Well, the moment that many of us have been waiting for since 2009 finally came. The WDFW's management plan for the ESA-listed Skagit River steelhead was approved by NOAA, meaning that they opened the river! Fishermen would get a shot at this legendary river on April 14-15th, April 18-22nd and April 25-29th. Which is a lot more of a season than we've had for the last several years. It was pretty obvious where we would be fishing last weekend. My friend Alex Badulak and I planned on fishing both days, which meant that I had to forego my usual sleep-in session. In fact, I had to forego it by a lot, since our agreed-upon wakeup time was (gasp!) 5:00. On the plus side, Alex made delicious and perfectly cooked breakfast sandwiches to lessen the blow of this inhumane start. We got up early because we expected biblical crowds on the river, especially because an inch of rain fell on Friday the 13th, meaning that the Sauk blew out. This meant that a lot of the pressure that would have been applied to the Sauk came up to the upper Skagit instead. We weren't exactly late when we pulled into the parking lot at 6:00, but we were some of the last to show up. I counted at least 15 other vehicles in the parking lot, which actually was less than what I was expecting. We got our boats inflated, which is always something I dread as it seems to take forever, (I'm in the market for a little flatbed trailer to bypass this step) and then headed downstream.
It wasn't long before we saw a bar that looked good. The river dropped significantly, with fast water to the center and outside as it made a gradual turn to the left. I was surprised nobody was in this spot. Since we were some of the last people to get on the water, I was pretty sure that this water had been fished, but on big water like the Skagit, that's not the end of the world. People often take several steps between casts and there's a good chance they'll miss a fish, maybe by just a couple of feet or even less. It's a lot of peoples' greatest fear to have somebody hook a fish coming behind them, but if you fish a run and follow yourself through, there's a good chance that you'll pick your own pocket, so should you really feel that embarrassed? At this run I saw the biggest piece of quartz I've ever seen—bigger than a football. I thought about taking it with me, but honestly, what am I going to do with a giant piece of quartz? Put it on my deck? So that I can stare at it every day? I don't really have a pressing need to acquire large chunks of quartz. I decided to leave it for the next person, who hopefully will appreciate it as much as I did.
Before too long, we passed two gear fishermen who said they'd gotten two fish. So we knew they were in there. We were pretty confident. It was April, the temperature was relatively warm, it was a cloudy day with intermittent showers, and we were on a river that hadn't been fished at this time of year since 2009. I would say that clarity was about ten feet. The river was certainly busy, with walk-in anglers camped out at many classic runs, but I was surprised that there weren't more boat-based swing anglers. In fact, there were less than you'll see on a typical March day on the Hoh. Even though there was a good deal of pressure, we were able to find water. Like on all big rivers, the small, subtle features aren't actually small. Little edges, high banks, and tailouts all offered opportunities for us, and I felt confident that a couple of the spots we fished hadn't been fished that day. Overall, the Skagit moves fast, so the key is to find water that's slow enough for fish to rest, that is also deep enough to hold fish, but not so deep as to be impenetrable with our 12 foot Commando Bucket Sink Tips. The broad Skagit gave me a perfect opportunity to fish a long rod—I chose a 13'6" 7-weight Red Truck Diesel rod with a 400 grain Commando Head. That might sound light, but it was plenty of grains, and the setup cast like a dream. Rods 13 feet and longer are not too long for Commando Heads! Not at all. Alex fished an 11'11" 7-weight G. Loomis IMX Pro, and I think he also had a 400 grain Commando Head on that. And although he hasn't been fishing a two handed rod for long at all, he was throwing some sweet loops with that Commando Head:
I really enjoyed the line control and the overall feel of the long rod. Even with a longer rod, the Commando Head's shortness made fishing high banks totally doable. The size of our D loops with Commandos is really minimal so not much line is thrown behind you. In this clear water, I took two or three steps after each cast, sometimes stepping while my fly was sinking to allow the fly to get deeper. On this river, though, I know that Bill McMillan sometimes (often?) fishes dry flies in the winter and spring. I have also been told by Caleb Hanna that he often catches fish behind people when they are fishing T17 and he's fishing a type 3. Depth isn't everything. The water is often clear on this river, and the fish will move. But even so, if I could fish 10 feet down on some of these high banks I would.
I was fishing a pink four-hackle Camo Squid for the first half of the day, and I switched halfway through to a red one. I considered going with a pink leech, but I felt that this hallowed river deserved a slightly more graceful fly, or an attempt at one, and these four hackle flies are some of the nicest flies I've tied this year.
I liked the fly, but honestly I didn't have 100% confidence in it. Still, I know that the fly, or have been told that the fly doesn't matter that much in steelheading—what matters is finding a fish, which hopefully is also an aggressive fish. But personally, I think the fly matters. To some extent at least. Well, on Saturday finding a fish was a tall order. We heard from a couple other gear boats who had gotten fish, and Trevor Covich, who was doing the same float along with Caleb Hanna and Taben Mellor, two Skagit regulars, got a really nice fish on the swing:
So, we certainly weren't wasting our time. We got off the river by about 4 and headed back to our rental house, where we enjoyed some really beautiful artwork by Casey Underwood:
I think I'm going to get either the steelhead or the sea run bull trout to put up in my apartment. I really like them both. The steelhead is more prestigious but man that's a nice representation of a bull. We had tortellini and asparagus for dinner, along with garlic bread, which came within an inch of being torched.
Waking up in the morning at 5 was a little rougher than the day before. Thank God for coffee. We moved a little slower and got to the boat ramp around 6:15. A few minutes after we started inflating our boats, we saw Trevor's truck pull in. At that point I didn't know that he had caught a nice fish the day before, but he texted me the picture a little later.
The weather was a little better on Sunday, and it was sunny for several hours in the late morning. I even took a short nap on the bank. We fished some of the same water as the day before, along with a few new spots. As with the day before, there was plenty of water for us. There was considerably less boat pressure, with only about six other boats in the parking lot. I was really surprised, especially since so many people had caught fish the day before. I was pretty confident, but the water's clarity made me worry that the steelhead would be holding deep. We saw two fish get caught by two gear boats that were float fishing, and both of those fish were on deep high banks. Long story short, we didn't get anything. Which is fine. Even though it's prime time in one of the most famous rivers in the country, and even though it hasn't seen any pressure for years, it's still steelheading. We were lucky and grateful just to be out there, and we will be back to fish as many days as we can during this short season.