I stand along the banks of what we Puget Sound anglers refer to as an “S” River, engaged in one last act of desperation: swinging a fly in green water that was recently much higher and the color of mud. It’s the last Sunday of the month: one day shy of the last day of both January and the winter steelhead season.
Besides closing early, this particular “S” river had flip-flopped nearly constantly under the rain-gorged influence of La Nina (translation: The Bitch). It seemed as though every time I had an opportunity to go chase a pipe dream steelhead, the rivers were either blown out completely or too high for sensible wading. I doubt things were much different for the countless others who would also be out plying the waters on this last Sunday in January.
One can therefore imagine my surprise when not a single other rig was parked at my favorite local spot. It was 6:45AM, and had it not been for a thick layer of clouds the sun would have started to show itself to the east. I didn’t expect to touch a fish, but at least two things were already going my way: the absence of rain and lack of company. Both served to brighten my hopes for the morning.
On this morning the water is a bit higher than ideal, but as mentioned previously, the river was running a respectable shade of green, maybe a foot and a half of visibility. Starting at the top of the run where the water is faster requires a type 8 tip, which I have looped to my 510 grain Compact Skagit. I select a black and blue Intruder from the fly box. My Spey rod feels almost strange in my grip, having not had my hands on the cork for what seems like a very long time. But muscle memory is a sweet thing, and quickly I’m firing off adequate, if not attractive casts. At least there’s nobody around to judge my casting ability.
I take my time working through the run. As I near the soft water of the tailout my fly begins to hang up on occasion. I reel in and head back to the top of the run where I contemplate tying on another fly but decide against it. Steelhead don’t care much about that anyway, and besides–there aren’t any fish in the river (at least not this run). I soak in the solitude of the cold Sunday morning, glad that January is nearly gone because it’s my least favorite month of the year. I’m misty-eyed at the same time due to the early closures. Not so much out of selfishness for my own needs, but rather for what it means in the bigger picture: there aren’t enough wild fish returning to Puget Sound rivers. I am momentarily lost in thought as I harken back two years to a wild Sauk River fish caught in April…to last year when the Skykomish gave up a couple of bright native fish on Superbowl Sunday. Returns have not been good for years, but they’re getting worse. What is the cause? I ponder yet again. I wipe a raindrop from my eye and begin working downstream. Except, it wasn’t raining…
My fly hangs up on a rock and is reluctant to be dislodged. I manage to get it free and contemplate calling it a day—a season. The thought of going home now, where a day of yard work that I’ve been putting off since November awaits, is more than I can bear. I decide to make a few more casts, but not before putting the file to my fly, the hook somewhat fouled from hanging up on the rocks. This is done more out of habit than hope
The next swing puts the fly into what I would consider the last of the hopeful water before it gets too soft. Tap. Damnit, another rock. I prepare to throw some slack at it. Tap. Tap. Tap. It’s been so long since I’ve felt a fish that I’m slow to acknowledge the possibility that this could be anything other than a rock. After a long delay, I lay the tip of my rod toward shore and the line goes tight. Then the tip of the rod bends under the strain of a fish heading the opposite direction. There are no tail-walks for acrobatic leaps, but the head-shakes are authoritative and the fish takes me nearly into my backing as it heads downstream, to the north. I don’t have a lot of riverbank left before I’ll be up to my waist, so I apply the brakes, hoping the fish turns. It does. The freshly-sharpened hook holds and the eventual result is a 30-inch wild steelhead: a bright buck that looks to have been in the salt this same time a week earlier, or less.
Anyway, that’s how I envision the perfect end to the season. Such was not the case, however. I stayed home on the last day and did yard work instead.