On a Friday afternoon in West Seattle last month, a half-dozen fly fishers sipped beers and reclined on couches as Tacoma angler Giancarlo Lawrence shared his best summer story from a day casting on a Cascades river.
“I was reeling in this cutthroat trout while standing on a rock. I knelt down to net it and this bull trout — maybe 8 pounds — comes cruising up at this fish as fast as it can and puts the whole thing in its mouth,” Lawrence said. “My fly came loose and hooked the bull trout. So I’m fighting this bull trout running down the stream. It was like a movie.”
Lawrence almost got two fish with one fly. Alas, both got away.
Despite the disappointing outcome, Lawrence’s fish tale is a classic of the genre and a perfect fit for Fish Tale Fridays, a weekly happy hour at Emerald Water Anglers, the fly-fishing shop in the Junction where customers leave with more than just lures.
The convivial gathering, where seasoned fly fishers swap tips on creeks and trails while newcomers to the sport can practice threading yarn and feathers onto a hook to imitate fish prey — a technique known as “tying flies” — is baked into the store’s cozy 1,400 square feet.
“I used precious real estate on couches to have places to hang out and talk,” said owner Dave McCoy. “I didn’t want to be just another shop.”
Fly-fishing is a niche within the broader sport. An estimated 7.5 million people fly-fished in the U.S. last year, per Statista, while more than 50 million fished overall. Fly-fishing in Washington is even more niche compared with the sport’s hot spots like Idaho and Montana, where pandemic crowding along the Madison River in 2020 led to the ignominious nickname “Rivergeddon.”
But McCoy believes every Seattle-area angler who heads east is missing what’s in our backyard, where the fish may not be as big but the fishing is just as good.
“Our sport has a constant overemphasis of results over experience,” McCoy said. “Puget Sound is amazing and so many people in this city don’t touch it.”
Emerald Water Anglers, which opened in 2014, has spent the better part of a decade showcasing what the Evergreen State has to offer.
Books like “Fly Fishing for Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout” — something that can be done 12 months a year in Puget Sound — are prominently displayed near the fly cabinet that dominates the center of the store like a natural-history museum display case. Not that McCoy, a longtime guide, confines himself to local waters. A chalkboard above the cash register highlights guided fishing trips to locations around the world, from Bolivia to the Seychelles.
While dream trips to exotic destinations are part of the business, Fish Tale Fridays keeps it local, featuring stories with settings as close as Lincoln Park, 2.5 miles away. The scenes don’t range much farther than Hood Canal or the Yakima River.
Emerald Water Anglers is also a hub for the hot-button Northwest conservation topic of wild fish — McCoy is an ambassador for Patagonia, an outdoors brand outspoken on the importance of conserving wild fish runs. The shop hosts authors who write about the subject in a series called Writers On the Fly, with the likes of Bainbridge Island’s Dylan Tomine and Seattle’s Langdon Cook. Some in the Fish Tale Friday crowd sport baseball caps emblazoned with “Wild Fish Activist” and T-shirts from the conservation group Wild Steelhead Coalition.
McCoy is intentional about what brands he carries based on their environmental track record. The shelves are stocked with Orvis and Patagonia, as well as locally made Recycled Waders, which upcycles old fishing waders into bags and wallets.
“Consumption is going to happen, but we can be smarter about it,” McCoy said.
McCoy chose this location in West Seattle Junction because his daughter’s school is just three blocks away and the shop is far enough from any competitors. The sidewalk on Southwest Oregon Street is quiet enough that staff can step outside to demonstrate a casting technique, but close enough to the heart of the Junction to make lunch runs to Seattle Fish Company.
Fish Tale Friday devotees come from across the region, drawn by Emerald Waters Anglers’ unique combination of fishing experience, environmental activism and inclusive culture.
“I’m new within the gang, but I’ve always looked up to the shop,” said Lawrence, the angler behind that stellar fish tale and the subject of the documentary “The Black Stonefly,” which details how Lawrence overcame a tough upbringing in Tacoma with fly-fishing, a predominantly white sport. “Here I can tell fish tales from my side of things, being different, that we can all kick back and relate to.”
Newcomers are welcomed by neighborhood regulars like Dave Kim, who lives a few blocks away.
“This is the first fly shop where I felt comfortable on the first visit,” said Kim, who is Korean American. “Every time I go into a fly shop, I get this look like, ‘What are you doing here? You’re obviously not in the right store.’ I look a little bit different from the average fly fisherman. When I came in here, it just felt normal. I wasn’t out of place.”
That sense of ease is the result of intentional effort by McCoy, who claims to own one of the first fly-fishing shops in the country with a women’s program staffed by women, where the inventory is equal parts men’s and women’s apparel. More recently, Emerald Water Anglers made an explicit commitment called J.E.D.I., short for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.
“I’ve done everything I can to make sure that anybody who doesn’t look like me — middle-aged and white — feels as comfortable as they possibly can,” McCoy said of his shop’s culture.
At that September Fish Tale Friday, a second round of beers cracked open and more summer fishing stories unspooled.
“I’d rather come here for happy hour than a bar,” Kim said.
He turned back to the anglers, who were talking about the fall, and with it, salmon migrating upriver and trout on the Yakima — all the makings of fish tales to come.
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