A dream. A vision. A picturesque landscape. A connection with nature. A vivid memory. A trophy catch. A bond between individuals. A longing to return. At the forefront of each anglers mind, there is a defining place, one that fuels and emulates a sense of existence. Although the words to precisely describe such a place may not exist in our language, the thoughts and the feelings are real, even if enclosed within the mind of a single individual. I have been to this place. I have left footprints along its banks and have felt the turquoise glacial water run between my hands. I have tossed a fly below her towering peaks and released some of the Pacific Northwest’s most vibrant fish. This is my place.
Nestled deep within Central Washington’s Wenatchee National Forest is one of the states most isolated villages. Home to less than 100 year-round residents, the village offers a hub to access the remote trout fishery nearby. There are no roads leading here directly, so one must reach this destination by hiking through the North Cascades, fly in via float plane or hop aboard a boat to traverse more than 50 miles one way. Due to its isolation, the valley offers an unparalleled avenue to disconnect from the bustling world and take in the tranquil sights, sounds and beauty of Mother Nature.
My friend Josh and I depart the greater Seattle area early, somewhere between bar close and sunrise. You know the time. It falls somewhere amidst the thoughts of, “maybe we should just leave late the night before,” and, “I’ll be able to function on a couple hours of sleep, right?” With no other sane drivers on the road this time of day, we arrive at the ferry dock well ahead of scheduled departure. We run in, purchase our round-trip tickets, and make a pit stop at the local diner. “A breakfast skillet and a mug of coffee to go,” I politely tell the waitress. It is early, and I see it in her lethargic expression. We head back to the dock, hoist our over sized packs onto our shoulders donned with camping gear, boots, waders, rods and half a fly shop. The ferry is a mid size vessel and we are joined by a myriad of other folks, none of which look poised to do much more than snap a few photos along the way. I can feel them look in our direction gears spinning in their minds as we board. What are they doing? Where are they headed? Are those construction blueprints in those tubes? No, we are seeking adventure. We are fly-fishing.
As we travel further up the lake we stop shortly at several locations to acquire more passengers and drop parcels off to remote lakeside homesteads. We are met with elaborate mansions, elegant orchards and curious wildlife. The landscape transitions from rolling desert foothills to sophisticated peaks. My excitement grows. I take one last look at my phone, no service. Perfect. For close to three hours we are aboard, I nod off briefly, awoken by the bustle of other passengers. We are near. By now the ferry is full, and to avoid traffic we head down below and grab our gear. First off.
Upon arrival, we are greeted by charismatic locals and views that would make John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt blush. There are several businesses along the waterfront including a visitor’s center, lodge, general store and small fly shop. From here there is only one road, which winds and twists its way for about ten miles, until ending in the vast wilderness serving as the easternmost access point to the North Cascades National Park. A shuttle bus, nicknamed Ole Red, carries visitors, hikers and campers throughout the valley making scheduled stops and those made upon request. There are an array of sights and natural features throughout the valley corridor, but none dominates the landscape more than the river itself. This is why we came.
We drop by the visitor’s center to receive our back country permit. We mull over plans for the coming days and board Ole Red. I toss the driver a few folded bills to cover our fair, and we’re off. I have butterflies. My chest is pounding, palms sweaty. I feel as though I am going to be sick, but I know this not to be true. This is anticipation. I quickly become overwhelmed with the beauty and thoughts of what treasures await. The ride is short, only a few miles upriver. The doors open and we step out. The doors close. With a tip of his hat the driver rolls along, pushing Ole Red further up the valley. We cross an old metal bridge, stopping at the midpoint above the river. I am flooded with excitement and my eyes adjust to the vibrant landscape around us. “Magnificent,” I thought. We continue walking and turn off on a well-packed dirt trail that leads to the campground, choosing a spot closest to the river. Among towering Western Red Cedars we sling up our hammocks. I lean back, pushing off the ground simultaneously, creating a gentle sway as I sit and stare from the waters edge. As my energy rises, I pause to take in our surroundings. I close my eyes and slowly inhale. Exhale…Pause…Inhale…Exhale. There is a distinct ambiance that gently takes over. Time slows and becomes irrelevant. The gentle breeze and crisp air make me feel alive. We have finally arrived.
Deciding not to waste any time, we finish setting up our newfound home. No rain is forecasted, but to avoid waking up a soggy down filled burrito, we hung a canopy. Packs are unloaded, gear strewn about our wooden picnic table, and food is placed in our private bear box. I uncase my trusty 5wt set-up and run the cappuccino cream colored line through the guides. I tie up a perfection loop, attaching my 2x leader to the line. Three feet down I twist up a blood knot, tapering down to 3x to extend my leader to roughly six feet. I rifle through my streamer box selecting a flashy gold and orange intruder, about three inches in length. A non-slip loop knot secures the final piece to my elegant design. This would prove to be the fly of choice for the trip, but I didn’t know it then. I toss on my pack, run a net behind my back and grab my trusty camera. It is time to wet a line.
Autumn offers the years most ideal conditions for fly-fishing. The changing environment triggers transformations in foliage, fish behavior and temperature. For mid- September we found the nights to be cool and calm while the days warm and growing shorter. The water gently flowing from the snow-capped peaks to the North was littered with schools of bright red Kokanee salmon. For hours we threw flies to these fish, watching eagerly as one would dart out from the rest to strike our fly with aggression. Each fish added to the awe and beauty of the valley, and my heart raced with excitement for the next strike. We covered pools, riffles and runs on the main river until the valley light dwindled and turned to darkness.
Back at camp we decide to move away from the main river and spend time hiking further upstream, exploring the endless side channels and braids the next day. Our dinner consisted of hot MRE’s stamped with the common, “just add water,” label. We were hungry, and an overpriced, sodium filled packet, somehow offered immediate comfort and satisfaction. With anticipation for the next day’s journey, I crawled into my sleeping bag. After several minutes of adjustment fumbling with the zipper, adjusting my inflatable pillow and covering my face so only eyes are shown, I settle in. “This is the most beautiful and humbling place I have ever been,” I mumble aloud to Josh. He agrees and we doze off.
For the remainder of our trip these small channels and braids would offer some of the most spectacular fishing I have ever encountered. We awoke early, boiled a hot pot of coffee and downed bagels adorned with sticky peanut butter. Our waders were stiff from the frost and cool temperatures brought forth by a clear star-filled sky overnight. We didn’t mind. After adjusting camp we set out. The sun filtered down through the cedars and a symphony from songbirds echoed. Our boots crunched and snapped over a forest covered with small branches and needles as we made our way towards the first river braid. Vibrant Rainbow trout hid behind boulders and aggressive Westslope Cutthroat were camouflaged within schools of Kokanee, and tucked deep beneath undercut banks. With precise casting we enticed and brought several of these fish to hand. We pressed further upstream. Extended runs and pockets provided countless fish. The water throughout these channels was technical, often providing only one avenue to cast. The trout seemed to understand our difficulty and positioned themselves in areas hardest to reach. Our skills as anglers were tested often. Patience took hold and precise casts were made. Each fish offered its own unique beauty and satisfaction upon being brought to hand after a battle well fought, and won. I developed a deeper appreciation for each step we waded and section of water we traveled. Bliss.
As daylight began to fade on our second day, we paused and sat atop a gravel midpoint of the main channel and a small tributary. We laid down our rods and watched in silence, as several large trout emerged from a deep pool moving swiftly upstream to an extended gravel tail out. “So that’s where you were this entire time,” I proclaimed. Josh laughed and said, “You know, we caught some amazing fish today. Some are meant to keep us coming back.” I nodded in agreement. “Just one more cast,” I said, “maybe I’ll get lucky.” I quickly grabbed my rod and made my way down to the tributary. I unhooked my fly, making a series of false casts. Forward, back, forward, back, forward. I let the line shoot out of my hand to the other side and gave it a sudden mend. Strip, strip, strip. And then it happened.The shadow of a larger fish we observed a mere 60 seconds before tore off into the fading evening light. “FISH ON!” I hollered. “Get the net!” Little did I know the net would serve no purpose. This was not a trout, this was a King. Upstream, downstream and back upstream again the fish raced. My rod was bent to full capacity. I anticipated the shattering of graphite at any moment, but to my surprise it did not come. After a ten-minute battle I was able to tail the fish. A true giant. I slid the barbless hook out, allowing the fish to gather its bearings. I gently raised her up, ever so briefly to snap a photo and released her back to the glacial water. A series of high-fives and childish laughter ensued as we headed off to camp. With our second day winding down I couldn’t help but appreciate the experience I had encountered thus far. It was hard to explain aloud, so I chose to save my words and keep my feelings within.
The next morning we awoke to crisp air, our breath visible with each exhale. A gray layer of fog hung above the valley and our canopy glistened with drops of moisture. It must have rained overnight, but the river remained gin clear. We clean up camp and hang our packs on sturdy branches. I grab a light breakfast to go, tossing a dense blueberry granola bar into my chest pocket. Maneuvering back up the tributaries we find trout visible behind the Kokanee, gobbling up their eggs with fury. From atop old growth log jams we make short casts and are met with abrupt strikes. The river offers up healthy fish with colors resembling a box of Crayola crayons. Pausing occasionally to remove our flies from branches above, we continue to sight-fish for hungry trout. This is small stream fly-fishing at its finest. As we move further upstream a sudden eagerness sets in. My breathing accelerates and nerves tighten. My mind races to comprehend where I am standing, making a futile attempt to take in the small details. I close my eyes and listen to the water, inhaling slowly to capture the natural smells. Time is running thin. Ole Red is scheduled for a stop across the bridge at noon, we can’t be late. Against our desire we turn and begin making our way back downstream. Cast, mend, strip. Cast, mend, strip. I establish a rhythmic pattern as I work from pool to run. Along the way we land several more fish, each one adding to my appreciation for this beautiful place. As the bridge slowly approaches we make our final casts, leaving just enough time to break down rods and secure them to our packs.
Noon arrives and we board Ole Red once more. I am saddened our time on the water has ended, but am grateful for the good fortune we had. Pleasant thoughts of home baked goods quickly fill my head. I recall passing by the pastry company on our way up the valley and this time the driver doesn’t let us by without a stop. We pull up and the entire shuttle unloads. It is packed with eager Pacific Crest Trail hikers, some of which had been journeying cross-country for weeks. I see their eyes glowing in excitement for sticky pastries and gooey rolls of dough. Inside the wood-paneled walls are adorned with coffee mugs and photos of travelers come and gone. Antique baking instruments line the shelves to remind visitors how far the company has come. A well-crafted stone fireplace accented the main room, glowing from a warm fire within. I slide in line and patiently wait my turn. Approaching the counter I pick out an oversized brownie and head out. I tear back the brown paper wrap, greeted with a bite of warm sweet dense dough. After three well-traveled days this is exactly what I needed.
Making our way back down to the waterfront we approach the small village. The waterfront is bustling with folks from all walks of life, some in their Sunday best and others with worn out trail attire. We head over to the ferry and load our gear in the compartment below. Hopping aboard we give the deckhand our ticket and head to the top deck. As we depart I take a few moments to myself memorizing the valley’s triangular peaks against the sun soaked skyline. The tranquility of the surrounding landscape eases my soul. I am fulfilled and a gentle calmness settles in. This is my place.
Author – Conner Lundeen