When we first start fly fishing, we just hope to catch a fish. Any fish. Then, if we’re lucky — and maybe a little crazy — we are the ones who get hooked.
Somewhere between getting hooked on fly fishing and the rest of our lives, we stumble across a moment that’s all about the fish, and, at the same moment, not about the fish at all.
My first moment like this happened on a day when I walked into jail.
It was stinging cold winter morning on South Puget Sound. I had taken a job with The Olympian newspaper, and it was my turn to work the weekend.
At a daily newspaper, working the weekend means listening to the police scanner, going by the city police station to check the arrest reports and stopping by the county jail to look over even more arrest logs.
South Puget Sound in Washington state swims through rain most of each winter. Water falling from the sky is part of the deal, much like the tides flowing in and out of Puget Sound or the moss growing on the truck bumper. It rains for weeks. On this day, thick, cold fog drifted in the river valleys and flowed over Olympia. The warmer saltwater of Puget Sound steamed into the cold air, and the sun was a distant memory.
This was my third day of the Police Beat, and I felt beaten down as I walked through the thick mist to the jail’s sally port and pressed the security button. The Sheriff’s deputy on duty buzzed me in, and I entered the office area where the arrest logs were kept. Two deputies hunched over steaming bowls of savory beef stew while a trusty slowly pushed a grey mop over the floor.
The arrest reports told — in cop shorthand — tales of a wife beating, a meth lab, a heroin overdose and a bar fight. As I jotted down the sordid details, the odor of the jail — the sharp, chemical smell of floor cleaner, the sour, musty scent of unwashed humans and the stale aroma of cafeteria food settled around me.
How could all this pain and horror happen in such a nice city? I got up to go, and the trustee smiled, exposing black teeth and empty gaps — the mouth of a lifelong junkie or meth tweaker. I felt trapped in this big, dense concrete and steel tomb. I walked, although I wanted to run, back to the sally port and got buzzed out. I ran back to my Subaru station wagon. It was time for lunch, but the stench of the jail still lingered in my nostrils. And that awful, black, decaying mouth was stuck in my mind. So much sadness and waste.
I started driving, and I found myself heading for a county park that had a Puget Sound beach. I parked and pulled waders out of the plastic tub in the back. I rigged up my fly rod and walked to the beach.
Living near Puget Sound made it easy to fly fish for sea-run cutthroat and resident coho salmon, and this beach was a 10-minute drive from the newspaper building.
The tide was falling, and I knew that the receding water would slowly expose a gravel bar. Tidal flows in Puget Sound are strong, and a rip — the seam between fast and slow water — would form at the end of the gravel bar. Rips concentrate food, and they funnel food to hungry sea-run cutthroat trout.
The hope was to find one or two sea-run cutthroat trout in that rip. I needed to see, touch and feel something clean and perfect on this cold, murky, depressing day.
I found so much more.
I sat on the beach about 20 feet away from the water and watched the tide flow like a river. The water level dropped steadily, and the barnacle-studded rocks on the gravel bar came into focus. The air smelled sharp and clean, with a tint of salt and cedar trees. Just as I was about to stand up and cast, a nice sea-run cutthroat, in shades of chrome and weathered-copper green, glided out of the rip flowing off the tip of the gravel bar. The trout hovered in six inches of gin-clear, slowly moving water. I stayed seated and didn’t move a muscle.
The cutthroat didn’t notice me. I was still pretty new to sea-run cutthroat fishing in those days, but I knew these wary fish thought we humans were rocks, if we didn’t move.
Why was a 16-inch cutthroat — a very nice wild trout — hanging over in the the shallow saltwater gravel bar when the deeper, food-filled rip was just a few feet away?
Then the cutthroat darted forward and charged through the shallow water like a submarine torpedo in an old World War II movie. The fish’s black-spotted, green back bulged out of the water as it powered along. Then the trout swirled and shot back into the rip.
I wanted to stand and fire a cast into the rip, but something kept me parked on the gravel. I stayed on my butt, but I scooted myself closer to the water’s edge. These antics on barnacled rocks wear out waders really quickly. A couple minutes later, another sea-run cutthroat moved out of the rip and charged through the now-shallower water flowing over the gravel bar.
Then I saw a small, blackish fish — like farm-pond tadpoles — fleeing from the cutthroat trout. They looked like quail flushing in a field. Those tadpoles were really young-of-the-year sculpin, and there were hundreds of these little, two-inch-long bottom feeders lurking on the gravel bar.
I watched sea-run cutthroat charge and catch these sculpins for the next hour or so — until the falling tide left the gravel bar high and dry and the sculpins finally darted into the rip — there was no other place to go with water. Then the flashes of swirling, feeding trout lit up that rip, but I didn’t make a cast.
Being so close to feeding sea-run cutts was hypnotic. I had left the human world and edged into the salty, intense universe of tidal flows and trout. As the water shallowed over the gravel bar, the cutthroat had became more and more aggressive, and they splashed water onto my waders as they gobbled sculpins. Each splash, each trout, washed the dirt and depression of the day away.
How could so much wild beauty be so close to a nice little Washington state city on the shores of Puget Sound?
I visited that beach during the falling tide for the next two days on the Police Beat. I never did make a cast, although I did rig up my rod with Muddler Minnows in the perfect size and color. It was enough to see a little part of the secret, beautiful world of the sea-run cutthroat trout.
Using what I learned during those short escapes from the Police Beat would come later. Ever since that long-ago winter day, I have sought out other late-winter gravel bars rich with sculpins and hungry sea-run cutthroat trout, but I have never fished that spot. It had given me all that I needed, when I needed hope and beauty the most.