Feature: Riding and fishing on the Iron Horse Trail

Words and photos by Russ Roca and Laura Crawford 
From Issue #28

Riding-and-Fishing-Iron-Horse

Bicycle Fishing

It was somewhere on a torn-up stretch of Forest Service road, pitted with kiddie-pool-sized craters, that I began to question my commitment to catching fish. What began as a leisurely ride on a crushed gravel trail was turning into a slog through unpaved and unmarked dirt roads filled with baby heads and puddles of indeterminable depth. All this for the faint notion that we might, at the end of the day, get the chance to wave some fly rods over the water.

When I asked Michael, the person responsible for choosing our destination, how he had decided that we should fish this particular creek, he said, “I saw a photo of someone fishing there on Google Maps and it looked pretty nice.” Okay. It wasn’t the most scientific approach, but it was what we had.

Iron Horse Trail Bike Fishing

Riding the Iron Horse

The Iron Horse is a remarkable rail trail just 30 miles east of Seattle that virtually no one knows about. It is part of a larger trail known as the John Wayne Pioneer Trail that crosses the entire state of Washington, along what used to be the old Milwaukee Road rail line. The eastern portion of the trail is undeveloped, with little shade, services, or water; and involves navigating around trestles that no longer exist and passing through unsound tunnels. The western portion of the trail, between Cedar Falls and the Columbia River, has been developed as a multi-use gravel trail.

Laura and I had been dreaming about riding this western portion when, by chance, our friend Jason (from Swift Industries, an independent pannier maker based in Seattle) invited us to join a little gravel grinding fishing trip. We were on the bus to Seattle with our bikes a few days later.

Iron Horse Trail Bike Fishing

We started our ride at the trailhead at Rattlesnake Lake. From there, the Iron Horse Trail climbs at a mellow railroad grade for several miles. The surface is a rideable gravel, which adds to the overall backcountry experience. Lush trees loom overhead and silence the sounds of nearby I-90. You can ride for great lengths of time hearing nothing but the crunch of gravel under your tires.

The Iron Horse also offers four backcountry campsites, complete with tent pads and vault toilets, directly adjacent to the path. It’s also unique in that it features the longest tunnel open to non-motorized traffic, the 2.3-mile-long tunnel under Snoqualmie Pass. Riding through the tunnel is an eerie experience and a test of even the best headlights. The other end appears as a tiny pinprick of light and everything is strangely calm. Though you know you’re moving, you’re not quite sure, because it feels so dreamlike in the profound darkness.

Iron Horse Trail Bike Fishing

Off Trail

We took the Iron Horse as far as Lake Easton State Park, where we cut north to follow forest roads to a campsite along Kachess Lake. As is always the case with forest roads, there are many more spurs and road-like trails than actually appear on the maps. We decided to stay on the most “main” looking dirt road, which quickly became a less and less obvious choice. The road climbed and descended with no regard to contour and crossed small streams and “puddles” that spanned the entire width of the road.

Our progress was slow but steady with lots of false starts and huddling over iPhones. No one had brought a proper GPS so we were at the mercy of cell phone coverage (which wasn’t strong) to figure out where we were.

Iron Horse Trail Bike Fishing

At the point where it felt the most remote was when we heard crying. Around a corner, we encountered the unexpected sight of a father and not-too-happy son, bumping along on a tandem. Stranger still, a few hundred feet after we passed the tandem, we exited the forest and found ourselves in a surreal suburban development, complete with two-story townhomes, big picture windows, and people wearing board shorts and aviator sunglasses flipping burgers on their front lawn. It was difficult to figure out who was more disappointed.

From the Suburbs of the Woods to the campground at Lake Kachess was straightforward. Into the campground we were on signed roads with little traffic. The next morning, our sundry group of six set out to do what we rode all the way out there to do: fish. Jason had brought a five weight, I was double-fisting a 5wt and Tenkara rod, and Michael had brought some lightweight spinning gear. Joe came for the ride and was content to relax by the river, Jameson bought a ukulele, and Laura planned to simply watch with great amusement.

Iron Horse Trail Bike Fishing

Our goal was Box Canyon Creek, a small river that feeds into Lake Kachess. From the campground, we followed a gravel forest road alongside the river, passing numerous dirt turnouts with parked cars. We spotted a promising trail with no cars and followed it a few hundred feet to a flat area by the river.

The stretch had small boulders and eddies and one obvious short run with slightly deeper water that looked like it held fish. The river was no more than 30 feet wide, only a few feet deep, with lots of short tricky seams that would make controlling drifts a headache, so I opted for the Tenkara rod.

Tenkara is a Japanese style of fly fishing that is perfect for small water. There is no reel or hundreds of feet of line to manage, just a single piece of a light monofilament tied in a loose knot to the tip of the rod. Think of it as the fixed gear of fly fishing, where everything that is unnecessary is stripped away.

Iron Horse Trail Bike Fishing

We all took our posts by the river, reveling in finally getting our flies on the water. Jason had just picked up fly fishing and was hoping to land his first trout. Michael, who had worked at a fly shop, was calmly stalking the water. I hit the short run that I had eyed when we first arrived. Since there was no hatch going on, I tied on a prince nymph. Miraculously after only the third drift into the run I felt the solid weight of fish on the other end and set the hook. After a few minutes, I brought the fish in and saw that it was a solid shouldered eight-inch rainbow.

There were smiles all around and it marked an auspicious start to a glorious day. Hours passed in the quietness of the forest, with sunshine flitting through the trees, until our enthusiasm began to wane and the reality set in that the first fish caught would be the only fish caught. It was then I began to realize that, even if we didn’t catch another fish, it was entirely worth the ride and the simple joy of standing in a river. Besides, we still had a campfire to look forward to that evening, and the long beautiful ride back on the Iron Horse Trail.

Iron Horse Trail Bike Fishing

THE ROD

Fly rods are categorized by weight. Two and 3 weight rods offer delicate presentations on small water, 8 to 9 weight rods have more backbone and can cast weighted flies to bigger fish. If you’re uncertain of the water you’ll encounter, the 5wt is the best all-rounder fly rod you can you use—think of it as sort of the cyclocross bike of fly rods. On this trip, in addition to a 5wt I used a Tenkara rod that is ultra lightweight and collapsible and is perfect for fishing small rivers and creeks.

THE FLIES

Purists will want to “match the hatch,” or carry flies that mimic the exact kind of insects on the water. If you are traveling on bike, you won’t have the luxury of carrying every possible fly permutation to match the exact bug of the moment. However, there are a few flies that will work almost universally. For dry flies pack a few Elk Hair Caddis, Pale Morning Duns and Parachute Adams in various hook sizes. For wet subsurface flies, Prince Nymphs, Hare’s Ear and Woolly Buggers in various sizes and in both weighted and unweighted varieties. These are solid patterns that you can fish anywhere and will produce.

Iron Horse Trail Bike Fishing

GET YOUR FEET WET

If you’re fishing in summer months, you can usually forgo the waders and wet wade. However, many mountain streams are snow fed and can still be toe numbingly cold in the middle of August. A good lightweight alternative to waders is to wear neoprene booties with your water shoe of choice. This will give you just enough warmth to make standing in the frigid water bearable. I usually pair them with my Keen sandals that I also use for pedaling.

CATCH AND RELEASE OR CATCH AND KEEP

It pays to look into the regulations of the water you are fishing to avoid hefty fines. Some allow you to keep fish if they are of a certain size (a good tip is to mark your rod with the minimum keep size with some tape). Some water is catch and release only and also requires you to fish with barbless hooks. For me, the joy is mostly in the thrill of the hunt so I let most fish go but will keep one or two a year for a special riverside meal.

More info on the Iron Horse Trail.

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