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Skagit River Therapy

By Reece Fowler

The sun’s heat had convinced the mayflies to leave their river gravels and move to the surface for a hatch. We were approaching midday and had considered a break to dive into our bacon sarnies, but our hunger was stopped short by the small grey mayflies coming to the surface of this crystal-clear river. It wasn’t one of those hatches where you’re convinced that there’s no way your imitation could ever be differentiated from the real thing. But every few seconds another bug would emerge through the surface film and start the next chapter of it’s lifecycle. We hastily changed our nymphs to grey Parachute Adams and made our casts just as another rainbow broke the surface. The call went out loud and clear “I’m on”, and it was only the first morning of the trip! We’d arrived on the Skagit River a few hours earlier and what had been a slower than usual start to the days fishing, quickly turned into an afternoon of magnificence. Bacon sarnies aside, it was a pretty good way to close out the first morning and it provided a positive outlook for the next few days on the water.

The upper Skagit is a visually stunning place to lose yourself on the water; it’s a destination that offers solid fly fishing close to a significant metropolitan area of Vancouver, BC. It’s headwaters are near Allison Pass in the Cascade Mountains, where it initially flows westwards for approximately 56km through the lower mainland of British Columbia, before turning south just before entering the Ross Lake reservoir at the United States border. From Ross Lake the river continues its path through Washington State and into Puget Sound near Mount Vernon. The upper watershed has been shaped from past glacial activity and like most of the rivers in British Columbia, snowmelt dominates the rivers’ flow regime. Peak flows typically occur during June and July each year, while low flows are during the January to February period. We had arrived at the beginning of August after the influence of freshet, but before the lowest annual flows were to be expected. The river was prime for action and on our first morning it was already delivering on our expectations.

The river has undergone many human related changes in the past, with dam building activity beginning in the lower watershed in 1906. This culminated in the construction of three hydro dams, being the Gorge, Diablo and High Ross dam in the 1930’s, until a series of treaties between the United States and Canada between the 1940’s and 1960’s sought to manage the reservoir levels within the watershed. By 1967, the height of Ross Lake dam (the uppermost impoundment of the three) was capped to prevent further flooding of the Skagit River Valley, culminating in a US-Canada treaty signed in 1984 to prevent further level increases within Ross Lake until at least 2066. Prior to these anthropomorphic changes, the watershed was originally used by the First Nations people for trading and meeting between the interior and coast peoples for thousands of years, with archaeological finds indicating habitation and/or use for over 8,000 years. Trading activity included dried salmon and oolichan from the coastal area, while dried berries, wild hemp and red ochre rock were traded from the interior. More recently, fur traders and prospectors used some of these same coast Salish trails to provide access into the British Columbia’s Fraser Valley and the interior.

For the recreational fisher, in BC the river supports healthy populations of char (bull trout, dolly varden and their hybrids) and rainbow trout, and their healthy populations are likely in part through the change in regulations to catch and release in 1992. This significant increase in the number of rainbows since catch and release regulations were introduced, and we’re talking three to five times increase in numbers depending on the size class, is testament to the benefits of such regulations especially for rivers in proximity to large urban populations. This increase in abundance is consistent with other trout stream population responses found elsewhere following such regulatory changes. The lower Skagit within the United States also provides spawning habitat for chinook, coho, chum, pink and sockeye salmon, along with steelhead, rainbow trout and coastal cutthroat trout. However, these species no longer run freely upstream into Canada given the three hydro dams within the lower system. So, perhaps it’s worth the odd day dream about what the upper Skagit would be like if such restrictions to movement were overcome, and how this would change the flora and fauna in the wider ecosystem both on land and in the water.

Nonetheless, the resident char and rainbow trout in the upper system would be our focus for the weekend. Day one on the water ended at the tail of a long sweeping run, where we’d seen feeding char flashing in the deeper section of water earlier in the day. I say char here since even the most seasoned expert struggles to identify the difference between bull trout and dolly varden on the river bank, but also acknowledge that these species do hybridise successfully in this river, among others, to create viable offspring that combine the physical attributes of both species. The char in this river come in a range in sizes and can reach sizable proportions in the late summer period. I decided to use a heavily weighted stonefly nymph of my own creation cast upstream, while my buddies preferred to swing a few sculpin patterns downstream. Employing our respective techniques together in the same deep pool elicited multiple strikes and allowed us to view some of these beauties up close.

Skagit River Therapy

The Skagit is a treasure, but then all rivers and the wilderness country within which they flow are, and the best way to protect them is to get out there and enjoy them.

That evening over a couple of beers that had benefited from the cooling effects of the river running beside our campsite, we discussed the plan of attack for the following day. The fly tying gear also saw some use to replenish the fly box, since there were losses earlier in the day. Even though tying under headlamp and failing light produces a more variable fly quality than one would like, we anticipated that the fish wouldn’t mind all that much. We were on the water the following morning before the sun had a chance to hit the valley floor. We’d decided that char would be the focus of day two; however, with all good intentions we still had our second rods rigged for the inevitable rising rainbows once the day progressed. The day was spent meandering along the river between long deep runs that held multiple char in the two to eight-pound range, along with shallower faster flowing sections that produced regular strikes on the dry from the resident rainbows. Day three followed a similar design and we seldom failed to hook into the resident fish within any given run. We noticed that it was important to not stay in one place for an extended period, as the rainbows especially would stop rising if we cast too often in an area. However, as is often the case, if the trout stopped rising we would simply take a break and rest the pool, and it didn’t take too long before the trout would start rising again. Of course, the char didn’t seem to mind how many times we cast, as it seemed more important to simply get our flies deep enough into the channels for them to oblige.

It seems poignant to note that our entire time wasn’t spent casting, ensuring a dead drift, getting snagged and having to re-tie our flies. The river itself is stunningly set within the Cascade Range and it was a privilege to enjoy its aesthetic wonders. Every bend in the river offered another vista, or the chance to view some of the other flora and fauna that reside in the valley. The valley lends itself to connecting humans with the outdoors as it’s just so calming, and its accessible yet far enough away from the urban sprawl to provide a sense of solitude. Being out there on the river is therapy for me, as I’m sure it is for many others, and I now understand why I studied such systems at university back in New Zealand. The Skagit is a treasure, but then all rivers and the wilderness country within which they flow are, and the best way to protect them is to get out there and enjoy them.

As is always the case with weekends such as these, they’re over too soon and before you know it you’re stuck in traffic, with dare I say a lot of others who have also been out enjoying the wilderness just like you. Those depressed looking faces, bumper to bumper, trying to justify why they’re heading back into the big smoke. Memories of the wild are important when you’re in the city, and for me taking photos of where I’ve had the pleasure to walk and wade is one way of keeping those memories alive.

about the author

Reece Fowler is a freshwater ecologist originally from the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island.  He currently lives with his daughter in North Vancouver, British Columbia. Follow him on Instagram.