d dunk worms under bobbers in the many lakes that dot the hills around the area, and catch diminutive trout fry in the nearby creek (looking back I’m quite sure they were juvenile steelhead and we unknowingly aided in the decimation of the once-robust runs of wild fish). In the salt water we’d drag spinning lures for Shorthorn Sculpin at low tide (we always called them “bullheads” and I still do). When the tide was high we’d use chunks of mussels on a hook dangled at the end of a length of monofilament for small perch (which we called “poagies”) that milled around the pilings of a local community dock. Hand-lining those 4 inch bruisers was great sport.
I was around 11 or 12 when I learned to fly fish. It was a friend of my dad’s—Lloyd Lewis—who was responsible for introducing my brother and I to the fly. Lloyd was a
passionate gonzo trout fisherman, and at one time was President of the Overlake Fly Fishing Club. He enjoyed coming to Hood Canal to fish for sea run cutthroat (coastal cutthroat) trout. I recall that he had a blue Ford camper van with a Port-a-Bote strapped to the side. He’d assemble the folding vessel, mount an electric motor on it and troll the shoreline on an incoming tide. I don’t remember any fish specifically, but the catching was apparently quite good because he came back for more of the same on more than one occasion. Since my family spent a great deal of time at Hood Canal while I was growing up I would certainly do a lot of sea run cutthroat fishing over the years, or so I may have assumed when I was 12 years old.
Gradually cars, girls and countless other distractions took precedent over fly fishing, or any type of fishing for that matter. As a teenager and into my early twenties I was much more interested in waterskiing than fishing and spent my Hood Canal aquatic time pursuing that endeavor. When I became
a responsible an adult, life got busy and it was many years before I picked up a fly rod again. When I did, I was all-in, and I became gradually more and more financially distraught for my addiction. However, despite having become consumed by fly fishing, I never did go after those sea run cutthroat at Hood Canal. More time was spent fishing inland rivers far away from the salt, and truth be told, I visited Hood Canal less and less over the years. However, due to a recent turn of events I find myself now responsible for the family cabin, and have been spending more time there, enjoying the simple place of my youth. As of even more recently, I decided to finally go after those sea run cutts, again.
When I packed for our Memorial Day weekend visit to the cabin I wasn’t planning to wet a line in the salt. I did stow my 4 weight rod in the truck so I could steal away a few hours and visit my buddy’s ponds that are filled with trout. It’s something I enjoy doing about once a year, and the fish can be surprisingly finicky so it’s not quite like shooting fish in a barrel. The ponds are teeming with cutthroat and rainbows, stocked many years ago and fairing quite well. But at the end of the day they are pond fish, and while they do get by on natural food for much of the year, they also receive the occasional feed pellet welfare handout. Not quite wild fish. It was my intent to visit these pond monkies until a conversation with a neighbor changed my mind. He’d been catching some nice sea run cutts on spinning gear: some at low tide and a few at high tide. One was caught right in front of our floating dock. This got me to thinking that perhaps I’d forego my visit to the pond in the woods and try my hand at the salty wild fish. And so after drinking my second cup of coffee on the front deck while watching the tide water recede, I decided to strap on my aging sandals—the crusty, decaying ones that remain at the cabin year-round, and head out. I strung up my rod and grabbed a couple simple streamers. I also grabbed my hemostats and my camera, hoping with little confidence that I’d need either or both. Mrs. UA offered a sarcastically encouraging “Good luck, Opie!” as I trudged a short distance across the muddy tide flats to a spot where a small creek dumps into The River.
The River flows from the low hills through a long gradual valley and enters Hood Canal, forming an estuary where the salt water reaches at high tide. Downstream of the estuary, The River’s channel continues out into the tide flats and only at the low tide mark does the river channel eventually vanish. Even at low tide, the water in the river’s channel is a bit brackish: part salt, part fresh. At low tide the mudflats are a popular stalking ground for Great Blue Herons; at high tide it’s not uncommon to see the occasional Harbor Seal chasing an unknown source of protein. Historically The River was a natal stream for salmon and steelhead: The steelhead are long gone, and the only small runs of Coho and Chum salmon return today.
As I approached my chosen spot, I chased a merganser off its hunting grounds. The bird’s presence was either a good thing, or a bad thing: Good, in that it meant there were bait fish and possibly chum fry, which meant there may also be larger fishy predators present; Bad, in that the bird’s presence may have spooked all fish out of the vicinity. Armed with a size 12 black bead headed Woolly Bugger, my fist cast swung into the gentle current of the river. It was mid morning under an overcast sky and the water was murky: visibility being perhaps a foot or two at best.
On my first cast the fish slammed my fly with authority and and tried to run. I gave it a bit of line as it lept from the water no fewer than three times before I brought it in: a silver-sided, heavily-spotted, 12 inch sea run cutthroat. It was missing the vibrant throat slashes common to other species of cutthroat, but there was no mistaking what it was. From the distant front porch of the cabin, Mrs. UA could see the action as it unfolded. She yelled something to me across the flats, and although I couldn’t make out exactly what she said, I’m sure it was something like, “You actually caught a fish!” I’ll admit, I was surprised myself.
A few minutes later I landed a smaller cutt of about 8 inches, and repeated the same shortly thereafter. A half hour into my day I hooked a fish that meant business. It hammered the Woolly Bugger like a small freight train and turned downstream toward the salt water, peeling a fair amount of line and jumping a couple of times. I pinched down on the line to apply the the brakes and as I did so I felt felt several violent head shakes. The fish was strong and bent my 4 weight nearly in half. Fortunately I had 3x tippet so I didn’t have to be too careful. I did have a barbless hook, however, so I couldn’t be too careless. The fish was a solid 16″ and as beautiful as the others before it. There would be a 3 more smaller fish for a total of 6 within a span of only 45 minutes. I was delighted with my angling prowess. The Bald Eagle in the tree above me was not—and screeched its outrage at my having not successfully harvested what would have made for a nice meal or two. The eagle flew off in disgust as I secured my fly and headed back to the cabin. Despite the slippery mud, there was an unmistakable skip in my step.
If you ask Mrs. UA, I was probably insufferable the rest of the day. After toiling about the cabin yard for several hours, we found ourselves once again sitting on the deck, drinking something other than coffee at this point, and staring out at the incoming tide. Still brimming with confidence from the morning’s angling success, I reached for my rod, donned my crusty sandals, and grabbed my hemostats and camera (certain that I would need them this time), and made my way to the water’s edge. The tide was coming in fast and there was more water in the chancel now than there had been earlier in the morning. The water was warmer, too, as is often the case when the exposed tide flats heat up under the sun of the day.
The incoming tide also tends to bring with it considerable debris such as floating wads of seaweed and eelgrass, which collect on fishing line and fishing hooks with great ease. The day had cleared and there was considerable glare on the water so I opted for a heavier fly this time, tying on a tungsten conehead olive Woolly Bugger. The first cast did not bring with it the same result as it had earlier in the day. Nor did the second or third. As I glanced over my shoulder I could make out the distant form of Mrs. UA, perched in her red plastic throne on the deck, gesturing as if to say, “Not so easy this time is it, Mr. Big Shot Angler?” I waved, grumbled, stripped line and recast.
On the 5th cast or so—although who was really counting—I struck pay dirt. The heavy fish grabbed the fly and was immediately pissed-off at its decision to have done so. It jumped once, but spent most of its time under water, pulling. Headshakes were felt down to the cork and the fish ran at will, taking more line than I’ve had a trout take, ever. I was fairly sure I’d see my backing and probably would have save for the fact that the fish was swimming against the incoming tide, which worked in my favor. I was able finally to turn the fish with a doubled-over rod, wishing I’d had my 6 weight instead of the out-gunned 4. It took a while to finally subdue the silver bullet, but when I had it to hand I was surprised that it wasn’t larger than it was: another 15-16 inch fish. Pound for pound it easily fought harder than any fish I’ve caught.
A few more casts yielded no more takes and I doubted I could improve upon the last fish so I skipped back to the cabin, under the watchful and still disapproving eye of the eagle who’d come back to watch me release more perfectly good food.
On the many rivers I’ve fished over the years, across and beyond the state and hundreds of miles from home, rarely have I encountered as many hard-fighting fish. Sometimes the best fishing is right under your nose. In my case it only took 40 years to realize this.