Stehekin Dreams


Magic is present on the river at certain times. It’s never predictable, but when I’m experiencing it, it feels like gratitude. It saturates the senses with a slant of sunlight turning the river to gold and shimmers in shining halos around drake mayflies and yellow sallies rising against a bright blue sky. The mountains surround us, my husband and me, climbing steeply away from the river, clad in somber green firs. The river sings, rushing water over tumbling rocks, and dancing water ouzels call back to the river a warbling song. They must be talking to the river, I think, and try as I might I cannot make out what they are saying, but I feel the joy of the message in their watery language.


We see them. Big noses rising in the white water. Green bodies and silver, flashing, chasing bugs. It’s a long cast, but I manage to sail the line just right, throw a quick big mend, and my fly bounces over the waves and disappearing in the foam and glare. But the fish sees it, and suddenly line rips out, cutting across the big main current with a hiss and it is gone before I can do anything. I stand there with limp flyline dangling in the calm water below me, breathless, momentarily heartbroken.


On that amazing afternoon, we managed to hook and land at least a dozen fish of good size. Dime bright rainbows and red-bellied cutthroats eager to fatten up for the valley’s long winter are not too wary and several are caught from each run. Lower down the run, a broad sweep of the river runs wide, clear and uniformly deep. We wade across to target a deeper blue-green pool running along a log. We take turns watching for a rising fish, casting to them, appreciating the ones that come to our net. Even a Kokanee took a dry fly that afternoon, spilling her translucent red-gold eggs as she is released, making us wonder why this spawning fish would even think of taking a fly.


John, the local guide, took us down the river a couple of times. He knows the river well, points out spots to cast too, and quietly and skillfully maneuvers down the very skinny water of September. We talk of river management, of the large number of cutthroat released into the system about five years ago, and the regulations that allow for keeping bigger rainbows, in the effort to manage the river for cutthroat. Better to keep the smaller fish of either species, if you must, and allow bigger fish to remain, just for the chance to catch them, I think. We’re not keeping anything anyway.


Nymphing egg patterns catches fish while the Kokanee spawn, and so we fished them in the morning, switching to dries as bugs started rising. At one side channel late in the afternoon of our float, however, only an egg pattern would attract the attention of the large trout we could see mere feet away. Chrome shadows, three or four of them, ghosted behind the Kokanees, waiting.


It was the kind of spot where you had to turn away from the water to tie on the bug, in order to keep your mind on the task at hand and to keep your hands from shaking. John let us know the last clients he had try for these were not able to land the fish. No pressure!


Matching the color of eggs I’d seen from the female Kokanee, I tied one on a short leader below a buoyant chubby Chernobyl. Full of hope, holding my breath, and standing only ten feet or so from the fish, I rolled my rig across an inches-deep riffle to the shallow drop where the fish were stacked up. A huge rainbow, about twenty-four inches, absolutely lunged for the egg and was on. The fight lasted minutes, and there was no photo op. Funny how those are the fish we remember most clearly!


Twenty years of fish stories made on the Methow’s sister river can hardly be told in one sitting, but they echo through my memory suffused in magic. From those very first days flyfishing this river trying to unlock its secrets, to endeavoring to connect the dots of river miles fished; from fishing reaches close to the headwaters, through floods and change and whole new sections to learn, to hiking and fishing tributary creeks, I still feel there is more to learn, to know and to see, and best, to fish.


This story was provided by Sarah M. Lane fishing guide with Methow Fishing Adventures.

Want to book a trip on the Stehekin just go to the Guides page and click on the Stehekin Fishing Adventures site and drop John a line.