How to drink your way through the fishing day: Northwest Washington

Your guide to the best beers, wines and spirits on the steelhead, salmon and trout waters of the Pacific Northwest
Dru Bru Brewing
Photo: Earl Harper / Harper Studios

As a one-time beer journalist and bar owner, current nano brewery partner, and overall miscreant, it’s probably surprising that I actually have any time to fish. However, since days that include alcohol before sundown have largely been deleted from my databanks, there turns out to be large swaths of non-drinking time to fill. At the end of any good day, though, I’m reminded of what my Sensei said when told that the other Senseis decided that perhaps they should stop drinking beer at the dojo, which was also a Buddhist temple. To this he replied, “I’m 83 years old. I’ve been doing Kendo for 82 years, and the only reason I do it is for the beer afterwards.”

Mt. Baker Highway

There are those autumn days that convince you that summer is over and that you need to cross a few things off your list before winter snows fill the valleys. One perfect October day when the sky was Cookie Monster blue, I decided not to work in my cubicle farm but instead to head for the mountains for some spiritual refreshment. We targeted the Mt. Baker Highway.

While I’m not one to fish and tell, I will say that if you want to have a 50-fish day in Washington, then the easiest way to do it is to find an alpine lake stocked with brookies by the WPA during the Depression; then fish it right after the first cold snap. They are desperate for anything they can eat before spending six months locked under the ice. For more challenging water, look above Nooksack Falls. The glacier-fed water runs high and dirty most of the summer (Mt. Baker did set a world record for snowfall not so long ago), but this just makes targeting the small tribs all that much more fun. Below the falls, you have trout and all five species of Pacific salmon, one of the few rivers in the state to offer this. If that is not enough you also have searun cutthroat and steelhead. There are bulls, but they are protected.

Whenever we are on route 542, whether for fishing or skiing, there are two rules: The first rule is to stop by Carol’s Coffee Cup in the morning to look at the astounding historic logging pictures and procure a cinnamon roll the size of your head. The second rule is that no matter how foul the weather, or how bad the fishing, make it last until 3 PM when the North Fork Brewery opens. The North Fork makes classic, balanced English-style ales in a way that many breweries have long forgotten how to do. Yes, Virginia, there should be malt in your beer. Eric has been brewing professionally almost from the moment it was legal for him to do so. If you take a quarter and tap on the glass window into the brewery to get his attention, then put it on the ledge above, he’ll do a little jig for you like one of those old-timey sideshow games. I’m serious. They also make a killer pizza, although by that time in the day I’d probably eat the box and be just as happy.

And, you would be seriously remiss if you did not hoist a pint or two to fishing lies in what I not-so-humbly consider the best brewery in America — Chuckanut. They were the only brewery to have a permanent tap in my bar, and there is no better beer on the continent than their Helles. Let’s put it this way, Germans used to hire their founder, Wil Kemper, to consult with them, rather than the other way around. In addition to their lagers, their English-style ales are pretty good, and they have a new spot near Mt. Vernon.

Boundary Bay Brewing
Boundary Bay Brewing (photo: E. Brake / cc2.0).

Of course, I’d get body slammed if I didn’t also mention Boundary Bay, another Northwest icon, and supporters of the Writers on the Fly reading series. The upscale food reflects the Bellingham we-used-to-be-hippy-snowboarders-and-now-we-have-a-family culture of the college town. (Don’t pretend it’s not true, you know who you are.) I’ve picked up some great local sea-run cutthroat intel in this bar, so that alone makes it worth hitting.

Stilly / Cascade / Whitechuck

The whole Stilly, Cascade, Whitechuck area is probably the most fabled water in the state. I never seem to get here until foul Northwest underwater season, despite my perverse love of bull trout, which most people seem to equate with whitefish. One day, I got up when I usually get up, drove for as long as I usually drive, but instead of ending up in a cubicle, I ended up at the headwaters of the Cascade River, with uber-guide Ryan Davey. We were so close to Eastern Washington, we could’ve walked across the divide. We spotted a huge steelhead andpromptly targeted it. Every dozen casts we had to clear the ice out of the guides because the line was frozen to the rod or drop the reel in the water to thaw it so we could strip off line.

And we saw trout. And we saw salmon. And we saw eagles. And more steelhead. I fished the new rod I made without so much as a bump until I broke it. I did get to see Ryan pull out a nice bull trout on an egg pattern which I could probably could have done too if I wasn’t such an unmitigated bastard that insists on swinging all the time. But before I broke the rod, I did enjoy cleaning the guides one last time, taking off the lead-eyed bunny leech, and hucking some sweet casts with a classic black-nosed dace wet fly. One bull even followed it across the pool. Can’t do that with a nymphing rig.

Unfortunately, as great as the water is, it’s also some of the most remote on the westside, and I have yet to find a place to hang my waders here during a day on the river. This is the place where I learned you cannot buy beer before 6 AM, so I recommend stocking up on some tasty canned micros sor even filling the flask, the night before. On the way back, you can stop at Skookum Brewery. They’ve moved from their family barn to a facility near the Arlington airport, but while the humble beginnings are gone, the beer lineup remains timeless. I actually like their IPAs, which is saying a lot considering I find most West Coast IPAs as unfathomably bitter as an old rich woman.

The Skagit

Sometimes, you should quit when you’re ahead. One morning we got up before God and headed up the Skagit. I’d forgotten my wading boots and was attempting to use my Tevas. As we put in at the Howard Miller Steelhead park in Rockport. I caught the edge of one sandal on a rock and basically stumbled into the water, kindasorta dropping a Spey fly a rod length or so away, where it was promptly gobbled up by a very nice Dolly. We beat the water to a froth from there through Marblemount and up to Diablo Lake, me sliding on the snot-covered rocks the whole way without another hit. Now I’m not saying that because we didn’t catch fish that our time was wasted, but I will say I could’ve spent a little less time impersonating a cat on roller skates and a little more time at Birdsview Brewing in Concrete. This architecturally interesting brewery in the middle of nowhere is a welcome discovery, giving the town something to be famous for besides the 1938 panic during the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast. Be careful though, because their yummy beers are all quite big for their style and you might leave here a bit more incapacitated than you intend (the pale ale has a higher ABV than the IPA!).

skagit river bull trout
Bull trout from the Skagit (photo: Geoff Heith).

The Sky

worked from home and lived on the Sky for years, walking over and fishing Two-Bit Hole every afternoon when I wasn’t further upstream. Like the Stilly, the Skykomish River is a complex river system, and while I lived on the very section Trey Coombs called “the best steelheading water in the world,” I prefer the solace of the remote tribs. One 100F day on a small feeder river which will remain unnamed, I pulled nine fish out of one hole in 30 minutes – 3 of them over 18 inches, none less than a foot. I never got skunked in that magic run, including one day pulling pinks out of there on muddlers on every cast. Then, one day I was there teaching two kids to fish and a guy came down with spinning gear and a cooler. That would’ve ended in a fist fight if I wasn’t trying so hard to convince the mother what a role model I was. After that, the guy left his camper there for the summer and I’ve never been back. But that just gave me chances to find other fabled water.

sultan bakery - sultan, washington
Taking orders at the Sultan Bakery (photo: Amber Mullen).

If you head up the Sky, I would have to say that the fishing, no matter how good, probably falls second to breakfast at the Sultan Bakery. I recommend calling ahead and getting the breakfast sandwich to go. First because the lines are long, second because the portions are so big you’ll still be finishing breakfast when lunch starts and fishing plans will be a distant memory. It’s not unusual for us to hit it on the way back, either, for their $12 sirloins, the equal of places that charge three times as much. Take some cake to go for the loved ones at home and your absence will not be remarked upon.

If you are looking for refreshing beverages, however, you must hit the Mt. Index Brewery and Distillery. This is not a bar so much as a complete drinking experience, few of which still exist in our connected, sterilized world where people forget that bars are where you go to meet people, in this case characters, rather than play on one of your devices while you drink alone. Charles runs both establishments. Due to the vagaries in Washington liquor control regulations sometimes one is open, sometimes the other. I’ve had to kick ‘coons away from the back door, let the cat in, and call up the stairs to bring him or his mom down to the cave-like environs, but it was worth every minute of it. He makes the kind of iconic ales that started this whole craft-beer foofaraw, and his gin is pretty outstanding, too. The pitbull you think is going to come through the cat door in the motel units next door is named “Lucy.” Tell her I said “Hi,” and she won’t bother you.

Mt. Index Distillery
Mt. Index Distillery (photo: Amber Mullen).

The Cedar

Even though I lived on the Sky, for trout, the Cedar still cannot be beat. I’ve fished nearly every legal foot of it, and caught fish on most of them. Almost all of it has walk-in access. It’s a two-hearted river in that you can easily have double-digit days of small cutts, ‘bows, and cuttbows, or you can catch one big fish every couple of days, depending on your approach. Most people fish the hatch in the evening, but I like to hit the river at dawn or before and work with streamers. You can fish the bike trail right through Renton and still beat your cronies to work.

Upriver, the Red Apple out in Maple Falls has outstanding homemade sandwiches, unbelievable prices on wine, and a good beer selection. Downtown Renton bet on gentrification in a big way. I love the Berliner for great German styles (are you sensing a theme here?) and food. Also, the karaoke crowd here is America’s Got Talent-level quality. I wish I could’ve hired people this good for my place. There are two new breweries in town which I haven’t even gotten to yet: Herbert B Friendly and Four Generals. There are enough other great restaurants and drinking establishments to do a complete article on Renton, which come to think of it, I’ve done twice now – once for a beer magazine and once for a wine magazine. It’s kind of a sleeper locale, and a good place to meet the significant other after a day on the water for a little reconciliation if you weren’t able to take them along.

Steelheading on the Snoqualmie
Steelheading on the Snoqualmie (photo: Dave McCoy).

The Yak

Although the Cedar is my hands down favorite go-to water, sometimes due to traffic you cannot get to it and after work it’s just as fast and easy to shuck over the pass to the upper Yak. I know the lower canyon is fabled, but in the summer, there is great access off of almost any exit starting right up in the pass, you don’t have much competition, the trout don’t have PhDs in etymology, and you can get as far as Cle Elum and fish for an hour or so, even in rush hour traffic. I’ve caught a dozen fish in 200 yards at the boat ramp where the Teanaway joins in, the largest topping 17”. After Labor Day when the flows drop, the windows are shorter, but the October Caddis fishing can be epic.

roslyn brewing
Roslyn Brewing (photo: Amber Mullen).

If you really want to get a little culture under your belt, you should head to Roslyn for Roslyn Brewing and the Brick. Again, great balanced beer, especially the truly sessionable dark lager, and the Brick was immortalized as the local dive in Northern Exposure. You can also hit Dru Bru in the pass on the way back for NW takes on German beers, although I’m more inclined to hit the Snoqualmie Brewery, especially if the Spring Fever and/or Avalanche are on. For that rare week or two a year where they are both on, I might eschew fishing entirely and go three times in a week. Across the street is the tiny Bindlestick, where the locals hang out and you can often catch both a great musical act and get some mushrooming intel. You might also luck into the robust local ‘shiner community there, but you might have to put in some stool time or have something to trade. Speaking of places immortalized by TV, as you swing through North Bend, failing to hit Twede’s Café for a piece of cherry pie a la Twin Peaks is like going to Capitol Hill and not visiting Bruce Lee’s grave.

The Olympic Peninsula

By this time, my welcome is often worn out and I have to head to the OP for a little incognito time with my friend, the great Bob Triggs, a local fixture, although never fixed. He will take you sea-run cutthroat fishing and set you up with a fantastic beach lunch and brews, probably a midafternoon tipple if it’s in your constitution, and more stories than the Arabian Nights. Not that you need to hit the OP for SRC. You can catch them on any beach in Seattle, but a boon drinking companion is worth the trip.

I never go to the OP without going to the Port Townsend Brewery, even if I’m not going to Port Townsend otherwise. I love the salty blue-collar shipyard setting. If you want to get a wider selection and some food, the Pour House downtown is a great spot, and if you go with Bob, you will meet everybody in the bar. It’s like being an instant local.

Lake Crescent Lodge
Lake Crescent Lodge (photo: Rob Wynne / cc2.0).

If I’m going farther out, towards the Sol Duc or Elwha, I have a major soft spot for the Lake Crescent Lodge. Location, location, location, good food, beer, wine, and liquor. I stay there rather than in the dirt or in town when I can. I had some of the most magical days of my life on the upper Elwha before it closed, let’s hope the hatcheries don’t win and this river can become what it once was when they reopen it. Lately, I’ve been haunting the coastal rivers for SRC runs with good results.

With luck, I’ve given you enough information to keep from finding my favorite waters, and instead convinced you to stay inside where it’s warm and dry, in places I’d actually be glad to meet you. Tight pints.

Comments

Good article. Need a drink with the fracking repeal...Seriously...

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