April 11th, 2005

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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Skagit Dreams
By Ron Eagle Elk, Washington

I've been living in Washington State for almost 18 years now and have had the pleasure of fishing the Cowlitz, Sol Duc, Bogachiel, Quinault, Queets and Nisqually Rivers. All of them beautiful in their own right. The northern rivers have escaped me, until last week.

At the invitation of our friends, John and Maria, we traveled to an area near Concrete, Washington, nestled in the shadow of Mount Baker, our northernmost volcano. John had won at auction a four day stay at the home of Joe Bersch on the banks of the Skagit River. He called to see if we would like to join them for a little mini-vacation. When I found out the house was on the Skagit I started packing. First things in the car were the spey rods and reels, waders and other necessities of life. Food, coffee and other trivials were an afterthought.

For almost a week before there had been the usual, and much needed, Washington State rain. I was worried the river might be blown out, but a call from Joe Bersch, an avid fly fisherman, assured me the river was running well below it's mean.

We arrived at the house on Tuesday afternoon, with grey clouds high in the sky. A glance out of the front window showed the river, just as Joe had said, running low, clear and cold. The water had that ever so slight tinge of greenish white, milk from the glaciers that feed this beautiful river. Across the river snow capped peaks showed signs of a recent avalanche near the summit. The Douglas Firs that were only a few hundred feet above us had a fresh dusting of snow. A gravel bar right in front of the house beckoned for us to wader up and try our luck at the Skagit's famed, or infamous, winter run, native steelhead. Those elusive, fish-of-a-thousand-casts, silver torpedoes were lurking just off the gravel bar, hugging the seam between fast and slow water. I knew it, I could feel them waiting there for my fly, I could feel the headshake and hear my reel screaming in despair, but first I had to unload the car.

View from house
Once everything was safely in the house I took a short walk down to the river. Another flyfisherman carrying two spey rods was walking up the gravel bar. We stopped and chatted a while, about what flies were working, how do you like that rod, general fishing stuff. Then he said that this was his favorite stretch of the Skagit, but he'd been here for three hours and not a single bump from a steelie. Not a good omen.

Ree wadering up After a late light lunch and a cup of hot coffee, Vickie and I could postpone it not a minute more. We had to get a fly in the water. The clouds had lowered somewhat, obscuring our view of the mountain peaks across the river. They drifted by slightly above the treetops. An Osprey dropped down below the clouds and cruised along on slow wing beats, headed upriver. Wadered up, wearing an underlayer of fleece against the chilly water we walked across the lawn to the river. Dark day, dark fly. I selected a purple leech pattern, tied it on my leader and headed upstream to a promising riffle at the head of a nice run. Vickie decided to fish right at the gravel bar in front of the house.

Though the Skagit can be, and is, fished with single hand fly rods, this river is a spey rodders paradise. This is a big river, even when well below it's normal flow. Even the slow water is moving at a powerful pace, waiting for the foolish to make a misstep so it can sweep them off their feet and drench them in the ice cold water that fills it's banks. This is a river that screams for 90 foot or longer casts, huge mends, heavy dredging tips and beautiful spey flies to entice the steelhead to strike.

Ree casting spey rod

After carefully making my way into the riffle I started to work the run with a classic down and across, wet fly swing. From where I was standing I could cast to the left or right, working and resting two different runs. Just before dark I heard the one thing that a fly fisherman hates to hear on the river. Someone else yelling "Fish ON!" That the someone was my wife and fishing partner didn't make it any easier. I reeled in and started to make my way to her. After all, this was her first steelhead, and her first fish ever on a spey rod. Before I could get to her she had brought the bright silver hen to hand, tailed it, removed the hook, and released the fish. As I walked up to her she started wading out into the river to "Get another one."

It was getting close to dark, making me feel a little less excited about that fast moving riffle, and then thought that maybe we should spend some time with our friends who were kind enough to invite us to this little piece of heaven.

After a wonderful dinner, the evening, like all that followed it, was spent attending to gear, sipping on hot coffee, reading from Joe's extensive library of flyfishing and tying books and magazines, while the heat from the wood stove seeped into bones chilled by the Skagit's cold water. No Television, no radio, no computer, only the sound of the river, good friends and a good book to entertain us. It was more than enough.

Wednesday morning found me wide awake while it was still dark. In this mountain valley, the sun doesn't touch the river until several hours after sunrise. As the sky started to turn grey with the morning sun, my thoughts started to turn to steelhead. Breakfast could wait until we fished the morning away. Vickie and I were on the river as the first rays of the sun touched the mountain tops. The clouds started to burn off under the sun's heat and we had a glorious morning. A fine mist rose from the river as the air warmed. The fleece we had on to guard against the morning chill started to be a little too warm, but we failed to notice as our lines shot out over the clear water, carrying our offerings of fur and feather to the steelhead waiting to send our adrenaline levels through the roof.

We had decided to use the old tried and true method of making a few casts, take two steps down stream and cast again, working through the whole run. By the time we reached the end of the run, it was almost 10:00 AM. We were fishless and hungry.

A short walk up the lawn to the house, strip off the waders, store the rods, and into the house for a hearty breakfast and some strong coffee to fortify ourselves for an afternoon of fishing. Sitting on the deck that overlooked the river and mountains, the warm sun relaxed us while we drank down a hot, fresh espresso. Every hour or so a drift boat filled with fishers would float by. A coffee cup, raised in greeting, brought a wave from the oarsman, usually a guide, while the client in the front of the boat cast his fate to the river. Several pontoon boats landed on the gravel bar in front of us, and others tried their luck at the very spots we had been casting over all morning. After failing to hook up with a few casts they pushed off into the current and went looking for greener pastures.

That afternoon I moved farther down river to fish another run, while Vickie, John and Maria stayed at the gravel bar in front of the house. As the sun's rays were giving a goodnight kiss to the mountain tops, we met on the lawn. I discovered we were all fishless for the day. Ah well, tomorrow is another day.

Our last day to fish the river began with rain. A slow steady rain from clouds that were stacked up against the mountains. In order to get enough altitude to get over the mountains they had to drop some weight. That meant rain where we were and snow a few hundred feet higher. As more clouds were brought in by the easterly wind, I knew the rain was here to stay, at least for the day. That's what fleece and wading jackets are for. we headed for the river just after dawn. With the rain that had been falling for the better part of the night, and run off up river, a goodly portion of our gravel bar was under water. I started to head up river to my spot in the riffle, but the water had risen a couple of feet. The riffle that had been ankle deep yesterday, was knee deep and fast. There were good size rocks being swept around by that fast moving water. I made a quick decision to go down river and fish the run I had been on the day before. As yesterday, Vickie, John and Maria opted for the gravel bar.

Vickie with nice cast

As I walked past them I watched Vickie fire off a nice spey cast. Tight looped, the line carried that heavy fly a good seventy feet before any line touched the water. I had to smile to myself. This was her fourth time with a spey rod in her hands. She already had a steelhead under her belt and was getting better at casting all the time. Guess we're going to be looking at more spey rods in the future.

Our last day was wet, grey and cold. It was also a day without fish. I know why I went fishless. I'd only made 999 casts. One more would have brought a steelhead to my fly for sure. Vickie had her fish, beginners luck. Our friends, John and Maria, well they were fishing with gear, and no self respecting Skagit River steelhead would go for gear. It was a terrible day. In amongst the snowcapped peaks of the North Cascades, standing in one of Washington States finest steelhead rivers, casting flies upon the water in the company of bald eagles, ospreys and herons. This is the stuff dreams are made of. Skagit Dreams, that is. ~ REE

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