fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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following no plan

Unhurried, we turned what could have been a three-hour drive into an easy-going, day-long expedition. Hours were spent exploring thin blue lines on maps and the unfamiliar dirt roads that would get us to hopefully fishy water. That time was rewarded with wild fish. One of us had to be satisfied with drifting a fly well enough to at least provoke strikes. We stumbled over boulders and walked through cold, clear waters on both the east and west slopes of Stevens Pass. Passed up less welcoming waters and greedily eyed a pod of big fish, fish too smart or wary to tempt. We stayed where we wanted as long as we wanted, and when the urge struck, we again headed east for a few or more miles before searching new water along another dirt road.

Often the best aspect of a destination is the journey required to get there. It’s all the better if that travel takes you out of your comfort zone. That’s now part of the nature of our Bro’ Trip™.

It was during June eight years ago that the rough outline – or at least the possibility – of an annual Bro’ Trip™ took form. Such traditions don’t just happen. They require work.

Back in 2008, our trip was about taking Dad fishing in Alaska, something he’d talked about but never followed up on. We spent four days of fishing for salmon and halibut out of a Kenai River lodge. Today, our Bro’ Trip™ is more modest but still adventures that include discovery and often take us to new places.

We easily throw trip ideas back and forth at the start of a new year before getting down to the real work: scheduling. We’re not retired or self-employed. Mark has two young boys. Side projects – Neighborhood Watch, college classes, and website work for my fly fishing club and the IWFF and NCCFFF (two other fly fishing groups), demand my regular attention. We both try to plan family vacations each year. Mark takes the boys camping and the whole family to various destinations. My wife likes cruises. Thankfully, both our wives support the allotment of some time for brothers to be brothers, and to sometimes act like boys.

After my banzai run up I-5 and the visit with the parents, I met up with Mark and family Sunday evening. He was barbecuing kokanee that was swimming earlier that morning. I was pretty ready to roll out the next morning. Mark wasn’t. It didn’t bother me much that he wasn’t ready. I’ve made a conscious effort over the years to avoiding worrying when it’s not necessary. And it’s definitely not necessary on vacation.

By midmorning the next day we turned off Hwy 2 and headed down a Forest Service Road toward Money Creek. Like many of the waters we’d fish that week, Money Creek is small pocket. The type of creek that attracts very few people, most likely fly fishermen with self-esteem issues. But its small dry fly water is worth a few casts. We were a bit too heavily armed, perhaps optimistically, with 3 wt. rods. We agreed to meet at the next bend to decide on whether we would extend our stay.

The weather was warm enough to allow wet wading but the water cool enough for the fish. Dense forest shaded both banks, their branches demanded care when casting unless we stepped into the water to make an upstream cast, which is my favorite tactic on previously unvisited water. The first step into the water was mildly shocking.

It’d been too long since I last laid hand to a fly rod, but the old muscle memory came back fast enough to generally place flies where trout might be looking. Without a visible hatch and expecting these to be wild and relatively unmolested fish, both Mark and I had tied on stimulator flies of one kind or another: Mark’s with an orange body, mine in yellow. The color didn’t matter; both were about size 16.

Quick strikes confirmed my guess; the trout were there. However, a lack of hookups suggested my fly was too big.

Mark working his way up Money Creek.

Mark working his way up Money Creek.

The benefit of not being a “purist” allows me to easily adopt strategies that other fly fishermen might frown upon. Rather than replace my size 16 fly, I tied a piece of tippet, about 10 inches, on to the stimulator, onto which I tied a size 20 Elk Hair Caddis. The biggest benefit to this setup is that the larger stimulator would give me an approximate location of my smaller, almost invisible fly.

That’s all it took. Later, Mark reported numerous strikes but not one fish to hand. I had landed half a dozen or so. The largest was about eight inches. It was a promising start. During the day we’d fish other creeks. We’d pass up others, usually because the footing was too treacherous for two not-in-their-prime guys. We found willing fish in the East Fork Miller Creek, before it merges with the Tye River to create the South Fork of the Skykomish River. Other waters on our list included Foss River, Rinker Creek and Quartz Creek.

Just after noon we had run out of easily accessible water and headed over Stevens Pass to make the descent into eastern Washington. We were talking like brothers can and munching on snacks, and the scenery whizzed by. That should have been a clue. The state trooper in the oncoming lane turned on his lights and made a U-turn. I couldn’t see any other cars headed east.

In retrospect, I found it heartening that I didn’t feel my stomach dip or my heart flutter with the realization those red and blue lights were for me. A quick check of my paperwork, an admonishment to slow down, and we were off again.

Mark interrupted our descent toward Wenatchee, suggesting we pull over to check out Nason Creek, which slips in and out of sight of the highway for many miles. This was a spot he’d checked out before. It was a broad, flat bend in the creek, its slow water hemmed in by broadleaf trees.

I half looked for signs of fish. This is the best way to spot a fish. This looking/not-looking – unfocusing on what you want to see – reveals subtle movements at the edges of your vision. Shadows, formerly rocks, start to sway back forth. Just above, the streamlined body. First one, then two, and a third and fourth. I pointed them out to Mark.

Then my jaw went slack and I went silent. An impossibly large trout swims into view. Larger dots along its back suggest it’s a brown trout. It would be former brood stock beyond its prime breeding years, but I’d rather believe it’s a wild and clearly piscivorous fish.

A welcome flight at Icicle Brewing.

A welcome flight at Icicle Brewing.

Before heading into Leavenworth for lunch, we sought out access on Icicle Creek, but hunger, fatigue and unfamiliarity with the area made beer and lunch more attractive. We stopped and walked a couple of blocks to Icicle Brewing Company.

The heat of eastern Washington was unlike anything I’ve felt before. It’s terribly dry. Even a small breeze feels like sandpaper. Shade offers only minor relief.

We lingered while munching on a pretzel, landjaeger and a meat and cheese platter, critiquing the beer and musing about unimportant things. (Who matched pretzels to mustard in the first place?) From Leavenworth it should have taken about 75 minutes to the house in Chelan but construction delays added about 40 minutes. Enough time for Mark to get in a nap.

Chelan was still baking in the afternoon sun when we arrived. We’d bake the rest of the week.

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Pat and Mark’s (and Derek and Kirk’s) excellent fly fishing adventure (or, part one of a two-part payoff)

Since day one of my fly fishing career, I’ve been a proponent of hiring a guide to get the “lay of the land,” and though unlucky enough to start fly fishing later in life, I started fly fishing when I could afford to hire a few of these professional trout bums. This however, was one of those times that hiring of a guide paid multiple dividends, even after the guiding was over.

The trip in question centered around two goals: get my brother, Mark, who’d fly fished for the first time last year, on waters local to his home in Washington state, and for a second time attempt to get a close up look at west slope cutthroat trout. To make the most of my short visit, I again turned to Derek Young (Emerging Rivers Guide Services) for help. Frankly, I don’t believe it was a coincidence that I hired Derek two years ago for a float down the Yakima River with my father and that Derek was subsequently selected as the 2011 Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide of the Year. Regardless, Derek fits my expectations of a guide: someone with strong local knowledge and unfettered enthusiasm for both the fishing and the fish; the type of person with whom one can forge a connection in a mutual passion for fly fishing.

No one would have expected in the days leading up to my flight that the Seattle area would experience record-breaking temperatures. My flight into Sea-Tac International that Wednesday morning would afford my first view of the Space Needle. By the time I was standing on the arrivals sidewalk, most the sky was blue and the sun intense enough that the fleece was tucked away.

I had planned my flight to arrive at an hour late enough that beer tasting on the way to my brother’s house would be socially acceptable. We ended up at Elysian Fields for Cuban and Reuben sandwiches (and beer) after a stop at Georgetown Brewing, then visited Black Raven Brewing before unpacking and prepping for fishing the next day. That afternoon, during the usual pre-planning conversation, Derek proposed accommodating our two goals with two half days of fishing.

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Our first look up this Skykomish Tributary.

That’s how my brother and I ended up wet wading a tributary of the Skykomish River with Derek, who had invited friend and all-around good egg Kirk Wener (the man behind the Unaccomplished Angler blog and author/illustrator of the “Olive the Woolly Bugger” books). I’d met Kirk a few years ago in asking that he sign copies of the Olive books for my nephews. Kirk had mentioned the possibility of fishing together sometime on the Snoqualmie Forks, but he’s a busy man and, for lack planning on my part, it never came to pass.

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Mark working a pool on his way downstream.
(Photo copyright © 2012 Derek Young. Used with permission.)

This Skykomish tributary is one of those rivers that immediately impresses with a feeling of remoteness, even though it’s relatively nearby as the crow flies. But we’re not crows, and the desire to get more than a few steps away from the easily accessed and more heavily fished stretches required a bit of leg work. The hike up a hillside, through rain forest and over fallen trees was an effort not made easier by a big breakfast at the Sultan Bakery, but worth the reward — an uncompromised river and view. The drive to our destination on Highway 2 was under scattered clouds, most of which dissipated as the day wore on.

After laying out a game plan, Mark, Derek and I headed upstream. We left Kirk fishing a nice pool that would produce a surprise and the biggest fish of the day (though not a trout). The walk upstream was punctuated with admiration of the beauty of this place and Derek’s insight into what we’d be fishing and where. As agreed, Derek began shadowing and educating Mark while I attempted and occasionally succeeded to get a decent drift.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’d know that my introduction to fly fishing didn’t involve much in the way of dry flies. But since there would be witnesses, I wanted to man up this trip; I’d live or die by the stimulator Derek had selected. Usually I’d like to say my casting was the result of experience and practice, but sometimes I wonder if using a rod at the higher end of the spectrum not only aids one’s casting but also infuses the user with additional confidence. Whatever the case, the Helios 2 (a disguised test rod) was sweet, and more often than not the fly landed near the designated target.

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Dry flies, baby, dry flies…

There was plenty of fishy water and fish where they might be expected. With good fly placement and a bit of luck, some of those fish — small rainbows, or perhaps steelhead progeny — were found. Those who know me might call it playing to one’s strength, but I’ve increasingly come to appreciate small wild trout. On the right rod, they offer a fight that, ounce for ounce, compares favorably to any of their larger brethren, and usually are more than obliging to forgive my poor presentation of a dry fly. The fish in this part of the Skykomish River system didn’t disappoint.

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Derek offering the assist.

It was clear from my occasional glance upstream that Mark was getting the hang of casting. I was even a bit envious of his tight loops. Despite a secret hope that my initial casting instruction had served my brother well, I had to agree with Derek’s appraisal that Mark just might be a “natural.” It was about this time I noticed, about 50 yards downstream, a peculiarly heavy bend in Kirk’s rod.

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Kirk providing photographic evidence of his ‘surprise.’
(Photo copyright © 2012 Derek Young. Used with permission.)

Mark and I fished upstream, leapfrogging each other as we fished suspect pools, riffles and seams. We each landed fish. There was no real competition between us this day, but if there was, it’s clear that Mark’s enjoyment and wonder trumped the number of fish I landed. Then again, I did manage that one really nice fish.

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That nice fish.

The adventure continues next week…


More photos:
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