November 10th, 2016
The reality is that most of my experience is fly fishing for trout; just a lowly fly fisherman that mostly gets to fly fish for trout; catching them and releasing them. And that is the point in this post: because of my business travel I get to do some “exotic” fly fishing every once and a while. But, when I wander outside of trout I’m a beginner. And for me, and I realize this doesn’t apply to all fly fisherman, I just love being the beginner again. I love being the beginner yet having the wisdom of “figuring it out”. In this mode, the successes are so much more joyful; the failures are insignificant. And that is where this story starts…
My buddy Joe is a big time strategic exec at Microsoft. I lean on him (and others at msft) to explain the technical strategy to me and I have done that for years. But, Joe is not a “Dork”. Joe is not a “Geek”. I hate those terms to start with because in the board room the word Geek is still a negative. My point: Joe is a guide level fisherman. He’s a God of steelhead. He “owns” the pacific northwest in terms of fly fishing. So, when I get to fish with Joe I cherish the moments and what I learn from him.
Joe and I planned to “play hooky” and fish a Thursday while I was up in Redmond at Microsoft months in advance. I sent Joe an email: “Hey, I’m going to be in town and am going to fish on Thursday, November 10th. What do I throw and where?” He said, “You are fishing with me.” Totally pleased… and now excited. But to make a long story short, Joe has young twins. He’s 15 years my junior. His life is crazy. He was just back from a business trip and he mixed up the dates. At 530am I got the txt from him with the sobering reality I was on my own.
Fine. Easy. It’s not about catching anyways, right? I don’t mind getting skunked as long as I get a good hike in the wilderness, right? Then joe’s txts of guidance started coming, fast and furious. He gave me a detailed plan. As I headed north from Redmond in my rental car on the 5, I was re-excited. Because Joe gave me enough of the “where and what” to instill my confidence of success. His guidance was: head for the Cascade River near Marblemount and fish the stretch from where it enters the Skagit up to the hatchery. That was enough info for me to use the interweb to figure out how to get there. The next piece of guidance was invaluable: “you are fishing for dollies.” (Dolly Vardon; it’s a char. It’s big and mean and it fights like hell). “You may see some coho. Cast at them and around them. You may be able to catch them and the dollies are hanging around the cohos to eat them and their eggs.”
Fishing for spawning salmon has always been a challenge for me and frankly for everyone. They travel hundreds of miles from the ocean to a two-inch radius of where they were born (still unexplained by science) to spawn and die. They don’t eat on the way and don’t eat period. Their job is to spawn and die. As fisherman (not just fly guys) we try to piss them off to make a primal response by fishing for them.
It took me 20 minutes to figure out where to park because of all the private property. When I finally did figure it out if was staring at a bait fisherman across the river…well, a conventional guy…hammering a pool under the bridge. I have to admit I was bummed at the time. I really thought I could have the river to myself. But, on the other hand I said to myself, “if he conventional guys are fishing, maybe I am in luck”. And the river was crystal clear and wadable. That pleased me intensely. So, I geared up. And when I was ready to fish the conventional guy was gone. That was great! These guys tend to sit in the hole all day cast after cast. That is not me. That is not fly fishing. We cast and move. So I moved towards the river where he was fishing on the opposite side of the river.
And that is the point in the story where my stereotype of a gear guy changes. He was on top of the bridge looking where the coho salmon where staging so he could figure out where to cast to them. I didn’t notice him until I got down to the river. He saw me and immediately engaged. The first words out of my mouth. “I’m sorry. I thought you moved on. It’s your hole I’ll move down river.” His answer, “absolutely not. Cast at these ones” as he pointed down from the bridge into the river. Nicest guy in the world. So, I did. But they were deep and I couldn’t get a drift down to them. I gave that 10 minutes and crossed the river over the bridge to talk to him.
He was a wealth of knowledge. But, I was streamer fishing. He was fishing conventional with a typical bobber and eggs set up. I told him I was going to move down river and he said he’d join me in a bit. Great.
Because I could see the cohos I picked a fly that I tied a couple of. They took me 20 minute each to tie: a 3 inch, purple, nasty, articulated, 3 red beads in between fly solely designed to piss off salmon and steelhead. Good choice by me. It worked all day.
So, here is where the fun started; just about 20 minutes after starting to fish. I bushwhacked down river past him to some flat skinny water. On the hike I could see a handful of cohos “in love”. Staging themselves, fighting, moving. I entered the water as quietly I could below them and worked my way up to where I could make the 40 foot cast. I could see the salmon. I was hunting. I was not fishing blind. That is a really fun way to fish. My first casts were awful. My 10 foot 8 wt helios 2 is still at Orvis getting fixed. I was fishing an 8 wt sage fli. It’s an older medium action rod given to me by a buddy. If you can cast you know that medium action rods and heavy sink lines are hard to cast. When you add a 3” weighted streamer you realize you are not as good at casting as you think you are. Well, it was really clear that I need to put it on their nose; the perfect cast. At the same time, I was spooking them and when I wasn’t they still were moving around. So, there was a little luck still involved. Me talking to myself, “good cast…moving in…right there…he’s eating…SET! And I was on. And it was a big fish. But, these poor salmon are “cashing in the chips”. As I was to learn during the day, most of them just don’t have a lot of fight left in them. But, they are huge…up to 20 pounds… so it’s still a fight. Well, it was my first fish of many that day and I fought him way too long. And I was calling my new friend up stream because I was convinced he would want to keep this one. Once landed…and I really didn’t land him… my net needed to be 3 times the size. But, I did have my landing hand so I could grab the fish by the tail and still be able to hold on. He ran down and showed me why that fish wasn’t fresh enough to keep; I really wanted to give it to him. It looked great on top, but you could see the degradation on the bottom of this coho. But, he did take a couple pictures of me with it. Taking pictures of 10-20 pound fish all by myself was very challenging all day long.
And that is how it went all day long. There were points where I was hooking a salmon on every cast (they are really hard to keep on to land them). I probably hooked ~25 cohos. I never saw the gear guys staring at the bobber catching anything. They were fishing the deep pools. I was fishing the cohos staged in shallow water. I had action all day long. I landed around a dozen coho salmon and nailed a huge dolly varden right at the end. And yes, I let them all go.
After working my way all the way down the river it followed the salmon to where the hatchery is. I fished up the inlet to the hatchery and it got silly. Thousands of salmon…just sitting there waiting for the hatchery door to open so they could do their thing. It was silly because I was hooking up on every cast. The problem was I was foul hooking some of them. And that was a big turn off. except for one foul hooked fresh salmon I got in the tail. It ran 200 feet with my reel screaming. It took me forever to land that fish. But, once I learned what happened I was bummed so I stopped fishing there. That is when I met another gear guy. And older guy from the area with a cane. Great guy; old man of the river. We seemed to talk forever. He gave me a ton of info. Then told me he’d take to me his favorite hole on the river. So, we walked by the hatchery and I got in his truck and we went. I had about 30 minutes to fish because I had to make an event in Bellevue so he sat up on a 10 foot cliff in his favorite hole and I hiked down river. But, I couldn’t find any fly fishable water. It was all deep holes and fallen trees with a cliff above and no room to cast in back. Clearly this was a gear guys place. So, I hiked back to my new friend and stared at the water around him. I said, “I wonder if that soft stuff up stream hold fish.” He wasn’t confident. And it was a tricky wade. There were fallen trees everywhere. I had to walk through very deep silty water through the trees to get there. I’m sure that intimidated most folks. Anyways once I punched out there were a bunch of cohos to target so I told myself, “one more fish and I’ll call it a day and head south.”
So, I casted and swung, two steps, casted and swung, two steps. I was putting them in the zone, but the salmon were darting around everywhere and it was just deep enough that I was only seeing their shadows. I was getting toward the end of the run; it ended in a huge tree that fell perpendicular to the river. Since I was targeting the salmon I totally forgot about the Dolly Varden. And that is when I saw it race like a lightning, strike me and almost pull the rod out of my hand. I set and it jumped 2 feet in the air! At first I thought it was a steelhead. But I could tell by the fight it was a big dolly varden. It seemed to take me forever to land that thing. It kept headed for the log and I kept pulling him hard away from it. I finally landed it; curled in a ball it barely fit my net. I quickly released it and it swam away fast and pissed off. My friend yelled in congrats and I screamed, “Dolly!”.
As I navigated back through the trees to the shore, I silently thanked the lord and my fly fishing buddy ken. I waved goodbye, hiked through the wilderness out to the road, un-wadered and broke down my rod at the rental car with a smile on my face and headed back south.