A wide open Saturday, nothing at all that beckons to be done, classic August weather in the Puget Sound area. It's the one month we can always count on. It's the month that any Northwesterner worth their salt plans their camping trips. The forecast is calling for a few clouds here and there and temperatures in the high seventies. Flows on all the moving water in the area have dropped to low, clear and wadable. The massive return of sockeye salmon are all staged up at the mouth of the Cedar, and despite it being very early one has been reported way up river.
That was just the fuel that I needed for my rampant piscatorial imaginings; the spark, that started a little brushfire of speculation and expectation in my mind. If there was one that far up the Cedar at this early date, it must mean that they are already starting, at least at a trickle, to migrate out of the lake. And, if they're starting to migrate then surely the massive cutthroat are following them up to gobble eggs. One thing led to another until I found myself with 6mm pink beads in my hand standing there like an idiot in the makeup section of the department store. Now, mind you, when you have to ask the makeup girl where you can find transluscent pearl nail polish, a little explainin' must be done: "Excuse me, can you tell me where to find transluscent pearl nail polish... um... the guides in Alaska use it to make beads look more like salmon eggs..."
Saturday, nothing at all in my way except perhaps my expectations. I'm driving down 405 all gear in order and well painted pearly beads ready to catch some big trout in the lower Cedar. At last I'm at my first destination, which I don't intend to fish, but is a good vantage point to check for pods of sockeye running up river. Polarized glasses are on, wide brimmed Filson oilcloth hat ensuring there will be no light inhibiting my ability to penetrate the glare and see every nuance in the flow. I stand on the foot bridge staring, nothing yet... surely they're here... minutes go by. Still nothing. After about fifteen minutes of staring at the channel where sockeye would move up and scanning every possible resting lie I walk back to my truck. I'm not having it, I know they're in here, just not in this spot. I'm going beading in the lower forty-eight for the first time, and that's that. So, certain that the sockeye are active and the trout are acquiring a taste for the stray eggs from migrating hens, I move up river a couple miles to one of my old favorite stretches and get to work with a heavy #10 GRHE and a 6mm pink bead dropper.
On the first run I pick up two small rainbows, both on the bead. But it seems a little slow, and I am certain there are a lot more fish there that are just not having it. Another run fished and without another fish, and not seeing any sockeye, I finally get it through my skull that there are only a couple odd early-birds in the river so I switch to a pair of nymphs.
It's hot. Fishing is slow. After fishing five favorite spots I have maybe ten rainbows, and the most sizable catches, the ones that really put a bend in my rod, are whitefish. I finally see one sockeye, ONE - no mate - no others. Not even a trickle, just some strays. Nothing about fishing the suburban areas of the Cedar is pleasing to me today, why am I here? Losing flies to structure is irritating, just plain abrasive. Not catching fish from runs that produced well just a week ago is inexplicable, well, that's my polite word for it. I am in need of the sort of therapy that only a beautiful stream can offer. I subscribe wholeheartedly to John Gierach's line of thinking: "The solution to any problem -- work, love, money, whatever -- is to go fishing, and the worse the problem, the longer the trip should be." And, given that I don't have the time or money for this to be a long trip, although it by all rights certainly should be, this trip has got to be good. Expectations. Hope. Ouch. I'm in the wrong place.
About one o'clock in the afternoon I hike back out to my truck, grab some fast food, and know exactly where I'm going: South Fork Snoqualmie. Except this time I'm going further upstream than I have fished, heck, it won't even be the South Fork. I'm going to Denny Creek. Denny Creek... It's not until later that it comes flooding back to me. Why I have driven past this exit so many times and never fished this water. Why my curiosity about the fishing on the head waters has never been enough to compel me to stop and give it a shot. Why there has always been an excuse, a rationale, to fish a different stretch of water. DENNY CREEK. But that is not now, now is now and, as I arrive and find a spot to park close to moving water, I'm happy: simple, oblivious and happy. Waders still on, I get out of my truck and hear the rush and babble of tumbling mountain stream cascading through boulders and logs. The air is cooler and smells of douglas fir, cedar, salmonberry, fern, and the scent of soft decomposing remains of ancestral trees that nourish it all. Ah. Yep. Here I am.
The couple steps down into the stream bed below the last pool of Wentzel Creek reward me with an instant temperature drop of at least five degrees. Another, "Ah, here I am" feeling as the cool air just confirms this is where I'm meant to be. This feeder creek is reading fifty-two degrees and the air is a whopping seventy-eight degrees - except the cool layer of air hovering above the surface whose osmotic properties cool me off and float my tensions away on the lightest breeze. The cold, gin clear water cascades into the large pool and beckons for a dry fly to float on its surface as it swirls and slows to the tailout boulders. The first cast of my #10 green stimulator results in a small trout hurling itself from its watery home in a futile attempt to fit the monstrosity in its mouth. This repeats several times before I decide to remove the large, but clearly attractive stimulator, and replace it with a #14 tan elkhair caddis. Another cast and fish on! A beautiful eight or ninch inch cuttbow slides up to me. This repeats at least half a dozen times before I move down to Denny Creek at its confluence with Wentzel, the first time I have ever stood at the magical place where Wentzel meets Denny and the two join forces in a new venture they call the South Fork of the Snoqualmie.
The friendly confluence pool obliges me on our first meeting with a handful of feisty, beautifully marked cuttbows with slashes vibrant crimson, and gill plates shining blush from the westslope cutthroat genetic contribution. As I work slowly upstream, stepping carefully between the bowling ball boulders, crossing frequently to negotiate the small channel, pockets and pools produce more caddis-hungry cuttbows, a few westslope cutthroat, and just a couple unadulterated rainbows. The stream bed narrows and I go to the woods to skirt around a massive jam of logs and boulders and descend again as the shining surface of its pool draws me in. The first perplexity I will encounter, the most beautiful pool I've fished only produces one small cuttbow. It's deeper than the rest that I've seen and should hold even larger fish. I'm not working though, not terribly concerned about it, and rather than going through the four boxes of flies in my vest to find what will work I simply move upstream to the next bit of likely pocketwater.
It is here, on this good size pocket of holding water where the stream bed begins to broaden and a family of campers can be seen goofing around in the water upstream, that some of my earliest memories come trickling back in. This bit of frozen precipitation of the past melts into a small current and carries me towards my own headwaters as I cast. It is the summer of 1974 and, having just moved from central California to Seattle, the family is on a camping trip at the Denny Creek campground. Thirty-eight years later I stand in these same waters, the once very normal and happy family long ago disintegrated, mother passed, one brother gone far too soon having drank himself to death, and the other brother not heard from for years. Thirty-eight years later and most of what constituted my four year old mind is gone, save a few brief, weathered snapshots. My father is standing on the gravel bar casting his glass fly rod and tells me I need to walk well around behind him. I'm intrigued by the line as it flies back and forth and walk slowly behind him as I watch a fly being cast on the long rod for the first time. There is a moment of shock and feeling of oops when the fly line comes tight to me and the small dry fly is embedded in the back of my shirt. The family, of course, is going a little nutty, "Oh no! Is Jimmy okay???" as I am the youngest of four. I do remember, as with other times like this, not the words, but the feeling, "I'm fine. A little embarrassed. Calm down, I'm fine..." As another fish hurls itself at my elkhair caddis, flips, flops and twists towards my wet hand, I wonder, "Why was he throwing that much line anyway? He only needed to cast ten feet..." My dad was one heck of a gear fisherman, and we did some great fishing for salmon, cod, and so forth on the Puget Sound, but my notion that he was a fly fisherman was concocted as a child, a romantic notion I suppose, spawned by a boy's mind and his occasional passing interest in it.
I am finally passing the family camping along the river. "No, sorry lady, I didn't find your shoe among the five thousand rocks, boulders and pockets below... seems strange, I know, but I didn't find it." I am actually, as always, very polite about it, not addressing her with the sarcasm in my mind. I'm relieved as I get far enough past their campsite that the sound of tumbling water has strangled out the hispanic music that blares from their open vehicles. What is wrong with people that they would come to such a beautiful place, with such sights and sounds, and overwhelm all that they might have experienced if they had only been quiet for a bit? Do they also drown their food in ketchup or maybe salsa? I will never understand loud music mixed with camping. Ever.
The quiet and the gurgle and splash of the creek erases them from my existence and the elkhair caddis dutifuly takes its beating as one trout after another gives it a chew. The current carries me back upstream and I see vaguely, foggily through my four year old eyes, my brothers and sister playing in the water of this same creek. Of course I wanted to play too, and warning me to stay back from the creek wasn't sitting too well with me, I had a will of my own and was already beginning to feel the magnetism of moving water. "JIMMY FELL IN THE CREEK!!! Oh no!!! (blah, blah blah)" all my family's voices mixed together in a screeching cacaphony -- if you were listening you may have heard them all the way down at Tinkham. I was fine... the only thing scary about the experience was their reaction to it. My sister, the eldest at eleven, got to me first and pulled me out. The vague swirl of memory continues only far enough to recall later at the campfire thinking that getting wet in the creek was fun. I'd have to do that again some day.
The day has become evening and evening is coming closer to a close. I am not counting fish, and even if I was, I would have gotten mixed up somewhere back in the twenties. With ony a couple swallows of warm water left in my water bottle I am fortunate to find a well-head and fill up with cold, delicious Cascade spring water. I walk down a short nature trail rather than negotiating the stream and I just feel calm and at ease. I reach out and touch the massive gnarled bark of a Douglas Fir that would certainly take five of me to wrap my arms around. The shade of the cool forest is dotted and highlighted with the odd shafts of sunlight that have found a way in. Everything is growing out of everything. I'm thankful that in this world of too many people and too many pressures God still provides us with sanctuaries like this, perfectly crafted over millions of years. I think forward one of only a couple times today, of my upcoming trip to the Olympic Peninsula, only holding that thought long enough to know it should be very good for me to continue this too-brief time in a forest that is primordial, among trees that pre-date the arrival of white men. When John Gierach put forth the solution to any problem, I'm sure it was based on his experience of exactly the moments of clarity that come only with enough time in water, near water, in the forest, away from all that ails, doing this meditative and simple thing, fly fishing. Some sense is being made of things, of troubles now and over the years, quietly and behind the scenes so as not to disturb my present enjoyment and ease.
A few fish from the day fin through my mind as I sit on the bumper of the truck removing my waders. One that I gently placed on the bottom next to my fly reel just sat there, calm as can be, even back finned a little to use the reel as cover for a minute before lazily sliding away into the current. Others had behaved in the same way, calm, sensing no danger in those moments. They were all perfect, beautiful, pristine. I'm beginning to drive toward the freeway when I'm hit with the feeling, "I don't want to go home." Mr. Gierach, I'm sorry, but I simply wasn't able to wholly follow your advice. This trip did not have nearly the required length.
Yet I am, in a word, grateful.
~ Jim Speaker