The last time I heeded the call to join Large Albacore on the Methow, we had the entire river all to ourselves and still caught no fish. Of course, that was then. This was now. This time would be different, and it was.
An hour after departing home at 4:30 I ascended Stevens Pass (elevation 4,062 ft) on my 2.5 hour drive to Albacore’s home. An early cold snap had turned the higher elevations white with the first dusting of wet snow, and while it wasn’t a whiteout by any means, there was an inch of sloppy stuff on the highway. This is not your fluffy inland powder, but rather a product of considerable coastal moisture: slippery goo that turns to chunky ice when the temperature dips below freezing. I was glad for good tires and 4 wheel drive so that I could pass the white knucklers doing 35mph in their rear-wheel drive sedans. Early season snowfall always catches a few people off guard—the same people each year.
The snow intensified for a period of time as I crested the summit and I couldn’t help but have a feeling of Deja-Vu. Two years earlier I’d made this same jaunt and the snow that began to fall during that trip never let up. In fact that storm would be the beginning of a winter that seemed to drone on forever. This time, however, the snow gave way to rain. Winter wasn’t ready to take over just yet and there would be no repeat of two years earlier, at least as far as the weather was concerned.
After a late dinner, Albacore and I retired to his basement where we watched a documentary film about Neil Young: Journeys. We’d both been fans of Neil since the days when Young was much younger and as we watched the film we remarked at how the old Neil still had the same velvety tone to his voice that he’s always been known for. Watching this film rekindled our love for the Godfather of Grunge and before we turned in for the night it was agreed that we would queue up some young Young while driving to the river the next morning. We didn’t have to wait long for that.
The alarm sounded at 4 AM and was followed immediately by a solid breakfast of eggs, hash browns and coffee that fueled our enthusiasm as we loaded Albacore’s truck and headed north. Live Rust emanated from the stereo and as we drove through the darkness we did our best Neil Young imitations. Suffice it to say that both Albacore and I have what it takes to be vocal stand-ins should Neil ever need us: we’re every bit as good as Jimmy Fallon. No, really—just ask either of us.
Singing has a way of making time pass quickly and before we’d even finished with the album it was 5:54 AM and we had reached our destination. The intent of our early arrival was to ensure that we got the run we wanted, which we did. We took our time gearing up before slowly picking our way along the dark trail. We waited Down by the River for another 20 minutes before it was light enough to fish.
We each brandished two rods: a Spey rod and a single handed 8 weight Meat Pole. It was agreed that we’d work through the run twice with our two-handers before rigging the Meat Poles. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. Albacore fished the head of the run with his go-to “Blue Moon” pattern; one that he fishes regularly and with confidence. I dropped in below and began slinging a red and black marbou streamer, courtesy of Ross Slayton (check out his newly-launched blog, Should Be Fishin’).
Not long into the morning Albacore hooked up with and landed a beautiful hen which he wagered was maybe 8 pounds. I suggested she was at least ten. Due to great differences in height, our perspectives are vastly opposite and equally skewed. Whatever the case may be, this fish was definitely a better than average-sized steelhead for this particular river and the skunk was off. At least for one of us.
The only fish I’d seen was a big old Chinook salmon that was hanging out in the shallows near a large redd, his tail waving gently back and forth in the current. I gave pause to wonder what the old buck was thinking as he neared the end of his journey. He’d had a good long life and had returned to his natal stream after an impressive upstream trip through several dams on the Columbia River. Though his decaying body was gradually failing him, his eyesight remained keen as he watched me. He was none too shy and only moved out of my way when I got closer than 5 feet.
After a second pass through the run without so much as a bump, Albacore instructed me to do the unthinkable: rig the Meat Pole. As he finished out the run I shamefully headed toward his gear bag and reached into the abyss for a box of dirty little secrets that was tucked away out of sight: nymphs. And stashed inside an even darker, hidden pocket: beads. Now, while there is nothing wrong with nymphing beads for steelhead if you want to catch steelhead, it is said that the noble way to go about catching steelhead is with a swung fly. That being said, if there’s one thing worse than nymphing beads for steelhead, it’s not catching steelhead. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no gentleman anglers were watching from the road above, rigged a black stonefly nymph and trailed a bead off the end. It was time to get dirty.
When one trades in their Spey rod for a Meat Pole, the transformation is remarkable. A Spey caster is a vision of serenity and self control; finesse and fluid beauty. Effortless sweeps of the long rod are poetry in motion and one can imagine the image set to the soothing sounds of Harvest Moon. A bead fisherman is a different animal. His face bears the grimace of a barbarian; yellow teeth clenched as tightly as their white knuckles on the cork. Involuntary guttural sounds are produced as the angler contorts his entire body with each crude stroke of the Meat Pole. Desperate casts lack form in favor of function as the nymph fisherman pounds the water in a manner that would best be accompanied by Hey Hey, My My. But not even playing dirty could produce a fish and so, fatigued and distraught at not having produced any fish even on the Meat Poles, we broke for lunch which Albacore had prepared the night before.
Sandwiches consisted of turkey, cheese and honey dijon mustard. Albacore apologized for the lack of garnishments, admitting that sliced pickles would have added a certain pizzazz to the otherwise lackluster sandwiches. We debated the sweet pickle vs. the dill, and it was decided that dill would have been the preferred choice. I didn’t complain and noted that it tasted great as it was. Albacore insisted that pickles would have been nice, but he worried that they would have just made the sandwiches soggy by the time we’d eaten them. I chewed on that for a minute before admitting that a pickle would have been nice, but not necessary. Sometimes the thoughts in my head manifest themselves into spoken words, not unlike Tourette Syndrome. Before I could stop myself I blurted that if he’d really cared, he would have taken care to slice some damn pickles and place them in a plastic bag so that we might apply them to our sandwiches, solving the matter of soggy bread. We ate the remainder of our lunch in awkward silence.
Like water under the bridge we put the pickle matter behind us and fished the next few hours in much the same way that we’d fished the morning. As a last resort we even revisited the first run of the day hoping to find another fish where Albacore had found his earlier. The run held no steelhead.
But the Traveller was still there. He hadn’t moved much. His tail seemed to flip more slowly but he still kept an eye on me so I thought it appropriate to sing him a little song. It helped pass the time.
Recent comments from a fan reader of the Unaccomplished Angler gave cause for me to sit back and do a bit of pondering. The first comment asserts that, “Spey fishing is like Tai Chi!” The second comment was equally amusing: “I find the whole fad a little curious…”
We’ll address the matter of Spey fishing being a fad next week. As to the first statement about Spey fishing being like Tai Chi, I believe there was an unintentional revealing of profound enlightenment in those words.
Fishing with a Spey rod is in fact like Tai Chi. As activities both practiced by humans, they have common roots that go back millions of years to the first ancestors of modern Homo sapiens. Over time, as modern societies established themselves, various activities grew out of the different societies: martial arts evolved in Asia; fly fishing evolved in Europe. So, yes, the Spey Way of fishing and Tai Chi are alike in that they are both activities practiced by human beings, and all humans are alike in that we have common ancestors. That analogy, however, may not be quite what the originator of the statement meant.
In researching the origins of fishing, I was surprised to discover that the Chinese are often credited for having invented the fishing rod around the time of 1300. Less surprising is that the Chinese also developed Tai Chi. So yes, the Spey Way again has something in common with Tai Chi. Still, I believe that isn’t where the originator of the comment was going with the statement.
Actually I know exactly what was meant by the comment–it was intended as a backhanded comparison suggesting that fishing with a Spey rod is not a very effective means of catching fish, and Tai Chi has no inherent physical, tangible benefits.
Spey casting was developed as a means of delivering the fly effectively and efficiently in certain fishing circumstances. Nobody ever said it was THE most effective way of fishing, but if your goal is to cover a lot of water with reduced casting repetition and limited room for back casting, Spey casting may just prove worthy of your consideration.
Tai Chi, with its familiar slow, meditative-like physical movements may not look something you would expect from a martial art but to say that it has no physical value is to not understand. When translated literally it means “supreme ultimate fist” and when practiced at its most advanced level, it’s movements are a series of strikes, blows, sweeps and kicks, etc. There are even Tai Chi forms that involve swords and spears. It’s important to acknowledge that fighting and practicing martial arts, just as fishing and catching fish, are two different things. To draw a comparison: on one hand you have Yin (Spey fishing and Tai Chi); on the other you have Yang (gill netting and cage fighting).
Back in 497 A.D. when Bodhidarma walked into China from India, among other things he taught martial arts to the monks at the Shaolin Monastery. This was necessary as a means of defending their domain against invading bands of marauders. To study a martial art today is much more simply an alternate form of exercise done for mental and physical health and to adopt a philosophical outlook on life. Bottom line: we no longer need to be able to fight for survival. Still, the benefits of martial arts training are not insignificant and include improved balance, stamina, flexibility, emotional and physical self control and stress relief. Those seem like fairly tangible benefits to me. It’s certainly easier on the body than other high impact martial arts/physical activities, with which I do have some experience.
Back before the marketplace economy when people lived off the land, fishing was a means of harvesting food needed for survival. Since the overwhelming majority of us no longer fish to feed our families, fishing (whether done with or without a Spey rod) is simply a means of engaging in a recreational activity for the sake of enjoyment and for many it also becomes a way of life. A day on the water casting and swinging flies is a sure way to relieve stress (it sure beats a day at work) and there is much less repetition involved in Spey casting than there is with typical overhead casting with a single handed rod. Therefore it’s much easier on the arms and shoulders, and I have experience with regard to shoulder tendonitis.
So yes, the Spey Way is remarkably like Tai Chi. Let’s examine some of the other similarities:
- Both Spey Way and Tai Chi have been around a long time. Spey casting was invented in the mid 1800’s. Tai Chi is said to have been founded in the mid 1600’s.
- Long sticks are not uncommon to both Spey Way and Tai Chi.
- While one may learn Spey Way and Tai Chi from a book or video, it is highly recommended that one seek instruction from a master.
- There are very simple, helpful diagrams which can be used to supplement instruction in both Spey casting and Tai Chi.
- To the untrained eye, it may look like large groups of Spey casters and Tai Chi practitioners aren’t really doing anything.
- Spey casting is usually done in the water and Tai Chi is often practiced on grass. Sometimes Spey casting is practiced on grass and Tai Chi is done in the water.
- It may look as though the two Spey casters are fighting, but one is actually telling the other not to push his top hand. Similarly the two Tai Chi practitioners are not fighting, rather they are practicing Push Hands.
- There are cool photos of Spey casters at sunset. There are cool photos of a Tai Chi practitioners at sunset.
There’s more to practicing a martial art than learning to fight, and there’s more to fishing than catching fish. So yeah, fishing with a Spey rod is a lot like Tai Chi. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised but what someone combines the two graceful practices some day, and when that day comes I’d like credit for the idea of Spey Chi. Even if it does turn out to be just a passing fad.
Close your eyes and listen to this video. Spey casting or Tai Chi?
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.
I am not a snob, but I am stubborn. When I go trout fishing I tend to like throwing dry flies, not because I’m some sort of snooty highbrow angler of considerable cultural refinement, but rather because of my German heritage. And it’s that Kraut stubbornness that finds me staring obvious fact straight in the face and refusing to comply. It’s a commonly known fact that fish take 99.999% of their meals under the surface. The other .001% of the time they will take a surface fly – not out of hunger, but to mess with the heads of anglers like me (seeing a fish take a swipe at my fly gives me a false sense of confidence in myself as a fisherman). It makes obvious sense to put one’s fly where fish do the majority of their shopping, and armed with this knowledge most any angler will either adapt, or face a skunking. That’s where my stubborn nature comes into play: I know I could catch more fish if I would change my ways, but I derive great pleasure in seeing a fish rise and take the fly. Though not out of snobbery, but because chances are I will miss the hook set, fail to keep a tight line, or violate some other Cardinal Rule for fighting a fish. At least with dry fly fishing I get to see the fish before I lose it. And I believe the fish enjoy the sport of it as well.
Due to the fact that I’m a very visual person, I’ve never much enjoyed fishing nymph rigs under a strike indicator. When one signs over their life to fly fishing, one of the first things they seek is to throw beautiful tight loops. Sexy loops, if you will. When chucking nymph rigs, it involves intentionally sloppy, open loop upstream casts. Instead of gentle fluidity, nymphing mandates that one aggressively throw stack mends into the line. And then you sit back and watch the indicator as it bobs downstream, all the while trying to detect a subtle change in the indicator’s “action” (a blatant oxymoron if there ever was one). This has always held the same appeal for me as watching paint dry or being a roadside flagger on a deserted highway. Nymphing is called “dead-drifting” or a reason, and frankly I prefer to feel somewhat alive when I fish. Because of that I have always held the position that no matter how effective others say nymph fishing is, there’s more to fishing than catching fish. I don’t mind stripping a streamer from time to time, particularly if it’s an olive woolly bugger, because at least one is engaged in the action of actually working the fly. But there’s something about a dead-drifting nymph dangling under a strike indicator that reminds me too much of childhood excursions spent passively sitting in a boat on a lake with an actual bobber, waiting impatiently for a trout to take the worm hanging deep below the surface. Out of sight. Another part of the equation is that casting an indicator and two flies joined together by a length of tippet is a good recipe for a nasty case of the tangles. And I have enough trouble as it is with a single fly. At any rate, I want to make it very clear that I’m no snob. I’m merely quagmired in a status of quo – unwilling to adapt to fishing a method that catches fish. Besides, if I started catching a lot of fish, I’d have nothing to write about.
Now, nymphing for steelhead is something I’d never done before prior to a recent trip. I’ve begrudgingly fished nymphs for trout several times, but the only steelheading I’d done (admittedly not much) involved swinging streamers. And so on this trip with my college buddy, Large Albacore (not his real nickname), we were doing just that: Swinging streamers with our Spey rods on a river in north central Washington. Weeks leading up to the trip were spent salivating over widespread reports of record steelhead numbers (something like 475,000 fish) returning over the many dams on the Columbia River. These fish were headed into the many tributary rivers along the way, and unfortunately I misinterpreted this as meaning that catching would be pretty good. It’s not often that I anticipate plentiful catching when I go after fish, but this time was an exception.
Admittedly most of these returning fish were of hatchery origins, but for those of us who are unfortunate enough to call western Washington home (where the dismal numbers of steelhead returning to our Puget Sound rivers are a troubling reality) these bloated figures were more than a good enough reason to travel across the mountains to visit the welcoming anglers from the dry side of our state. A river ripe with prospective steelhead attracts angling folks in a similar way that opossums attracts vehicle tires, and while I felt a little guilty to be part of the problem, I quickly got over it. With so many fish in this river, surely none of the locals would mind if I came over and caught a few of their surplus hatchery brats. As a gift to these parched folks I brought with me some much-needed rain, arriving with my Spey rod, an assortment of colorful streamers and a tent that would prove to leak horribly. I was ready to get it on.
But back to the point about nymphing, or more specifically, fishing “dirty” as Large Albacore refers to it. It’s bad enough to be fishing with a nymph setup, but unthinkably shameful when using a plastic bead egg as a dropper “fly”. So maligned is nymphing for steelhead that a recent thread on the very popular Washington Fly Fishing online forum saw 24 pages of heated discussion about nymphing. You see, Albacore is a man of some refinement: He enjoys a fine cigar, a good glass of wine, a quality beer, and an appropriately aged single malt. As far as the single malt goes, he enjoys it as both a beverage and as a wader deodorant (a story for another time perhaps). I, on the other hand, never evolved past the cheap cigars and union-made swill we enjoyed in college (some 25 years earlier). We do share a common viewpoint of nymphing, however, and agree that swinging streamers with a Spey rod is the preferred method of steelhead angling.
I’ve been told that it is not an uncommon practice for an angler to catch a steelhead on a dirty nymph rig, only to remove the unsightly tackle from the fish’s mouth before snapping a photo. At least I’ve heard of this taking place.
Over the course of 2 1/2 days we fished hard: Up at 5:15, on the water from sun-up until mid-day, with a quick break for a bite to eat and a cold beverage of one’s choosing. During this brief fishing reprieve I would also take the opportunity to soak up as much water from inside my tent as possible (praise be to the Sham-Wow I’d packed in my duffel bag). Then we were back at it until it was time for the evening meal and fireside chat to talk about how swinging streamers was a preferred method of fishing for steelhead. We also grumbled about how crowded the river was and bemoaned the slow fishing. Steelhead fishermen know that steelhead are the fish of 1000 casts, but it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Not on this trip.
As it turns out, according to intelligence provided to us by a state fisheries employee logging catch rates on this river, only about 25% of the returning fish had entered this particular section of the river. The other 75% were stacked-up in the closed lower section of the river, waiting, I assumed, for me to return home before heading upstream en masse. Because of this, the hookups were few and far between, and the number of fish landed even fewer. Given the number of anglers who had descended upon this river on this particular weekend (the nerve of them to do so anyway), we felt lucky just to find a spot to fish. When we were fortunate to find a roadside pullout not occupied by another vehicle, we skidded to a halt and rejoiced at our good fortune. Every run we approached gave us new hope, even if it had just been pounded by other fishermen moments before our arrival. And each time we would start out by swinging flies with our Spey rods, working every run twice through. When that yielded no interest from fish, out would come the “Meat Pole” (Albacore’s Sage XP 896 rigged with a Thingamabobber looped above a stonefly nymph residing above a bead egg with trailing hook). It resembled the hardware that a Icehouse-guzzling gear fisherman might be chucking from his lawn chair on the bank of the river (by the way, there’s nothing wrong with Icehouse or gear fishing). The only difference was that we were presenting our offering with a fly rod, and we weren’t sitting in a lawn chair (and the cheap beer was back at camp in my cooler).
Upon hearing the first declaration that it was time to “get dirty” I balked. I was here to swing – not fish with a bobber. Being the visual angler than I am, I just couldn’t see fishing a nymph rig so I politely declined and went about swinging. At least by fishing in this manner I got ample opportunity to work on my Spey casting, which is always in need of more practice. As I threw unsightly casts that emanated from disfigured D-loops, I glanced over my shoulder and saw Albacore with a bend in the Meat Pole. I reeled in my line and dashed upstream to watch him land the fish. Albacore has never been one to speak in a manner that is anything other than direct and honest, and so he was blunt in his admission that it pissed him off to have to fish this way, because he’d never had to resort to this manner of angling on this river before. He was equally honest in stating that he would be even more pissed off if he didn’t catch a fish. With size 15 wading boots, Albacore is not a guy that you want stomping around in a foul mood. Catching this first fish insured the safety of everyone back at camp that evening, and I breathed a long sigh of relief.
After pulling that first fish out of the same run we’d just covered diligently with our Spey rods, Albacore handed me the Meat Pole and told me to have a go at it. I looked over my shoulder to make sure nobody was watching, and within a few minutes proceeded to catch my first steelhead of the trip. And so began a pattern that persisted for the remainder of the trip: Work a run twice with our Spey rods before grabbing the Meat Pole, going dirty, and catching a fish. Did we catch a fish nymphing each run? No–but it was the only method that produced hookups, and our Spey rods gently wept in silence from the riverbank.
Prior to this trip I had only caught one steelhead before, so simply catching another was a thrill for me. Would I rather have caught the fish on my Spey rod? Absolutely. However, employing this dirty method of fishing I felt very fortunate to have hooked 2 fish and landed one. I would have landed two, but someone’s left-handed reflexes proved too slow for even a hatchery slug, and the fish, lying at my feet in 2 inches of water, got away before someone (who shall remain anonymous) could tail it. The established trend is that everyone I fish with out-catches me, so it should come as no surprise that Large Albacore faired better. Besides, he’s a much better fisherman than I am. Collectively, the total number of fish caught swinging with the Spey rods: 0. Total fish caught fishing dirty: 4, or maybe 5. What I came to accept on this trip is that nymphing catches fish, even though swinging flies is still the preferred method of preserving our dignity: Swing first; fish dirty as a last resort to save face completely. And if both methods result in a skunk, fall back on the comfort of knowing that there’s more to fishing than catching fish.
By the way, I recently picked up a used Sage XP 8 weight. Now what am I going to do with that?
While I’ve got your attention, I wanted to publicly express gratitude to Bob White for some recent kind words posted in his weekly “Thursday Morning Art Review” newsletter. Bob is a very accomplished fine artist whose work is well known in the fly fishing world. His beautiful paintings accompany the writing of John Gierach (an accomplished angler and author) in each issue of Fly Rod & Reel. Among other beautiful offerings, they have a line of “Small Fry” cards that are really nice. I picked up a couple sets this year which prompted me to actually grab a pen and write notes to people. Please take a moment to visit Bob’s website: Whitefish Studios. Thanks for the support, Bob and Lisa!