One look at the Sauk River will tell you almost all you need to know: It’s wild, rugged, beautiful, and has some of the best steelhead fishing water in the entire state of Washington.
And, though it’s best known for its legendary native winter steelhead fishing, there also are some other fishing options in this major Skagit River tributary as well.
The Sauk River is located just beneath Washington’s rugged North Cascades region, but it’s still easily accessible to those in Seattle and surrounding areas.
The river originates from the icy slopes around Glacier Peak and flows north through the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest before joining with the Skagit River near Rockport.
This can be one of the most exciting rivers in the Pacific Northwest – read on to learn a little bit more about how to approach the Sauk.
Productive winter steelhead runs have long been the main attraction on the Sauk, drawing people from all across the Pacific Northwest for a chance at catching a big sea-going rainbow trout.
These days the season puts some handcuffs on the largely catch-and-release steelhead fishing, since the river closes to all fishing after January and many wild winter fish arrive later on.
But you can access the first arrivals in the stream and also take home the rare hatchery steelhead stray that ventures into the Sauk, which isn’t planted.
The river is open to steelhead fishing (and retention of hatchery steelhead) below the confluence of the White Chuck River, about nine miles upriver from Darrington.
Fly fishing is popular on the Sauk, as the strict regulations and smooth tailouts make it a perfect river for spey fishing.
The chance to do battle on a fly rod with a giant wild steelhead close to home is the major reason we rated the Sauk among our Best Fly Fishing Rivers in Washington.
All types of traditional winter steelhead patterns work here – leeches and intruders are typically the go-to patterns.
Black, purple, and dark blue are some of the most productive fly colors on the Sauk, and most anglers will find that subtle colors perform better.
This can change with water conditions and by the season, but going with subtle colors is a good rule of thumb.
Nymphing is also a great way to catch steelhead in some of the faster pockets of the river. Egg patterns and big prince nymphs take their fair share of fish.
Most steelhead in the Sauk run between 10 and 15 pounds, so make sure you’re fishing at least a 7 weight rod – these fish will give you a run for your money.
If you don’t do much fly fishing, there are still great steelhead fishing opportunities on the Sauk, though only artificial lures with a single barbless hook are allowed.
Jig fishing is a popular way to catch fish, in addition to spinners and spoons, but be sure to change out treble hooks and fish barbless.
If you’re fishing a spinner or spoon, swing it across the current, allowing the water to give the lure much of its action.
A natural swing – as opposed to an aggressive retrieval – will dramatically increase your odds of hooking a steelhead.
Though excellent steelhead fishing is what the Sauk is known for, bull trout fishing has historically been popular here.
The Sauk is one of the few productive bull trout rivers in the Puget Sound region.
Technically, anglers may not target bull trout under Washington regulations that cover the Sauk River.
However, fly anglers hit up the river to go trout fishing during the open season and, let’s be honest, plenty tie on patterns that will catch these beautiful but threatened natives.
All bull trout must be released unharmed.
There are some cutthroat trout in the Sauk and some of its tributaries as well. They also must be released along with all species of fish caught here, except for fin-clipped (hatchery) steelhead in season.
The bull trout in the river are notoriously hard to catch, and many an angler has gone home skunked.
It’s usually best to focus your efforts for bull trout as far upstream on the Sauk as you can. When the river is open for fishing, the bull trout are typically in the cold upper reaches.
Try fishing between the confluence of the Suiattle and the Sauk and the White Chuck boat launch.
This stretch typically holds fair numbers of bull trout depending on water conditions, and swinging flies through the promising runs can produce fish.
If you’re not having luck swinging flies, try nymphing – bull trout are known for their aggressive behavior, but that doesn’t mean they won’t eat nymphs.
In fact, you may be surprised how many bull trout are eager to grab a size 18 hare’s ear!
The Sauk River gets salmon runs, particularly coho and chum salmon turning up out of the Skagit in the fall, but the river is entirely closed to salmon fishing.
The spawning salmon due tend to perk up the bull trout, which feed on the fresh eggs the bigger fish deposit.
When to Fish
The Sauk River is governed by strict regulations in order to preserve wild steelhead runs, which have been diminishing in the past few years.
Keep an eye on the current regulations to check whether or not the river is open for fishing.
Most years, the Sauk is open from June 1 through January 31 below the confluence of the White Chuck River. Above that confluence, the Sauk closes to fishing on October 31st to protect spawning fish.
Again, check the regulations before your trip for updates.
Much of the summer is marked by high and off-color river flows, and it doesn’t see much pressure during this time of year.
During the fall, though, the water clears considerably and fly fishermen try for trout, and others bide their time as they wait for the winter steelhead.
Winter on the Sauk is when the bulk of the fishing action takes place.
Steelhead start making their way into the river in November, and fishing peaks in December and January, before the river closes for the spring.
Location and Access
The Sauk is a fairly accessible river – Highway 530 follows it for much of its fishable stretch near the border between Skagit and Snohomish counties, and there are multiple boat launches to put in at as well.
You’ll be better off fishing the Sauk if you’ve got a drift boat, especially if you’re steelhead fishing, but there also are a few spots to access the river from the bank.
If you’re bank fishing and not sure where to go, try the boat launches; they’re some of the most underrated public access points.
Bank fishing is much more popular with bull trout fishermen, who will find easy access via a network of roads and trails on the upper reaches of the river, below the White Chuck boat launch.
Though it doesn’t offer easy fishing, the Sauk is one of the most majestic rivers in Washington.
Aggressive wild steelhead, a healthy bull trout population, and a jaw-dropping setting make this a spot you can’t miss in northwestern Washington!