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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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