Home River -- Fishing For Old Time's Sake

The following is excerpted from "Steelhead Country," Copyright 1991 by Steve Raymond. Published by Lyons & Burford, Publishers, New York. ($22.45)

The waders hang from the cabin rafters, drying slowly in the warmth of a whispering fire. The fly rods are suspended on nails driven at equal intervals into the cabin walls, and the fishing vests hang limply from their own isolated nails. Outside, the evening sky is dark and fat with waiting rain, but the river is low and a little rain will be welcome. The day's fishing is done, but the conversation has just begun. It's time to talk about steelhead.

All up and down this dark river on this dark night there are other fishermen in other cabins just settling into their fire-warmed chairs and getting ready to talk about the same thing. After all, that's what fishermen do at night along any river when the steelhead are running. They talk about fish and fishing and other fishermen and other rivers and usually they complain that things just aren't as good as they used to be, and usually they are right. Then they'll yawn and stretch and go to bed early so they can be out on the river again at dawn, hoping that perhaps for just one day things might again be as good as they ever were. At least that is how it is on the North Fork of the Stillaguamish, my home river.

I have written often of the North Fork in other venues, of its early history and the magnificent run of wild summer steelhead that

returned to Deer Creek, its major tributary; of how the North Fork became a special place in the minds, memories, and lore of Northwest anglers, the nearest thing to a western fishing shrine; of the brutal rape of the Deer Creek watershed by loggers, the subsequent deterioration of its summer steelhead run nearly to the point of extinction, and the resulting decline of the fishery, and finally of how I came into ownership of Bucktail Camp, an old North Fork fishing cabin, just in time to witness the acceleration of that decline.

That was 15 years ago, and the decision to acquire Bucktail Camp represented the solution to an interesting dilemma. At the time I was not especially concerned about the fishing in the North Fork - it still seemed good enough then. But I had spent the better part of a decade barnstorming around the Northwest's steelhead rivers, fishing wherever and whenever I wished, and I knew that ownership of Bucktail Camp would tie me to the North Fork in such a way that it would reduce, if not altogether eliminate, the chance to fish other rivers as often as I liked.

In the end the allure of the old place, plus the assurance of access to some of the very best water on the North Fork, was simply too much to resist, and we bought the place. The results of that decision were just as I had anticipated: I began spending more and more of my time on the North Fork to the exclusion of other rivers, and my days as a nomadic angler came swiftly to an end.

But I also found that I did not regret it at all, for I soon discovered the infinite pleasure and satisfaction that comes from getting to know a river on the most intimate terms. I learned the North Fork - or at least that portion of it near my cabin - far better than I had ever known any other river, well enough to recognize each small change: subtle shifts in the places where steelhead held, the spots where it was always safe to wade and those where sometimes it was not; the areas I could reach with a fly and the areas that were beyond reach or not worth reaching; the correct approach, the proper casting angle - all the little details that usually defied discovery on streams I fished less often. Other rivers had been my acquaintances, but the North Fork became my friend.

In the early years of our ownership of Bucktail Camp the river also provided many memorable and exciting moments. I remember the day I went out on the river and quickly hooked a fish in the pool we called the Lower Rip-Rap. The steelhead took the fly halfway down a long stretch of broken water and jumped four times in succession, so high that it seemed to be looking down at me from the apex of every leap. It fought well, aided by the swift current, and when I finally steered it to the beach I could scarcely believe it was only a four-pound fish, a typical Deer Creek native steelhead, slim and streamlined, steel blue along its back with just the first touch of rainbow color showing on its sides.

I remember too my first fish from the Cliff Pool, a handsome piece of water where a long riffle breaks into a wide mysterious-looking pool with complex braided currents that eventually join to flow along the edge of a steep, water-battered bedrock wall. It had the look of a classic steelhead pool, but always before it had disappointed me - partly because its complicated currents made it difficult to get a decent drift with a fly, partly because it rarely seemed to hold a fish even though it looked as if it should. But one day it did, a beautiful steelhead that took my fly well up in the pool, just below the riffle, and led me on a long, merry chase far downstream until I was finally able to subdue it. The fish was as clean and bright as the sunlight glancing off the river, and I laid my rod next to it and saw that it reached past the ring of tape I had placed to mark the thirty-inch point on the rod.

Another time Lew Bell and I were hiking downstream after fishing a remote part of the river when we rounded a bend and came upon two young women swimming nude in a placid pool. They saw us, smiled and waved, and Lew and I stood there looking back dumbly, I suppose with our jaws somewhere down around our wading shoes. We watched a while until finally Lew said, "They look like they've already spawned," and we waved back at them and went on our way.

In the span of years over which I have come to know the North Fork, the most obvious changes to it have been physical in nature. When we bought the cabin it had a fine, wide gravel bar out in front, and for most of the first decade of our ownership the river added to it generously. Soil formed on top of the gravel, grass and wildflowers grew up in the soil, then willows and alders and cottonwoods took root and flourished and it seemed the place was well on its way to becoming a permanent part of the landscape. Then, just a few years ago, the river suddenly turned on its creation and started rapidly undoing what it had done, eroding away the soil and gravel and taking great chunks and gulps from the bar until now it is scarcely half its former size. But the river also has given compensation by carving out a long, swift, fish-holding run just downstream, and now there is twice as much water to fish as there was before.

About the same time it started gnawing away at our gravel bar, the river also began to bring us increasing loads of silt from a great slide on logged-over land along upper Deer Creek. The fragile soils of the upper Deer Creek watershed had been slipping and sliding away for years after being damaged by logging and slash burning, and the creek and the river below it always had been muddy and unfishable after rain. But the slide was not dependent on rain; it was fed by underground seepage, which meant that it pumped a continuous flow of silt into Deer Creek. The creek obediently carried it down to the river and the river carried it all the way to the sea, and soon a great stain of silt could be seen spreading out from the river into the formerly clear waters of Port Susan Bay in Puget Sound.

For nearly three years the slide kept the North Fork below Deer Creek perpetually cloudy, rarely clear enough to fish with a fly. Of course the silt meant there was little likelihood of survival for the offspring of any fish that tried to spawn below the slide, and it also meant suffocation and death for much of the insect population of the North Fork. Silt also filled the bed of the river to such an extent that it could no longer carry the same volume of water as before, and winter floods - always a problem - became much worse.

Those were sad times on the North Fork. It appeared the river might be unfishable for years to come, and the destruction of Deer Creek and its spawning and rearing water offered little hope that steelhead would be available even if the river should clear up enough to fish. True, there was still good fishing available for hatchery-bred steelhead in the North Fork above Deer Creek, but that offered little consolation to us who had staked our fortunes on the lower river. Nevertheless, faced with the ceaseless flow of slate-gray silt from Deer Creek, I began spending more and more fishing time on the upper North Fork and the neighboring upper Sauk.

One result was that I became much better acquainted with the surrounding countryside and its colorful people. The town of Darrington and the upper valley of the North Fork are the centers of an area heavily populated by transplanted North Carolina Tarheels and their descendants, mostly people who came to the Northwest to work in its woods or its mills. Along with them they brought many traits and customs, including a certain clannishness and general suspicion of outsiders, especially bureaucrats of any stripe; boundless loyalty and friendship to anyone they trust; a fondness for moonshine whiskey and bluegrass music; and a general disregard for rules and regulations, especially those pertaining to fish and game.

Darrington itself sits in a spectacular setting at the base of Whitehorse Mountain, a magnificent, soaring, glacier-tipped crag that seems to rise almost vertically from the valley floor. Other mountains rise to the north and east, all thickly carpeted with stands of fir and cedar, potential fodder for the saws at the Darrington mill, the reason for Darrington's existence.

But despite its idyllic setting, life in Darrington never has been easy. Jobs in the woods or the mill are always hard and uncertain. The work itself is difficult and dangerous and employment is subject to the periodic whims and fluctuations of the timber market - or, more recently, to increasing public opposition to the logging of diminishing stands of old-growth timber. Labor problems also seem endemic to the industry, and a long strike at the Darrington mill left a lot of empty storefronts in a town that never had very many stores to begin with. But the folks in Darrington are painfully familiar with hard times, and whenever they come around, some local residents fall back on a long tradition of subsistence hunting and fishing. In other words, they poach.

A certain amount of poaching always goes on along the North Fork or in the Sauk, but most of the time it is done more or less surreptitiously. But when times are tough in Darrington, the poachers grow bold and come right out in daylight.

Ted Rogowski and I saw graphic evidence of this one day when we went up to the Sauk to search for steelhead. It was late in the season and there were salmon in the river along with the steelhead; during the day we had seen some run-of-the-river sockeye in their bright spawning colors and several big dark king salmon forcing their way upstream through the shallow riffles. At the end of the day we were hiking downstream to the place where we had left the car when we came upon a remarkable sight: A short, stocky man stood on the edge of a gravel bar, casting awkwardly with a stout fiberglass rod rigged with a heavy monofilament line and what appeared to be a pair of heavy battery cable clamps attached to a large set of treble hooks. We watched as he lobbed this cumbersome affair into the current, then quickly reeled in while simultaneously jerking the stout rod up and down in an obvious effort to snag a fish.

Ted and I started forward, ready to give the man a good talking to, but before we could reach him he cast again and this time he struck something. He reared back forcefully on the rod, which was about the size and shape of a cue stick and scarcely bent under the pressure, and the river exploded into froth. We watched in amazement as he took a few frantic turns on his reel, then threw down the rod and launched himself full-length into the river to tackle a big king salmon that was thrashing around in the shallows. The weighted set of treble hooks was buried deeply in the salmon's side.

Locked together in the poacher's embrace, man and fish rolled over twice in the shallow water; then the poacher managed to get a hand inside the salmon's gills and staggered to his feet, dripping from head to foot. The salmon, which looked to be about 25 pounds, writhed in his grasp, streaming blood from the wound in its side and pouring fresh eggs from its vent. He held it up proudly, splashed ashore and came right up to us, still holding the fish, and I noted he was missing several fingers from each hand - the certain sign of a man who has spent most of his life working in the woods or the mills. Glaring defiantly, the poacher opened his mouth to speak, exposing us to a gust of vile breath and a glimpse of bad teeth that looked like an uneven row of tombstones with some kicked over.

"What else am I gonna do?" he asked. "I got eleven kids and no job."

I thought of suggesting birth control, but somehow it didn't seem appropriate under the circumstances.

My exile to the upper North Fork and the neighboring Sauk lasted the better part of three seasons during which most of the time it was impossible to fish in the river below Deer Creek.

But every cloud has a silver lining, or so it is said, and the silver lining in the cloud of silt issuing from Deer Creek turned out to be a growing sense of public fury. The slide in the upper watershed was only the most visible manifestation of a generation of abuse and mismanagement, and the declining fishery, worsening floods, and deteriorating physical environment aroused public indignation and drew the attention of local newspapers. Responding to this increasingly squeaky wheel of public sentiment, agencies of the federal, state, and county governments joined with representatives of fishing and environmental groups and local Indian tribes to form a committee called the Deer Creek Policy Group, with the objective of trying to solve some of the massive problems in the watershed.

Operating on the philosophy that there was nothing to be gained by pointing fingers of blame at those who were at fault for past abuses, the group set aside the differences of its members and tried to plan strategies to halt the decline of Deer Creek and begin some sort of rehabilitation program. As a result of these discussions, the U.S. Forest Service declared a moratorium on future logging of its remaining timberlands in the Deer Creek drainage, and the state Department of Natural Resources agreed to substantial concessions on some of its future logging plans.

The Department of Natural Resources also made substantial and costly attempts to stem the flow of silt from the slide on upper Deer Creek. All of these turned out badly, but in the end nature finally intervened where man had failed: In 1987, when the spring runoff subsided, anglers were surprised to see Deer Creek and the lower North Fork suddenly flowing clear again after nearly three years of continuous turbidity. It was soon discovered that the source of groundwater seepage feeding the upstream slide had dried up, at least temporarily, thus ending the steady flow of silt into Deer Creek. No one could predict when or if the seepage might begin again, but the North Fork remained clear all that summer and for the two summers that followed, allowing fishermen once again to return to its waters.

Meanwhile, the work of restoration has begun on the upper Deer Creek watershed. Silt barriers have been installed, new foliage has been planted to stabilize the fragile stream-bank soils, and boulders have been placed in the streams to try to restore a proper pool-to-riffle ratio. Some of this work has been financed by the government, but much of it was paid for with funds raised through the untiring efforts of Alec Jackson, perhaps the only true hero of the Deer Creek saga. Jackson, representing the fly-fishing community on the Deer Creek Policy Group, tapped every conceivable source to raise funds for rehabilitation. Such dedication is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that Jackson and everyone who worked with him were aware that their efforts were being made mostly on behalf of future generations. For no matter how much money is spent or how much effort is expended, the full restoration of Deer Creek is likely to take longer than the life span of anyone now living.

Even with restoration, there is no assurance that the native steelhead will ever return. The wild run of Deer Creek steelhead was already at a critically low ebb when the slide began covering what little remained of the downstream spawning and rearing water, and now only a few stretches in the uppermost reaches of the watershed remain suitable for spawning. Even these waters may have been inaccessible to adult steelhead during the years of massive silt flows.

Hatchery-reared steelhead still return to the North Fork in fair abundance, but their passage through the waters below Deer Creek is a hurried one. In the past few seasons I have found a few of them in the pools around Bucktail Camp early in the summer and again sometimes late in the fall, but from mid-July through mid-September the lower North Fork now seems mostly empty of the gleaming steelhead that once waited restlessly in the pools below Deer Creek.

So it is obvious now that the best days of the North Fork have come and gone, probably never to return, and that is why the anglers who live along and love this river now spend many of their evenings in nostalgic conversations about the way things used to be. And although their numbers are fewer now - and perhaps that in itself is something of a blessing - there are still some anglers who continue to fish the lower river faithfully, who are glad to see it running clear again below Deer Creek even if it is often empty of fish.

I am one of those, and I still spend countless summer hours wading the long-familiar drifts or trudging the well-worn paths along the gravel bars. These days the signs of steelhead are few and far between, but each pool still holds precious memories that are somehow renewed and refreshed each time I return to it. Along with the memories, I still enjoy the feel of the river around me, the sounds of its restless passage, the sight of the eagles and ospreys and kingfishers and herons that are as persistent in their fishing habits as I am in mine. Though fish may be few, I never leave the river feeling unsatisfied or unfulfilled.

I will continue fishing the North Fork, though with a mind more full of memories than of hope. In spite of all that has happened, there may yet still be a chance that a few steelhead will come my way and remind me briefly of the way things used to be.

Even if it does not happen, I will go on fishing, for I am not yet ready to give up. I love the North Fork, and I will be faithful to it - as only a fisherman can be to his home river.