Every year fishermen flock to the North Cascade Highway system outside of Bellingham to try their luck at the salmon and steelhead of the Sauk and Skagit Rivers. These rivers are some of the most fabled waters in Washington State for fly anglers, and for good reason—these are some of the few rivers in the state that gives you a shot at very large, wild steelhead.
But, there’s another group that flocks to this area with the return of the salmon and steelhead; and they come in larger numbers that anywhere else in the lower 48 states: bald eagles. Hundreds of eagles gather in the trees along the Upper Skagit to nest and feed on the dead and dying runs of salmon, with their numbers peaking from the middle of December through early January. We were able to see 15 or so this past weekend (January 17th) in about 4 ½ hours of watching.
If you have never seen these animals in action, it is well worth the drive. To see them soaring effortlessly, diving down to snag a salmon, cruising up the river while barely losing ground to a car traveling at 35 mph, or just to hear their loud and other-worldly call to each other really is Nature at its finest.
But, as a fisherman, it also slapped me back into reality with regard to the importance of the salmon runs. Our goal in fighting for the runs of fish should have very little to do with ourselves and our enjoyment of the sport—that is simply a by-product of a much bigger cause. The reason we fight for it, and ultimately the reason why we love the outdoors, is because we don’t control it. We don’t determine when that fish will strike, when that elk will appear, or when the sun will set in just such a way that only Glacier Peak will be illuminated. Nature keeps us on our toes, keeps us looking for what’s right around the corner, and if we’re honest, makes us feel small. In a world where everything is increasingly at our finger-tips, the feeling of smallness and increased alertness makes us feel whole because it takes us back to our original roots. We fight for the salmon runs because they are an integral part of maintaining this bigger-than-us cycle of life.
As humans we definitely have the power to screw this up. Our “power,” however, shrinks to the point of foolishness when compared to the absolute splendor of those moments where Nature reveals itself fully in front of our eyes—a moment such as Mother Nature catching her limit.