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Sierra magazine
Ponder | Your Place in Nature

Totem Trout

By Jeff Galbraith

The trout move like hummingbirds around the rusted malt liquor can, dropping in and out of the shaded huckleberry banks and racing back up alongside the tall-boy cylinder and its fading logo.

"Del, call on line two. Parts desk." A vibrato P.A. system squawks from the Toyota lot 100 yards beyond the cottonwoods. The South Fork of the Big W is a mesmerizing koan in a cacophony of urban babble. A burbling bit of sanity in the heart of the town's auto row, and home to black-tailed deer, kingfishers, spawning chinook salmon, ospreys, and assorted homeless camps.

An alternately freestone and granite spillway, the stream runs two-point-something ethereal miles from the lake to Puget Sound. The upper section was closed in the wake of a horrific and fatal pipeline explosion 10 years ago. Sentinel skeletons of second-growth Douglas firs spire up as grim and totemic reminders, but the forest is reclaiming and regenerating its own. Mink slink around the downed logs and fungi welcome the buffet.

This verboten zone has more-elaborate encampments, eagle aeries, and, of course, bigger and bolder hummingbird trout. Or so I've heard.

Upstream from the Toyota Hole, a deep undercut pulls at an alder root-ball, and small rainbows flick at my number-14 orange-bodied stimulator. I cup the slick and bejeweled little salmonids and tally a blessing before each races back to its huckleberry shadows and malt liquor habitat.

A more muted squawk: "Del, line one. Service desk. Del, line one."

A block below Woburn Street I pause and give a smile and nod to Vincent. Vin is out walking in the sun and shaking off the work of being a heroin addict and the strain of the everyday. We worked on the same crew a number of summers ago, shoveling asphalt and seal-coating driveways. His girlfriend was a probation officer, and he was an ex-con. Raising Arizona in Washington State. He has a prison-blue tattoo of a Playboy bunny on his neck from the seven years he did in San Quentin. He dips down a trail toward the water, near where the freeway overpass runs like an aqueduct above the creek: an elevated river of white noise flowing from the Peace Arch in Blaine to the sloughs of Tijuana.

We have come to the creek for the same reasons, Vin and I. Different fixes, but each with our own specialized equipment. Just proximity to the burbling sanity is (almost) enough.

Moving slowly under the canopy of mature alders and into the stained glass of greenery, I see a few smallmouth bass dance between a large rock and a submerged shopping cart. (Or is it a walker?) The bass are recent arrivals that have finally migrated down from the lake, where the game department planted them more than a decade ago. They're also a troubling bellwether--that the water has warmed and slowed enough to sustain them.

From above the bank, where a crew has been planting trees and cabling logs together as part of a "salmon habitat enhancement" effort, a young man calls down, "Catch anything?" He swipes the sweat off his forehead with a green bandanna and taps the ground with a shovel.

"Little ones." The answer is reflexive. I start to say something about how much better the stream was before the trout were traumatized, but stop before the vitriol starts. Today is for just fishing and being; I'll save the Moebius salmon-conservation debates for the bar.

A hen mallard and her nearly grown brood paddle away from the voices and take flight, bending above the Cascade Natural Gas building before heading upstream to the larger pools that hold a few sacred steelhead each winter. A heron steps with intent along the grass above the slow hole, plucking fry and smolt, occasionally stopping to freeze and cock its head in consideration.

Two crawdads spar over a Butterfinger wrapper, and I spot a perfect trout lair just upstream. A spilling rivulet drops into a deeper pool with a shaded undercut the color of blood pudding. The stimulator drifts once, twice, three times before the unmistakable pewter flash of a larger sea-run cutthroat rises and drops away, not taking the fly. Twice more with contorted roll casts I plop the fly alongside a large log, detritus from the '99 blast. With a final surge, the cutty torpedoes up to the bit of fluff and sucks it in before turning to drive back under the log.

The two-weight rod hammers down with a sharp jerk. I strip in line and bring the fish to hand. In the filtered light, the sea-run looks wilder, more mystical than the rainbows and resident cuttys. The de-barbed hook slips away easily, and the 14-inch trophy drifts back under the darkened log.

I watch the water flow between my fingers and cling to the moment when Vin appears downstream again, peering up between bracken ferns and saplings.

"Catch anything?"
"Little ones."
"Nice. It's good to see someone fishing here."

Vin slips back into his own brushy lair. I clip the fly, affix it to the drying patch on my vest, and head back to the truck.

"Carl, customer service needed in Sales. Carl to Sales."

Jeff Galbraith is the publisher of the Flyfish Journal, the Ski Journal, and frequency: The Snowboarder's Journal. He lives and fishes in Bellingham, Washington.


Illustration by Aleks Sennwald; used with permission

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