As they're surveying the Sioux land below them in the 1970 movie Little Big Man, muleskinner/scout Jack Crabb, played by Dustin Hoffman, says to Richard Milligan's George A. Custer, "You go down there, general, an' there won't be nothin' left of you but a greasy spot."
Custer didn't heed his guide's advice, and he paid for it with his life and the lives of 262 7th Cavalry soldiers in June 1876.
If Jack Crabb were to look down on Washington's Skagit River, he just might come to the same conclusion for an angler contemplating an attack on its steelhead. Rather than total demise, however, those who tempt fate on the Skagit typically come back with fishing confidence shaken and shattered nerves.
Fishing the Skagit, as some guides who ply this big river's waters will tell you, is a lost art. Casual anglers who might hit the Skagit once or twice in a season might find a fish, but most do not. They are left to grumble about the experience for months afterward, even as they deftly avoid the river while searching for easier water and more cooperative fish elsewhere.
There are, however, some fishing practitioners who understand the Skagit. These are anglers who carefully cultivate the mental fortitude and physical stamina necessary for consistent success that includes an ongoing mantra: keep the faith, have confidence in what you're putting in the water, don't give up, never mind the cold, and don't take it personally when this river whips you like a rented mule.
Steelhead exceeding 20 pounds, such as the one caught by Seattle resident James Seno above, are possible in the Skagit for those who put in the time each year to discover the river's constantly changing riverbed. Photo by Dusty Routh
One of those faithful practitioners is Tom Nelson of Lake Stevens. Just like Ken Griffey Jr., was born into baseball, Tom Nelson was born into fishing the Skagit. His father, a Marysville dentist, arranged his work schedule so that as much time as possible could be spent on the river plunking for kings. The junior Nelson started fishing this water with his father when he was 3 years old, and he hasn't stopped fishing it since. He now runs Skagit River Outfitters, a popular guide service.
Over the years, Nelson has become as self-confident about fishing as Griffey is about hitting a baseball, and as expert at coaxing out fish as anyone who's ever tried it. If there's a dyed-in-the-wool angler who understands the complexities of steelheading this vast river system, it's him.
"My dad was the one that first took fluorescent golf tees and put them on the shaft of a winter spinner for kings," Nelson recalls. "I remember all these wooden sled boats parked next to us, who talked about the fantastic fishing upriver. So in the late 1970s I started boon-dogging up there (also known as side-drifting). By the early 1980s I had my own wood sled, and I kept it, too, up until about 10 years ago."
You'll likely still see plenty of those unique wooden scows on the Skagit today. And while just about every steelheader you'll ever meet will argue about where the style of boon-dogging for steelhead was first developed, Nelson is convinced it was done first on the Skagit.
"Fishing the Skagit is a totally lost art," Nelson emphasizes. "It's where the technique of boon-dogging originated, because it came out of necessity. See, the whole key to fishing this river is to cover water. You have to cover water. You have to have faith in your technique, you have to know it's effective enough that you only go through the holes once. That's boon-dogging right there."
Nelson also talks about how the Skagit lost its top-stream rating in the state. "It was the number one winter steelhead stream in Washington for years - for generations," he laments. "But since the hydro-mitigation project happened on the Cowlitz, and that huge hatchery was put in by Tacoma PUD, the Cowlitz out-produces everything." Nelson mentions there's a new licensing agreement on the Cowlitz, however. "In the future the Cowlitz may not be as good as it was, and there's a proposed facility on the Skagit that might have the river back to its rightful place as the top steelhead river in the state."
For Nelson, there are only four ways to fish this river: boon-dog it, plug it, anchor it, or fish it with a fly, although
he doesn't do much fly-fishing.
BOON-DOG & COVER WATER
The first thing you'll note about the Skagit is that it's no prissy, docile stream. It's big, brawling water, with lots of places for the fish to spook into, lots of places for the fish to spook out of, and lots of places where you can be fishing where there aren't any fish.
And those are primary reasons why a lot of anglers don't catch fish here, or they catch very few fish. The prime directive on this river is that you have to go to the fish, in a constant search-and-seek mode. "The amount of fish you encounter is a function of how much water you can cover. Period," iterates Nelson.
Enter boon-dogging, especially when water conditions are just right.
"It's all about positioning your boat in faster, deeper water and working your rig up close to the bank where the water's slower," Nelson instructs. "You want to hold yourself out in the main current, using your trolling motor to keep your drift straight and to slow the boat to the same speed as the current next to the bank. That's the whole key to doing it right."
For rigging, Nelson uses a pencil lead weight or a Slinky, interchangeably, based on bottom composition for optimum feel: He uses Slinkies over rocks, pencil lead over sand. Tie on the least amount of weight you can get away with and still remain in light touch with the bottom. Nelson ties up 4- to 5-foot leaders, a small pink Corky - "Any color will work," Nelson points out, "so long as it's pink." - between two small bait hooks, and a gob of cured eggs.
Boon-dogging gear can afford to be light, because once you've hooked into a fish you'll be drifting with that fish, or chasing it upstream or down, which reduces strain on your gear. "It's almost a zero-current situation," Nelson figures. He goes with 9 1/2-foot rods and 10-pound-test on spinning gear.
PULL PLUGS, ANCHOR UP IN STAINED WATER
Boon-dogging is an optimum method for optimum conditions like low, clear water. But this river blows out, and if you fish it much you'll be on it when it's either rising or dropping. Either way, it calls for fishing in high, stained water.
When that happens, trade in those finesse spinning rods for 7 1/2-foot upside-the-head rods, and commence to plugging or plunking.
"It's tough to beat a No. 25 chrome plug with black head," Nelson suggests. "But I also use the Doctor Death Tadpolly, and the new Worden's Fatfish, a neat little plug that dives fast and tracks straight."
Nelson knows plug-fishing works, but he's reluctant to fall back on it unless he absolutely has to. "I'll only use them when the visibility is reduced, and I'll slow down the presentation. Plug-fishing should be done slowly."
Last on the list is anchoring up. But even here Nelson's got a neat trick he's learned over the years. "Water that's just below a creek or a tributary will clear up faster than the rest of the river will," he counsels. "Anchor up just above that, and put your plunking rig in the plume just downstream from the tributary." Anchoring can also be used for plugging, and for floating a jig-and-bobber setup through promising-looking water.
WHEN TO FISH THE SKAGIT
As Colonel Custer might tell you, timing is everything, and it's no different when you're looking to connect with winter metalheads.
In this regard, the Skagit can almost be downright predictable in comparison with the seasonal trends of other rivers. That is to say, first in are usually hatchery fish that show up just about the time you're making turkey sandwiches left over from Thanksgiving. "The Chambers Creek run usually hits first," Nelson confirms, "but you can't discount the remnants of the wild fish that come into Barnaby Slough." This slough, just upriver from Rockport, used to be a " . . . steelhead machine, for years," Nelson recounts. These wild fish can achieve a healthy girth by the time they return, and they're often in the river early.
The same holds true for wild fish heading to the adjoining Sauk River. "We've banged into those Sauk River natives as early as November and December," Nelson adds.
The early hatchery fish cover the size gambit, from one-salt mini-torpedoes, to fish as hefty as 18 pounds.
It is not, however, hatchery fish most anglers seek on this river. "If there's one constant, one thing that keeps you coming back," Nelson proclaims, "it's that very, very dependable wild fish run, year after year. We've caught two 20s in a day, and a 24.8-pounder. Those are Sauk River fish coming into the system."
If you were to cherry pick the calendar, and provided the river was in shape, the best time to be on the water is the two weeks on either side of Christmas for hatchery fish, and two weeks in the middle of February for wild fish.
STEELHEAD ON THE FLY
The Skagit's winter steelhead will also chase a fly, and that fact isn't lost on some of Washington's fly-fishing faithful. But even here, covering water is the de facto method of pursuit.
"It's a big, intimidating river," says Seth Taylor at Creekside Anglers in Seattle. "In order to fish it effectively, you really have to float it. You can fly-fish it from shore, and some guys do, but it's not high probability steelhead water. So you'll see fly guys investing in jet boats or drift boats."
Taylor says when you say "Skagit" you have to add "Sauk" to the same sentence. "During prime time on the river, it really pays to hit a few holes on the Skagit, then a few holes on the Sauk."
Taylor is a purist. He believes in the rigors of paying dues to qualify for these fish. "Well, the best time to fish it with a fly is after the winter rains have stopped and before the spring runoff has started," he said. "But you can't wait for the best time of year if you're going to have any chance at all of catching something. The water changes every year, with those big rains in November, so you have to start fishing it up there starting in February, and you put your time in, relearning the water, waiting."
During the wait, you have a chance of hooking Dolly Varden, coho or even a big chum. Eventually, you'll cross into those days later in the season when you can hook into three or even four steelhead in a day.
Early in the season, a Spey rod for distance with a shooting head and high-density sinking line and a short (4 feet or less) leader is the weapon of choice. Late in the season, when the river's in better shape, the leader can be lengthened to 6 feet.
For flies, go with large steelhead patterns early, particularly anything purple, then downsize them later in the year. "By March I'm using a No. 2 or a No. 4 hook, with a really sparse fly," Taylor says. "Those later fish aren't moving as much, and they're more likely to take a fly." For dollies and other miscellany, go with egg-sucking leeches and articulated leeches.
"From Marblemount to Rockport, that's classic fly water, and there are significant fly bars on the Sauk," adds Nelson. "But once you get below Concrete, the river turns a bit more from the rocky, classic steelhead stream to a different river. Down to Sedro-Woolley, and then down to tidewater, the river is sandy. Steelhead won't lay on top of sand, because any disturbance in the sand irritates their gills. You have to remember, steelhead seek comfortable flows, the right kind of light levels and water conditions, and relatively silt-free water. You find that, you'll likely find some fish."