Fly fishing the Skagit River
By Ian Ferguson
Photo by Ed Megill
When the raft left the shore, stress left my mind. Ed Megill, a capable Northwest fishing guide, manned the oars. With a two-handed Spey rod in the boat, clear blue skies and no deadlines overhead, we set out to float the scenic Skagit River in search of bull trout and whatever else might bite.
I had never gone fly fishing before. The last time I caught a fish was as a young boy with a worm and bobber in a stocked pond. Maybe it was good memories of fishing with my dad, or maybe it was Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River, a short story from one of my favorite books; I always felt I was missing out on something good.
Ed had taught me how to cast two days before. We stood calf deep on an inside bend of the Nooksack River, going over the art of Spey casting. He taught me a hybrid between Spey casting, a traditional two-handed cast first developed in 1800s on the Spey River in Scotland, and Skagit casting, a more simplified version developed right here in Washington.
In terms of fly casting, the method Ed taught me is beginner’s stuff, but it seemed pretty intricate to me. Raise the 12-foot pole like a rifle aiming down river, draw an arc in front of you with the tip to set the line on the water, peel it off at a 30-degree angle until your hand is answering a phone with someone yelling on the other end, then flick it forward from one o’clock to 11 o’clock. If you’ve done it right, at about the tempo of a waltz, the line will roll out smoothly and the leader will land neatly on the water, right where you aimed it. If you did it wrong, you’ll know.
The secret, Ed said, is to relax.
“You want to be completely chilled out. Heart rate of about 60-70 beats per minute,” he said.
When Ed took the rod, he looked me right in the eye, continued to to converse and yet laid down expert casts continuously without even trying. The rod and line were constantly in motion, and Ed was in complete control. His motions reminded me of a tai-chi master.
At my best, after an hour of practice, I made one solid cast out of every 10. Luckily, Ed told me, the rivers of the Pacific Northwest are forgiving. With so much glacial sediment in the water, the visibility is no more than a few feet, so you won’t likely scare away fish with a terrible cast. Just set it up and try again.
I was trying to remember everything I’d learned two days before when Ed pulled the raft up to a gravel shore next to some shallow rapids, a half-mile down from where we had put in on the Skagit. He explained that the section had good structure – lots of rocks for fish to hide behind – without being too fast.
“We’re looking for walking pace water when we’re fishing for bull trout, steelhead and rainbows,” Ed said. “Sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little slower, but that’s kind of a general rule. When we start fishing for salmon, we’re looking for what I call the old man shuffle – a little slower than walking pace.”
He showed me how to work the run, taking a couple steps downriver after every cast, and how to correct the line to make the most of each cast. Working the run, I repeated the motions of casting and fishing rhythmically, knee deep in glacial river water. I was focused on calmly executing each cast, relaxing while the fly drifted downriver, watching the rod tip intently and listening to the river rushing over the rocks, casting again and again. Cast. Two steps. Chill. Repeat.
The process was meditative. The less I thought about it, the better my casts became. I got lost in the rhythm. Time didn’t exist and before I knew it I was at the end of the run.
I walked back to the beach and Ed gave me some pointers. We drank some water and munched some crackers, enjoying the sunshine and the view; just a mighty grey-green river, trees and distant mountains.
After awhile, Ed suggested I work the run again. I started up at the head of the beach near where the water was fastest. I fell quickly back into the relaxed rhythm, calm and steady with my casts.
Suddenly, as I was pulling the line back in, I felt a tug. I jerked the pole up and it
“Got something? Strip!” Ed said. I stripped line, surprised at the resistance, and the pole bowed even more. My heartbeat raced. I held the line for a few seconds, and nothing happened. I had snagged the bottom.
“It happens,” Ed said, smiling. He helped me unsnag the fly and I went back to fishing.
A few casts later, I caught a fish.
The difference between a rock and a live fish, when hooked, is immediately apparent. The tip of the fly rod danced. I jerked the pole up and set the butt against my hip, stripping (or pulling by hand) the line to keep tension on the rod. When the fish moved my way, I stripped more. When it pulled, it pulled hard.
“Walk it back to the beach,” Ed said. Soon the fish was right in front of me.
Ed told me to get my hand wet before grabbing the fish. I dipped my hand and grabbed the line, pulling the fish out of the water. It was flopping mightily, and we had pinched the barb on the hook because we weren’t planning on keeping any of the fish we caught. As I went to reach for it, the fish flopped itself off the hook, and in a flash it was gone.
“That was a beauty! A bull trout, probably 16 inches,” Ed said. “Nice job!”
I was beaming as I gave Ed a high five. It was the first fish I had caught in about 15 years, and it didn’t matter that it got away before I could hold it. I was proud of it.
We moved down the river, fishing several more runs through the rest of the day. At times I rushed my casts or forgot my technique, and Ed patiently coached me from the shore.
I caught another bull trout farther down the river on a waist-deep travel lane, where the water was slow in a narrow channel beside an island. The second trout was about the same size as the first, and it too flopped off the hook as soon as I pulled it out of the water. Ed told me he had forgotten to bring a hand net, which would have made landing the fish a little easier. That was fine; since we were releasing the fish anyway it was enough just to play the fish, bring it in and see it for a moment.
A walking field guide to fish, Ed taught me more about fish that day than I could ever hope to remember. He told me all about the many runs in the Northwest – all five species of salmon, summer and winter run steelhead, rainbow, cutthroat, bull trout and more. He knows the lifecycle and habits of all these fish, because he’s been guiding in the Pacific Northwest for years. His knowledge made him a natural choice to be the Native Fish Society’s river steward for the Skagit River.
Fishing the Skagit was such a good time I’ve begun shopping around for a fly-fishing outfit. My options are certainly not limited.
“How deep down the rabbit hole do you want to go?” Ed said. “That’s one of the things that’s so cool about fly fishing. If you’re into lakes, we’ve got plenty of lakes. If you like the smell of saltwater, man, saltwater is so much fun to fish, and if you’re into moving water, we’ve got thousands of river miles to go explore here in the Northwest. Then you’ve got smaller streams and tributaries. A lot of times, you won’t see a single soul out there.
“To me, that’s the most attractive thing about fly fishing. It’s a reason to go out there and explore, and to go enjoy the ecosystem right in our backyard.” x
The WDFW website is a great place to start: wdfw.wa.gov/fishing
In B.C.? Check out fishing.gov.bc.ca
Want to go on a guided trip? I can’t recommend anyone more highly than Cascades Flyfishing Expeditions on the Skagit, Sauk, Nooksack, Queets, Grande Ronde and Yakima rivers, and the beaches of Washington. Find them at