Not being much of a world traveler, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been on a commercial flight: In other words, about eight times. I’ve only flown first class once and it was purely by accident that we were offered a free upgrade due to an overbooked flight. And once seated in the hoity toity section, I felt more than a little out of place being surrounded by people who were there intentionally. But anyone who has ever flown first class knows that you don’t pass up a free opportunity like that, and so it was when I was invited to go fishing aboard the Alumaweld Express – a river sled belonging to the man who, to protect his true identity, I shall refer to as “The Reel McCoy”.
What constitutes the first class luxury of this craft is not Barcalounger seating or top-cabin beverage service, but rather the efficient manner in which the craft takes the angler on their quest. Now I acknowledge that many who fish the rivers consider jet sleds to be noisy, raucous beasts, and that drifting under the power of the current itself is part of the serenity and appeal of fly fishing. But when you’re aboard a sled, it’s easy to forget all that, at least temporarily. It was a privilege to be on board, and like flying first class I felt a bit out of my element: McCoy is the genuine article – an accomplished angler – and I really had no business being on the same water as him.
On a few occasions McCoy and I had previously talked about the need to get out and fish together, but good intentions are not always met with resolve. Fortunately a recent chance encounter gave us the opportunity to actually do more than talk, and we laid down plans to fish the Skykomish for a few hours on a particular day which happened to be the morning of a particular pro football championship game where advertising costs over $2.5 million for a 30 second spot and is often better than the game itself (although that would turn out to not be the case this year). We decided to just fish for a few hours – I had to be back for a Sensational Bowl party, and every indication was that fishing would be slow anyway – afterall, it had been a rather bleak winter steelhead season on all Puget Sound rivers. So bleak, in fact, that two other rivers would be closing the following weekend and the Skykomish would be closing shortly thereafter. Like nearly every other Puget Sound area steelhead fishing folk, we were fish-deprived and running out of time, and even though expectations were nonexistent it would still be good to get out and do a little practice casting.
We hadn’t planned an early start, so I figured Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler wouldn’t mind fixing me a hearty breakfast, filling my thermos and sending me out the door with a kiss on the top of my head. I was, of course, misguided in my assumption so I fixed a bowl of oatmeal, forgot to fill my thermos, and headed out the door with my lucky fishing hat on top of my head. I would be meeting McCoy at 8:30 just a few miles up the road from where I live, so I didn’t have but a 10 minute drive. Admittedly it was a little later than seasoned anglers like to hit the water, but remember – this was just a very casual outing and really just an excuse to get out and exercise the Spey rods, perhaps one last time, before the river closed for the season. I didn’t even pack a lunch, as we planned to be back at the boat launch by 1 PM.
I’d fished the river the weekend prior and save for Junior Albacore’s skunk-eliminating bull trout, not a fish was seen or touched as we floated peacefully downstream in a beautiful wood drift boat. Today was a little different because the vessel in which we would be navigating the waters had the ability to go both downstream and upstream. Quickly. This was not my first time in a boat powered by jet-propulsion, but it was still a treat because we were able to make the most out of just a few brief hours: It allowed us to quickly get to the run we wanted to fish, which would have otherwise required a long downstream float. We launched at the Lewis Street bridge in Monroe, and headed upstream for 15 minutes before arriving at the hole named for the government agency known to cause anxiety around the 15th of April. Along the way we zipped past the Ben Howard launch where a few folks were just beginning to congregate for the Sunday Spey Services. I thought I recognized the Reverend Kinney, but at such blinding speeds it was all a blur. I made the sign of the cross and acknowledged that I probably should have been attending those services to cleanse myself of casting impurities. But alas I was where I was, with my hat pulled low and my hands buried in the pockets of my jacket. It was a mild February morning, but when you’re scooting along a river at 25 knots on a damp February morning, mild is a relative term. As we continued our ascent, it was through watering eyes that I noted the trees were strangely devoid of eagles, whereas the week before there had been large laughing raptors occupying nearly every other tree along the river. I assumed they’d all flown the coop for waters that actually held fish – where ever that might be. Or maybe they were enjoying a buffet breakfast at a landfill somewhere nearby. Whatever the case may be, I took the lack of eagles as a bad sign.
As we rounded the bend below our destination I was relieved to see the run vacant. It’s a popular spot for some reason, even though I hadn’t heard of it (or any other run for that matter) producing any fish recently. There was one angler fishing the opposite bank, but we had the desired run to ourselves. After securing the vessel, we strung up our rods and hit the water: McCoy fished down while I walked to the head of the run. I was using my type 8 sink tip, (which sinks at an estimated 8 inches per second), and that seemed to be working well in the slightly faster-than-ideal water. I was ticking a few rocks but not hanging up. Amazingly, my casting felt pretty good too: maybe I was finally getting the hang of it, although one missed anchor sent my pink and orange marabou streamer buzzing dangerously close by the side of my face, causing me to flinch and return to reality. After about an hour, I noticed that McCoy had a strange bend in his rod. Assuming he’d dredged up a rock, I stripped in my line and was preparing to make another cast when the rock suddenly splashed on the surface of the river. Assuming a bull trout, I reeled my line and made my way toward McCoy’s position to lend a hand if need be. As I approached, it was clear that whatever was causing the bend in his rod was big. And when it broke the surface again it was clearly neither bull trout nor Dolly Varden. Chrome flashed under the dull gray skies and line peeled from McCoy’s reel as the fish made a downstream run. McCoy carefully picked his way along the rocky bank while I stumbled behind him. We followed the fish, which jumped a couple more times. This was a nice fish, and McCoy slowly but steadily gained advantage, eventually turning the fish to shore where I tailed the big native buck.
The fish was an impressive specimen: Long and thick, and I could barely grab around the base of its tail (insert small hand jokes here). While I held the beautiful chrome anadromous rainbow trout, McCoy quickly ran a tape measure down its length: An honest 38-39 inches! The Big Buck would be a dandy on any river, anywhere. I felt honored and unworthy to have been in the presence of such a creature, and it was rewarding to get the smell of fish on my hands, even if it wasn’t a fish of my own doing.
After the fish was released to go about his upstream migration, McCoy and I walked back toward the boat. It was decided that I’d work the lower run that had just produced the Big Buck, so I set up in position and began thrashing the water with my line (but not before switching out my fly for a special black and blue marabou tied by Large Albacore). On my first swing – and I kid you not – a banana peel drifted downstream and across my line. We all know what they say about bananas and fishing, and I am not making this up for the make of journalistic grandeur. It did, however, prove to be a bad joo-joo, as things quickly began going south on me. In this softer water my sink tip was finding a rock to get hung up on with each cast, and my rhythm was interrupted: My D loops crumpled and my anchors were missed as I began peppering the back of my head and shoulders with my misguided fly. I’m sure McCoy was enjoying the show, but being a gentleman he kept his laughter concealed. At one point I wondered if the banana peel had come from him, but he’s a lifelong fisherman and I’m certain he wouldn’t allow a banana on his boat. I clearly needed a timeout, so I headed to the boat to sharpen the hook on my rock-dulled fly and switch out my type 8 tip for a type 3, which would sink less rapidly and be better suited for the slow water that I was plying. This was a wise decision and I got back into the swing of things quickly. Casting, swinging, stripping and taking two steps, I approached the very water that had yielded the Big Buck 20 minutes earlier.
Suddenly I felt a tug on my line, saw a disturbance on the surface of the water, and promptly stopped breathing. Then, nothing. I reeled in line until my rod tip bent sharply, and waited. Still nothing. Certain that I was hung up on a rock again, it felt safe to exhale. But how could I be – I’d seen something splash…hadn’t I? I paused, dumfounded. Then I held the tip of my rod upstream just a little bit to see if the rock was really a rock. Yep, clearly a rock. But then the rock abruptly started to take line from the reel. I held on as what appeared to be a fish took off at a run. Bull trout? Big bull trout, perhaps? Then she lept out of the water and showed herself completely – the bright chrome sidewalls did away with any notions of a bull trout, and she peeled line so fast my loose drag almost allowed for a bird’s nest in my reel. After tightening down the drag it took several minutes to turn her to shore, by which time McCoy was ready with a steady hand to tail the beautiful 28” wild hen. This was my first steelhead on this river, and my second wild fish ever (the first coming from the Sauk river a year earlier). She immediately earned a special place in my book of the coolest things I’ve experienced, so we honored her with a quick photo and sent her on her way. Maybe she’d meet up with the Big Buck and they’d tell stories to their offspring someday. OK, that’s admittedly ridiculous, but being a children’s book author my mind works that way. Furthermore, catching a beautiful bright fish, out of the same spot and within minutes of one’s fishing buddy catching a beautiful bright fish, on a day when expectations were nonexistent, in a year when the overall situation was gloomy, will make a man say stupid things.
Giddy to each take a chrome deduction on our steelhead tax forms, we toasted the day with a cold beer before boarding the Alumaweld Express for our return trip. We pondered stopping to quickly fish some lesser-quality water, but decided to quit while we were on top. The Alumaweld Express made a rapid descent, and by 2:00 I was hanging my waders in the garage. Upon entering the house, and announcing my presence by beating my chest with both fists, I proclaimed of our good fortunes. Busily preparing a salad for the party, Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler gave me a sideways glance and asked, “So, does this make you accomplished?”
Not hardly, as I was once again bested by the better man. But being out-fished felt pretty damn good on this particular day.
On a Serious Note: On February 12th the Washington Dept of Fish & Wildlife announced that in addition to previously announced closures for the Skagit and Sauk rivers, more Puget Sound rivers would be closing effective February 18th (the date on which I am publishing this post) to protect low fish returns. This closure includes the Nooksack, Stillaguamish, Snoqualmie, and the Skykomish, which produced these beautiful fish. By the time you read this, winter steelhead fishing for this year will be a thing of the past on Puget Sound rivers. What makes this a tough pill to swallow for sport anglers is the fact that closing the rivers early to catch and release fishing is like putting a bandaid on a gushing artery. It’s easy and politically acceptable for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to shut down sport angling, whereas doing something that would actually make a huge difference (like reducing commercial and tribal netting) would ruffle some big feathers. Until something is done on a much larger scale, the state of affairs for our wild steelhead is only going to worsen. I fear that one day, sooner than later, these treasured icons of the Pacific Northwest truly will become nothing more than mythological creatures.
When one has a bad head cold/flu, the worst part of the day is waking up. After sleeping fitfully for a few hours and breathing through one’s mouth, when the alarm goes off it signals the beginning of conscious misery. However, if one can manage to fight their way out of the phlegm cocoon in much the same way that a stonefly emerges from their nymphal shuck, then maybe – just maybe – they stand a chance of making a productive day out of it. Such was the case on a recent Saturday morning: Knocking a wad of spent kleenex from the nightstand as I reached to silence the alarm, I cracked one eye just to see if it would open, and peeled my tongue from the roof of my mouth. Then I lay completely still as I ran through a complete systems analysis: Results were not favorable. My first inclination was to go back to sleep, but it was too late for that as the door to our bedroom was nudged open and my dog’s face appeared over the edge of the bed. Having heard the alarm, Eddie knew it was time for his breakfast, and when Eddie has chow on the brain, there’s no refusing him. Besides, I had to get up- I was supposed to go fishing. And so, harkening back to the old college fraternity wake-up duties, this was a “Red Tag” and called for “feet on the floor”. OK, throw off the covers. Get the motor runnin’. Eddie spun circles and pounded the wall with his tail waggage as I followed him to the garage and filled his bowl before stumbling back inside. I hoped I had remembered to open the side door so he could get outside after inhaling his food.
There’s no shower on fishing days, and so with diminished motor skills I donned my long johns, fleece pants and shirt, grabbed my lucky fishing hat and made my way to the kitchen to make coffee and throw together a pathetic lunch. At this point I acknowledged that I should have made my lunch the night before when I was thinking a bit more clearly. But on the previous evening all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and die – having the chills and aches tends to have that gloomy affect on a person. If only Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler were a more supportive and nurturing wife, she’d have gotten up and made my lunch for me…I poured water into the coffee maker, added enough grounds to fill my cup and my thermos, and hit the brew button. Dayquil substituted for my morning juice, and did a fair job of washing down the vitamin pills. I returned to the task of assembling my lunch only to be interrupted by the coffee maker overflowing: Too many scoops of coffee had plugged the filter drain, and brewing coffee bubbled out onto the counter and over the edge, into the drawers and down the cabinets. Yeah, it was going to be a good day. I should have called in sick, but my fishing compadres were counting on me to be the shuttle vehicle, so I grew a pair and made my way out the door without so much as a supportive “good luck, honey!” from the slumbering Mrs. UA. As I exited the warmth of the kitchen I traded my lucky fishing hat for a baseball cap, which would fit better under the hood of my wading jacket. Judging by the heavy drizzle falling outside, the hood was going to be a necessity on this late January day. Oh well, I was going steelheading, so the lucky fishing hat wouldn’t make a difference: It’s powerless under the spell of those mythological fish. Besides, nobody would notice anyway.
I was scheduled to meet Chunky Albacore at our take out point, where he would leave his rig and trailer. Then we’d drive to our launch point and meet up with his brother, Junior. I arrived ahead of schedule, which gave me time to slip into my waders and boots. It’s a little cumbersome driving a vehicle with waders and felt soled boots, but I wanted to be ready – nobody likes waiting for someone to gear up when they’ve been ready, standing in the rain for half of an hour. There’s always a certain sense of urgency to get on the water, even though 5 minutes wouldn’t make a bit of difference to the fish, who may not even exist and likely aren’t planning to cooperate anyway.
Chunky arrived right at 8:15 and after several ill-fated attempts he managed to get the trailer backed into parking spot (remember: turn the steering wheel the opposite direction of where you want the trailer to go). He climbed into my truck and off we went to meet Junior. I hadn’t seen Chunky in over 20 years (though I’d fished with his brothers, Large and Junior, recently), so we exchanged the obligatory “Been a long time” comments and then jumped immediately into the sad state of affairs surrounding our Puget Sound steelhead. Nothing like that to get the blood boiling and adrenaline pumping, which in turn helps to temporarily clear sinus congestion.
Junior Albacore awaited us, standing guard over the drift boat co-owned with Chunky. I’d heard of the boat, but this was the first time I’d seen it. And it was a dandy: Wood construction, beautiful finish work. It was the type of gentleman angler’s boat one might expect a couple of attorneys to own – not a couple of grizzled steelhead fishermen. I assumed my perch in the rear of the boat, cut loose with a repertoire of rapid-fire sneezes, and we were off. “You don’t sound too good,” Junior noted. “I sound worse than I feel,” I replied. I was being optimistic, but truth be told I was feeling better now that I was on the water.
The Skykomish was clear and nicely tinted an emerald shade of green (about the same color as the stuff that drained from my nose). We hadn’t had much rain recently, and although it fell on us this day, the river was pretty low for this time of year. It would be a ways before we came to the first good run to stop and fish, so as we drifted downstream we engaged in social niceties. I heard of the brothers’ ill-fated trip to fish the Situk River in SE Alaska which was so miserable in every aspect that they cut the trip short and returned home to finish their vacation fishing a local river. Theirs was not the Alaska fishing adventure one reads about in the angling magazines, and made me question whether I would ever want to go to Alaska. Then they took turns (OK – interrupted each other, as brothers will do) telling me of the debacle involved in acquiring their boat, which began in September of ’06. They’d ordered the boat on EBay. It hadn’t yet been built so they could have it customized to suit their needs. The completion was delayed and they didn’t receive the boat until May of ’07. However, it was less than what they’d been promised, and they rejected the boat for a variety of reasons. They convinced the builder to swap the boat for a new one, which they finally picked up in Missoula in August of ’07. What they noticed was that while the structural construction was excellent, the finish job was not. The current beauty of the craft was due to the fact that once they’d returned home with the boat, they stripped the original finish and redid it themselves. This is what Junior said, but according to Chunky, he did most of the work. A year and a half after it all began, the boat finally had it’s maiden voyage on the Yakima River in the Spring of ’08. And here I thought the dark cloud of misfortune only followed me.
Each equipped with Spey rods, we stopped and fished the runs that offered decent swinging water. Admittedly there was a meat pole on board (not mine), strung up with a bobber and jig “fly”, but we kept it’s employment to a minimum, bringing it out only as we drifted from run to run. We knew fishing would be slow – it almost always is. But this year was a particularly lean one for winter steelhead. It had already been declared a month earlier that two other rivers to the north – the Skagit and Sauk – were closing in mid February due to low fish returns, and the announcement had just been made that the Skykomish would also close early for the same reasons. We knew our chances were slim, but we had to give it a shot. I viewed it as a day of casting practice, which is something I always need.
At one point in our drift a familiar white boat scooted by, occupied by a couple of desperate men, one of which was my casting mentor, Brian Paige. After exchanging obligatory inquisitions as to the catch rate thus far, Brian called out, “Where’s the lucky fishing hat?” Damnit – nobody was supposed to notice! Too late to do anything about it now. “Just trying something different today,” I replied, before coughing up a portion of lung.
As the clouds lay low over the valley and drizzle fell off and on, we saw a few other anglers, but not as many as one might have expected. We counted more bald eagles than fishermen, and wondered what all the eagles were doing for food since there didn’t seem to be any fish in the river. Well, that’s not true: There was at least one fish in the river, and Junior landed it at the head of a nice looking run. He thought it was a steelhead, and from my vantage point downstream I thought it was a steelhead. Chunky is an agreeable fellow, so he also thought it was a steelhead. (Disclaimer: Nobody present thought it was a steelhead after the fish had revealed itself. Any references to the fish being a steelhead came well in advance of present anglers having established visual contact with the fish. Once a visual was secured, all present immediately knew, without a shadow of doubt, the identity of the fish). Turns out it was a Dolly Var– er, bull trout. Recent reports seemed to indicate that a lot more bull trou– er, Dolly Vardens were being caught lately. It could be that they’re doing well and their numbers are way up, or that there are just so few steelhead left that the chances of catching one of these native char is better. Either way, it was a beautifully spotted fish, about 18 inches: Nice and thick. With the skunk off the boat the air smelled better, even through my congested nose. However, that would be the only fish caught this day.
To celebrate the catch of the day, we broke for lunch. This proved even more disappointing than I’d thought when I realized the quality of the food I had packed early that morning: Nearly expired ham on nearly stale bread, carrots, unsalted chips and a piece of string cheese. Luckily, Chunky produced a slab of smoked steelhead which he passed around for all to enjoy. So succulent was this offering that even my dysfunctioning taste buds couldn’t ignore the savory goodness. I washed it down with a shot of Dayquil, chased by the remnants of my thermos, and then quickly retreated toward the brush-lined bank to relieve myself, thankful once again for my Dan Bailey EZ Pee Guy Waders. As I embarked on this endeavor one of the many eagles we’d seen during our float was watching and screeched from his perch. Clearly he found great amusement in what he saw, because there was no mistaking his screeching as avian laughter. I didn’t mind the taunting – after how I’d felt the past couple of days, I was just glad to be out on the water, enjoying the company of the Brothers Albacore, and actually throwing some casts that didn’t, for the first time, completely suck (knock on a wood boat). Had I stayed home I’d have just dwelled in a state of self pity surrounded by an unsympathetic Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler, kleenex boxes and whatever was on the Lifetime channel.