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Me and the Methow

Me and the Methow

By John Whitlatch

Reel Adventures World Class Salmon and Trout Guides

          Almost 1 year ago I heard a rumor that seemed to ring familiar to me. It was a rumor like many others about a far off obscure river full of bristling summer run steelhead and little fishing pressure. The water of course was crystal clear and the mountains loomed over you guarding their magnificent treasure in the valley below etc, etc. I listened closer this time however; the words I was hearing were coming from a close friend who was a very accomplished and respected fisherman.

          It wasn’t the first time I had heard of this Methow River. I in fact had heard of it many times and brushed it off. With the mighty Olympic Peninsula streams to the west producing steelhead of legendary proportions, who needed to look any further? Jake had fished it recently for only a few hrs and having never seen the river before, had a very successful afternoon. He convinced me it would be worth checking out and fitting it into my plans. Who knew such a jewel existed in north central Washington?

          The plan was simple enough. Aly and I, anticipating a fairly short drive from Seattle to the river were going to enjoy a much needed sleep in day and hit the road at around ten. We would get there in time for a decent afternoon session and then head back to Seattle for dinner and a hot tub. Good plan. Well the directions might have been a little sketchy, or my following directions might have been a little suspect, or maybe both. It turned into a long, but beautiful drive to the town of Pateros where the Methow meets the Columbia. Having already driven 3 more hrs than expected, I was more than just a little worried because at this point I knew the directions got sketchy. Follow the river to the 3rd or 4th bridge, turn right. Go back down river until you find the primitive road sign and look for a giant rock shaped like monkey with a football. From atop the rock you can see an old snag guarding the perfect gravel bar to make a drift from….

          An hour and a half later we had found 10 bridges, 15 primitive road signs, 0 snags guarding perfect gravel bars, and I was the monkey with the football. Aly at this point pipes up and says park it here under this bridge “let’s fish”. It was by far the worst spot we had driven by, passing up tons of good spots looking for that damn rock, but it was going to be dark very soon.

          We pulled our waders on as fast as we could and rigged our center pins wondering if we would even get a cast in before sunset in this tight little valley. Racing down the bank peering into the water for any signs of a steelhead, I had my doubts about our chances of success.

          My first cast proved me wrong, much to my delight. When my float went down I set the hook hard and fast. A beautiful 28” summer steelhead broke the surface doing back flips for me in the long shadows of the setting sun. A few minutes later I had him to hand, admiring his strength after such a long trip this far up the Columbia. A few casts later I hooked another in almost pure darkness as night fell on us. Two fish in 15 casts I thought? Not a bad start.

          Aly suggested it first. We needed a hotel room. Both of us wanted round two in the morning. There wasn’t much to choose from in Pateros, WA. One hotel and we got the last room. We found a little pub up the street and watched a ball game while killing a plate of Terry’s (owner of Kody’s Saloon) almost famous oysters. It was a very pleasant evening all in all and the start of a deeply seeded love that Aly and I have found for this little place.

          Visions of wild steelhead refused to let my mind wander into sleep mode. It was maybe the worst night of sleep I could remember for a long, long time. I was up before the alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. and peering out the window. It was a crisp cold night. Crystal clear skies and the moon light shimmering off the calm Columbia River just feet away was almost magical. Standing on the balcony I could hear the mesmerizing sound of tiny waves lapping at the docks out front. If only I could hear that calming sound inside, I might have gotten some more sleep.

John Whitlatch with a Methow Magnum

          We wasted no time when the alarm finally went off. Aly was up and pulling her waders on in a jiffy. Only one stop to make. A huge cup of coffee from the gas station, and we were off to find out if this was truly going to be as good a fishery as we suspected from our little 30 minute session the night before. Winding our way up the unfamiliar river in the dark, looking for the pull out we had scouted the night before, I could feel myself getting nervous and doubtful. Everyone we had talked to had pretty poor to marginal fishing reports. Had we just gotten lucky last night? It wasn’t far to our destination and we were right on time, throwing our packs on and hiking down the steep bank to the river right before daylight.

          I chose to start with the center pin while Aly wanted to put her new custom “Purdy Stix” fly rod through its paces. My first cast was perfect. Aly hadn’t even gotten the line peeled off her fly rod yet and with a little swing and a flick my float was sailing through the air. It landed silent and stealthy just inside the seam between the fast and the slow, slick water. A little flip with my ring finger on the spool and reel picked up the 2 feet of slack from my cast. It was settling now, floating natural…perfect. Another little flip with my finger the other way now to get the reel going again, slowly letting line out with my drift and it happened. Bobber down! My float had only gone about 20’ when it disappeared. I pinched down tight on the spool and set the hook hard and fast instantly doubling my 14’ rod all the way to the cork. The surface of the water exploded in front of me with a 30” steelhead jumping once, then twice and peeling the 12lb Seaguar fluorocarbon off my reel at finger burning speed. He ran straight for the shale ledges across the river and I felt my line tick on a rock.

"The Canyon"- Methow River Nov. 2009

 The length of my rod gave me the advantage I needed. Holding it as high as I could and letting off the pressure just a little, my line popped over the boulder and I was free again. Not a bad first move I thought to myself as I realized in horror that move number two was already in progress. He had already gained some slack when my line flipped over the rock and now he was on a full charge right at me. I was about to get “sockeyed”!

          Growing up on one of Alaska’s most prolific salmon streams the term “getting sockeyed” is both very familiar and devilishly humorous…if it’s not happening to you. The sockeye salmon is actually about the same size as most summer run steelhead and blazing fast, performing circus like acrobatics and most importantly they have a knack for two things. One breaking or destroying a lot of fishing gear, and two, making really good fisherman look like total idiots. Their most famous trick is to immediately upon being hooked, run right at you, between your legs and back out into the main current usually causing the rookie sockeye fisherman to end up either in the drink or holding a broken rod, or both.

          Center pins are direct drive, like a fly reel, no gears to help you catch up, and no drag. With no chance of keeping up I immediately swung my rod down river and stuffed the tip in the water.

John Whitlatch applying pressure with the center pin

This does two things for me. One, with the 14’ long rod it can really start whipping while trying to reel that fast. This will keep you from getting the death loop of slack line wrapped around the tip of your rod. Secondly the drag created by all that line and your float in the water helps keep some tension while you catch up. This works really well with the increased diameter and bulk of a fly line.

          It worked, my Lazer Sharp hook stayed true in my opponents jaw and as my line came tight I swung my rod the other direction and turned him for the first time. It was time to teach this fish some respect. I was aggressive but patient, letting him take some line when I had too, but always working him.

John Whitlatch releasing a 35" Methow River Steelhead

 Changing directions often and learning to “steer” a fish will wear them down fast, especially with a long rod.

          In less than ten minutes I had my first steelhead of the morning close to hand. Standing in knee deep water, Aly tailed him for me and I easily plucked the #10 barbless hook from the corner of his mouth. He was a magnificent native buck, perfectly camoed with his green back to blend into his environment where he rules as king of the Methow. We admired him for a moment, sharing a mutual respect for one another. We snapped a couple quick photos and returned him the river where he would live to rule once again. I had won the battle this time…just barely.

          Aly hooked one on her new fly rod shortly afterward, and then another, and another until finally her wrist began to ache. A little pain never stopped her though. She grabbed a float rod knowing the long handle would give her some relief and promptly landed a couple on that too. By noon she had switched to a center pin and caught one on her first cast with it as well.

Aly Stevens with a beautiful fly rod caught Methow Steelhead

    We fished until dark again and I cannot honestly tell you exactly how many fish we landed that day. We lost count somewhere in the 30’s not letting numbers spoil a perfect day. Both of us landed multiple fish on the center pins, float rods, and fly rods, and at one point in the afternoon I had hooked 19 fish in 21 casts. Our suspicions were confirmed, this little river was legendary and I knew we would be locked into an annual migration to this fishery for a long, long time. We love the Methow.        

          Aly and I ended up staying a few months and ultimately ending up on the North Fork of the Salmon in Idaho until it froze up sometime last Dec. But that is another story. We dreamed and plotted our return to the Methow all spring and summer until we finally arrived in Seattle two weeks ago. Rolling my truck in the Yukon Territory and totaling a boat trailer to boot didn’t even stop us. We arrived in Pateros finding it just like we left it quiet and sleepy with an amazing fishery at your front door. The stress of losing our truck and dealing with insurance agents and tow trucks faded away. Rumor had it that the fishing was slow again, but the Methow didn’t disappoint us. The fish cooperated and weather was perfect. It may even be better than last year…    

John Whitlatch

Reel Adventures

World Class Salmon and Trout Guides


When you go:

Pateros Lakeshore Inn- Brand new hotel with a nice restaurant. Good food and great service

(509) 923-9555

233 Lakeshore Dr, Pateros, WA

Get your spirits at:

Kody’s Noon Saloon- Lots of TV’s and your usual bar food. No directions needed…trust me you can find it.

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