Northwest Washington: Swinging Flies on the Skagit
Gary Lewis is the host of Adventure Journal and author of John Nosler – Going Ballistic, Black Bear Hunting, Hunting Oregon and other titles. Flick flies towards the Skagit River in Bellingham with Gary in his latest adventure.
For a Valentine’s Day in the early 1970s, my mom bought my dad a little book about steelhead fishing by Enos Bradner. Mom inscribed a note to dad on the inside cover. I found it in their bookshelf a few years later.
Bradner’s was the first outdoor book I read and it helped start me on a life of steelhead fishing.
Decades later, in 2009, I was presented with the Enos Bradner award by the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association, an organization Bradner helped found. I knew one day I would go north to fish the Skagit, a river Bradner loved.
The Skagit flows out of southwestern British Columbia and drains 1.7 million acres of mountain and valley. Home to all five species of Pacific salmon, steelhead, resident rainbows, cutthroat, the river has one of the strongest populations of bull trout in the world.
The plan was to fish for the pink salmon that return by the millions in every odd-numbered year. But the plan changed when a slide blew out the lower river. We didn’t have time to wait for the water to clear, so our guide Ed Megill, pointed us upstream. We would swing flies for sea-run bull trout.
Duane McNett picked me up at the Lakeway Inn in Bellingham, and we headed south into the Skagit Valley then up the river to our rendezvous with Travis Huisman and Megill. At a boat launch called Marblemount, we pushed Megill’s raft into the water.Megill started me with a small streamer to imitate the whitefish fry on which the bull trout feed. These bulls are both resident and anadramous and, like our Metolius River fish, can run between 16 inches and 20 pounds. I was surprised the Skagit fishermen prefer to run smaller patterns for these fish that chase prey up to one-third their own size, but I had left my bull trout flies at home.
On the second run, a fish grabbed the fly, but I pulled the hook out of its mouth. On our third riffle, Travis hooked a bull trout that looked to measure about 17 inches.About 60 miles up from its mouth, the Skagit affords good access and long runs with plenty of gravel bars and riffles. For the fly-fisherman, the river offers challenges that have been solved with long two-handed rods and spey lines developed on, and named for, the Skagit.
When spey rods became popular on northwest rivers, most anglers used the longer 14- to 15-foot rods with heavy Windcutter lines. Enterprising aficionados of the two-handed rod began to cut up their expensive lines and experiment with shorter rods. Their designs have helped anglers around the West better present heavy steelhead flies on the high density sink-tips preferred by steelhead fishermen on rivers from Northern California to B.C. and Southeast Alaska.
On a beach below a major tributary, Megill set up his stove and made fajitas while we plied the water with switch rods, Skagit lines and streamers. There was no doubt in my mind old Enos Bradner had fished this same water many years ago, had lunched on this same gravel bar.Duane hooked and lost a bull trout. Resident rainbows pecked at our flies and pink salmon porpoised in the riffle. Travis battled a five-pound pink to hand.
Everything we know of fish and fishing is built on the experience of the teachers that fished this water before us. The names fade, but the river is timeless, the quarry a dream to be grasped.
Buy that fishing book for your Valentine. You never know who your gift will touch.