September 29, 2010
The Sol Duc, "the Bogy" and Calawah rivers flow so close to each other than if steelhead action isn't epic on one, there are two more top rivers nearby. And February is the best time of year to find big steelies here. (February 2007)
This nice winter steelhead is indicative of the trophy-sized fish of the Olympic Peninsula coast.
Photo by Gary Lewis.
The Sol Duc, Bogachiel and Calawah rivers all feed into each other, and that's where you can get into some of the best steelhead fishing in the world. And wouldn't you know it? February is one of the best times to hit them!
Known as Three Rivers, they're all found along the Pacific side of the Olympic National Forest. The great thing about fishing this area is that all the rivers are close to each other, so when one doesn't produce, there are two others that might.
It's more than reasonable to fish all three in the same day. But when fish are on the bite, any other anglers along with you will want to stay put. This particular region of the Pacific Northwest is home to legendary giants that draw anglers from all over the world. Most go home with great fish stories.
This area is all about timing. Start downriver to make sure that you maximize each fishing trip and season, at least for reconnaissance to find out where all the fish are.
So it all starts at the Sol Duc River.
The Sol Duc system is well known for its huge coho and chinook salmon runs, as well as for its winter steelhead. With diverse fisheries and rivers, it's a prime location for fishing any time of the year.
To get to the Sol Duc River, follow State Route 101 to Highway 110 just north of Forks. Follow 110 to the first boat launch where 110 crosses Lapush Road. You'll find trails and other access points along that stretch of the river until it pours into Quillayute River, which is the lower basin of the Bogachiel.
This particular section is equally friendly to drift-boaters and bank-fishermen. The techniques that hook fish are varied. But the consensus is that pink corkies and chrome spoons get more hookups with the lethargic fish of this glacially fed system.
Corkies are best used for seams, slots, and eddies between 3 and 6 feet deep. Since the river runs green and clear during high-pressure systems, leaders should be no longer than 4 feet, although there's some debate on this point among guides and locals. Most who drift-fish it for the first time usually use leaders about 18 inches long because they don't know the lay of the bed. But longer leaders are best when winter steelies feel pressured.
And that pressure can come be from Mother Nature, too. This river doesn't have a hydrograph attached, so monitor it for severe level changes by watching weather forecasts. You can also keep an eye on it by monitoring the Hoh River, which lies south by about 15 miles. The Hoh can indicate relatively how the water rises and falls. One day it's running high enough to scour the substrate; and the next, it's meandering where whitewater had been the day before.
The single best way to fish this river is either to recon it first or to have a guide take you out. At this time of year, opt for the guide if you can. He can give novices the lay of the river without their spending too much time investigating, rather than fishing. Other plusses of hiring a guide are shared costs of travel, lodging, and extra eyes to pick out some of the better holds to fish.
This portion of the Sol Duc River is relatively hard to get to, so any existing pressure is not that intense. Getting finicky fish to bite bait and corkies is not hard.
The river runs relatively clear most of the time, making it perfect for drift-fishing with long leaders, which is key to get steelies to bite. The Sol Duc's lower stretches don't get a lot of fishing, so all the fish are looking for natural presentations.
Real shrimp bait, or the scent from a shrimp, will get the hardest strikes. Three to four cured eggs in a bait bag on a No. 4 hook will garner some pretty hard strikes and keep bait on the hook just a bit longer than conventional baitcasting.
Most of the time, drift-boaters opt to beach their crafts and fish tight, deep spots. Whenever you wade to cast, make sure to keep each step upstream about half a gait, instead of a full stride. Smaller steps in a current will lessen the noise pollution that all steelhead hate. Wading downriver should be done with a three-quarter gait. Downstream currents can cause waders to take bigger steps than needed, which can then cause boots to slip.
For fishermen who want to hike in and wade, there are more well known trails on the east side of the river. Hikers should pack light and remember that packing out a fish is a real possibility.
Upriver, next to the Sol Duc, is the Bogachiel River, the subject of a number of videos about fishing and which truly exemplifies what winter steelheaders are all looking for in the way of adventure.
Nick Amato, editor of Salmon Trout Steelheader magazine, and author Bill Herzog have written extensively about the prolific amount of fish here. This river, called "The Bogy" by locals, produces absolutely huge trophy fish. Last year, it produced nearly 3,000 adult winter steelhead, making it one of the Pacific Northwest's most productive systems.
To get to the Bogy above the Calawah, take State Route 101 into Forks, and go left onto Bogachiel Way. There is a put-in and fishing access below the rearing pond hatchery. To get down near the Sol Duc, head straight through Forks on 101 and turn west onto Highway 110, also called La Push Road.
After about 5 miles, there is access to the river for bank and boat fishing. Further west on the road's left-hand side is a roughly one-mile trail that leads to the river.
The Bogy is much wider than the Sol Duc and much friendlier to drift-boats. One of the favorite fishing techniques on this river is backtrolling chrome and metallic-blue Hot Shots. Many drift-fishermen prefer to run heavy terminal gear, short leaders, and small spinners when the river runs turbid and visibility is near zero.
Where tributaries meet, tie on a spoon and jig it. In these areas you'll find deep pools, some running more than 12 feet deep. When fishing these deeper pools, use spoons heavier than 1/4 ounce to get to the bed. Lighter spoons will catch currents and flutter downstream.
sh spoons below each tributary, making sure to fish seams closest to the bank first. This is where most steelhead hold before moving upriver. Cast on the other side of the seam, too.
Wide-bodied spoons jigged slowly get hard strikes. Conversely, the fastest way to put fish off the bite is to jig fast. During high-pressure systems, the shine from fast-moving jigs spooks steelies. So the trick is to fish with a slow up-and-down motion, and let the spoon do all the work.
The great thing about fishing with spoons is you never have to wonder if a steelhead has struck. When the fish hits, it'll head straight to the surface and explode out of the water.
If you get tired of catching big Bogy steelies, or if the bite turns off, head on over to the Calawah. You won't have far to go.
The Calawah River is also famous. Since most harvested fish are not officially reported, most Washingtonians are unaware that it is a highly prized secret. This honey of a river has more easy-access points than the previous two rivers and can be fished from boat or bank. But bank access on the upper reaches makes it great to walk. Anglers who want to drift can put in near 101 and float on down to wider stretches that most bank anglers can't get to. Access trails near 101 on the Olympic Loop Highway.
Before heading to the Calawah River, stop in Forks and ask local fishermen where the best spots are, what's biting and the shape of the river recently. This last-second information can mean the difference between getting hookups right away and having to work for them.
The water levels on the Calawah are excellent for drift fishing and "dink" fishing. A dink is a tube float that lies on its side and then tips up whenever a fish strikes. When traditional drift-fishing doesn't work, this is an excellent option. It can be used in the exact same water that drift-fishermen use.
Depending on the freezing level, the river can run crystal-clear with unlimited visibility. Fish it with leader setups for turbid conditions anyway. This sounds unusual, but shorter leaders are better since the water is cold and most fish are lethargic.
It's critical to get baits right in front of their noses. Use smaller baits, corkies and hooks whenever fishing the clear water. Use more weight than when fishing in summer, but not as heavy as you would use in traditionally turbid conditions. This particular drift-fishing technique may seem a little backwards, but it's a combination of secrets that works.
The Calawah is not wide, making it perfect for fishing with "dink floats." Bobber-jigs would just get hung up. Fish dinks with longer leaders in shallower water. Baits and corkies work great for this setup, which allows each offering to move in the slower current found near the bed while the float passes the bait at the surface.
This presentation allows for hookups to be felt and seen immediately. As it drifts downstream, make sure to continually mend the mainline to avoid bellies that will diminish your ability to set the hook fast. Fish the Calawah oxbow's with dinks for the slowest water and deepest pools, and drift-fish straight stretches near banks, undercuts, and dropoffs.
Being able to fish steelies with all these techniques on all three rivers makes it worth the effort to get out along the coast.
The natural scenery of the ocean, national park, dense forests, and rivers keeps the outdoor experience true to the harmony envisioned by all anglers who travel there.
The Sol Duc, Bogachiel, and the Calawah rivers are excellent places to fish and get away from it all, especially during the heart of winter.
It's not always bad to have many fishermen on the same water at the same time. Combat fishing, as it's called, can produce some insights that get easily overlooked when other anglers aren't around. You might be able to get near some of the best spots to fish. And the numbers of fishermen can tell you how well the fishing really is. Holds they fish in can suggest new areas that will out-produce those that are being pounded.
When the fishing is good, word spreads fast. Anglers will literally come out of the woods to find the best spots. Ironically, with so many fishermen it can feel more like a "fishing club" rather than the deep solitary recesses of winter it would otherwise be. But in many cases, they wouldn't be there if the water wasn't producing fish.
Once you find a glut of fishermen, it's worth sticking around even if you don't like that kind of atmosphere. Finding out what they're using will help you take pressure off fish in the same area. Hooking a fish is the same as telling everyone that you've got a secret, and they'll want to know what it is. Once the secret's out, everyone on each bank and in boats will be using it in no time, and then the "secret" that suddenly produced will just as quickly stop.
To use this social dynamic to your advantage, learn what they're using, and then don't use it. It could come down to types of lines, scents, baits, lures, and weighting systems that pressure steelhead off the bite. "Looking" at those fishing techniques is the single best way to find out what's working, versus what isn't. If Failing that, a polite question of "What are they biting on?" usually brings a quick response.
Baits and scented baits are just about everywhere winter fishermen go, but usually only one or the other is producing. So it's best to take along shrimp, eggs and worms. Scent baits should be shrimp gel, shrimp liquid, salmon milt, and worm scent; these four are every bit as productive as natural baits.
River surfaces can help you find the places steelhead love to hold. Whenever they're pressured, schools of fish will gravitate to water where they'd ordinarily not be found, and that's where to fish for them. Every veteran angler knows that seams to eddies, tail-outs, pools, slots, and dropoffs are where fish can be found anytime of year. When there's excessive pressure, metalheads can be found near banks where there's very little water depth. They can end up holding in substrate depressions in the middle of a river where there's no perceivable cover.
Schools of fish can be found milling around in riffles no deeper than a foot of water. So long as the pressure is on, fish can end up holding in strange places. When they do, ironically, it's almost always only a few yards above or below where pressure is being exerted. Under combat fishing conditions, anglers willing to probe strange holding spots almost always get strikes within minutes.
It's entirely possible to fish the exact same water that's being pressured and get fish on the hook. In many cases, it's not about the scent or bait, but how it's being presented that keeps fish off the bite. I've seen them bite into offerings that were merely "cast" in a different direction, which can create a different drifting profile.
It may sound too simple to be true, but it does work
, and many anglers have seen it. If all the predominant casts are between the 10 and 11 o'clock positions at 20 yards out, then cast at the 12 o'clock position at the same distance.
Casting in this way shortens the amount of optimal drift upriver, but lengthens it downriver where pressured fish could easily be holding. At the end of the drift, if your offering is the only one that steelies see, they'll strike at it. It's that simple! Changing the direction, distance, and depth of a cast can make all the difference.
When on a long fishing trip, don't give up on a spot of water just because it's being fished heavily. Anglers usually congregate wherever winter fish are found, so that's a good sign. Stop and check it out.
If the bite is off, find out what's being used, and then don't use it. If all the usual holds are not producing due to the numbers of fishermen, try fishing those unusual ones. Vary your casts by distance, depth and degree.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Forks has some of the best deals on gear for fresh and saltwater fishing. Check out Olympic Sporting Goods at (360) 374-6330. The store can also refer anglers to awesome fishing guides.
A great place to stay is the Dew Drop Inn, located off Highway 101. Call (360) 374-4055 or 1-888-433-9376. The staff welcomes tourists passing through, campers, hikers -- and of course, fishermen.
A great trick is to fish those tributaries that have salmon runs heading upriver in both directions. Whenever fishing the Sol Duc near the Bogachiel, always fish below where the two bodies of water meet. Whatever your fishing technique, fish the seams first. This trick works for any system that produces more than one run of fish and is excellent for fishing the Columbia River.