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“And They Say Salmon Won’t Hit a Fly”

What I learned from Dennis Dickson


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File Photo of Dennis DicksonIn the seemingly long days leading up to September 5th I had anxiously waited for my meeting with well-know fishing guide, Dennis Dixon.  We had arranged a fly-fishing outing for Sea-Run Cutthroat and Pink Salmon on the Stillaguamish River tidewater.  That may sound a bit melodramatic, but you have to understand that this is a man for whom I have great respect, even without having met him. He is in my estimation one of the most knowledgeable fly fisherman in the business.  He doesn’t write books about it, although perhaps he should, but just take a look at his website and the numerous articles that chock full of valuable information and tips for the steelhead and salmon fly fisherman.  Dennis Dickson’s years of experience as a fly fisherman and guide are very apparent in all of his advice.

I have been fortunate because Dennis has also written a series of stories with fly-tying instructions for Salmonfly.Net. We were, in a sense, familiar with each other from afar, but until that day in September we had done all of our corresponding by email.  I knew that I risked some injury to my ego by arranging the trip because I felt my experience paled by comparison and I was about to expose all of my inexperience and bad habits to this man. …So I must admit to a secret. My knowledge is eclectic and my time on the water has been limited by my responsibilities as a father of seven children, for the past 30 years. The early years, when I did spend more time on the water was mostly spent trying to “match the hatch” for trout in my native upstate New York.  Salmon and Steelhead fly fishing were foreign to me.  I hate to admit it here but I had always felt that the ones I have taken on a fly were not taken because I was especially talented, but more because I just happened to have some luck, or that I was just in the right place at the right time. I really had never had any formal instruction, except through my reading. In all other ways I was entirely self-taught.  I knew that I had many flaws in my technique and approach. ….So, if the night before I slept a little fitfully, perhaps you will understand.

The Stillaguamish RiverI awakened early that morning to make the long drive to our meeting place on the banks of the lower Stillaguamish in the little town of Silvana in Snohomish County. The Stilly is a river that I was not familiar with and so I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s a pretty river with moderate flows, at least for early fall before the heavy rains hit.  I have heard of great flooding there, but for now, the water was well within its banks. I knew little about it until I pulled up into a public parking area next to the bridge over the river at 07:45. Many fisherman were already there or pulling in as I got out of the car to take my first look at the river. The parking area was adjacent to a steep rock covered bank that cascaded down between some trees and scrubby bushes to the river. I peered down the bank into a shallow pool and at once saw what all the fuss was about. In the water were smallish dark silhouettes holding in the current or darting back and forth. …Obviously large pods of Pinks. The day looked to be promising!

I met up with Dennis across the street in the Towne Tavern parking lot where he and another client had just arrived and were talking behind a pontoon boat hitched on a trailer behind a blue 4Runner.  I knew Dennis right away from his photos, but suspected that he would look older than he did in person. Not so, and he was taller than I suspected he would be as well – a fact that added to my somewhat nervous greeting. Later I would learn, that I should not at all of been nervous, despite my shortcomings,  for Dennis had a way of putting one completely at ease in his presence, even while correcting my mistakes.  He introduced me to the other client, a young man named Devin who I would find out later to be a very pleasant and a very talented fly-caster. But that is another story.

But enough now I think of the lead in to this story. It was the fishing that I ultimately meant to tell you about.  We all prepared for a great day of fishing by donning our waders and vests and gathering our equipment in the 4Runner. There was a light rain falling which did not all hamper the anticipation that this was going to be a great day. I had brought a newly purchased 5 wt Temple Fork Rod and Okuma Large Arbor Reel.  My only other trout-sized rod was a 4 piece pack rod which I did not consider suitable for the outing and everything else I owned was 6wt and above. Dennis had offered the use of-5 piece, 3 wt, but I guess I just did not trust stepping down that small.

The Rolled Muddler Devin followed in his car as I drove with Dennis to our first area of access on the river. The plan was for Dennis to drop me off, off-load the boat and then drive back with Devin to leave his vehicle at the pick-up point. Dennis took me down to the river, before leaving and showed me a good stretch of water where a short flow of shallow riffles flowed into a deep undercut bank on the far side.  There he checked my leader, tied on a length of 3x tippet and proceeded to tie on what I knew was one of his favorite flies for Sea-run Cutthroat, the Rolled Muddler on a size 8 hook.  I was not expecting any of this, I guess because I had never experienced the pleasure of having a guided outing before. I knew he was bringing the flies, but I expected to be tying them on myself. This was service. Even as he tied on the fly though, he instructed, showing me how to tie the knot that that I had heard him talk of in his stories – the loop knot.  I have since become very fond of this knot and use it almost exclusively for all my wet flies. It has the advantage of being a strong knot that allows more movement of the fly in the water, the latter I think creates significantly more hits.

That is just the first of many things I learned from Dennis that day. Dennis showed me some good stretches of the water at that point, talked to me a little about some ways to fish it for SRCs and the left me to meet up with Devin.

And so my day fly fishing the Stilly tidewater began with the thought that perhaps I would discover on my own how to fish that water for Sea-Run Cutthroat. ….But here I will admit to another secret. My early days fly fishing for trout were for the inland variety on the east coast. I had never targeted Sea-Run Cutthroat before and had only caught a few secondarily to fishing for salmon.  Although, I had great expectations for hooking immediately into one of those beautiful fish, I was quickly disappointed and confronted with my inadequacies. 

When Dennis returned about 15 minutes later, and observed my futile casts, he immediately spotted some of my shortcomings. “Step in little deeper and cast to the far bank” he instructed, “Where the darker water is”. I was standing in the shallowest of water, afraid I might spook the fish and my casts were falling short. “Keep your rod tip down, close to the water as you work the fly and keep one eye on it so it stays close”.  “Strip in the line quickly. SRCs are triggered to strike when the fly is moving quickly.” I was making long, slow pulls and stopping. “You are making your rod do twice as much work when your rod tip is not close to the water. Keeping one eye on it helps you keep it down.” Of course all this is just paraphrasing, but you get the point. Dennis Dickson knew what he was talking about and I had been fishing the same old way for every species of fish and type of water I encountered.  I needed this instruction. As grateful as I had been at first to be left alone, I was even more grateful now to have him there instructing,  because I knew it was my first chance ever to learn from a real pro. Those were my first lessons, and though I continued to make the same mistakes throughout the day, the lessons were already becoming ingrained in my mind. Dennis had a way of teaching without making you feel embarrassed by your inadequacies, and giving praise when you did things right. Here I was, a 56 year old man, feeling like a kid again.

Sea-Run Cutthroat photo borrowed without permssion from Dennis Dickson. Dennis, hope you don't mind, but you were gone when I published this article.After I had sufficiently beaten the water with my line, we decided to put off. I took the bow, Dennis the oars, and Devin the aft – with the additional duty of manning the anchor. Leaving that duty to the younger man was the smart thing to do. I appreciated that. As we floated downstream, Dennis pointed to good RC water along the way, allowing us to cast and strip through the ‘holes’. “Look for the darker water, near structure. Sea-Run Cutthroat love structure.” As we floated downstream we passed through shallows and deeper stretches, passing several stretches of that enticing water that we just knew must have a dozen fish looking to attack our flies. We worked the water fastidiously, but I couldn’t help feel I was not quite getting my fly to the fish. My first experience casting from a moving raft was a learning curve as well. I am right handed, so being at the bow, I was forced to cast from my left side with my right arm. I could do it, but not that well, and as we moved, I still needed those reminders from Dennis about working the fly and keeping the rod tip down. Heck, I was just grateful that I didn’t leave my fly in the back of my head! At first, there were no hits, but then as we were drifting by a deep hole next to some submerged logs, I felt a strike. I lifted the rod tip and the fish was on. It was not a huge fish, but it was feisty. Several runs up and down river, a few jumps later, we had it to the net. It was a pretty fish, and I was feeling pretty proud as we released it unharmed to dart back to its haunt. My first SRC!  It definitely will not be the last, I thought, ready to catch a thousand more. The Rolled Muddler, the instruction from Dennis, the water, the fish, were all going to make this a memorable day.

As it turns out it was the last Sea-Run Cutthroat, but the day was none-the-less memorable. Much as I wanted to make it a banner SRC day, it turned out to be one for another species. Shortly after hooking that first fish, we began seeing large pods of Pinks moving through the shallows and rolling in the deeper water. As we passed under the bridge where I had first parked, and where there was more accessibility, the banks became crowded with fisherman targeting those fish.  Passing them, I wondered if they knew what they were missing. At the risk of sounding elitist, I wondered why there are not thousands of more fly fishermen out there on our salmon rivers.  There is nothing like taking salmon on a fly even if it is only Pinks on light tackle.  Once you experience it, it is so ingrained into your psyche; you cannot ever let it go. You are consumed by the desire to get out there again and again.

Now we started to target the Pinks as it was just too good an opportunity to pass up.  This time, several passes through pods of fish, revealed that I had other inadequacies, and so I had more instruction from Dennis. “Salmon like a different retrieve. Pull, and then pause rhythmically. Pull, pause, pull, pause, pull pause”.  Dennis showed us a twist of the hand hold the line, then a stop and pause. “They will often follow a fly, but not hit until it stops and starts drifting to the bottom.”  As I tried to imitate that action, I relapsed to keeping the rod too high. “Where should you be looking?” Dennis asked rhetorically. 

And so again it was a learning curve, but the fish were there and I knew it was a matter of time. Here I might inject the word “Wham”, but that it was not the way it happened. It was more like a pull and a take. I lifted the rod tip and this time I had a brawling Pink on. Now I will tell you that I have played pinks on 8 wts. and 6 wts., but just the step down to a 5 wt, made a significant difference in the fight. Dennis took the boat to the shore and Devin dropped the leader as I got out to play the fish. It fought hard but then another bad habit caused me to lose it.

I will preface this excuse by saying that over the years I have been cheap. I bought my rods and reels to match my budget, and it showed in the results. Most of the drags on my reels never lasted beyond one or two big fish. I was soon used to playing fish by holding the line against the rod with my hand. Bad mistake! I lost more that way from snapped leaders then I caught. Even though I was now buying better equipment, old habits die hard. I was still playing my fish the same way.  That first Pink was lost to a snapped leader on the second run! Dennis quickly saw the problem and corrected me. “Why are you holding the line against the rod? You need to let the rod and reel do their work.” I sheepishly explained my bad habit away and said I understood.

Dennis graciously took my leader again, attached another section of tippet and this time tied on a different fly. This one, a dark pink fly, he called the “Humpy Chaser”.  It was another small fly, tied on a #8 hook, but with even more sparsely tied than the Rolled Muddler.  “We call these training wheels for Pinks” he remarked, tongue in cheek. I quickly found out what he meant. On the next cast I was into another fish, which I promptly lost because…. You guessed it, the same mistake again – playing the fish by holding the line against the rod!  Even more sheepishly, this time, I looked at Dennis and bemoaned, “Please don’t write a story about this.” He said he wouldn’t, but just in case, I decided to beat him to it with this one!

Humpy ChaserBy this time, young Devin was into a fish of his own and not having my bad habits, he had no trouble landing it. I had while I was fishing, been admiring his casting and thinking that he must have been to one of Dennis’s fly fishing schools to cast so well. I don’t know why I never asked; I just assumed.  Devin landed his, a nice buck which we decided to keep for lunch (another pleasant surprise on this trip). But as I moved closer to see the bright fish, Dennis gave another lesson. “Steve, why don’t you work the water downstream and Devin work it up.  The key to keep catching salmon is to keep moving.”  I remembered he had mentioned this before and decided to take him seriously. As I moved downstream I noticed another pod moving through a deep fast run. I worked it, not knowing what to expect, but a few casts later I felt the pull and the take from an obviously heavier fish and this time I remembered to let the rod and reel drag do the work. The fish made a rush upstream then made a rush toward me as I frantically reeled to take up line. Then, with the reel singing, it headed into the current and downstream. I was determined that this one would not break my leader, so I ran along the bank to catch up until I gained ground and finally made some progress in bringing it home. When I finally landed it, it was all that I expected it to be. …Large for a Pink, possibly near 10 lbs and bright. These fish sure were pretty in the tidewater.

Now the smell of barbecued fish beckoned from upstream and Dennis called us in. He got out a couple camp chairs and we sat down to enjoy that tasty meal while we talked about fishing and about ourselves. I never expected this kind of service on a guided trip, so it was another surprise that added to the pleasure of the trip and which will produce a lasting memory.

The Author with a nice Stilly HumpyNow, I think, I need to end this story, which I fear would go on and on. I have difficulty in my long-winded way of summarizing events that I clearly think important, and this has dragged on longer than I wanted. I should mention, though that I have only written about half of the day. We went on to try another fly or two, learn some different techniques and catch many more fish. I owe it all to Dennis Dickson. I say that because I will carry these lessons with me for each new adventure on the water, and I have already noticed a difference in my success. More about that later.

I will always remember our last stop as we fished downriver. Dennis left Devin and I on the far bank so he could paddle across to his vehicle pick-up point. This was directly across from another crowd of bank fisherman but on a wide stretch of river. The water was slower and deeper here, but Dennis told us many of the fish get driven to this side by the barrage of lead from the fisherman on the other. Devin and I made our first casts simultaneously side by side and as we made our first pull twitch of the line we both had fish on. Someone from the other side remarked, “Look, they both got a hit at the exact same time!”

Of course, that was not the last. In the 20 minutes or so that it took for Dennis to row across, drive his vehicle down to the bank,  and then row back across, we had caught and released several fish. Dennis’ first remark when he came back was, “You two are a walking advertisement for salmon fly fishing. And they say salmon won’t hit a fly

Steve Burke

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