Neah Bay, Washington State - My eyes, accustomed to the matrix of currents in a trout or smallmouth bass river and the oil-smooth or wind-scuffed surface of a lake containing either species,
were dazzled by the sights of the open ocean.
Swells lumbered steadily by beneath our feet, again and again hoisting us to a wide view of endless blue water to the West, then lowering us into a little valley between liquid hills.
Shearwaters and seagulls in their hundreds pecked the water; krill in their teeming billions flicked about just inches below the water's surface; and, to a fisherman most stunning of all, the salmon in swarms of perhaps a hundred calmly swirled at the surface to eat krill. The thick, fully mature salmon appeared as milling gray elongations that seemed projected on the ever-rising and -sinking skin of the swells as a movie is projected on a screen. This sure as hell wasn't another trout stream. It was, in fact, the Pacific Ocean ten miles offshore, out of Neah Bay on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, near the very Northwestern tip of the United States. And it was wondrous.
Silver Salmon from Neah Bay, Washington
Chris Bellows, our guide, shouted, "Skip, Carol, we're going to reset—pull in your lines." We knew by now that this meant we should each strip all our line into a high tube with "Fly-Line Tamer" printed on its side, and then set our rods into the tubes upright, because we were about to move upwind, to drift again alongside a pod of feeding silver salmon.
Krill from Neah Bay, Washington
Our flies were big chartreuse Clouser Minnows—nothing like the little krill on which the salmon fed. That was easy enough to understand—no imitation was likely to be found among the superabundance of naturals. So we teased the salmon off the krill. After snapping a cast out across the strong winds, we'd tuck the rod up under an arm and pull in the line with quick, steady strips, hand-over-hand, and then slow the fly and make it jiggle and pause in front of one or more following salmon. Then, usually, one fish would swing in fast, a sudden opening and closing of a white mouth, and the fly was just gone. All in plain sight. Each strike a succulent taste for the eyes, amid the vast banquet of the ocean.
Skip casting for salmon in
Neah Bay, Washington
Pacific salmon on the fly, was nothing new to me—I catch salmon from late spring through fall every year off the beaches and in the stream mouths of Hood Canal, near my home on the east side of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Along the beaches (within a fly cast of shore) and in the estuaries I've caught salmon, yes—but ten miles offshore of Neah Bay in open ocean? That's another world. Dall's Porpoises shot playfully past our boat nearly touching the hull—porpoises—and then appeared well off in the distance only a wink later. Out there in the midst of the pulsing ocean and its living abundance, the salt spray smelling fresh and cool, it would have been a glorious day even without the salmon. But it was better with them. For three full hours we hooked fish almost constantly—even if a fish managed to strike without feeling the hook, another would sometimes take before the fly was in. After that long flurry of action, we had a couple of hours of good fishing; then, rather suddenly, the salmon simply turned to ignoring us, though you could still wrangle a strike if you worked at it long enough. By midday my forearms felt tender from the stress of hooking and playing so many big fish.
Chris described our day as "very good"—near the upper end of the range of how hot the fishing can be, I gathered, but not at all uncommon, either. As with all fishing, the Neah Bay variety can occasionally be slow. Still, from what Chris told me and from what I've heard from others he's taken out, this is typically an exciting and lively fishery. One friend of mine described his day with Chris as fully up to the standards of ours, but without ever tapering off.
Not all of Chris's trips are like ours. On big hard tides he may go out only one to five miles and fish the "rips", the agitated water where tidal currents scrape along one another, with fast-sinking lines. He says the salmon are easier to find then—rips concentrate the herring and needlefish, both fully as attractive to salmon as krill.
Offshore is no place for neophytes. But we knew Chris by reputation, and the word is, he knows what he's doing out there. He clearly has the right boat for the job. It's a 26-foot Almar—a high-hulled custom-made craft for serious water, all aluminum, propelled by a 225-horsepower outboard (a smaller back-up outboard rests alongside it), and appointed with radar and ship-to-shore radio. I've stood aboard boats since I was a kid (my father was a yacht salesman, champion outboard and sailboat racer, and a boat fanatic in general), and I've seldom felt one so solid under my feet.
A miraculous scene, grand fishing, a seaworthy vessel, and a seasoned skipper—Neah Bay was an unconventional fly fisher's paradise.
Neah Bay can be even better—normally, right in among the birds and salmon, humpback whales feed on krill, arching patiently out to take a great mouthful. We stopped a couple of miles short of their haunts and, therefore, saw none. That's all right; we stopped where the salmon were.
Boats in Neah Bay, Washington
Fishing Boats in Neah Bay, Washington
We had arrived in Neah Bay the day before, in time to walk the town and docks, settle into our motel room, have dinner in a cafe, prepare our clothing and gear, and turn in early. Our day on the water began early—we met Chris at the docks in the cool air not long after sunrise.
Of course this was August, when days are long and hot (though not all that warm even then, out on the open ocean), so sunrise comes early, as does the best fishing. When you consider the time it takes to get underway and out to the good water, an early start makes sense.
Sea Lions, Tatoosh Island, Washington
On the way out of Neah Bay, we passed Tatoosh Island, and saw huge sea lions luxuriating at its rocky eastern tip. We neared them, briefly, and watched them bellow as a few flopped and slid down the steep stone bank. It seemed a grand start to the day.
We were perhaps five miles out of Neah Bay when over the roar of the outboard Chris shouted, "Whoa, let's check this out!" Sea birds where everywhere, and as the thrust of the engine wound down and the water pulled the boat to a slow drift, Chris pointed to a broad oval of pocked and agitated water. Carol and I looked hard at the oval and finally recognized the slender gliding ghostly shapes packed into it. "Oh my God," I uttered in amazement, "those are salmon."
"There are others," said Chris.
Silver Salmon in Neah Bay, Washington
We looked around and he was right. There were other ovals of activity. We could see at least two more nearby, and by the end of our day we probably fished over eight or ten of them, drifting along one and then another as the wind carried us quietly past. Sometimes we drifted so close that as we peered down over the side, a salmon or two would be lying almost directly under our heads, nearly touching the hull, but would bolt at our slightest movement.
By the time we finished with our fishing, ocean currents had quietly carried us—and the fish and gulls and krill—about five more miles out from shore.
The offshore salmon are normally anywhere from five to ten miles out of Neah Bay. The sign there is shearwater gulls and seagulls collected in big numbers and pecking at the water, which indicates the presence of krill. The krill, of course, hold the promise of salmon, which may be up swirling at the surface or may be down, but seldom deeper than fifteen feet.
If the tides are big and running hard, the best fishing is often in the rips, and these are closer in to Neah Bay. With rips, there tends to be a smooth side and a choppy side. Salmon certainly do hang in the smooth side, but Chris finds that they concentrate more in the choppy side. Consequently, Chris is often out with his clients watching another boat or two gliding serenely on glossy currents as his own boat bounces among the waves. That's fine with his clients, though—they're usually hooking more fish than anyone over in the calm.
Chris prefers eight-weight rods for this fishing, though he says a six-weight will sometimes serve. He prefers reels holding 150 yards of backing and capable of handling the strong runs of big fish. Lines, he says, should be type-I full sinking and 300- to 350-grain shooting heads, and he prefers them in "clear" color. His leaders are just a 40-pound butt section with a little 15-pound Maxima, a total length of only three to five feet. His flies are almost always Clouser Minnows or Half and Halfs in chartreuse, white, blue, and orange. For those lacking an eight-weight rod or appropriate lines or big Clouser Minnows in outlandish colors—or most anything else one might need for this fishing—Chris can likely provide it. If you arrange a trip with him, be sure to discuss what you have and what you'll need.
Bring warm clothing and wind-shielding outer-wear—early mornings can be chilly any time of year out there in Neah Bay, and the wind comes and goes. But days can be warm, too, so be prepared with lightweight clothes for still, sunny days.
On Chris's advice, we took non-prescription anti-seasickness medicine the night before our boat ride, then took it again the next morning—this is offshore fishing, where a rocking boat is the norm. Carol, prone to motion-sickness, handled the swells without difficulty, except when she took up the camera— peering through the viewfinder increased the effect of the rocking boat and made her a little queasy. But a little time away from the camera and another small dose of the medicine cured that. Chris says he's seldom seen a client who has followed his regime become really seasick. A prescription anti-seasickness patch is best of all, he says, because it tends not to cause drowsiness. But with just our nonprescription treatment we held up fine out on the ocean, felt good and alert. That night, though, the medication caught up with us—we slept the long, dark sleep of the dead.
Chris's primary target is salmon, and after hooking (and releasing) so many I can understand why. They are six pounds, on average, of stout silvery muscle—what finer fish could one hope for? Larger fish may be eight to eleven pounds, occasionally larger yet. Normally, the main catch is silver salmon, but on odd-numbered years pink salmon are among the catch.
But there's more out there in Neah Bay to catch than salmon. A black rockfish—resembling a freshwater largemouth bass—of two pounds can put serious strain on an eight-weight rod, and Chris has some good areas for rockfish. The fish run from one to four pounds, and under the right conditions will actually come up after poppers on the surface.
Because we chose to fish salmon, we didn't get a shot at rockfish on our day—the two species tend to occupy areas far enough apart to make traveling from one to the other in a single day a push. Though it is possible to fish both species in a day, especially if the salmon fishing is in the rips. But I've caught rockfish on a fly before, and they are bulldogs, tugging the hell out of a heavy rod and struggling against it right up until they hit the surface, winded. If you've ever caught bluegills—little disk-shaped freshwater fishes that never jump but always surprise you with their power and determination—imagine catching them as two- or three-pounders and you'll have a good sense of what it's like to hook a black rockfish (even if rockfish do look less like bluegills than like bass).
Mackerel have Chris's grudging respect. They fight hard, often run from three to five pounds, and can be abundant. They have probably saved more than a few slow salmon days, but Chris says they "never stop shaking," and that after hooking "about ten of them" he "starts to get a stress headache." "Get about thirty of them..." he trails off with a sigh. I sympathize—unhooking an endless stream of these perpetual squirmers must be a drain (and Chris always takes the considerable time required to release each one properly, unharmed)—though I admit that catching thirty hard-fighting three-to-five-pound fish sounds pretty good to me.
The blue shark on the northern Washington Coast, measured not in pounds but in feet—around four to six on the Washington Coast—will probably be seeing more of Chris. He's been taking this shark on the fly for a while now and has worked out the details of the process in order to get the whole thing as consistent as fishing can ever reasonably be. He now offers trips specifically for the blue shark, though finding the requisite warmer water often requires long runs of 20 to 40 miles.
It's all pretty straightforward once you're out there in Neah Bay—see birds, see krill, see salmon (if you're lucky, as we were—the salmon aren't always right up on the surface) cast, retrieve fast (dropping the line into the "Tamer" tube), catch lots of big fish. But there's a little more to it than that.
Chris likes his clients to pick the line off the water for a back cast, let it touch the water in back, and then use the tension of the water's surface to really load the rod for the forward cast. Pick it up, let it drop, shoot it out to the salmon—a short three-step cast, touching the water on every stroke. He calls it "water loading." It really fires the line out, and it keeps his clients from spending their time unhooking one's flies and leaders from the other's, and from the boat (and from Chris's anatomy).
Casts needn't be excessively long, as Chris can usually maneuver the boat fairly close to the fish. But longish casts, say forty five to sixty feet, are common, and there may be a good wind to cope with, so a little casting practice before the trip might be wise for some. (Though Chris won't go out if the wind is strong enough to be dangerous.) However, if you hit a day anything like ours, you'll catch fish even with limited casting skills. And when you do, you'll soon have a very clear sense of where you rank in fish-playing skills—these are mature salmon in their prime and will not tolerate a tangled line or harsh hand on the reel spool. But if, again, your day in Neah Bay is like ours was, well...lose one fish, hook another. You'll work it all out quickly.
Chris has gone to intermediate lines to keep the fly submerged, but only a foot or two—the mackerel generally lie just below the salmon, and the shallow line keeps the fly well up in salmon territory.
Chris has two clear favorite fly patterns for his Neah Bay salmon: the Clouser Minnow and the Half and Half. (The Half and Half was designed to combine features of both the Clouser Minnow and the Lefty's Deceiver and rides hook-point-up like the Clouser.) Chris's favorite color for both flies is chartreuse.
Hook: Heavy wire, standard length, stainless steel, sizes 1 to 2/0. (Chris prefers the Tiemco 811S.)
Thread: Three-ought or even flat waxed nylon, to match the wing color.
Eyes: Lead or lead-substitute barbell eyes, bound atop the hook's shank (so the hook will flip upside down in water).
Belly: White buck tail (or a color to match or contrast the wing color), bound both behind and in front of the eye-stem.
Wing: Colored buck tail (chartreuse is Chris's favorite, next is white, then blue, then orange) over strands of Flashabou, Krystal Flash, or both in silver, pearl or both. Trim the bright strands to various lengths leaving some slightly longer than the buck tail.
Hook: Heavy wire, long shank, stainless steel, sizes 1 to 2/0.
Thread: Three-ought or even flat waxed nylon in a color to blend with the wing color.
Eyes: Lead or lead-substute barbell eyes (usually red with black pupils) bound atop the hook's shank (so the hook will flip upside down in water).
Tail: Eight long saddle hackles in two sets, the sets cupped together, a few strands of Flashabou in pearl, silver, or both along the outsides of the hackles; the strands should be trimmed unevenly just past the tips of the hackles. Beneath the hackles, a small bunch of long buck tail. The saddles and buck tail, in order of Chris's preference, can be chartreuse, white, blue, orange.
Body: The butts of the buck tail in the tail, bound in crisscrossed turns up the hook's shank.
Wing: A bunch of long buck tail, dark or colored over light colored, or all one color (same colors as described for the wing).