Those of us living west of the Cascade mountains in Washington State aren’t used to seeing the sun during the month of January. Actually, scratch that–we aren’t used to seeing the sun much from November through Apirl. So when the skies finally do open and the crisp, golden light of the winter sun casts long shadows across the evergreens that give Washington its nickname, there’s really only one acceptable response: go soak it up. A few weeks ago that meant rods, reels, cameras, and the hope that trout would still chase a fly despite air temperatures in the 20’s and more than a foot of snow.
Fishing on Puget Sound today was just one of those days. Perhaps you know the type I’m talking about: it was the type of day that started with not getting away from the house as early as I’d like. When that happens the reasons are usually some combination of family obligations, a late night, alarm issues, or misplaced car keys. But in my case today, it was because of an inability to decide between a short fishing expedition or a long day of college basketball and NFL playoff games. I eventually chose fishing because my struggling Tar Heels were traveling to Florida State where a much better version of the Tar Heels got their faces kicked in last season….and because I’d have to watch the end of a game involving #1 ranked Duke in order to see the aforementioned struggling Tar Heels. Fishing, and lower blood pressure, won out an hour and a half later than I had intended to be away.
As a result of the late start, coupled with a return trip to the house to grab a few essentials left behind in the mad scramble to leave the first time, I was then concerned that the local beach was going to be busy with other anglers, dog walkers, and/or families with young children. Normally in mid-January this wouldn’t be a concern because of the dependably crummy weather, but today was also just one of those days: the type of brilliantly clear and sunny day that causes the good people of Seattle to head outdoors en masse no matter what the temperature is. When I arrived at the beach, I was instead greeted by what could be called the Puget Sound trifecta: perfect tide level, glassy-calm water conditions, and an almost empty beach. Suddenly, the chances for a good day with shots at a fish or two were on the upward swing.
After gearing up and picking my way through concrete-like frozen sand and ice-covered driftwood, I began peeling line off my reel to make my first cast. Roughly 3 casts in, a cutthroat that rivaled an adult pink salmon in size, leaping ability, and splash-down made itself known with 3 jumps about 30 yards to my left. As I scrambled to simultaneously strip in line and make my way through waist-deep water, another smaller cutthroat catapulted itself out of the water directly in front of me. My brain raced to process what I was seeing, spitting out the conclusion that today might actually be one of those days: the type of epic day that occasionally happens on the Sound where expectations go from a fish or two in the 10-12 inch range to a fish hooked on every cast or two with shots at a brute that could push 18-20 inches. I quickly waded closer to where the ripples from the larger fishes’ jumps were still visible, launched my olive baitfish pattern towards it, and began retrieving the fly in a favorite long-strip-short-strip sequence. Nothing. I cast again, slowing down the retrieve. Still Nothing. I cast again, speeding up the retrieve. Nada. I cast again. And again. And again.
Over the next 30 minutes my still freshly tagged “epic” day of catching quality and quantity disintegrated, and the realization took hold that today was actually becoming one of those days: a humbling day where fish are jumping, rising, and tailing all around you, but you’d probably have more luck serving Oscar Meyer hotdogs at a vegan restaurant than getting those fish to eat a fly. Within that 30 minutes there were jumps and rises to my left, to my right, and directly in front of me. There were a couple of big fish and a couple of smaller fish. There were rises that caused me to immediately move 20-30 feet in one direction or the other, and there were rises that were 10 feet away. At one point I narrowly missed snagging a fish in mid-air as it launched itself from the water in the exact spot my fly landed a millisecond later.
And speaking of flies, I tried several. After the first 2 dozen casts to areas where fish had been jumping only seconds before, I switched from my trusted olive herring pattern to a purple one. After a couple dozen more I switched to a larger Chartreuse baitfish pattern. After a couple dozen more, and a lengthening of my tippet, I decided I would live or die with the original olive herring pattern that has been responsible for roughly 75% of the Puget Sound cutthroat I’ve caught over the last 7 years. But after a dozen and a half more casts I resigned myself to the fact that today was in fact one of those days: the type of day that is so humbling that an angler resorts to cutting deals with themself, the fish, God, or anybody within earshot. These deals usually go something like, “If I can just catch one fish, I promise I’ll….” On this day, mine was aimed at the fish–“I promise I’ll pack up and leave immediately after catching just one of you!”
On a day like today, what happened next shouldn’t have been a surprise. With the ridiculousness of my attempt at changing the luck of my day by cutting deals with some fish hanging over my conscience, several minutes later there finally came a fish willing to take a swipe at my fly. The only problem was that the swipe happened as my nearly numb hands fumbled my fly line in the middle of a strip–an action that I can correctly execute 999 times out of 1000. This time however, the line slipped from my hands at the exact moment I felt the strike, but as I lifted the rod to set the hook there was no tension, and therefore no hookset. As I regained control of the line and began stripping the line again, the fish swirled at the fly one more time without hitting it, and was gone.
At that point all I could do was laugh. A day on the water that had started with such promise was going to end without a single fish to hand. But as the fish continued to jump and I continued to cast at them despite the futility of it, the sun finally crested the hill behind me and the clouds on the horizon in front of me broke, revealing the snow-covered Olympics in all their ruggedness. Over the next 30 minutes of feeling the winter sun on my face, seeing the beauty of the mountains that surround this place that we call home, and allowing all thoughts of catching fish to melt away to the rhymth of the cast, retrieve, and movement of the tide, I came to realize what today actually was: it was one of those days that humbled me just enough to remind me why I fell in love with this sport in the first place, and it all happened on one of those rare winter days where the Northwest’s snow-covered beauty was on display.
A few minutes later I reeled up, picked my way back through the still frozen sand and driftwood, and got into my car to drive home. Before pulling out, I reached into my glovebox and turned my phone back on. The first two messages that greeted me were from my dad back in North Carolina. One announced that Duke had lost, and the other that the struggling Tar Heels had won. Yep, I’m fine with it being one of those days as well.