Wild adventures on the Wild Sky
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — The North Fork of the Skykomish River has been a treasured stream for me since I was a teenager. A family friend, Bill Stites, alias “Big Bill,” attempted to take me trout fishing on the Tye River but his car broke down just above the turnoff to Index. The car threw a rod and oil (what little there was in it) spilled on the highway. I asked what we should do as it was 5 a.m. and Big Bill said: “We might as well go fishing.” The nearest phone was in the town of Index so we went down to the North Fork of the Skykomish and fished upstream. The water was clear and cold, and wearing tennis shoes, it was refreshing to say the least. We waded the river and at 6 a.m. we reached Index. Bill stepped out of the North Fork, and with water streaming from his bib overalls, walked into a tavern on the riverbank. It looked like someone had turned a fire hose on in the joint. He phoned my dad who came to our rescue, towed the car back to Snohomish, and stayed mad for a week. He said to Bill: “Did you ever hear of putting a little oil in your jalopy?”
George and Anna Harrison were old steelheaders and I met them on the sands of Thomas’s Eddy when I was a lad. George was born in 1899, and as a teenager, logged on the North Fork of the Sky. In those days, steelhead thrived and were in every tributary below the impassable Deer Falls. They were so plentiful, the loggers just netted them from Howard Creek. In my 1925 Taft's Fishing Guide, it mentions all the summer steelhead in Trout Creek and Troublesome Creek.
No sportsman had a bigger influence on me than Bert Spada (1896-1985) of Index, and no summer steelhead trip on the North Fork was complete without stopping and visiting Bert at his home. He was such a wise person, especially in matters concerning sportsmen. We all worked on the Sunset Falls and Reiter Ponds projects. As I look around the room at the Snohomish County Sportsmen’’ Association meetings, I realize I’m the oldest person in the room and once I was the youngest.
The North Fork of the Sky has long been a cherished stream for summer steelheaders and some legendary angler’s ashes have been scattered in Troublesome Creek. It’s about as close to heaven as you can get on earth. I’ve always been a naturalist and an environmentalist but not to the extent that some radical people are. I love the giant trees of the North Fork Watershed, the beautiful pools, sparkling riffles, gin clear water, the maidenhair ferns, water ouzels, columbine, moss and other plants that make this a special place. Unfortunately, the road from Index upstream has been damaged and will not open for a few more years. This is a travesty! It could have been fixed in a couple of weeks or so, but not with all the regulations to protect “endangered” bull trout, alias dolly varden. They have been observed spawning on the same redd. As far as I’m concerned, it’s pure bull. I made my own survey of the bull trout-dolly varden population on the North Fork. There are so many of these horrific predators in this watershed, it’s not a healthy place for juvenile salmon and steelhead. One mile up Troublesome Creek, there are so many of these lemon spotted creatures, they remind me of salamanders. Drop a cluster of eggs in the water and you can lift them out as they suck on the bait.
I gave a charming lady, Kye Iris of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, a tour of the North Fork a few years ago. I pointed to three bull trout in a pool above Wilson’s Rock but she could not see them. After I dropped a small rock near them, they moved and she saw them. She had no trouble spotting them after that as we drove to Jack’s Pass and up to Deer Falls. Trips like this a person never forgets — a beautiful autumn day with a beautiful person.
I was contacted a few years ago by a group of women headquartered in Durango, Colorado. The lady on the phone said: “I understand you know a lot about the North Fork of the Skykomish. We would like you to come to Index and speak to our group about this watershed.” So to make a long story short, I went to Index with Ralph Dahlquist and gave a talk on the splendor of the North Fork of the Sky. It was a pleasant experience! The group was called “The Great Old Broads for Wilderness” and they wanted to help create the Wild Sky Wilderness. I described the grandeur of the watershed, it’s lakes, tributaries and various species of fish that inhabit it. These ladies are truly dedicated and helped remove Richard Pombo, a politician from California, who was blocking the Wild Sky Wilderness Bill and would not let it out of committee. When the bill reached President George Bush, he signed it into law.
Of course, the North Fork of the Skykomish fishery is no longer what it was. All tributaries are closed to fishing and other restrictions hamper angling opportunity under the guise of protecting “wild” fish. But I’ve had numerous wild adventures on this river such as a titanic one hour struggle with an enormous summer steelhead and eventually losing it below Troublesome Creek Campground.
I was fishing alone one glorious Indian Summer day just below Salmon Creek and hooked a silver bright summer run. This was a particularly active fish of about eight pounds and it was all over the river. The North Fork had that beautiful clear green color and the September shadows created dark patches on the water. All was going well when suddenly the fish dove into the thick branches of a freshly-downed hemlock. The tree was lying with its top branches pointing downstream and much of the trunk was on a steep gravel bank. The boughs were so thick I couldn’t see the fish and the water was too deep to get where the fish had gone. Try as I might, I could not free my line, but something told me the fish was still on. Instead of simply breaking off the snagged line, I hit on a “clever scheme” to thwart the steelhead. I put a wrap of line around my Supreme Reel, placed several large stones on the butt of my rod, and proceeded to walk a quarter mile through the woods to my old green truck where I kept an axe and a shovel. (You never know what you might come up against in the back country.) I grabbed the axe and walked back to my rod, sized up the situation, and chopped the long slender hemlock in half. I held on to the top, and with difficulty, was able to roll it over in the current. Holding the top of the tree near the steep bank, I followed the line through the maze of limbs and, “Eureka!” The summer run was still on and came free of the limbs. I picked up my rod, landed the steelhead, and hiked back to the truck.
A couple of days later, Jim Smith called and told me of all the footprints below Salmon Creek. “Bob, you wouldn’t believe it. Someone even cut that tree in half that was hanging in the river. My God! There must have been an army in there!” Barely able to keep from cracking up, I confessed to Jim that I was the “Paul Bunyan of the North Fork.” Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Some fish are meant to be caught. Sadly, two of my great summer steelheading friends died in 2009, Jim Smith and Mack Leetsch and I miss them.
There are a few radical environmentalists who don’t want any roads into the wilderness. The Suiattle River road to the Buck Creek Campground and the proposed new road to Monte Cristo for example. They apparently feel these areas are only for young people. Thank heaven we will be able to access the Troublesome Creek Campground next year via the road up the Beckler River and over Jack’s Pass.
Although I will be eighty next year and recently hiked up to Pinnacle Lake with members of the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club and planted 300 rainbow fry, lots of seniors are not able to do these things. They should be allowed access to the above mentioned areas and other areas besides. Many seniors worked to create these places and we should not be discriminated against because of our age.
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