Whip Finish


Ralph Long - Dec 31, 2012

I stood there on a large gravel bar along the Nisqually River on Ft Lewis Washington, with a long flat bend before me. From that point it was but a few miles to where the river emptied into the Nisqually basin in the Puget Sound.  Being fresh from "back east", I had been anticipating getting on water for some time.  Now, with a brand new setup in hand I was about to fish some of the waters that I had previously only read about in magazines. While the Nisqually was not nationally known, it was nevertheless the closest water that I knew to hold fish. As I had been planning the days fishing, I'd picked and prodded all the information locally as I could for the best fishing in the area.  I'd been told that the Nisqually "runs" had ended already, but there may be some Sea-run Cutthroat hanging around and quite a few smolts. Smolt, I was told were juvenile salmon and steelhead that would remain in the river for a period of time and eventually migrate out to the Sound at around 8-10 inches or so to mature in saltwater.  That sounded good to me, so armed with a newly minted fly rod I was aiming to try my hand on whatever I happened to find.  I was fishing a 9 foot 5 weight Lamiglass trout rod, with an SA-1 reel spooled with a weight-forward line.  Just the ticket I thought for some Cutthroat or "trout-sized" smolt. I tied a #8 Muddler Minnow on the end of my 4x tippet, and waded out to about thigh deep in the glacier fed water.  The water was cold and fast, as I looked across the river for some likely targets to begin my hunt. 

There was a seam about mid-stream in front of me, and it looked to run steady to where it boiled around two large boulders about 50 yards downstream.  I began my day casting down-and-across with each step downstream covering more water. Settling down with my casting after the first few minutes, I was getting used to the new rod.  My next cast was going to bring my drift just in front of the lead boulder, so I shot a little extra line and waiting for the current to tighten on my line.  On about the 3rd strip in, and just as I watched the tip of my line curl in front of the boulder, the line tightened with a jolt that I felt clean into my elbow.  I set the hook hard and leaned back slightly, as without warning lined screamed from my reel! Caught completely off guard and fumbling for the drag on the new reel, I snugged it slightly.  Gaining my composure I stepped downstream and gave it some rod. This was certainly no smolt I thought! As I shuffled my way downstream and at times splashed along behind it, I was doing my best to slow the fish down.  It seemed to be tiring, but by the feel of it, I was not sure I could land it on my 5 weight. At the bottom of the run and about 100 yards downstream was a deep pool, which it appeared was the destination of whatever fish was on the business end of my line.  I could see the log jam formed on the outside of the pool and realized that it was my worst enemy at the moment.  I palmed the spool with some intensity in an attempt to put the brakes on the fish.

That's when it happened.  Suddenly, the energy that had taken my fly and I knew to be a fish, left the water.  In one moment I was concentrating on doggedly playing the fish, and the next I was standing flat-footed with my mouth hung open in the gravel as 2 feet of silver leapt into the air!  My mind raced….what had I hooked? The fish left the water several more times at the head of the pool then miraculously, it began to tire. With dread of losing the fish or making a mistake foremost on my mind, I half coaxed and half dragged the fish through the water and into the shallows.  I eased it towards me and knelt down to tail it.  With a few last defiant flops, I had it in hand.  Hands shaking I lift up the fish to get a good look at it.  I could not believe my good fortune.  I soon realized that what I held was a freshly minted Chinook salmon of about 26 inches and 12-15 pounds. Having only seen one on TV or on ice prior to that, I was only guessing.  But I was pretty certain of it.  Problem was, I had no Salmon or Steelhead card and was really not sure of the regulations pertaining to them, since I had no intent at the time of catching one. I reached up and popped the hook out of its mouth, admired it for a few more seconds and lay it in the water to release.  After several minutes of revival, it returned to the river with a splash that drenched me and almost caused me to fall over in the water.  I laughed at myself as I regained my footing and looked up to see a bald eagle float silently by on the air heading downstream.  What an introduction.

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