Heading 'em off at the pass

An Outdoor View

DECEPTION PASS, Wash. — A respectable number of silver salmon are expected to return to the Skagit River this month and in early October, and many of them get there by way of Deception Pass.


This narrow, turbulent waterway in Puget Sound was named by Joseph Whidbey in 1792. It happened during Capt. George Vancouver’s epic survey of Northwest waters, a task that took him all the way to Cook Inlet.

In August of 1935, a bridge across the pass was completed, connecting Whidbey Island to the highway system. Today Deception Pass Bridge is surrounded by Deception Pass State Park, a scenic place that sees more than 2 million visitors per year.

My wife, Sue, and I were on Whidbey Island last weekend for a gypsy jazz festival. Sunday was warm and sunny, so, after buying sandwiches and drinks at a deli, we walked from the highway down a trail to North Beach, just outside the pass, to eat lunch.

A more scenic and interesting place to sit on a log and eat would be hard to find. To our right was the bridge, soaring 180 feet above the emerald-green water. The tide was coming in, so it was like being on a river bank. Twenty boats, everything from kayaks to small cabin cruisers, jockeyed for space in a football-field-size area in front of us, apparently the “hole.” Most of the boats were heading into the current, holding position while trolling or mooching for silvers. Five or six anglers were fishing from the bank near us.

We didn’t see any fish being caught, but a nearby “bankie” pointed to a man nearby and said, “That guy caught 18 off this beach this week.”

My son, Vic, who lives in nearby Anacortes, fished from his boat here last Saturday. “It’s like combat fishing on the Kenai River,” he told me. The bank fishermen and boat fishermen cross lines now and then, and words are exchanged, he said.

Sitting there, admiring the bridge that was built in just one year during the Great Depression, memories came flooding back. I remembered that my grandfather Palmer helped build it. As a boy, my father used to row a boat through the pass to fish.

I remembered one night when Dad took me fishing there in a 14-foot boat. We were casting small jigs, catching an occasional rockfish, when something, probably a king salmon or ling cod, took his jig, streaked away and kept running until his line broke. I remembered the rushing current, the standing waves, the upwelling boils and one scary-sized whirlpool that appeared beside the boat and just as suddenly disappeared.

When I turned 16 and had a car, I used to drive to the pass after school with a fishing buddy, climb down the steep cliffs to the water and fish. The most exciting part was climbing out of there in the dark.

In December of 1963, my father celebrated his 50th birthday by water skiing through Deception Pass. When my mother died, he spread her ashes in Skagit Bay, just inside the pass. When dad died, we spread his ashes just outside the pass, where he spent many happy times fishing.

My relationship to this place, past and present, continues. While writing this column, my son called and invited us to fish there with him next weekend. Stay tuned.


Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.


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