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(Seattle & Northern 1890)

Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit.

Covers from British Columbia to Puget sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan. An evolving history dedicated to the principle of committing random acts of historical kindness
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Wilkeson 11: Trouting on Six-Mile creek
in the North Cascades

This article originally appeared in the New York Times on Dec. 28, 1890
      Many rivers flow through forest-clad Western Washington, flow from the eternal snow banks of the Cascade Range to Puget Sound or to the heaving water of the Pacific Ocean. Hundreds, yes, thousands, of smaller rivers, brooks, and creeks flow; some slowly as become streams of size, up which enormous salmon ascend to spawn; others with roars as of laughter rush in foam through boulder-strewn gorges to tumble down sloping falls. This great and almost unexplored river system constitutes the fishes' highway, and a highway that is always thronged with salmon and trout.
(Fishing creel)
Please email us attachments if you have old-time photos of fishing or hunting

      From the cold salt water to the fir-clad western foothills of the mighty Cascade Range the rivers flow sluggishly in sweeping curves through heavily-timbered alluvial land. Arrived at the foothills, the water flows faster and faster as the river is ascended till at about sixty miles from the coast, say, on the Skagit River, the head of steamboat navigation is determined by white, foamy water, beyond which there is canoe navigation for a few miles. Then all streams are torrents that roar through a sea of lofty, snow-capped, and forest-clad mountains, in the recesses of which many glaciers slowly move. In the foothills and throughout the highlands the air resounds rhythmically with the sweet voices of many falling waters. Here a creek tumbles over a lofty cliff. Yonder a brook that has its source in hidden snow banks that lie 4,500 feet above the sea in deep furrows that were plowed in mountain flanks by glaciers ages ago causes the resinous air to tremble in joyous vibrations as it loudly sings while traveling its boulder-strewn course.
      Rills fall in white waving ribbons of foam over cliffs and murmur sweetly the while. The tall fir trees whisper one to the other as cool air plays among their swaying tops. Everywhere in Washington's highlands the voice of nature calls sweetly to her lovers to leave desk and dingy office and come to her. And her call is hard to resist.

The nature of salmon in freshwater and saltwater
      In all the rivers and brooks and creeks salmon, that search for highland water and remote spawning beds, the location of which has been handed down as traditional lore through thousands of generations of salmon, swim, and at short intervals leap high above the water as though to see whether they had arrived near to the longed-for spawning ground. Falling heavily back into the ice-cold water, the fish pluckily resume their journey, to arrive at the end of which is death to most of them.

Read about Patricia N. McAndrew's new book, The Old Soldier Goes Fishing — planned for publication in winter 2005, a collection of his columns and a biography of Frank and his family.

      It is held by the larger portion of Washington fishermen that no salmon that enters fresh water from the Pacific Ocean ever returns to the sea. Personally, I know that tens of thousands of salmon annually die while migrating to the spawning beds. I have seen the banks of the Skagit River and of many of its tributaries lined with dead salmon. No salmon that was hatched in the rivers of Washington will take the hook or rise to the fly when in fresh water. In salt water they bite freely and afford exciting sport. Swarming after the salmon, steadily pursuing them from the cold depths of Puget Sound up all the rivers and creeks and brooks, are schools of salmon trout, a game fish that will rise to the fly if in playful mood, but that is wholly unable to resist bait if it be salmon eggs, to obtain which they have followed the salmon from the sea. To take salmon trout is excellent sport, provided your tackle is not too heavy. In every river and creek, it matters not its size, trout- mountain, silver, speckled, crimson-spotted, black, and just trout — abound, and live in hungry eagerness to rise to flies or to snap at baited hooks. Under boulders, behind water-covered roots, in deep pools, at the base of waterfalls, among large boulders where rapidly-flowing water swirls and boils and is full of bubbles- heavy, deep, powerful fish these — trout live and impatiently await the arrival of fishermen.
      The creeks are overhung by brush; they are generally rapid. The water is exceedingly cold. The forests are so dense that it is very laborious to walk through them. To fish for trout in the smaller streams of Western Washington is severe work, but great catches can be made. To fish the rivers is easy work. But who would fish from a boat, and in rapid water when roaring brooks and foamy waters are nearby? I answer, no one who loves sport.

14-mile walk to Hamilton
      The other evening I arrived at Hamilton, on the Skagit River, after a hard walk of fourteen miles. I sat wearily on the front steps of a friend's office to watch the sun sink behind the high mountains that stand directly opposite Hamilton and beyond the river. I was very tired, too weary to talk and almost too weary to listen to my friend.
      "Tired, are you?" he said, inquiringly, as he looked at me. "Well," he added, "I will show you something that will refresh you more than that sunset, grand as it is; I will show you something that will brace you quicker than draughts of strong liquor. Just wait a minute," he said, as he sat beside me and silently watched the shadows and purple shades deepen in every ravine and along the furrowed flanks of the lofty foothills beyond Day's Creek. In a moment he arose, to disappear into the house, quickly to reappear with creel in hand. "Look at these beauties," he said, as he poured a mass of clean, highly-colored trout on the stoop. They were beauties. There were six large, clean-cut, powerful, and highly-colored trout, really ostentatious fish, among them. These I picked out and laid side by side on a board. They were twin brothers all. As I gazed at them I forgot my weariness, and the setting sun and dark, rugged mountains, and the glamour of stream and forest took possession of me. "Tell me of this one, John," I said, indicating the fish at the end of the rank by touching its cold nose with the tip of my index finger. The story of pool and fly and break of fish and skillful strike was soon told. Then the story of the next one, and the next, till the last. The story of the catching of that artful fish banished all the weariness from my bones and I asked eagerly: "Did you catch all the fish that were in the creek, John?"
      "All!" he exclaimed, "All! No. I just felt of the water. Just skimmed it. There are thousands of trout left in Six-Mile Creek. We will take a day off to-morrow and cause those fish to regret that they were hatched. We will have a time, such a time, and we will get Theo to go. He is a dandy fisherman."
      "We will," I replied, "and we will eat these six brothers for supper," I added, as I swept my finger tips across the fish. And we did.

The trek before sunrise
      Before sunrise the following morning a smart team of horses that were hitched to a strong wagon stood at the office door. A box containing provisions and two frying pans was placed in the wagon. We had eaten breakfast and our pipes were glowing. We drew on our high fishing boots, looked into our fly books to reassure ourselves for the eleventh time that they contained the right flies, then, grasping our light rods, we clambered into the wagon and drove off through the forest toward Six-Mile Creek- a delightful ride. A heavy dew had fallen during the night, and at short intervals we saw bedraggled grouse that had been trailing through the wet grass, sitting on logs close to the road to dry their wet feathers in the warm rays of the rising sun. Squirrels, little red creatures, sat upright on near-by logs and barked good morning to us.
      The portion of the forest that we drove through had been logged, i. e., all the large, sound trees had been felled and dragged off, and most of the remaining trees were dead, and a few wild pigeons flitted from the top of one dead tree into the top of another. Whoever heard of wild pigeons in the fir forests of Washington? No one, I believe, but we saw them that bright morning. The six miles between Hamilton and the creek were too short. It was a most enjoyable ride. Arrived at the creek, we unhitched the horses and tied them to trees and backed our wagon off of the narrow road so as to give passage to travelers. We carried our provisions and cooking kit to the creek, jointed our rods, reeved our lines, and to them tied coachmen-laden leaders. Quickly we agreed to meet at the provisions at 1 o'clock, and then separated, I to fish up the creek a mile, Theo to walk two miles up the creek, by an old logging road, and to fish down till he met me. John was to fish from the camp to the Skagit River. All water below the frying pans, the handles of which had been thrust into the gravel, was to be sacredly considered his.

Getting the lay of the land and creek
      A few rods above the camp there was a rapid which terminated in a pool that was bush-surrounded and overhung by long cedar boughs. The pool was log and root incumbered. Arrived at the foot of the pool I stood among the bushes and studied the situation. It was a nasty bit of water to fish and one that threatened to cost several flies. It was not possible to cast into the pool. By shortening the line till the leader struck the tip, and standing knee-deep in the water and with left hand to pull some vision-obscuring and overhanging bushes back to hide me and open the water, I thought I could drop a fly on its surface and have sufficient room to trail it a few feet. I entered the rapidly flowing water, carefully pulled back the bushes, and thrust the light rod over the pool, preparatory to loosening the fly, which I held between thumb and finger. Loosened, it floated lightly on the water for an instant, then the water boiled as a dozen large trout attempted to seize it. I struck too quickly, and the fly and leader flew upward and caught in a cedar bough and were lost. Replacing them, I tried again. Again the water boiled, again I struck, and that time hooked the fish, which promptly began to fight. I backed slowly down stream, keeping a steady pull on the fish, till I reached a gravel bar on which I knew I could land the trout. Then I caused the reel to revolve slowly, and presently the hooked trout dashed out of the pool and into the rapidly-flowing water, and soon he was in the creel. I led nine large trout out of that pool, each of which made a game fight, before the fish ceased to rise.
      Then I began to fish, whipping ripples, causing alluring flies to fall lightly alongside of foam-surrounded boulders, behind water-bounded stumps, under out banks where bushes hung low, and in deep eddies where the water ever circles. Everywhere trout broke water to flash in sunlight or to show their glistening, spotted sides in dark shadows. Here I struck too quickly, there too slowly, but at the foot of the big ripple, where I had free play and good ground on which to land my fish, I made eleven successful casts, and then lost two flies.

The honeymoon of water ousels
      A tiny waterfall, a baby of about five feet in height, that was formed by a log, had created a pool. I stood below it and was casting- successfully, too — into its teeming water, when I saw a small dark brown bird standing on a small log close to the waterfall. This bird, hardly as large as a robin, teetered, tip-up-like, and looked through friendly black eyes at me in joyous good comradeship. Then, to my great surprise, it took a header into the waterfall. In an instant it flew out of the water to its station on the small log, and, after shaking itself, looked at me as though to say, "What do you think of that, old boy?" I said that I thought it was delightful. I ceased to fish and sat on a boulder to watch the bird, which stood on the log twisting its head around, first looking at me through one black eye and then through the other, and then it took another header into the waterfall. "Why, it is a water ousel!" I exclaimed [small bird of the genus cinclus that dive into swift streams for food], as a scene of many years ago in California arose before me, a scene in which a mountain creek and trout and water ousels figured. I had not seen a water ousel since that happy careless time; in fact, I did not know that they ranged so far north as Washington. I greatly admired the glossy, courageous bird, and watched him through pleasure-lit eyes repeatedly dive into the waterfall or into the swirling water of the rapids. Apparently he was fishing for food. He was the quintessence of joyousness. Presently I saw another ousel some distance up the creek. The approaching bird loitered, just as though time had no value, now standing on a boulder to dive into a rapid, then standing in trembling, nervous joy on the end of an overhanging log to plunge headlong into a pool at the base of the tiny waterfall. Slowly it approached my pool and my ousel.
      They met. Evidently they were married and the honeymoon had waned many months ago. They sat side by side for a moment to talk in low tones, about water bugs and the prospects of the food supply holding out, probably. There was no lovemaking. It was strictly a business interview, and one that, to judge from its coldness, plainly foretold the approach of Winter. The stranger ousel flitted gayly up the creek, and my bird followed. I met them again further up the creek and smoked a pipe while I watched them engage in a long-continued and wholly delightful diving contest- or was it a foraging expedition? — into a tiny waterfall- watched them — my creel was filled — till I desired to possess the beautiful birds.
      "Hi, Frank!" loud and long-drawn, but torrent-deadened, floated through the forest to me. Theo was calling. I bade the water ousels farewell and walked up the creek. Passing around a bend, I saw Theo standing on a gravel bar, well back from a larger pool that had a cut bank. He saw me and beckoned with waving hand and motioned me to be careful, pointing at the pool the while with his rod.
      Arrived at Theo, he said: "Old man, I saw a whale in there. A big, spotted whale that is hungry. He is under that stump," indicating a large fir stump with pointing rod. "I thought you would like to catch him," he added. "You walk around the pool, stand in the rapid above, and cast just by the stump, and I will stand here and see you catch him, which will be great sport."

Trout rise to the fly
      I refused to accept such a sacrifice, but I weakly listened to Theo's sophistical arguments that were based on the fact that he could fish any and all days, while I could not. How easy it is to yield when you ardently desire to do the precise thing you are tempted to do. I yielded, and walking around the pool and into the rapid cast close to the stump. Two large trout broke water. I struck and missed; cast again, and again both fish rose to the fly. The largest had the hook driven firmly into its mouth by a turn of my wrist. That fish was game from the end of his nose to the tip of his powerful tail. He made the light rod bend as a whip. He made a stubborn and intelligent fight, constantly endeavoring to get under the stump and among its tangle of roots, which scheme I successfully opposed. Finally the fish became exhausted, and I led him to a bar and there stabbed him through the spine. Returning, I cast again, and the remaining trout rose eagerly. I think that I struck too quick; at any rate, I did not fix the hook securely. The rod bent almost to the water, when the trout, bent as a crescent, sprang high above the water, shook his head furiously, up sprang the rod, and the beautiful trout swam under the stump to sulk and to nurse a sore jaw.
(Fishing Fly)

      "Too bad! I thought you had him," shouted Theo. "So did I," I shouted in reply. "But," I added, "I do not want him. My creel is full. I am going to quit." We sat on a boulder together and counted our fish. I had caught seventy-one and Theo had ninety-six. His creel was full and he had two strings of trout in addition. We sat and smoked and talked gayly of the morning's sport as we unjointed our rods and wound up our lines. The sun was at its height when we started to walk through the woods toward our camp, which we would have reached on time if we had not met a covey of grouse that rose with noisy whir of wings to alight in a tall spruce tree, out of which we foolishly attempted to stone them. The attempt was wholly unsuccessful, save that it apparently amused the birds that sat seventy feet above us and clucked, one to the other, as we almost threw our arms off. Finally Theo, who was bent on making the birds fly, pounded the tree with a large stone. That was more than the grouse could endure. They took wing and flew through the forest, and we shouted and screamed at them to add zest to their flight. They were very beautiful. Arrived at camp, we found John had cooked a trout dinner and was impatiently awaiting our arrival. We laughed and told stories and ate between whiles and enjoyed life by the bank of the roaring creek. We lingered long over the meal. We counted our fish and found that we had 235 trout. All our creels were packed full. We decided to fish no more.
      As the sun sank low toward the saw-tooth crest of the foothills we packed our goods and chattels into the wagon and hitched up the horses and drove slowly homeward through the forest. Slowly the darkness crept out of the forest and shaded the road. At intervals grouse took wing, and we could indistinctly see them as they flew into the forest and could hear the brisk beat of their wings long after they had disappeared. It was dark when we drove out of the forest. One by one the stars came out. The murmur of the Skagit as it flowed rapidly toward the sea, the sound of distant waterfalls, the soft sighing of the fir trees, and the many mysterious sounds of the early night filled the air. We three sat silently, thinking of other nights and other days and of other fishing grounds, and of comrades who were once gay and light-hearted, but who will never more whip trout streams. Our outing was over.

      See a list of links to all of Frank Wilkeson's columns on our site. And read about Patricia N. McAndrew's new book, The Old Soldier Goes Fishing — planned for publication in winter 2005, a collection of his columns and a biography of Frank and his family.

Story posted on May 14, 2002
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