It was the summer of 1981. Karen and I left the Interstate 5 at its junction with Highway 530 and drove east in my little green Honda through Snohomish County. Beautiful farmland ripening under the summer sun surrounded us as we as made our way toward the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
My desire to see the river had been whetted by the exquisite black and whites of the Stillaguamish and its Washington State relations in fly fishing photographer Ralph Wahl’s alluring Come Wade the River and by what I’d read In Trey Combs’s Fly Fishing and Flies. From Combs, I learned that the fly fishers who favoured the Stilly had played an important role in the development of steelhead fly fishing on North America’s west coast.
Combs wrote of how, in 1930, the Snohomish County Sportsmen’s Association proposed that Deer Creek and one mile of the Stillaguamish below the spot where the creek entered that river should be restricted to fly fishing. Despite the fact that the area was a minuscule part of what was available to fishermen in that time of salmon abundance, bait fishers were apoplectic and raised such a large ruckus, on the basis that the proposed fly-only restriction trampled upon their democratic freedoms, that the Washington State Game Commission was moved to reverse its original decision supporting the Snohomish County sportsmen.
The proposal was the first of its kind on a western salmon stream. It would not go away. Thanks to the tireless efforts of a then newly formed Washington Flyfishing Club – and in particular three of its pioneering members, Ken McCloud, Enos Bradner, and Letcher Lambuth – the entire north fork of the Stillaguamish was eventually set aside as a fly only summer run river.
In 1918, that prolific purveyor of purple prairie prose Zane Grey, whose book sales were only bested by that of the Bible, stopped at Deer Creek, the tributary of the Stilly’s north fork on his way to fish for Campbell River Chinook. Grey pronounced the Creek the most beautiful trout water he’d ever seen. It was “as clear as crystal, and as cold as ice,” he wrote.
Grey whose fame as an author of dusters just barely eclipsed his fame as a fisherman and a fishing writer, caught his first steelhead on Deer Creek and he never forgot the rhapsody of the experience.
Nine years after Grey caught his first steelhead, English ex-pat, Roderick Haig-Brown, then working in a logging camp in Washington State (and quite possibly drawn to the place by the writing of Zane Grey), made his way to the Deer Creek Confluence in search of his first steelhead.
After landing some bull trout he mistakenly took for steelhead, the man who was to become Canada’s most famous angling author wrote: “The river was bigger than the word ‘creek’ had led me to expect and it was beautiful, clear and bright and fast, tumbled on rocks and gravel bars.”
At that time I’d just read and reread Steve Raymond’s Year of the Angler. Raymond, who was the editor of the Seattle Times at the time had lived in and fished the area for decades so knew the North Fork of the Stilly intimately.
“The bright summer fish ran to the mouth of Deer Creek,” he wrote, “held there in the pools and riffles until it was time to run up the creek itself, back into the trackless wilderness where the loggers had yet to reach. No one knows the original size of the great native run, but there is little doubt that it was one of the finest summer runs in the world, perhaps the finest of them all.”
After a jog up Highway 9, we turned east back onto the Arlington-Darrington Road for a short distance then turned right on North Olympic Avenue into the town of Arlington to buy supplies. It has probably changed a lot over the intervening years, but then, to foreigners like us, Arlington had the look and feel of the quintessential small American town like the fictional Mayberry North Carolina made famous on the Andy Griffith Show.
Shopping done, we resumed our journey, stopping next just past the bridge at Cicero where I’d spotted an angler casting over the tail of a nice looking pool. I pulled over and watched as he hooked and then released a steelhead. After he let the fish go, he and made his way across the river and up the bank to where I was standing.
When I asked, he showed me the small dark fly he’d used to lure the steelhead he’d recently released. It had a fleck of tinsel.
Maybe it’s too bright, he said.
I told him I was from Canada and of my quest to explore some of the famous steelhead rivers of Washington State. He said his name was Bob and that he had a cabin at Oso, near the confluence of Deer Creek and the Stillaguamish.
I’m off to fish another run, he said, but you should join me there later.