By Gary Strassburg
Back in the early 90’s I was drift fishing the upper reaches of the Skagit River above Rockport for winter steelhead. It was nearing the end of February and soon the river would close to the killing of steelhead and the use of bait, and give way to an army of fly anglers that cared less about killing their fish. Looking back, I had a different mindset then. I was pissed that the glorious Skagit would morph from knuckle-dragger gear anglers to feather-tossing snobs. But… all that changed one day when I met a fellow angler on a beautiful stretch of that river. An angler with a fly rod in his hand.
I was always in a rush in my youth. Off to the next hole, go, go, go with no real meaning to my day of fishing. That day I already had one hatchery brat in the cooler and was looking for my second. I parked my truck and made for the river on one of the well beaten trails that hordes of anglers had trodden before me. I was the only one parked there, so I thought for sure I would have the run to myself. Once to the river’s edge though, I spotted a shadowy figure through the mist that was rising above the water. “Dammit,” I muttered out loud and stopped in my tracks, ready to turn around. Then I noticed the angler was making fly casts. His motion was fluid and graceful. The rod seemed merely an extension of his body. “Very cool,” I whispered to myself.
I approached the man,and purposely drug my feet across the rocks on the gravel bar to get his attention. He turned his head slightly towards me mid-cast.“Mornin’!” he said.
“G’mornin’ to you too,” I said. “Very nice work on the casts.”
He hauled back and then shot a beautiful cast out across the head of the tail out. Mended a couple times and then began to strip in.
“You fly fish?” he asked.
“Sorta,” I said sheepishly.
I had fly fished before, but wasn’t that great at it. Especially not as good as this gentleman. I held out my drift gear and explained how it was fished. Even though he said he had only fly fished his entire life, he seemed as interested in my gear as I was in his. So a conversation ensued. Next thing I knew we were sitting on a log near the bank and talking about steelhead and what that wonderful fish meant to us.
We were in agreement with a lot of things. Worlds collide. Fly guy and gear guy.
I never expected to meet a fly guy that was not looking down his nose at me. But that day we spent almost two hours talking and sharing the run, though at the time it seemed like only a few minutes had passed. The interaction changed my perception about a lot of things that deal with steelhead and the anglers that pursue them.
As I jumped back in my rig to head to the next spot I felt a feeling of warmth come over me. The positive interaction felt much better than harboring ill will based on the gear we used. From that day I have always slowed my pace when fishing for steelhead, and even though I still primarily fish gear, I now use my 8 weight fly rod more than I used to. My thought process has changed.
It is not about the gear, nor the perceived stereotypes. It is about the fish.
I pass along the story to tell you this: Worlds can collide and leave a beneficial mark on each of us. That said, I am fearful that my angling brothers and sisters cannot come to terms with each other in regards to the Wild Monarchs of the rivers. It is beyond me why all facets of the steelhead fishing community cannot see past whether we fish gear or fly. Why can’t we come together as one on behalf of wild steelhead in Washington State? Especially on the Olympic Peninsula where the pristine habitat of the Hoh rainforest and its farthest reaches provide ample opportunity for steelhead and anglers alike.
If we do not come together for the betterment of steelhead we might as well throw the towel in now. What is the use if we continue to remain divided?
Imagine rebuilding runs to the point where wild steelhead can be harvested without feeling guilt. Not only on the OP, but in other watersheds too. To achieve that we have to try something different. What we have done in the past has not worked.
I don’t know what the specific solutions are, but things have to change. No, things MUST change. We MUST embrace change and experimentation to find out how to best manage steelhead, otherwise we can only be certain of one thing: runs will continue to decline, and wild steelhead fisheries will continue to close. We all will be complicit, gear and fly, for refusing to meet each other somewhere in the middle.
I am a better steelhead angler and conservationist because of a chance encounter on a misty morning on the Skagit River. It’s time we let our worlds collide and be part of the solution, together.
Gary Strassburg is a native Washingtonian and an avid angler and hunter. He also is a freelance writer and runs the Informed Washington Sportsman blog.