At midday I touched down at Seattle airport, a little light-headed after 20 hours flying from Nairobi, via Dubai. The immigration officer asked me what brought me to Washington state. Fish, I replied. He loomed me up and down. “Plenty of those around,” he said, and stamped my passport without further questions.
The girl at the car rental desk said her name was Neptune and liked my accent. She upgraded my car with a smile. The Somali girl who pointed out my vehicle in the car park said her name was Hannah. She came from Hargeisa but gave me directions to Seattle, and the ferry terminal for the Olympic peninsula.
Around noon the following day I was standing on an empty seashore in waders, casting a six-weight line and a fly called a Baby Chum into the ebbing tide. Not far out either, no further than the width of the Garden Pool on beat four at Southern. I let the fly drift in the current, swinging round in clear water.
A sea-run cutthroat trout snatched the lure and bent the rod towards the waves. Oxygenated in the clean waters of Puget Sound and fattened on abundant shrimp, squid and fish, even the half-pounders will snap you out of jet lag like electrotherapy.
I did this pretty much every dawn and every dusk and often throughout the day for about a month. There are 2,400 miles of shoreline on Puget Sound and these wonderful fish, together with all types of salmon, are plentiful and available. And a permit to fish anywhere for them costs about $50 a year. A year. I got mine at a hardware store and was fishing 30 minutes later.
That was three years ago and I’ve been going back ever since. There’s something so liberating about wading an empty shoreline and seeing Chum and Coho and King season throwing themselves around, and knowing you might just connect.
I was lucky, admittedly. I made the acquaintance early on of a professional guide called Bob Triggs who had me catching Sea-runs on my first outing, and I never looked back. We remain firm friends and fish together for fun every time I go back, which is every year. No matter how much longer either of us live, we will never scratch one tenth of the available shoreline.
To describe the beauty of Washington state is to jump feet first into the open jaws of the cliché bear trap: staggering, sumptuous, magnificent etc etc. Words don’t really do it justice. All I can tell you is that Eagles were nesting in the trees along the shore where I caught my first Sea-run and they were still there this September; you can see snow-topped mountains both in Canada and America from many of my favourite spots; Ospreys are better fishermen than I will ever be; catching a salmon on a surface lure skipping along the wave tops is like hooking your umbrella onto a passing train; crowded means one other fisherman on the beach; American fishing tackle shops celebrate and share passion, they don’t hide it or make snobbery of it; wilderness can be managed and controlled, and still feel like wilderness, and fish like it.
Nor do you need a lot of equipment; a five or six weight floating line will handle just about anything; waders are essential, but you can buy a pair for as little as $75; any tackle shop will put ten basic patterns in your box and you will catch with them. I’m listing a few shops here within striking distance of Seattle airport and Port Townsend, but that’s only because I know them. There are many more and, I am certain, they are just as helpful. U.S. motels are as cheap as $35 a night and I’ve found perfect self-catering rental homes for as little as $500 a month.
At first I fished with sunken imitations of herring chum or baby eels or squid (a favourite of mine is Bob’s famous Chum Baby) but then Bob and his friend, Leylan Miwaki of Orvis in Seattle turned me on to “poppers,” a style of surface fishing Leylan has made famous across the peninsula. You cast these into the sea and let them drift in the tide forming a wake before slowly retrieving them, or jerking them back if you want to be provocative. “The great joy of these that if you use them, you will find it if sea-runs are there, they’ll always take a look, but with sunken flies you might never get a touch and not even know they are there,” says Miwaki. Until recently he had the dream job of being the Orvis Fishing manager at the Seattle store, a job he part-managed thanks to his Iphone and frequent breaks on the shoreline he was fishing. Now in semi-retirement he’s still on the shoreline every day, casting poppers.
A guide’s a good idea. I’ve listed some of the ones I know and respect but just about anyone I met was keen to help a foreigner. Bob Triggs is great company, a great fisherman, gentleman and thinker and the “packed lunch” he provides for a day’s guiding ($350) would feed a platoon. He also has that irritating habit of hooking fish on your rod when he is showing you how to cast better.
It’s true what they say about time flying when you are enjoying yourself. On the last evening before my flight home I was back at the same place where I had started on arrival; autumn was pushing in and there was chill in the air and not a soil on the miles of shoreline I could see. I got one spectacular sea-run of over one pound that took line. When I got it back to shallow water to remove the barbless hook (it’s all catch-and-release) it was so beautifully camouflaged against the stones and shells that I had trouble seeing it. But when I held it by the stomach I could feel the enormous power that a chosen life at sea has brought the species. It was out of my hands and gone before I could say thank you, as fit and firm as any Olympic athlete. I didn’t think I’d do any better that evening and I didn’t really need too. Like John Gierach says, it’s not about the fishing trip of a lifetime, it’s about a lifetime of fishing trips. That was one. There will be many more.