Resident Coho: First Fish of the Year

It had been a while since I’ve been fishing and I knew it was time to get out. Yesterday’s afternoon ebb seemed like the perfect opportunity so off to the Narrows Park I went.

I chose to leave my waders home as I was really looking to see how the Clousers I recently tied would work; a few I had tied and cast several years ago fell apart on the first cast or two. But I had put a lot more emphasis on technique this time and I was hopeful they would work as well as commercial flies – if not as elegantly tied.

It was a nice day on the beach with high clouds, some sun, and relatively warm temperatures. And there were only a few dog walkers and one solitary fly fisher walking opposite to the direction I was heading.

I watched as a couple of harbor porpoises worked their way up the Narrows, surprisingly close I thought. They were only a couple of hundred feet from the beach – something I had never seen.

I made a number of casts with both flies and except for some worn-off eyes as they bounced through the shallows, they were in excellent condition.

As I was casting I noticed a number of resident Coho jumping well away from the beach; even wading they would have been too far.

But I thought I might still attract one as several were moving in.

Tug. I had one.

I thought it might be a searun cutthroat trout given the easy take But as I reeled in the line the fight increased and I saw the bright shape of the body and knew I had a resident Coho and a good sized one at that.

Bringing it to the beach I estimated it to be a 14-incher; that’s the largest one I’ve caught! Removing the hook, I cupped it gently in my hand until it regained its strength and then shot back out into the Sound.

That capped the day and I determined that was enough for the first trip of the year.

Thompson River Steelhead: Climate Change and Gill Nets

Steelhead

The Thompson River is the largest tributary of the Fraser River, which is the tenth largest river in Canada and the largest river in British Columbia.

Though the 1990s, the Thompson was one of the premier steelhead fishing rivers in North America. In the late 1980s, the steelhead run was estimated at over 10,000 fish; these were large fish with the average male weighing over 16 pounds with some as heavy as 30 pounds. Steelhead are aggressive fish with streamlined bodies and large tails; catching a steelhead is an unforgettable event – something I hope to experience at some point; they are not called the fish of a thousand casts for nothing.

Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are anadromous rainbow trout, spending several years in the ocean before returning to spawn in their natal rivers. Unlike salmon that die after spawning, steelhead can return to the ocean, spending a year or two before returning to spawn a final time – if they are successfully able to migrate out.

Spawned steelhead are exhausted and their outward journey is complicated by competing fish, angling pressure, reverse osmotic chemistry and biological fatigue. Any obstructions on the journey doom them. So it’s vital that the first spawn include large numbers of steelhead to continue to propagate the fish.

Unfortunately the Thompson River steelhead fishery has collapsed. In 2016, the run was estimated at 400 steelhead. The estimate for 2017 for spawning Thompson River steelhead is 175 out of 240 entering the Fraser River.

There are several causes for the collapse.

The first and most apparent cause is climate change. Numbers of returning steelhead and other salmonids are declining significantly in multiple river systems due to warming oceans. This is another example of the ongoing Anthropocene extinction – with the possibility of large numbers of animal extinctions occurring in our lifetimes and the high probability of the same in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.

A second cause of the collapse of the Thompson River steelhead is the use of gill nets in the Fraser River by both commercial and First Nations fishers. Steelhead have no commercial value – it is a sport fishery only.

Unfortunately for the steelhead, their journey up the river occurs at the same time as that of chum salmon – which is a commercial fish. While slightly smaller than the chum salmon, steelhead can still be caught in the nets and be fatally injured even if released after capture.

The impact of the collapsing fishery has been recognized by the small communities along the Thompson who rely on the dollars spent by visiting fishers. And the Cook Ferry First Nation did not participate in the Fraser River chum season this year out of concern for the Thompson River steelhead.

Saving the Thompson River steelhead is dependent on the actions of the British Columbia government and there is a petition campaigns underway to pressure it to act.

But this isn’t just an issue of fly fishing for Thompson River steelhead. Whether one has fished there or hopes to do (and I’m in the second category) or whether one has any interest in casting for any fish, the primary issue is one of saving the wild things on this planet. The return of the Thompson River steelhead and the emergence of mayfly nymphs on the Henry’s Fork in Idaho are connected.

They are both threads in the web of life on Earth that sustain other species. The Henry’s Fork mayfly feeds the rainbow trout; the decay of a steelhead after its death feeds microbes, stream invertebrates, mammals and birds – as do salmon.

Life propagates when all processes of natural systems work together.

The plight of the Thompson River steelhead is another example of the combined impacts of human arrogance and ignorance. But taking action to save those fish is one opportunity to commit to the natural processes that sustain life on this planet – including ours.

Here is the link to the petition.

Spring Creeks by Mike Lawson

Spring Creeks Cover

Fly fishing in Puget Sound for sea run cutthroat trout and coho salmon means the typical fly is a baitfish or crustacean pattern – think Clousers, Deceivers, and the like. And most of the casting is blind casting surface or sub surface patterns where presentation isn’t always essential.

As a saltwater fishery it doesn’t quite prepare a fly fisher for going to storied streams in the Rocky Mountains like the Madison or Henry’s Fork where the life cycle of insects dictate the type of fly to be used – and where presentation, particularly of dry flies, is essential for catching fish. Knowing terms such as Blue Winged Olives or Pale Morning Duns doesn’t help much when there’s lack of understanding of the fishery and how to fish it.

There are several steps in preparing for such a trip. First, it goes without saying practice of presentation casts with the appropriate tackle is needed. The next is to read up on the fishery and the flies and techniques needed. Finally, if schedules and finances allow, hire a guide.

In terms of the second step, one of the best books I’ve read is Spring Creeks by Mike Lawson (Stackpole Books, 2003). Mike is the founder and now general manager of Henry’s Fork Anglers and a founding member of the Henry’s Fork Foundation.

Spring Creeks begins with chapters on spring creeks and trout behavior. As an aside, for those who’ve forgotten or never knew, spring creeks form from underground sources; freestone streams arise from snowmelt or rain.

Spring creeks such as the Henry’s Fork or Silver Creek in Idaho are celebrated for their dry-fly fishing and the skills needed to catch their resident trout; it was a revelation to me that the more constant water of spring creeks results in low diversity but high density of insects – meaning the trout are finicky about what they eat. Freestone rivers on the other hand support a great diversity of insects.

The remaining chapters discuss matching/unmatching the hatch; mayflies, caddisflies; midges and craneflies; terrestrials; presentation; and strategy. But this book is neither a catalog of flies and their recipes or a book on entomology.

While not a book on entomology, there is a fascinating discussion of how mayflies emerge from nymphs to duns. After molting up to thirty times, the nymph’s internal digestive organs begin to shrink creating a cavity that fills with internally generated gases enabling the nymph to float to the surface. The same gases then splits the exoskeleton allowing the mayfly dun to emerge.

It’s a brief discussion, but one that reminds me of the complexity and wonder of all the life with which we share this planet.

Much of the rest of the chapter and those that follow are filled with recommendations for how to fish a particular insect mixed with anecdotes of past fishing successes – and failures.

The final chapters on presentation and strategy represent a lifetime of fly fishing experience and wisdom. Studying them will benefit any fly fisher on any trout stream.

Many books are read and then put on the shelf soon to be forgotten. Mike Lawson’s Spring Creeks is not one of them. I will use it before my next trip to the Henry’s Fork.

Highly Recommended.

Return to the Henry’s Fork

As part of a visit to my son and his family in Bozeman, I decided I needed to make a slight detour and fish the Henry’s Fork again.

The trip out from Gig Harbor was sunny and mild with hours of easy driving – I like long road trips in general and road trip days like that in particular. The only disappointment along the way was the lack of autumn colors; most trees were still green. As I dropped into Silver Bow Creek valley to spend the night in Butte I did notice the snow on the distant ranges.

The next day I spent two hours driving over Montana highways along both the Jefferson and Madison rivers making my way through Ennis and ultimately Island Park. Stopping at Henry’s Fork Anglers (HFA), I picked up a few dry flies and drove to my favorite place – Wood River Road.

Jefferson River Montana

Arriving at the river, I noticed fish sipping the surface and hurriedly got into my waders and rigged up my rod. HFA had suggested blue-winged olives and mahogany duns as flies and I selected a blue-winged olive size 16 to start.

I got at least two brief tugs indicating fish had taken the fly – only to spit it out before I could react. That was a bit disappointing, at least until I talked to a couple of other guys working the river who said the same thing. So either the fish weren’t very hungry or after a summer of being chased by fly fishers along they were very discriminating.

Wood River Road Henrys Fork

The wind began to pick up – the temperature was in the low 50’s – and I got a bit cold. I had brought my Patagonia Rio Azul waders and left my much-warmer Simms G4Zs at home. Unfortunately I had neither my winter wading pants or long underwear. So after lack of success with dry flies, I switched to a nymph and did a bit of wet-fly swinging. But no fish was interested.

Packing up I made my way back to Island Park to spend the night in the Angler’s Lodge. It is a beautiful wooden lodge on the banks of the Henry’s Fork. There’s nothing like looking out the window and seeing a river outside. The sunset made a perfect ending to the day.

Anglers Lodge Sunset, Island Park

Next day up and early and back to Wood River road. This time I had the area to myself. Low 40s and no wind made for pleasant time in the water; that required ignoring how cold my legs were.

As I did the previous day, I rigged up another dry fly – this time a size 18 Mahogany dun. Unfortunately, there were no fish sipping the surface. Looking around, I saw no hatch in progress as expected. HFA had said the hatch was occurring between 11AM and 4PM. I still thought I might find a hungry trout.

Two tugs later I had the same experience as yesterday: a quick bite and then release.

I kept at it for another couple of hours until I had to leave to get to Bozeman at the time I said I’d be there. Fortunately, I had time to stop in West Yellowstone and get lunch at Bullwinkles.

After a day and a half of a very pleasant visit – I follow Ben Franklin’s observation that guests like fish begin to stink in three days, it was time to drive home. The previous two days forecasts had predicted widespread snow for my day’s drive and I was particularly concerned about the drive over Homestake Pass.

As it turned out, the snow was delayed by 12 hours, Homestake Pass only had a bit of snow on the sides of the road and I had only snow flurries in the area west of Butte. Still, it was a good reminder: winter is coming.

Looking back at the fishing, I think I understood that I really didn’t know as much about dry fly fishing as I should. Out here on Puget Sound, blind casting wet flies to searun cutthroat trout and resident Coho, presentation and fly preparation aren’t generally a big issue.

But dry fly fishing requires a more in depth understanding of trout behavior and insect hatches as well as a good deal more refinement in presentation casting. Thinking about all that’s involved I can understand the obsessiveness that dry fly fishing can engender. I do think the next trip back will require a day with a guide to get more insights into dry fly fishing.

Hazy Days of August

August 2017 Narrows Bridge

Smoke from forest fires in British Columbia (over 100 at last count) have drifted south into Puget Sound over the last week. The air is now something seen as much as breathed due to the high particulate count (154 ppm this morning). Being outside has meant scratchy throats and irritated eyes.

But in spite of that weather it’s still a good time to go fly fishing. Or any kind of fishing as evidenced by the numbers of boats on the water this morning.

I went to Narrows park hoping to catch a coho or pink salmon – though admittedly the chance of the latter on the west side of the Narrows wasn’t great; the Nisqually pink salmon run may be shifting over to this side but that’s still subject to some speculation.

Along the way down to the beach I passed three small rabbits who seemed not to be bothered by me as long as I stayed on the path.

The tide had only begun to turn to the ebb as I reached the beach so back casting room was a bit limited. Still, there are places along the beach where a limited backcast is possible at the high tide mark.

I waded toward the Narrows bridge taking note of a number of boats drifting by with fishing lines over the side. There were also a few gear guys out bombing out their long casts. From what I could see no one was catching anything.

Deer had evidently used the beach earlier in the day.

Deer Tracks in Sand Tacoma Narrows

I did see a few Coho jumping – at least one looked to be a good size. But they were well off the beach – I guessed 150 – 175 feet, much farther than I could reach even when my double haul was near perfect.

I found good water on the far side of the bridge and after a bit of casting out to the middle, I cast more parallel to the beach. Then I caught my first searun cutthroat trout of the day. It was about ten inches long but still put a good pull on my line. I brought it in and released it off the hook. A few casts later I got a smaller six inches who slipped off the hook as I brought it close.

Then deciding to adopt April Vokey’s rule for wild steelhead (catch two and then go home) to wild searun cutthroat trout, I called it a day.

Walking back up the beach toward my car I enjoyed the day – haze and all.

Narrows Beach 2017

Reds Rendezvous 2017

Yesterday we made the long drive over to Ellensburg for the eight annual rendezvous on the Yakima River held at the Canyon River Ranch and conducted by Reds Fly Shop. For those who’ve not been over there, both are collocated in the heart of the Yakima River Canyon – a Washington State scenic byway; it is a gem in the heart of north central Washington. Ridges and river carved cliffs with bighorn sheep often seen in the distance.

Canyon River Ranch

We left the clouds and rain of Gig Harbor to arrive almost three hours later for clouds and wind – the latter a not uncommon feature of the area. But the clouds lasted only a few hours; by early afternoon the sun was out; brilliant white cumulus clouds drifted by, and we had a warm (60s) afternoon.

As always, Reds brings in a number of well-known speakers and presenters. Unfortunately, there are too many things to attend. And when combined with the opportunity to test cast rods from a number of different rods, there is more than enough to do when not stopping to soak up the views the peaceful setting. Personally, the highlights for me are the seminars along the river.

This year the river was running very high and while the speakers weren’t able to wade out for demonstrations, their shore side instruction was still worthwhile.

Tom Larimer

We attended a Tom Larimer riverside seminar on trout spey. Tom is a very well known spey casting guide and instructor, and currently National Sales Manager for G. Loomis. Trout spey is becoming more widespread and Tom was quick to demonstrate how much one could do with a three-weight spey (equivalent to a five-weight single handed rod). It looked intriguing – but more money to spend…sigh.

Ben Paull

Ben Paull of Olympic Peninsula Skagit Tactics (OPST) demonstrated what the very short OPST Commando Skagit heads would allow with a single-handed rod when fishing on a tight river with no room for a back cast.

Joe Rotter

Joe Rotter, co-owner of Reds, gave a brilliant presentation and demonstration on the upper meadow on improving one’s casting – emphasizing among many things the keys of keeping tip tension and improving one’s back cast. Joe made an interesting comment that he’s changed the way he teaches casting lately as his own casting has improved. Watching how his videos have changed over the years and how, for example, he’s changed the way he teaches the double haul, show how much deeper his understanding of fly casting has enabled him to help others improve their casting.

Joe made a comment to us a few years ago in a private conversation was that one of the things he’s hoped for the rendezvous is that it becomes more inclusive to include competitors of Reds who have attended. He said the more fly fishing is celebrated the better it is for everyone. Spending a sunny day on the Yakima it is easy to understand that sentiment.

We left with the same regret we always do. Driving back into the rain made it that much more difficult. We will likely be over the mountains and into the Canyon this year. But for sure, we already are looking forward to Reds Rendezvous IX in 2018.

The Beach is Back

Narrows Bridges

Well, to be honest…the beach never went anywhere. What’s back was me on the beach. Today, I finally got out to the beach to get my waders wet and cast my fly. It was the first time fly-fishing since last year – before my daughter’s wedding and before the medical adventure.

I could not have picked a better day.

It was sunny with scattered clouds. Neither is notable, except for the notable fact the sun has been scarce in these parts for many months. And the amount of sunlight did affect one’s comfort, as the temperature swing was notable as the sun played hide and seek.

Still, with only zephyrs for wind and an ebb tide this was a day to go fishing. I had planned to go to Purdy. But as I came to the parking area the seven cars there were enough to suggest that it was already crowded. So I made a beeline for Narrows Park.

There were a few fly fishers and spin casters on the beach, but given the length of the beach between Point Evans and Point Fosdick, crowds are never an issue. Starting with a pink shrimp pattern I began casting as I worked my way to the bridges. The chum fry are moving out of the creeks but I thought it might be a bit early for them to have made it to the Narrows so I kept my chum baby flies in the box.

I did need to focus on my casting for fishing. Don’t hold the rod too tight. Lengthen the casting stroke as more line was out. Let the rod do the work. Focus on a good back cast. Those are easy to remember in the backyard – less so when standing in the water hoping to catch a fish.

I made progress in putting them all together again. A few more times and they’ll be back in muscle memory. Then it will be time to work on the fishing double haul.

I made my way past the Narrows Bridge, casting along the way with nothing to show for the effort. No hits and definitely no fish brought in. And it did bring back a truth about fishing in Puget Sound – the only consistency is inconsistency.

But there was nothing to complain about.

The day was beautiful. Lots of boats were passing both down and up the Sound. Gulls were overhead. And out in the middle of the Narrows – where the currents are the strongest a couple of harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) were playing.

I sat on a log and watched the world for a time, thinking about how lucky I was to be where I was. As my hunger alarm clock went off, I switched to a chartreuse Clouser tube fly and began my trek back to the parking lot – stopping again at the places where trout or resident Coho can be found – if they’re there. As on the walk out there were none. And I wasn’t the only one, no one I spoke to was having any luck.

Looking around one last time as I got back to the path up to the parking lot I had the same regret at leaving I always do. Why that is will be for another time.

For now, it was only the first time out this year – it won’t be the last. Fish on.

May the Rivers Never Sleep

Book cover

Many people – most perhaps – see time as linear. A year begins; months pass; and then the year ends. It then recedes into the past, remembered only as an incrementing number on one’s decrementing life journey. Infrequently, a year will be remembered for some significant achievement or tragedy.

Fly fishers, hopefully more wise than most, have evidence of the cyclic nature of time as seen in the annual hatches and return of treasured species of fish. And to be fair, evidence of the cyclic nature of time is shared certainly with hunters and others that chase fish with plugs or bait.

Depending on the river, fly fishers eagerly await the Skwala hatch, Mother’s Day Caddis, hopper season or October Caddis. On other rivers, autumn is the time for brown trout. Fishers, both fly and spey, on the coasts wait for the return of salmon and steelhead.

Whatever the month or season, it is a time for being outdoors with a fly rod in hand; an occasion to reflect on fond memories of past outings as well as look forward to the possibilities of the next hatch or the return of salmon or steelhead.

There are a few, a relatively small few, who put aside fly rods to look for the deeper revelations of fish and the world they inhabit. Once such person was the deservedly revered Roderick Haig-Brown. Among his books is the enduring A River Never Sleeps published in 1946, in which he uses the calendar year to write of his experiences on rivers, streams, and estuaries – using the calendar year to mark his journey.

Haig Brown

Now following along in the writing of Haig-Brown are the father/son team of Bill and John McMillan. Bill is well known in the Northwest for his writings on salmon and steelhead and was one of the founders of the Wild Fish Conservancy. His son John leads the Trout Unlimited Wild Steelhead Initiative.

Their book, published in 2012, is May the Rivers Never Sleep. Their river calendar takes place on the salmon and steelhead rivers of primarily Oregon and Washington.

Similar to Haig-Brown they’ve often traded rod for snorkel and mask. This is a large format book with plenty of photographs of salmon and steelhead taken underwater as well as surface photographs of well-loved streams.

Their prose is full of reflection and insight.

There are surprises, such as when the McMillans observe male rainbow trout mating with female steelhead on Olympic Peninsula rivers. They also cite recent studies that indicate that male rainbow trout may father more than 50% of steelhead in both Oregon and Washington in some years.

Their writing also reveals the extent of what has been lost. Whether due to loss of habitat due to logging and dams or the impact of climate change, populations of salmon and steelhead are in decline.

They observe the Grande Ronde river in Oregon. It was once considered one of the most prolific salmon and steelhead rivers in the Columbia basin as late as the 1940s and 1950s. Now those fish must traverse eight Columbia and Snake river dams to reach their natal streams. Further, many are confused and unable to find their natal streams; as juveniles they were collected and barged 200 miles downstream.

But this is not a book of pessimism. They see hope in the adaptation of pink salmon, whose number have increased, to warmer North Pacific temperatures. They note the depletion of char in British Columbia, but note the Skagit River holds sizable numbers of bull trout, one of the three species of char found in North America; the other two are Dolly Vardens and Arctic Char.
Given bull trout are nomadic they could spread to other river systems in Puget Sound if water temperatures are conducive and if salmon recovery proceeds – the bull trout feed on salmon eggs and fry.

This is a book to be read, and then reread a second time, with the second reading occurring over the months of a year – one chapter for each month. Each month of the river year then provides an opportunity to reflect upon the wider (and deeper) perspectives of what it means to chase salmon and steelhead.

Henry’s Fork Country

Last year, my wife and I fished the Henry’s Fork for the first time (see trip report). Thanks again to Justin Waters of the Gig Harbor Fly Shop for giving us recommendations for where to fish – particularly the Wood River Road.

Today i came across the following video – set to music by The Blue Aces – of scenes of the Henry’s Fork. Lots of trout and salmon flies throughout.

Hopefully we can make it back again this year in time for one of the hatches – or late season browns.

Watch the video here.

Fly Fishing The Greater Yellowstone: The Trip

Henry's Fork, Road 313

Any journey, even to a familiar place, can lead to discovery, whether that discovery is seeing something new or learning something new – even about oneself.

So it was with the trip my wife Terri and I took to Greater Yellowstone. Except for visiting our son and his family in Bozeman, the focus of this trip was fly fishing. Our plan, over an eight day trip, was to fish Rock Creek, Yellowstone National Park (and the Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison rivers), Henry’s Fork, the upper Madison, and the Ruby River.

Though we had been to Yellowstone many times, this was our first time fly fishing on the rivers. And we created an element of adventure by facing the unknown without hiring fly-fishing guides.

That choice was based on a number of major cash outlays on the house, which meant cutting some costs on the trip. That meant turning this into more of an exploration of the rivers rather than an effort to get a high catch count in trout. That’s not to say we weren’t hopeful. We took advice where we could get it; and the recommendations from some of the local fly shops was outstanding. Credit also should be given to Justin Waters from the Gig Harbor Fly Shop, who put us on a truly beautiful part of the Henry’s Fork; Justin also recommended stopping by Mesa Falls, which was spectacular.

As might be expected, the Henry’s Fork was the highlight of the trip. The slow-moving current and easy wading, together with the distant vistas of the Tetons and the lyrical feel of the place, made it a place of magic. We spent parts of two days on the river and it wasn’t enough.

Ruby River Below the Dam

Our next favorite river, which was a bit of a surprise given the rivers of Yellowstone National Park and Upper Madison, was the Ruby River. We fished below the dam, which was recommended by Maggie Mae Stone, one of the guides at The Tackle Shop in Ennis, Montana. Her recommendation on where to fish and which flies to use was very helpful. While we did not have the success of a fly fisherman across the river from my wife who pulled out a good 20-inch brown trout while nymphing, we’ll remember what she told us and will go back on our next trip to Montana.

Madison River Three Dollar Bridge

Sometimes just seeing a storied place is enough. That was the situation with our visits to Three Dollar Bridge on the upper Madison River and Rock Creek. We got on the Madison river on a warm and windy afternoon and fished the area of the bridge. We tried the pocket water but couldn’t even get a strike. But I was struck by the unreality of standing in a place I had seen so often in photographs.

Rock Creek

We fished Rock Creek on a sunny Saturday morning. We drove up the road about three miles and found what looked to be a great spot with a small island to work from and three channels to fish. However, my first attempts at wading were a problem. Even in less than 12 inches of water the creek was too dangerous to wade in. We had arrived at the creek early but as we were fishing we watched a number of cars move up the road. We exited the creek and explored up the road. The next pullout was near what would have been a great place to fish, but we had been beaten to it.

Gibbon River Yellowstone National Park

And then there was Yellowstone National Park. It was our first stop after our visit to our son in Bozeeman. Except for visiting the park, we should have just skipped it. It had been years since I’d been in the park during the summer and the crowds and traffic, even prior to the Independence Day holiday, were more than I was used to seeing in the park; off-season is the time to visit. The fishing was poor. We started on the Firehole River a few miles above the Firehole canyon. Water temperatures were in the 70s. Moving down to the Gibbon River, near where it joined the Firehole to form the Madison, again we found the water warm. Moving downstream we fished the Madison near Nine-mile where the water was turbid. Nymphing produced not even a strike.

Our poor results were confirmed by the staff at Madison River Outfitters, who told us their guides were seeing everyone was having a tough time. The weather and water had both been warmer earlier than was typical.

And finally we fished the Yakima Canyon on our way back home where Terri got the last fish of the trip.

It was quite a journey, one with some lessons that will be detailed in my next post. But one thing for sure. Next trip we will hire guides for trips on the Henry’s Fork and the upper Madison. And we will return to the Ruby River.