We get the sense that our weird, pandemic summer is winding down. Despite all the chaos erupting in the world at large, our time on the water has continued to feel about as normal and familiar as anything can be these days. Slouched on opposite sides of a fire ring, favorite cold beverages in hand, meat of choice sizzling on the bbq, recounting the adventures of the afternoon with a few good friends as the cooling breeze licks away of the last drops of sweat from another sweltering day. This, my friends, is summer and we’ll be sad to see her go. Maybe she’ll hang on for a few extra weeks this year and give us a respite from the drizzle and cold as we transition into fall. Maybe not. Life will go on regardless and so will the fishing.
I’ve been asked many times by many people along the way why I fish. It’s a tough question to answer. Sure, there’s the communion with nature, the camaraderie with similar-minded fishing kin, the adventure, the discovery and sense of wonderment in connecting with each and every watery work of art that the lake, river or ocean has to offer. These elements certainly play into it for me and likely others. I think what endears me most to the water is that every time I step into it for a day of fishing I feel about as anxiety free as one could ever hope to be. If you have a busy brain that is difficult to turn off, fly fishing is basically like ripping the power cord out of the wall. It’s a break in the truest sense and we all need one from time to time.
I was a consummate steelhead nut for a long time and then, with the loss of so many of our nearly year round river opportunities in Puget Sound, I became engrossed with bass and panfish because they’re widely available and, if you haven’t already figured it out, are a pretty fun pursuit with a fly rod. This summer I made a conscious choice to spend a lot more time trout fishing and reminded myself of the many things I’ve really enjoyed about trout fishing over the years. You tune into the bugs, the seasonal movement of trout from the long slow pools into the fast and tumbling oxygen-rich water. When I steelhead fish I tie on some purple thing that captures my interest, when I bass fish it’s some frog/snake/mouse looking critter and I cover water.
There’s a different level of thought that goes into trout fishing and really working a piece of water. On a good river like the Yakima or the Methow with a decent trout population density, it’s reasonable to assume you’re fishing over fish at least much of the time. If you’re not catching anything it’s on you to make some changes and figure it out. Swinging flies for steelhead on a big river like the Skagit and looking for a steelhead, I’d like to think that mostly it’s not me, the fish just aren’t there. At least these are the conversations I frequently have with myself in order to sleep better at night. Anyway, there’s my wild tangent for the month. Let’s get back to the fishing outlook for the next month.
September and October go by way too quickly for our liking and there are so many fishing opportunities it’s a pretty tough pick when you find yourself with time to spare and a desire to be on the water. Lakes are cooling off and trout will become active and more amenable to being caught and recovering from the experience. Coho salmon are slowly filtering into the Puget Sound and up the rivers. Sea run cutthroat fishing in our rivers should start getting good as well. You’ve got time for a few final hoorahs for river and small stream trout or finding a trophy char on the Skagit before they ascend and disappear into the nearly impenetrable spawning grounds for a few weeks. Take your pick, there are no wrong answers on this test.
I’m used to spending a lot of time fishing the Fraser River tributaries in BC during September and October for coho. As the border remains closed, this fall will be an ongoing process of re-imagining fishing plans and sticking relatively near home. The Methow remains open in portions through the end of September. We’re still seeing a handful of golden stones and some hoppers to get fish looking up, though lately I’ve found nymphing and swinging streamers to be most effective. We should also begin seeing some October Caddis fluttering about soon so don’t put away your dry flies just yet. Sculpzillas, Muddlers and Black Woolly Buggers have been tough to beat on the swing. For nymphing I’ve been running a double fly rig, with something big and something small. Usually a Pat’s Rubber Legs, Double Bead Stone, Rubber Legged Fox Squirrel Nymph, 20 Incher or Fire Bead San Juan for the big one. A small red Copper John, purple Copper John, Pheasant Tail, Rainbow Warrior or green Caddis Larva as a more diminutive offering has been working well. I’ve been mostly euro nymphing (my summer learning resolution/small scale addiction) but you can fish a similar set up under an indicator and catch fish. I’ve been blabbering on about euro nymphing a lot lately and apologize if it’s getting on anyone’s nerves. It’s super fun and effective and feels something like the first really good beer you sample that’s not malt liquor in a 40 oz. bottle. Give it a try!
Closer to home, the Skagit, Sauk and Cascade have been fishing decent for bull trout. As we’ve stated before, it’s a hunting game. The more water you can cover in a day the better your odds of finding a few fish. Many of the larger char will tend to be higher up in the open portions of these rivers as they make their way upstream to begin spawning in high elevation tributaries in late October and November. Two words: chuck meat. If you throw a Dali Llama, heavy Sculpzilla or Exasperator Sculpin you can reasonably expect to catch a few bull trout if they are in the vicinity. Cast cross stream, let the fly sink and strip it back like it’s about to get eaten. If you’ve not already switched your streamer game to a short single hand Skagit spey system like the OPST Commando Head or Scientific Anglers Spey Lite you should put this on your radar. These lines make the business of tossing big and heavy bunny flies as easy as it is going to get and bring a level of efficiency in casting that’ll truly help you to fish all day and cover tons of water without wearing your arm out.
The mainstem Stilly is open for sea run cutthroat and the NF Stilly will open September 16th. Dig out your Spiders and Rolled Muddlers along with old favorites like the Spruce and BH Raccoon and hit the woodpiles in slow water for some chunky cutts. This fishery is nice because so much of the Stilly is easily wadeable. The Skagit cutthroat fishery is one of the best in the state, but difficult to do on much of the river without a boat. Coho are beginning to show up in the Skagit and Nooksack as well. In clear water, stick with smaller presentations like the California Neil, Coho Bugger and Christmas Tree. In off color or glacial water, larger brighter patterns like purple Egg Sucking Leeches, Manhattan Beaches and Popsicles work better.
With the shorter days and cooler nights, fishing at Pass, Lone and Squalicum should improve greatly. As trout seem to sense the onset of late fall and winter, they often chunk up on leeches and minnows, especially in the absence of more prolific bug hatches like those we experience in the spring. Stillwater Buggers, Hot Head Squirrel Leeches, Ruby Eyed Leeches, Hale Bopps and Micro Zonkers are good staples for fall lake fishing, as can be Boobies and Blobs when little else seems to be going on. If you’re a mountain goat and love those backcountry lakes, you still have a little time before the snows set in. I tend to get mired in picking black huckleberries along the way which cuts into fishing time, but it’s worth enjoying both. It’s certainly tougher this year than most, but if you can find your way into Ross Lake with a boat, kayak or canoe and get after those magnificent rainbows, September and October offer some of the best fishing of the season, with trout moving in shallower portions of the big lake and feeding heavily on reside shiners.
The westside Whidbey coho fishery has been off to a slower start this year, though some fish are finally getting caught off the beach. Last year was kind of similar, with the last couple of weeks in September ending up really good with a lot of fish, so maybe we’re in for a repeat. Numbers look decent coming through the Strait and we only have through the end of September to fish coho in the salt, so it’s high time to get after it. We don’t generally find beach coho on Whidbey to be super picky about flies unless there’s a ton of bait around, which we’re not seeing yet. Clousers in chartreuse or pink, Imitators and Psychedelic Herring are our go to’s. Have some Pinheads as well in case you’re seeing the eel-like sand lance around, but otherwise cast, strip, repeat. Keep your fly in the water and keep it moving. If you’re not familiar with the two-handed strip, it’s a good one to learn (hint: you use both hands). Stop by the shop and we’re happy to talk beach strategies as it’s one of our favorite fisheries of the year. Here’s an in depth Whidbey beach coho article from earlier this year if you’ve not yet seen it.