By Megan Hill
Photo: Dave McCoy
For the past 25 years, Judy Graham has had a standing date on the rivers and inlets of Puget Sound. It’s not your typical romantic evening of wining and dining, though. Instead of dressing up, her attire consists of a rain shell, waders, wading boots, and a vest with pockets full of tackle. She also takes along her fly fishing rod and reel.
“Fly fishing is a date I have with nature,” Graham says. “With fly fishing you can totally check out of the world and just focus on one thing, whether it’s your line or the way your fly is moving in the water. It’s kind of like a meditation.”
Fly fishers throughout Western Washington take to the beaches and waterways of Puget Sound and its watershed, to areas like Case Inlet, the Nisqually River, Eld Inlet, the Stillaguamish River, and the Tacoma Narrows. Often, they’re wading in frigid water, other times they’re perched on a boat. Location aside, these anglers skillfully cast their lines again and again so their hand-tied lure flits on the water’s surface like a bug, enticing a fish to strike. They’re after fish like steelhead, pink salmon, cutthroat trout, and the prized king salmon, one of the toughest fish to hook.
This sport requires a great deal of knowledge, even beyond casting technique and fly tying.
“I think of it as an art and a science,” says Graham, a certified casting instructor and former president of the Northwest Women Flyfishers.
Her first step for a day of fishing is to observe her surroundings. Graham says if she’s fishing in Puget Sound itself, the tides are an important consideration. Some fish, like searun cutthroat trout, are most active when there’s a dramatic change in the tide, which stirs up food on the sea floor. Rivers are a different ballgame.
“In a river the first thing I do is observe the current, where the pockets are, where’s a seam,” Graham says. “ I turn over rocks to see what kind of bugs are happening in the stream and what size and color they are and from that I’ll pull out my flies to figure out what to use,” Graham says.
Graham says there’s a huge learning curve to fly fishing, and that understanding the bugs the fish feed on, tides, and fly tying is a lifelong learning process. Shops are helpful places to start, as are local fly fishing clubs like Puget Sound Fly Fishers or the Northwest Fly Anglers. For the most part, fellow fly fishers will share information with newcomers at fishing spots.
“You’ll run into other fly fishers on the beach, and they’re very open to sharing information—95 percent of their information,” says Robbie Krumm, who has been a “crazy avid” fly fisher on the rivers and inlets of the South Sound for 15 years.
Indeed, there are some aspects of the sport fly fishers prefer to keep to themselves. The best fishing locations is one of them.
“Oh yeah, I have a couple favorite places,” Graham says. “That’s all I’m going to say.” Krumm had a similar response to questions about her favorite spots, preferring to keep her answers vague: “Specifically, people would not be happy if I said.”
The secrecy is partially because fly fishers like their solitude; they go to the water to find not only fish, but also peace. Often, fly fishers are also ardent conservationists with abiding respect for the ecosystems they’re enjoying. They understand that the fish are precious resources. They know that protecting the fish also means keeping the fishing spots under wraps. In fact, most fly fishers practice catch-and-release angling, letting the fish go after they’ve hooked it.
“Part of the beauty of fly fishing is the conservation aspect of it,” says Graham.
But there’s also joy in teaching others and sharing the wonders of the water, as Graham has found through her casting instruction. Graham also works as a Program Coordinator for the Washington chapter of Casting for Recovery (CFR), a nonprofit dedicated to using fly fishing as physical and emotional therapy for women recovering from breast cancer.
The participants learn fly tying, casting, and entomology, and then spend a day fishing on a pond. “Oh my gosh, they have a blast,” Graham says.
Beyond the fishing, there are plenty of other aspects of the sport that keep these anglers coming back. Krumm says many anglers enjoy other activities at their fishing spots, like beach combing, bird watching, and photography. “There’s a lot of really cool things that go along with it,” she says.
It’s no surprise that fly fishers, who must understand the delicate science of the ecosystems they fish, get excited over wildlife sightings, rare and common.
“One thing I love about fishing in Puget Sound is we always see wildlife,” says Graham, recalling bald eagles, harbor seals and the occasional whale. “It’s amazing. Fish don’t live in ugly places.” Graham adds that she’ll also notice plenty of underwater creatures as she’s boating through the inlets of the Sound; orange and purple sea stars, crabs, mussels, and other fish are often visible from her boat.
Krumm recalls a rare sighting during the 2009 pink salmon run. Pink salmon return to Puget Sound to spawn every two years, rather than annually, like other salmon, so they’re a treat for anglers. While fishing for pinks off Vashon Island, Krumm says that twice, a sixgill shark appeared near her boat. She called the Seattle Aquarium, which confirmed her sighting.
The sharks usually stick to the shadowy depths over 300 feet; Scuba divers will sometimes see them at 90 or 100 feet deep. The sharks, which can grow up to 14 feet and weigh more than 1,500 pounds, were chowing down on the abundant salmon near Krumm’s boat—another memorable aspect of that year’s pink run. “There were places where you look down to the bottom of maybe 20 feet of water and you see a carpet, literally a solid mass of fish, swimming by,” Krumm says.
Krumm has also spotted seven-foot-long Dall’s porpoises, and coyotes nabbing baby seals on the beaches. These sightings keep her coming back, with lots of stories to tell her friends.
“But,” she says, “there’s nothing like catching a fish.”
Puget Sound is a special place. Did you know avoiding yard chemicals is one of the ways to help protect it?