Haunted by the Skagit

Haunted by the Skagit

There are plenty of stories about not catching steelhead, so why tell another? Maybe because fishermen have always been prouder of their successes than

  • By: John Gierach
There are plenty of stories about not catching steelhead, so why tell another? Maybe because fishermen have always been prouder of their successes than they deserve to be, but also more haunted by their failures. Or maybe because the unlikelihood of catching these things defines the sport and makes those who practice it seem mildly insane. Of course steelheaders aren't insane, they've simply developed an acquired taste, like they're sashimi or okra aficionados.

It was late April when Vince Zounek and I flew out to coastal Washington state to fish the Skagit River and one of its major tributaries, the Sauk. This was new water for both of us, so we spent three days floating with guides to get the lay of the land and the rest of the time on foot on our own. It was our usual attempt to achieve the best of both worlds-expert advice andself-reliant solitude-as well as to save a few bucks on the trip.

All rivers have something to recommend them if you look hard enough, but the Skagit is an obvious landmark. Famous steelheaders cut their teeth on the river and there are fly patterns and a style of Spey-casting named after it. Also, a steelhead bum I know-a young dude with no permanent address and no visible means of support-told me the last time he breezed through town that it was demanding as hell, but worth the effort, with a run of the biggest, wildest and otherwise coolest steelhead south of central British Columbia. Greg Thomas once described these fish as a race of "exquisitely proportioned native steelhead" that stay at sea longer than most and that can reach weights of 20 pounds or more.

OK, but then the flip side is that there aren't that many of these outstanding fish left. Historically, steelhead runs in the Skagit are estimated to have been in the neighborhood of 30,000 fish, while today it's closer to a piddling 2,000. The main culprits are the usual suspects for the region: off-shore pollution, commercial fishing and erosion from clear-cut logging that flushes the river with mud after every rain, bumping the flows unnaturally and clogging the spawning gravel with silt.

Fishing is with barbless hooks only and all wild steelhead in the Skagit and Sauk must be released. Furthermore, it's illegal anywhere in the state of Washington to even lift a caught wild steelhead from the water-making the standard grip-and-grin snapshot a misdemeanor-and Puget Sound steelhead have now been placed on the endangered species list, which is probably a wise move, if not exactly a good sign. These minor, stopgap measures are unquestionably necessary, and incidentally much easier than cleaning up the world's oceans and dialing back the fishing and lumber industries to sustainable levels. If trout are indicator species for the health of a single stream, then steelhead are indicators for a hemisphere.

That's not an obituary for the river, it's just what steelhead fishers are up against now in too many drainages. You could wish you'd been there 40 years ago, but you weren't, and regret is pointless. The fact is, if you have a certain kind of Quixotic temperament, steelhead can still become too compelling to ignore, and although there may only be an outside chance of success, the inescapable fact is that you'll never catch one if you stay home.

I've only managed to go steelheading twice a year at best since I took it up five or six years ago, and at that rate I'm probably fated to be a perpetual dilettante, but I've nonetheless quickly evolved into a kind of low-level fanatic. I usually come to my senses when I get home, but at least while I'm doing it, there's the notion that "real fishing" is steelhead fishing, while everything else is just an idle pastime.

So Vince and I rented a car at the Seattle airport, drove north along the coast and got a room at a modest motel in a small town not far from the river. This was a typically characterless American burg comprised of cookie-cutter housing developments, strip malls and burger joints: everything quick, cheap and temporary in the interest of hyper-consumerism. If not for the weather and some telltale western red cedars, it could have been a suburb of Toledo, but in the end it was just a place to shower and sleep between days on the water.

Early the next morning we met Dave McCoy, with Emerald Water Anglers out of Seattle, to do a float that put in on the Sauk and took out on the Skagit. Over the next two days we fished parts of both rivers with two other guides from the same outfit, Ryan Smith and Dylan Rose-picking each of their brains for road and foot access to good pools for later. These guys were all young and competent and as different from each other as we all tend to be, but still with the weirdly similar stories most guides share. These involve hard, seasonal work, mediocre pay and a good life outside-at least for the time being. (You'll hear that it's unfair to define a person by the work he does, but I've always thought that was first said by someone who didn't like their job.) Living close to the bone in order to do something you love seems harder now than it used to be, but then it was hard enough when I did it, too. I was just too young to care, which is probably still the secret.

I got my only hit of the trip on that first day: just a little tweak at the end of a long drift somewhere on the lower Sauk. I know you're supposed to feed a steelhead the loop of loose line you're holding under the index finger of your rod hand before you set, allowing the fish to turn and take the hook in the corner of its mouth. I know that, but nearly 40 years of trout fishing has imprinted the idea that one jerk should be immediately followed by another, and instinct always trumps intelligence. In other words, I screwed it up.

Dave said it's best to get a strike later in a trip, when you're half asleep from days of casting and the fish pulls the loop straight before you can react. It occurred to me that all the steelhead I'd caught had been in exactly that situation or, rarely, when I knew a fish was there and was ready for it.

I said, "Well, it was probably just

A sea-run cutthroat anyway."

Dave said, "Oh, I don't think so."

There'd been hard rains recently, but the Skagit was still in good shape, and although the Sauk was a little high and slightly off color, it was dropping and clearing, which is exactly what you want it to do. The weather was auspicious (chilly, cloudy and drizzly) and the run was supposed to be nearing its height as the spring season wound to a close at the end of April. Word around the river was that not many steelhead were being caught, but that was the kind of thing that could, and should, turn around at any moment. So we fell into the usual persistent drill of going from one good run to another, fishing it methodically and then moving on to the next: covering water at a steady pace designed for the long haul.

Both the Sauk and the Skagit are big rivers with lots of long, luxurious runs that are exactly what steelhead like, that is, water three to six feet deep with a rubble-rock bottom and walking-speed current. Almost everyone here uses a two-handed rod because even a beginner, once he's worked out the first annoying kinks, can get a longer cast with less effort using a Spey rod than he can with a single-hander. I'm thinking especially of a huge pool called The Mixer where the flows of the Skagit and Sauk combine and where even a tournament caster would come up short.

There's an element of endurance to this that casting instructors seldom mention. With periodic breaks to move from one run to another, break for lunch and such, you can end up casting for 10 hours a day, day after day. The best advice I've heard so far was that you should work out the longest cast you can possibly make, then reel in 10 or 15 feet of line and fish that. Otherwise, you'll beat yourself up.

It is possible to catch steelhead by simply going through the motions (I've done it), but the best fishermen have definite ideas about the day-to-day nuts and bolts of it as well as some more esoteric stuff.

Fishing guide Mark Bachmann from Oregon thinks you should maintain the exact same interval of time between casts because a steelhead will see the fly two or even three casts away, coming closer with each swing, and begin to anticipate it, but if he has to wait too long, he'll quickly forget. I mean, he is only a fish.

I heard about a guy who thinks steelhead are repelled by the electromagnetic fields generated by power lines, so he fishes especially long and hard below the places where they cross rivers, thinking the fish will be stacked up there.

Another steelheader once told me that he always wants to be the second or even the third guy to fish a run. He thinks the first fisherman or two get the fish curious or agitated enough that when he finally comes along, they'll be ready to bite.

I met a man on the Salmon River in Idaho who had only ever fished one pattern for steelhead: a medium-size orange streamer. He said it must be a good pattern because he caught all his fish on it.

But for the most part, the best steelheaders simply understand where the fish will be under various conditions and are able to both spot those places and put good casts to them. They'll probably have some well considered theories about fly patterns, but more importantly they can make a fly swim properly and get it to the right depth with different sinking heads, creative mending or both. Some are impressive casters; others are simply accurate and persistent, and of course they're in touch with something rare, instinctive and possibly ancient that the rest of us only glimpse by accident from time to time. And if it seems like magic, who's to say it's not?

One day, while floating with Dylan Rose, we drifted past a wading fisherman on the Sauk and Dylan said, reverently, "That's Harry Lemire." (Lemire is a legendary steelheader and fly tier in the region.) "There's a guy who's caught more steelhead on this river than anyone alive, and look at him: He's wading calf-deep and fishing 40 feet of line on a one-handed rod." You could see the gears turning as Dylan scoped out the unimpressive little run Harry was fishing and noted its location.

So we fished; first with the guides and then on our own. The weather stayed cold and drizzly, sometimes clearing enough for the snow-capped peaks of the Cascades to peek out, but never quite enough for the weak sun to cast an actual shadow. (Steelhead are supposed to like gray weather.) It was damp, but the heavy rains held off and the Sauk continued to drop and clear. (Steelhead are also supposed to like water that's dropping and clearing.)

One day we saw a sport with a guide land a steelhead on a spinning rod across the river. The fisherman seemed weirdly unconcerned, but the guide threw his fists in the air, turned his face to the sky and yelled, "Yes!" I love an enthusiastic guide, but this may also have been a sign that he hadn't seen a lot of fish recently.

Sometimes we'd stop and change flies, if only for something to do. This is especially tempting for me because I tend to tie more steelhead flies than I need as a security blanket. I have a few that I've actually caught fish on, and many more that someone recommended or that I just thought were pretty. For this trip I'd tied some Skagit Mists, a lovely and complicated Dec Hogan Spey pattern. Dave had said this was a good fly for the Skagit, but that he didn't use it himself because it was too hard to tie.

Still, I've noticed that the less it matters what fly you use, the longer you'll stare into your fly box waiting for inspiration, and when you ask a guide or a more experienced steelheader his opinion of any pattern, he's likely to shrug and say, "What the hell, try it."

If you have the disposition for it, this is a better way than most to spend your time, whether you hook that wild 20-pound steelhead or not. You'll hear fishermen talk about being humbled by a river and we all know what that means and how it feels, but somehow the language of competition doesn't quite ring true. It's not so much that the river beats you; it's more that the river doesn't even know you're there.