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The honey hole

Posted: October 14, 2011 - 10:01am

In Week One as a snowbird from Alaska wintering in Washington state, two events stand out: holding my day-old great-granddaughter, Emilynn, and fishing on the Skagit River with my grandson, Doug Palmer.

A few weeks ago, when I first told Doug that I'd be in Washington for the fall and winter, I'd hinted that he should get a boat, so we could go fishing. I didn't think he'd take me seriously. It turned out that he'd been thinking about getting a boat for a long time, so he acted on my suggestion.

On a sunny Sunday in early October, we launched Doug's 15-foot "river sled" in the Skagit at the Wildcat Steelhead Club in Sedro-Woolley. Without fanfare, we headed downstream to what he called his "honey hole."

I was born and raised in nearby Sedro-Woolley, and spent many happy hours on the Skagit as a boy. In some ways, the Skagit and Kenai rivers are similar.

The Skagit is the only river in Washington that hosts runs of five species of Pacific salmon, as well as steelhead and cutthroat trout. Silver salmon, our prey of the day, run in October and November.

"There's a lot of humpies right now, so you have to catch a few of those before you catch a silver," Doug said.

As I mentioned, the Skagit is similar to the Kenai.

I hadn't fished the Skagit since my high-school days, the early 1950s, so I was looking for changes. One obvious change is that the old highway bridge across the river has been removed, replaced by a new bridge, downstream. More change: A short distance downstream from the launch, rustic-looking cabins now perch cheek-to-jowl on the right bank where none stood before.

The Skagit, at least in its lower reaches, is easier for boaters than the Kenai. There's no horsepower limit here. I saw everything from 10-hp outboards to large, fast inboards.

Most of the boats that I saw had jet drives, including Doug's boat, with its 25-hp, four-stroke Mercury outboard jet.

One thing that hasn't changed much is the long-abandoned Great Northern Railway bridge, now fenced off at its ends to keep people from walking across it. As we approached the old bridge from upstream, memories flooded back.

I don't remember my first kiss, but I clearly remember that the railway bridge was where I fished the Skagit for the first time, and where I first fished for salmon. In the following years, I would walk the railroad tracks from my home and fish from the small gravel bar just downstream from the bridge. I'd never told Doug about this fishing hole, and he couldn't have known. Yet, by incredible circumstance, his favorite spot turned out to be my own.

After we had anchored the boat in the shadow of the bridge and started fishing, I told Doug about my first trip to this spot. I must've been 13 or 14. With the $5 prize I'd won for "Best Bicycle" in the Sedro-Woolley Loggerodeo Parade, I'd bought an Ocean City bait-casting reel. It had level wind and a "clicker," but no drag.

My rod was a cane pole. I'd wrapped on the reel and guides with cloth friction tape. With my entire hoard of tackle -- one sinker and one large spinner -- I set out for the river.

With high expectations, I perched on the rip-rap under the railroad bridge. On my first cast, I hooked a fish. It was a big one, I knew, because it didn't give an inch. I pulled and pulled. I finally realized that I was hung up on the bottom. I broke my line and went home, not much wiser for the experience, but glad no one had witnessed my fierce battle with the bottom.

On Sunday, the fishing was only fair. According to Doug, it had been better a few days earlier. Fishing with a Dick Nite spoon, he caught one silver, which he kept, and six humpies, which he released. Fishing with bait, I caught one humpy and a Dolly Varden, releasing both.

My reason for not doing better is the same as it was 60 years ago, when I first fished that spot. I was doing everything wrong.

Les Palmer can be reached at lpalmer@alaska.net.

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