It’s late spring in Western Washington and June 1st signals the opener for our local rivers. Summer-run steelhead fishing has finally arrived. Although the calendar might say it’s the sixth month and New Years is January 1st, I tend to count my years starting mostly with the steelhead seasons. So June 1st to me is the start of a new year for fishing tallies.
Last year brought us many steelhead but very few landed and even less hooked up for more than two head shakes. So June was going to be the change from the hair pulling experience of having fish rip the line off the reel only to be gone before we realized it. Smaller hooks are now being used, with hook points even further toward the back of the fly, and tube flies will be used more than they have in the past… all for breaking that God awful streak that I have been on for the last 12 months.
Steelhead fishing is much like the Mariners scoring runs — they come in streaks some years you cant keep them off the hook. You hook and land everything it seems. Some years, however, you have a year like I just went through. The MOST dreaded situation is when no matter what you do, where you fish, or what you’re fishing, the river seems like a barren wasteland of water — void of fish. Luckily, I have been able to avoid that for a while know (knock on wood).
To break this streak of loosing fish we shall start on one of my favorites, which has been and will always be the Skykomish. As many of you know I grew up on that river fishing with my father and sometimes with him and his friends, and I still do it to this day.
June is a great time to chase these chrome-bright beauties in all of our local rivers if one can handle the sometimes enormous amounts of runoff that come down the west slopes of the Cascades after a good warm day, or a March-like rain. For the ones that can tame the wild large river of the Skykomish, the bounty of fish can be worth the rain coats, big flies, and cold temperatures. All too often I hear in the shop, on the river, and with clients, that fishing has been tough or impossible because of the larger than life Skykomish. “It’s just too high and too dirty for me,” I hear. The part of me who loves the solitude on the river wants to just smile and agree with them. The other part of me loves to hear people catching fish and seeing people catch fish. Or… its the egotistical side of me who wants to be right all the time and send people out to the river, much to their chagrin, and hear a few days later that they did in fact find a fish or two. For the most part fishing was slow for me on the opener with only one fish to the fly (but no glorious battle to follow) in the first day floating down the upper river. The second day was spent in the upper river again and a late Sunday float provided the first native summer run of the year. The river was in perfect shape and should have produced more fish that day but unfortunately it was just the one.
The third day was spent in the lower river and with some solid tugs but no hook-ups. The outlook was starting to look like it could be the second consecutive year of “fish to the fly and no hook up”. Three days on the river with five fish to the fly and only one to the beach. I wasn’t going to go into a second year of tug after tug, two head shakes, and gone. Something was going to have to change and quickly.
The first full week of the river being open, life was spent teaching steelhead classes rather than fishing for them. Word around the campfire was that I didn’t miss too much. There were fish being hooked and landed. The hatchery holes were producing chrome-bright fish so they were moving fast through the system — and they still are now. The river was pretty much on a steady drop and I didn’t feel like I was missing much or was going to miss that banner day on the river that I always seem to find one day in June. The next week brought my first round of guide trips down the sky. I won’t say that the fishing has been red hot but it has picked up. My first day of fishing in the second week since the opener was a recon trip to check out the low water we were having and for preparation of my upcoming trips later in the week. It ended up, I spent more time on the phone than I did fishing — not at all uncommon for me — and the showers that we were supposed to get that night ended up being crazy hard rain. The river jumped from 7,000ish cfs to 12,000ish cfs. So a word to the wise, never trust the weather man (and if you want to be left alone on the river, leave the phone in the truck (just not at a boat launch)). With that in mind, although it is much better this year than it has been the last few years, don’t leave anything in your rigs that might be tempting to a toothless wild tweaker, unless you are tweaker baiting and waiting in the bushes for a quick strike.
The first guide day out on the river was with a man who was in town from Colorado, and whom had just recently retired, and was dying to figure out what all the fuss was about with these little sea-run rainbows that we call steelhead. Having barley spent anytime wielding a Spey rod, after a little time we had him making proficient casts long enough to catch a fish. As luck would have it, the last spot of the day he got his first tug of a steelie. So after seeing that it was my duty as a guide (he says with a slight chuckle and grin on his face), I ran clean-up in that piece of water to see if we could at least get one up on the reel. After about 7 casts, one of those “clobber the fly, nothing there when you set the hook fish” arrived. “Shit!”, was what I think came from my lips, but knowing me it was probably a little more colorful than that. Here’s what the score was now… 7 to the fly, 1 on the beach. The second year was in full swing!
After that second fish I made John reel up and start over with a quick hook change. We had some players in the riffle and they needed to be stuck. Well, we didn’t find another one in the fast water but just as it slowed down, whammy, fish on. Not the blistering little 6 lb hen that I was hoping for… you know the one that goes 0-60 in about 3 seconds as you watch your backing knot slide out your guides at what seems like mach 3. But a nice 7ish pound buck that just wanted to show that, although he was hooked, he was going to make sure that he was the strongest out of the two. Little did he know that John was just now an ex- federal correctional officer, among other things. Poor little hatchery buck didn’t know what he was dealing with on our end.
In the end, a great grip-n-grin for a first ever sea-run anything for John. He left us knowing why all us crazy north westerners have spent so much time dedicating our lives to the pursuit of steel.
Yesterday brought us our first glimpse of sunshine in what feels like a month. It also brought out Mark to the river. With the sunny day in mind and a dropping and clearing river on our hands, we opted for the afternoon evening float. I was banking on the fact that the sunny day was going to put a bunch of boats on the water and that high sun is not always the most productive fishing situations. Mark has had a chance to tangle with a steelhead once before during our steelhead class and, according to both him and Michael, it was to sum it up, cute. After a few minor tweaks of the casting stroke, more for style points rather than fishing distance, and a little presentation work, we were into a 6ish pound hen. A quick jump and then off to the backing she went.
Finally. The last two fish we’ve had to the fly stuck and made it to the beach. The streak is ending, it would have appeared. But then one last “her-rah for the day” spot produced a grab and brought us right back to the “take and nothing at the end” during the hook set. Can’t win them all. Even when things are good. The jury is still out on what is going to happen with the streak. 10 and 3 is still a .300 batting average and if I can do that over a lifetime it will get me into Cooperstown if I was a star hitter somewhere. But numbers never can tell the whole story, and while that .300 is fantastic in baseball, I’m greedy and want the money free throw shooter at 85%. I just need to figure out how to hook that damn half fish. For those of you who are not math whizzes out there, same amount of fish to the fly (which is 10), so to get to 85% I need 8.5 fish landed. There might be a way to get that half a fish if I fish around the mouth of the Sultan River… since that stupid seal was back in there last night.
Thank you to all who have been fishing with me, stopped in our shop, or are planning or thinking of going fishing with me. For me there is no passion greater than swinging a fly for Steelhead and I love sharing that experience with everybody I meet.