Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Ninety-two

Morning Fog on the Cowlitz

By Ron Eagle Elk, Yelm, Washington

Man, where did the night go? Seems like I just laid my head down when the alarm went off. 3:00 AM! I did just lay my head down. I'd really like to roll over and go back to sleep, but I hear VEE out in the kitchen making coffee noises, grinding beans and such. Dang, that thing is loud.

With VEE driving I can just close my eyes a little and she'll never know I'm taking a nap. "What? No..., no we don't turn off I-5 until we hit the Toledo exit, Hon...Coffee? Sure, I'd like a good cup of coffee. Espresso? Where? Oh, gas station espresso, that could be okay." (Thinking to myself, there ain't no way this will taste good.) "Only another 20 minutes to the Toledo exit, huh, Hon? Good, maybe the sun will be up before we get there. Makes finding the boat ramp a lot easier." (Dang, this gas station espresso is pretty good. Gonna have to remember that place.)

"Yes, Hon, Sea Run Cutts strike really hard when the fly is on the swing. You'll know when you have one on. If we're really lucky, we'll get some dry fly action from them too. Yes, your five weight will handle them just fine. We'll put on some heavier tippet too, just so you don't break them off too quick."

So begins our foray ino the wonderful world of Sea Run Cutthroat Trout. For those poor unfortunates who don't live near a Pacific Northwest Coastal River, let me explain. In the fall of the year Cutthroat trout that have lived a couple seasons in the salt water of the Pacific Ocean return to their natal rivers to spawn, regain their strength and return to the sea to start the cycle again. These are little silver torpedoes, trout on steroids, fast running and strong. Think miniature steelhead and you have a pretty close picture of a Sea Run Cutt.

We are headed for my favorite Sea Run Cutt (and Steelhead) river, the Cowlitz. I have fished this river before and know several good places to land a pontoon boat and fish, but VEE has a rowing problem. See, she rows in circles. No, really, she does. One arm is stronger than the other and she just goes in circles. That could be a problem on this river. It looks slow, but it is a powerful river that will rip you past a boat ramp in half a heart beat. Now I have made the take outs before, but if VEE is doing one of her circles, well, it's a long float to the next take out. Therefore, since I hate rowing anyway, we hired a guide named Steve Buckner. Nice young fellow that lives along the river and guides on it almost every day.

We arrive at the boat ramp where we will end our days fishing and Steve pulls in with his truck and drift boat, helps us load our gear and makes sure we have comfortable seats in his truck and we're off. A short drive and we're at the Blue Creek Hatchery boat ramp. Steve and his wife make short work of getting the boat in the water. VEE and I wader up, put on a wading jacket against the chill October weather and to protect us from the heavy morning fog. As we launch, I can barely make out a couple of pontoon boats that launched before us.

Morning Fog

Steve expertly navigates some riffles and a few light rapids and makes landfall at one of my favorite places on the river. At this point I pull Steve aside and let him know that the object of the game is to get VEE into some Sea Run Cutts. I tie on a Reverse Spider tied with varegated chennile and head upstream of VEE and Steve. The second cast, as the fly swings onto the dangle it gets hit hard. The fish takes the fly about 4 feet from VEE and Steve. VEE stops in mid cast to watch me bring the fish to hand. A beauty of about 16 inches, still silver from the salt with a set of pale orange slashes under the chin. A flip of the barbless hook and the fish swims back into the current.

Doing a step and cast down stream I get into two more nice fish, the last in full breeding colors. VEE however is fishless and Steve looks worried. I decide to take a break and try some of the coffee Steve brought. The guy, or his wife, know how to make coffee. Strong, black and full of aroma. I just finish up when VEE and Steve get to the boat. Steve wants to head down river.

VEE has the front of the boat and I have the rear, figuring she'll have the best cast to any fish that way. I try to peer through the heavy fog to look for sweepers in the river. Makes me feel like I'm doing something besides just being along for the ride.

Steve really knows this river and he dances the drift boat across the current with hardly any effort, or so it seems, and tells VEE to cast by that log. First cast, nothing, second cast, fly swings and the line goes tight, the rod takes a serious bend and she has a fish on. Now, maybe I'm getting old or something, but watching her get into a nice fish is as much fun as catching one myself. Steve helps her land the fish and I scramble for the camera to get a shot of her with her first Sea Run Cutthroat Trout.

VEE and first Sea Run

We continue on down the river with Steve directing our casts. When we stop for lunch it is REE three and VEE three. I think maybe she also caught the biggest of our six. I got all three of mine at the first stop, VEE got all hers from the boat. Go figure. After a great lunch made by Steve's wife and more coffee, we went down river some more.

At our last stop, I got schooled by our guide. He showed me places in the river I never would have suspected a trout would hang out. Several missed strikes told me the guy knew what he was talking about. Decided it was time to check my fly. That first missed strike had opened up the hook gap till the hook was almost straight. If I had checked the fly before, I wouldn't have missed any more fish.

Completely disgusted with myself I head for the boat for more coffee and a fresh fly. I am watching closely as Steve shows VEE how to high stick nymph a couple of feet from the bank in some really soft water. I'm thinking, that's a really good lie. If I was a fish I'd rest there. Suddenly VEE strips in line and sets the hook, the 5 wgt almost bends double and I see a really good fish boil the water. Long, silver and... wait a second, that's no Sea Run Cutt, that's a late run summer steelhead. He starts to make a downstream run, she gets excited and lets some slack into the line and he comes unbuttoned. Dang, now she's gonna want to go steelheading again. Will the madness ever end? I do give her half credit for at least hooking up with that steel, though.

Just before we head for the take out at Mission Steve gets VEE into some really slow frog water. It almost looks stagnant. The kind of place no self respecting Sea Run Trout is going to hang out. That is, until VEE hooks into a really well colored up 18 incher and brings it to hand. Once again she outfishes me, as usual.

As we head for the Mission boat ramp and our car, the fog finally burns off and the fishing dies off. Steve swings the boat into the ramp like he's done so many times before. Never a wasted oar stroke. With the sun out and the sky clear, we can see Mount Saint Helens clearly, where a small belch of steam rises from the new crater mound forming. A lone osprey wings by, knowing that the sun has driven all the fish into cover so his fishing is over for the day too.

A great day on the water. Not a ton of fish, but some real quality fish. A great guide, and I didn't have to row anywhere. Oh yeah, the reason for our trip. It was our wedding anniversary! Doesn't every wife want a guided fly fishing trip on a cold, foggy October morning for their anniversary?

Unfortunately, the cost of maintaining the hatchery that supported this wonderful fishery is more than the powers that be want to spend. The continued return of the Sea Run Cutthraot to the Cowlitz is definitely threatened. Only good stewardship and possibly forcing the powers that be to honor their agreement will keep this fishery as strong as it is. ~ REE

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