There we were, tromping through the knee-high mud of the spongy Southeast Alaskan muskeg on our way to the next coho slough just a few miles from the sea. The fish were pulsing in with each high tide, bright and full of vigor, swarming in waves amidst the deep, crimson-bodied warriors that had been ripening in the system for a few weeks. These are the salmon of which dreams are made: large, aggressive and plentiful. Their Olympian leaps, strong runs and powerful surges toward any woody obstacle makes them at once incredibly fun and memorable, sometimes even a little scary. Simply put, coho are the shit. As the trip neared the dreaded last day, we reflected on what we’d be returning to and the dismal state of many of our own fisheries in Washington. We’d flown many miles over glacial fjord lands, rattled down washboard riveted highway in a beat up Suburban and ambled through the mucky scrub brush to find fishing that in some years, we can almost approximate in our own backyard.
I was infinitely pleased to read on our day of departure from Alaska that the WDFW had reopened the Skagit to fishing, and has since reopened several other Puget Sound area fisheries as our coho have returned in greater abundance than anticipated. Beyond the salmon, we can also once again enjoy stripping a well-placed Spider among the gnarled riverside snags for sea run cutthroat, swinging an egg sucking leech for ravenous bull trout and at the very least, be continually haunted by that nagging excuse to spend time on a beautiful stretch of river in it’s most striking season. Fall has fallen in the Pacific Northwest. Watch the weather, keep both eyes glued to the river levels and seize those precious windows when the water is dropping and clearing to enjoy your time on the water. Once in a while, there’s a rainbow at the end of the road.
It’s invariably our favorite season to be on the local rivers. The air is crisp, bright leaves are shaken from the maples with each breath of wind and our indigenous fall rains bring new life to our moving waters. Right now, the Skagit, Sky, Snohomish, Samish and Nooksack Rivers are open and providing a wealth of fly fishing opportunity. The biggest surprise is that we now have a much anticipated coho fishery on many of these waters and there are most certainly fish around. Rivers north of the border like the Vedder, Stave and Harrison are seeing coho as well, in addition to a fair number of chum salmon.
Depending on the water we are fishing, we like 7-8 weight outfits rigged with a floating, intermediate or short sink tip line. Our recommended fly selection is largely a function of the water you fish. When the water clarity is reduced, as we often see on the lower Skagit and Nooksack, use Starlight Leeches in black, purple and pink, Flash Flies, Sparkle Buggers and Conehead Alaskabous in popsicle, chartreuse/white, or pink/purple. In clearer water as you’ll often encounter on the Fraser tributaries or SF Nooksack, chartreuse California Neils, copper or white Coho Buggers and Rolled Muddlers in natural, olive, chartreuse or blue are our go to flies. Clearer water will call for a longer fluorocarbon leader than you’ll need in the colored up stuff. Regardless of the water clarity, look for biting coho in back channels, frog water, sloughs and slow inside bends with a lot of woody or rocky structure. Rolling fish will often give away their location. If you’ve never fished coho on the fly, they are arguably the best big salmonid short of steelhead in terms of the way they fight.
If you lean further toward the trout persuasion or simply want a break from fishing the heavier fly rod, sea run cutthroat are in the Skagit and Samish in good numbers, as well as the lower Nooksack and Snohomish systems. Many of the same clear water coho flies are equally effective for sea runs, with Rolled Muddlers and Reverse Spiders being absolutely fabulous producers. Sea runs favor the same slow, debris strewn water as coho but are typically more aggressive. Don’t be surprised to hook the occasional salmon while fishing cutthroat, though the battle is usually short lived when you hook a chrome nine pound coho on the 4 weight rod amidst a minefield of downed timber.
The bull trout fishing on the Skagit can range from good to great this time of year and as the season progresses, you’ll find them increasingly hanging out around spawning salmon. Egg themed patterns like Starlight Leeches and Egg Sucking Leeches work well, as will dead drifting a Glo Bug or Trout Bead below salmon redds. Take caution to avoid the salmon as they’re doing their thing. Swinging traditional leech and marabou patterns for bulls or big baitfish imitations like Sculpzillas and Dali Llamas are continues to work throughout the season.
Most of our lowland lakes will close at the end of the month and those at higher elevations will freeze or become snow bound in a few weeks. Fall trout will continue to be productive for a few weeks when the weather settles and opportunities will remain on our year round quality lakes like Pass, Squalicum and Lone. We got word that Lone Lake on Whidbey recently experienced a sizeable fish kill, though the cause is not completely determined. October and November can be a fine time to fish streamers for browns in Pass Lake. While they are unable to spawn naturally in the lake, browns still undergo their fall spawning urges and can become aggressive toward attractor streamers and leech patterns. Yellow/brown Beldar Buggers, White Zonkers, Bead Head Dude Friendly’s, Yellow Rubber Legged Buggers and a host of baitfish patterns cast toward the shoreline vegetation and downed trees and slowly retrieved back work well.
It seems our pre-occupation with the newly opened rivers has found us neglecting the beaches of late. Friends in the know are reporting a few sea runs around the Strait of Georgia coming to the fly and pretty good cutthroat fishing around the Hood Canal and South Sound. Attractor patterns like Reverse Spiders in yellow or orange tend to work well in the fall, along with small baitfish imitations like the Silky Sandlance trimmed down sparse and Sea Run Buggers in olive or brown. The majority of our saltwater cutthroat in the North Sound head into their birth rivers this time of year and will remain until spring of next year. With no saltwater coho fisheries this fall, you’ll find us once again patrolling the cutthroat beaches around Port Townsend in another few months.