Sauk it to me

The Sauk River is one of three major tributaries of the once-fabled steelhead river, the Skagit, in North Central Western Washington. I’ve only fished the Sauk twice: the First Time in April 2009, during what was—unknowingly at the time—the last catch and release steelhead season before the WDFW closed that season down. The second time I fished the Sauk was when I dressed as a fisherman for Halloween 2016.

Ignorance was bliss (2009)

Ignorance was bliss (Sauk River, 2009)

In 2009 (when it was still socially acceptable to wear a fishing vest) I was a greenhorn Spey rodder, and on my first cast of the day, dumb luck struck and I landed my first wild steelhead on the swung fly. I’m glad I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be a long time after that day when I would land my next wild steelhead on the swung fly.

But let’s not dwell on the past, shall we? Jumping ahead to 2016, while no longer a greenhorn to the two handed rod, I am not a significantly better caster: ‘functionally adequate’ is how I describe my Spey casting prowess.

Late October is a bit early for western Washington winter steelhead, and while there may be a few early returning fish in the system, it’s not likely that they’ll be enticed to the swung fly. This time of year it was all about bull trout, or as some mistakenly call them, dolly varden. The difference between a bull trout and a dolly is fairly simple to explain, which I’ve done HERE in the past if you’re so inclined. At any rate, my friend Bob Margulis invited me to join him for what is one of his favorite times of year to fish the Sauk, when one stands a chance at a rather mixed bag of finned quarry: salmon, steelhead, sea run cutthroat trout, and/or bull trout. The bull trout have, at this time of year, recently concluded their annual spawn, during which they migrate from the main river up smaller tributaries. Once they’ve spawned they are spent, and hungry, and they move back down to the main river in search of a cigarette food.

As a very light, sporadic rain fell, we dropped into a run below a well known bridge and Bob set me up at the lower end of a run while he worked through to the top section. The Sauk was running a bit high due to recent (and current) rains, but not unreasonably so. There was a glacial green tinge to the river and visibility wasn’t horrible. In other words, the river was fishable. We observed a couple of chum salmon spawning in the gravel of an inside channel—a hen raking the gravel, creating a redd into which she was laying her eggs. A male moved in behind her to do his part. Cutthroat and bull trout would eventually move in later to snatch eggs from the redd, and eagles would eventually feed on the chum carcasses. Interconnected, the circle of life becomes quite evident during this time of year on Pacific Northwest rivers.

But I digress.

Bull Trout Candy

Bull Trout Candy

I laid out the first cast with my Spey rod—rigged with with a Compact Skagit head and type III sink tip—joined to a fluffy white streamer that, for lack of the actual pattern name, would best be described as “bull trout candy.” Just before the fly swung into the hang down, there was some resistance on the line. Naturally I assumed I’d hung up on a rock, but when the rock began shaking its head I changed my mind. There ensued no drag-screaming runs nor acrobatic displays, but the fish did communicate its displeasure and pulled with determination. After a short fight I landed what was a rather nice bull trout—somewhere in the 26-28″ range—certainly my largest to date. As Bob mentioned, “Where there’s one there’s more,” so after releasing the dolly bull trout native char I continued fishing the run with the hope of finding another fish. Apparently that was the only willing participant in the run as neither Bob nor I touched another fish. We moved upriver, above the well known bridge, to try our luck on a new piece of water.

A splendid Sauk River dolly varden bull trout.

A splendid Sauk River dolly varden bull trout.

I forgot to put the rod behind my neck for the photo.

I apologize for forgetting to put the rod behind my neck for the photo.

The rain began to fall in greater abundance as we situated ourselves on the next run. In my estimation, winter steelheading weather is wet and cold—a miserable combination that keeps most anglers inside by the fire reading about summer trout fishing. As the rain increased it certainly looked like winter steelheading weather despite that with temps in the low 50’s it was far too warm to be considered true winter steelheading weather (my hands weren’t even numb).

Despite appearances, not winter steelheading weather.

Despite appearances, not winter steelheading weather.

And that was fine, because we were fishing for bull trout. And I landed two more. These were considerably smaller than the first fish, each stretching the tape at about 18 inches. Despite their diminutive stature, they were game little fighters, one in particular was full of enough piss and vinegar that it jumped twice in protest. That would conclude the catching for the day, and in case you naysayers are screaming in outrage that my success is anything but an unaccomplishment, bear in mind that the day was not without unaccomplished incident: I had left home at 6:40 AM to meet Bob at 8 o’clock. I got 12 minutes from home when I realized I had left my waders back home in the garage. Fortunately I remembered before getting too far up the road. Wet wading would not have been a pleasant endeavor, despite that it wasn’t miserable enough to be considered winter steelheading weather.

Given that this is an election year, this seems appropriate to leave you with this:


  1. Leland

    I’m so glad you didn’t put the rod behind your neck for the hero fin an’ grin shot.

    • Kirk Werner

      What a pleasure to have you stop by for a comment, Leland! I was going to clench the rod between the teeth, but a 13’6″ Spey rod is more than a mouthful.

  2. Dean Wormell

    Very nice report, Kirk! I would like to fish those waters someday. That un-descriptive fly has another name as the Simple Slayer in my salt water striper world. Just a different wing & hook, but basically the same.

    • Kirk Werner

      THanks for the comment, Dean. Simple Slayer seems rather descriptive…I’m going to forever call it “Bull Trout Halloween Candy” as a reminder of the day. If you ever decide to fish those waters, bring your Gortex jacket. Even when it’s not raining, it feels damp.

  3. Carol

    Beautiful in-the-water pics of a beautiful species.

  4. howard levett

    Just Kirk being Kirk. Well done, I almost didn’t recognize you in your costume.

    • Kirk Werner

      Sort of like clowns—their true identity is unrecognizable when in clown garb…

  5. Fly Fishing Hanna

    Can’t get over how beautiful this fly looks. Is it easy to tie yourself? How does it look wet?
    Sorry, the fish are beauties as well, but this fly really did it to me 😀

    • Kirk Werner

      It is a nice looking streamer, no doubt—I don’t tie so I can’t speak to the ease of tying, but I can say that it looks great wet, especially in the corner of a bull trout’s maw 😉

      • Fly Fishing Hanna

        I can imagine, but then again, every streamer looks great in the corner of a bull trout’s maw 😛
        thanks for the reply!

  6. Steve Vaughn

    Wait a minute! When did the fishing vest become socially unacceptable? As usual I haven’t been paying attention and still wearing my 30-year old Orvis vest. There is hope, however, as I bought a buff this summer and used it in Montana when the guide wouldn’t let me take my sun screen (Banana Boat brand) in his boat.

    • Kirk Werner

      What, Steve—you didn’t get the memo from the Bureau of Fly Fishing Fashion? The vest went out of style at least ten years ago. But the buff is in style so that sorta cancels things out. If it’s any consolation, I still have vest. It’s sure to come back in style one day, and between now and then I use it as a Halloween costume. Banana Boat brand—I must have some of that stashed on my boat some where…

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