December 27th, 1999

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories. . .

Catch and Conundrum

By Bob Margulis

My wife has three lifelong friends who met as high school students in the middle of Washington state: a place known as the Tri-Cities. As it turns out, Tri-Cities sits on the mighty Columbia River, not far from some equally well endowed steelhead rivers like the Snake, Grande Ronde, and Deschutes (although my wife could care less about that and it is, in fact, extraneous to my story…but then again, maybe that point isn't). One of these friends moved to Scotland a couple of decades ago and if you met her today you could never guess from her accent that she was an American.

Anyway, my wife, who loves to travel abroad, would like nothing more than for us to take a trip to Scotland. Last year got us one step closer to making this trip a reality. I bought a Spey rod and Bauer M7 reel. As I've only been fly fishing for just over a year (although I've fished since I was old enough to hold a rod), I've chosen to focus on overhand casting: putting off the next step, Spey casting, until this winter. I thought I'd get some Spey practice on the Skagit this December casting to dollies and chums.

I figured that someday Spey casting on the Spey to Atlantic salmon would end up being our ticket to Scotland…but until December, my Sage 8100 would be my ticket to steelhead and salmon. One morning in September I was at a favorite spot on the Snoqualmie River. Now, the Snoqualmie is not a particularly productive steelhead river. That is, it's not a river that you're likely going to travel from afar to fish ('afar' being not more than ten miles); nonetheless, it produces its share of fish if you work for them. But most importantly for me, it's very close to home. That means 25 minutes from standing in the garage donning waders to standing in the river casting a fly. After all, fishing with a slim hope of catching a fish is a thousand times better than not fishing at all!

At this point I must beg your indulgence as I feel the need to digress. One of my favorite books during one of my favorite decades, the sixties, was one of my favorite author's, Kurt Vonnegut's Siren's of Titan. The main character, Unk, and his dog find themselves at various times mysteriously transported through time and space to suddenly appear God knows where and when. They then had to live their lives for an indefinite number of years wherever they were until poof, it happened again, and they were somewhere else in some other era. Vonnegut referred to this time-warp phenomenon as the "chronsynclastic infundibulum."

It was a wonderful mid-September morning. The day would be sunny, but for now it was barely light. As I approached the river I could hear, more than see, a fish roll. My excitement was palpable. On my initial pass through the run I used a waking steelhead bee. It felt really good. After all, this was a fly designed by Haig-Brown. Raising a fish was almost assured. Certainly the fish would sense the karmic correctness of rising to this classic steelhead tie. Unfortunately for me, this fish was low on karmic vibes. OK, well I knew the fish was in there so I went through the hole again, this time fishing, a la Jock Scott, a greased-lined Skunk. Still nothing. Clearly this fish had no appreciation for classical steelheading. For my third pass I would give up on my historical bent. I went to a sink tip with the thought that I would dredge the fish out if I had to (desperate times call for desperate measures). For my fly, I decided to go for a more seasonal approach and chose a Fall Favorite to attach to the tippet. I was standing where a tributary meets the main river. More specifically, I was standing in the middle of the tributary casting to the seam where the two flows met. On my second cast, WHAM, out goes the line.

I bet you're like me, in that one of my favorite sights is my backing. God, how I love it when I hear the scream of my reel and suddenly the color of my line changes to the bright yellow backing! Well, he ran, he jumped, he fought with the tenacity of a fish twice his size. This fish was hot and I was in fly-fishing-heaven. Yes, redemption was granted. Contrition for choosing the wrong flies and techniques on the first two passes had been rewarded. But let me tell you, when I finally landed this gift of the river gods you should have seen the look of confusion on my face. Certainly it looked like a salmon, but I know my salmon and this wasn't any salmon I knew. It wasn't a steelhead or anything else I could recognize. I had never caught a bull trout and didn't know what they looked like. Maybe it was one of those. It didn't occur to me at the time that the answer lay in the chronsynclastic infundibulum. Did I mention that a major part of the chronsynclastic infundibulum, as you might well expect, was massive confusion? But that really didn't matter because I loved it, whatever this five pound fish in spawning colors was. I could now go back home and have that smirk that I get all day long when I start my day with a couple of hours fishing and catch a fish.

It was later that day when I was looking at a new copy of Fly Fishing America in my local fly shop. And wouldn't you know it, there's Jason Bogner holding my mystery fish. So I showed the magazine to Dan behind the counter and asked him what this fish was. "Well, it's either a brown or an Atlantic salmon, and if you caught it here it's an Atlantic." I had thought for some time now that it would be nice to take a trip to the Gaspey, PEI, Nova Scotia or just one of these. Maybe even visit my wife's friend in Scotland. Get that Spey rod stuff in hand and land my first Atlantic if I was lucky. Little did I know that Scotland was even closer than the Tri-Cities.

Everyone I tell my story to regrets that I didn't kill my feisty little friend. But he was colored and I have no intention of keeping a fish in that condition. It is, after all, illegal to waste food or game fish in my home state. Criticized by all but one, what is one to do? Ten thousand Atlantics escaped from a nearby fish farm this spring and this was not the first time it has happened. Most people are concerned with the Atlantics overtaking the spawning grounds of the steelhead and further jeopardizing our already diminishing wild steelhead runs. Of the couple of dozen steelhead and salmon I've caught over the past year I've kept one (a beautiful 8 lb. hen hatchery bred steelhead that served as the main dish at a summer BBQ for fifteen people). Naturally I was inclined to release this fish without thought.

So now my wish is still that I will someday fish the Spey or one of the rivers of eastern Canada for Atlantics; however, in the meantime, should I catch an Atlantic in one of my Washington rivers, I will know what to do with it when I catch it. Uncharacteristically, I will remove it from the river. While they fight so wonderfully, little things have a way of growing into big problems if not dealt with while they are still small. It still amazes me how, more often than not, the simplicity of fly fishing is an amazingly complex endeavor! ~ Bob Margulis


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