Fly-fishing the Skagit River

What we know of fishing is built on the experience of others

Gary Lewis / For The Bulletin /

Published Aug 21, 2013 at 05:00AM

For Valentine's Day in the early 1970s, my mom bought my dad a little book about steelhead fishing written by a fellow named Enos Bradner. Mom had inscribed a little note to Dad on the inside front cover and I found it in their bookshelf a few years later.

Bradner's was the first outdoor book I read and it helped get me started on a life of steelhead fishing.

Decades later, in April 2009, I was presented with the Enos Bradner award by the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association, an organization Bradner helped to found. I knew that one day I would go north to fish the Skagit, a river Bradner loved.

The Skagit flows out of southwestern British Columbia into Washington state and drains 1.7 million acres of the Cascades. Home to all five species of Pacific salmon, steelhead, resident rainbows and cutthroat, the river has one of the strongest populations of bull trout left in the world.

Headed north, the plan was to fish for the pink salmon that return to the river by the millions in every odd-numbered year. But the plan changed when a mud slide blew out the lower river. We couldn't wait a few days for the water to clear, so our guide Ed Megill, of the new Confluence Fly Shop in Bellingham, Wash., pointed us upstream. We would cast 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.

My new waders had a leak already, high on a seam above my waist. I mentioned it to McNett who is the founder of McNett Corp., the company that holds the patent for Aquaseal by Gear Aid.

I peeled down my waders that shouldn't leak and we quickly applied a thin layer of adhesive on the seam, allowed it to cure in the air for a few minutes then put a patch over the glue. Problem solved. The prospect of soggy feet thus eliminated, we waded into the first run.

Megill started me with a small, weighted 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, thinking we were targeting pink salmon instead.

On the second run, a fish grabbed the fly, but I pulled the hook out of its mouth. Here, where the river made a turn, the Skagit was shallow and ran over a big gravel bar. It was easy to see the best holding water. A lost sockeye spooked when I waded close to it in the shallows.

On the next run, Huisman 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 spawning 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. Huisman 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 with time, but the river is timeless, the quarry a dream to be grasped. It is still a good idea to buy a book for a fisherman.