River road washouts cut down on the number of anglers who invade this celebrated stretch of the Olympic Peninsula. A walk -- rather than a drive -- through this park means solitude and steelhead. (March 2007)
March is a great time to fish for steelhead on the Queets River.
Photo By Doug Rose
It rains a lot on the Queets River. The west end of the Olympic Peninsula is the wettest place in the Lower 48, and the Queets often gets more rain than anywhere else on the peninsula.
During 2003, a huge Pineapple Express kicked its flow from a drought-level 2,269 cubic feet per second on Oct. 15 up to 37,200 cfs the next day and 58,100 cfs on Oct. 17. But that still isn't as much as on Nov. 23, 1990, when the Queets registered 79,100 cfs after several days of torrential rain.
For winter steelheaders, all of this water is both a blessing and a curse. It creates fish habitat by carving new channels and unearthing spawning gravel. But too much rain, too fast, can bury redds and ruin productive pools and tail-outs. Rain pulls in fresh pulses of fish from the sea, but also knocks the river out of shape for days at a time and tends to play havoc with access on the Queets River Road.
That's a problem because this 14-mile, low-speed gravel road provides the only access to the river, its three boat launches, the Queets Campground, and the Queets Trail.
Over the years, mudslides, blow-downs and washouts have blocked the road at various places, occasionally preventing access to the upper boat launches. But they also create opportunity for independent anglers. In the late '80s, I used to drag my bicycle around a small minor washout and had the upper river all to myself.
But a 2006 washout on the road at Matheny Creek was entirely different. After a heavy rain in March of 2005, a major slide occurred, and the Park Service closed the road. A storm in January 2006 took out 150 feet of road, and there was a 200-foot vertical drop to the river. The entire area around the washout was very unstable, so the park banned hiking around the closure.
Matheny Creek is located at Mile Post 8, a little more than halfway to the end of the road at the Queets Campground. As a result, the campground is often inaccessible. So are the Streaters Crossing and Sams River boat ramps, and the Queets River Trail, which begins on the opposite side of the river from the campground.
Fortunately, the lower eight miles of the road, between Highway 101 and Matheny Creek, is often open. You could still launch at Hartzell Creek ramp and float down to the Clearwater Bridge take-out.
The Salmon River, a lower Queets tributary and the site of the Quinault Tribe's hatchery, was also below the washout. Anglers who didn't mind bushwhacking could still park at road turnouts between Hartzell Creek and the washout and hike to the river.
GLACIAL RAIN-FOREST RIVER
The Queets begins in glaciers on Mount Olympus, and then tumbles through sheer box canyons and over tumultuous rapids to the lowlands of the Olympic Peninsula's celebrated temperate-zone rainforest. Most of its major tributaries flow through National Forest or state land, but the main stem Queets lies entirely within Olympic National Park from its headwaters to the eastern boundary of the Quinault Indian Reservation, six miles from the ocean.
On its relatively short 51-mile journey, the Queets drains 445 square miles -- the peninsula's second largest watershed. The Queets displays all the characteristics of a Pacific Northwest glacial river: a tint of green "color," large gravel bars, huge logjams, wide flood plains with alder bottoms and spring ponds, and glacial terraces.
Though it's hours away from major metropolitan areas and tends to blow out -- not to mention the difficulty most visiting anglers have in reading large glacial rivers -- the Queets has for decades been one of the state's most beloved winter steelhead rivers.
In his 1960s classic, Northwest Angling, Enos Bradner dedicated more words to the Queets than any other Olympic Peninsula river except the Quillayute System, which includes four rivers -- the Sol Duc, Bogachiel, Calawah and Dickey.
"It has an immense winter run," he wrote, "as well as a good run of summer fish."
Trophy potential is one factor that draws anglers to the Queets from throughout the world. Big 20-pound fish aren't caught every day, or even every week. But anglers still take enough of them from the Queets that they really aren't that big a deal.
In recent years, tribal nets have taken fish in excess of 30 pounds. Trey Combs' first book, The Steelhead Trout, mentioned a 37-pound steelhead. And in Steelhead Fly Fishing and Flies, he speculated that the Queets could host the largest winter steelhead in the nation.
It still produces a lot of fish as well, though over the last decade its returns have fluctuated considerably, as have those of many Northwest steelhead rivers. During the early 1990s, many historically productive steelhead systems declined significantly. But the Queets' wild run actually increased from 8,000 to 12,000 fish.
But several times during the late 1990s, the number of wild fish fell below the 4,100-fish escapement target set by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Starting in 2001, the National Park Service imposed more restrictive regulations and closed the river early for several years. Wild runs have rebounded recently, and escapement goals have been met since 2001.
Despite these ups and downs, sport harvest on the Queets has remained fairly consistent in recent years, largely due to the 150,000 to 200,000 hatchery steelhead smolts that the Quinault Tribe releases annually into the Salmon River. During the 2001-02 winter season, the Queets System gave up 1,855 steelhead, earning it 8th place among Washington systems. But of those fish, 1,500 came from the Salmon River.
Many hatchery fish are also caught in the main stem Queets below the Salmon. Until recently, wild harvest was permitted on the Queets main stem. But current regulations restrict anglers to two hatchery fish through February. For steelhead, catch-and-release is in effect March 1 through April 15. For updates, you can visit Nps.gov/olym/regs/FishRegs.htm.
Big runs of steelhead and the possibility of a trophy are a large part of the Queets' mystique. But so many anglers are willing to make the long drive out to the Queets because, unlike nearly all other Northwest steelhead rivers, it's still wild. From it
s Mount Olympus headwaters to the boundary of the Quinault Reservation, the Queets flows through land that's utterly undeveloped and uninhabited.
Through the morning mist, you may see elk herds on a gravel bar, eagle feeding on a spawned-out coho, or tracks of a bear or cougar on a sandbank. You'll see some of North America's oldest trees -- 300-foot-plus Sitka spruces, and 500-year-old cedars. But you won't see any riverside homes, cows, gravel mines or "No Trespassing" signs.
HARTZELL TO CLEARWATER
By the time you read this, the busy time of year on the six miles between the Hartzell Creek boat ramp and the take-out at the Clearwater River Bridge will have come and gone. During early winter, thousands of hatchery steelhead bound for the Salmon River head up this portion of the Queets, attracting armadas of drift boats and lines of bank anglers.
During spring, when the road is open, action usually shifts to wild fish and the upper river. Boat-fishermen launch at Streaters Crossing or Sams River (at the campground), and the campground becomes a staging area. But steelhead bound for the upper river must first negotiate the water between the park boundary and Hartzell Creek, and anglers on the lower river have a good shot at large bright fish.
By March, when the winter's big storms are over, the Queets usually flows within its channel and has more clarity than at any time since autumn. Indeed, glacial rivers like the Queets typically have two peak flows each year, one in early winter and a run-off that peaks in early summer.
The average March and April flows are 5,300 cfs and 4,100 cfs, respectively, down from 8,300 and 7,500 in December and January. This makes it much easier to read water and spot holding lies, and lets anglers fish with lighter tackle and lures.
Side-drifting with bait is popular with boat anglers during winter, but regulations restrict anglers to artificial lures and single barbless hooks from March 1 through April 15.
In recent years, jigs and worms have been the most popular spring-season rigs. In the Queets' glacial waters, the standard hot pink worms get a steelhead's attention, as do jigs with either bright fluorescent or black marabou. Plugs such as Tadpollys, Hot Shots and Wiggle Warts also take their share of fish.
Many bank anglers fish traditional drift gear. But in spring's lower, warmer flows, large bright spoons and spinners are effective, especially on aggressive buck steelhead.
HARTZELL CREEK TO MATHENY CREEK
For safety reasons, the park was prohibiting anglers from hiking around the washout to fish above Matheny Creek. But even if you can't get there, several miles of prime springtime steelhead water flows between the Hartzell Creek ramp and the washout. The Queets River Road provides only glimpses of the river at a couple of spots on this stretch, but it is never more than a half-mile away.
Before the road was blocked, I often clambered over blowdowns to reach a remote riffle, only to watch a procession of drift boats that had launched at Streaters Crossing or Sams River. If it's still closed, you won't have this problem. If you bother to hike into the river above Hartzell Creek, you'll be pretty much alone. The term "social filter" describes situations that force people to walk more than a few hundred yards.
Anglers can access the downstream end of this water from the Hartzell Creek ramp. This is the only area where you'll likely encounter other fishermen. To fish upstream, you'll have to park at a turnout and hike. Although the river isn't far from the road, it's incredibly easy to get turned around in the rain forest, especially since you usually spend as much time walking around fallen trees and side channels as you do moving in a straight line. There are also creeks too deep to wade, and places where the forest ends abruptly on bluffs above the river.
When fishing the Queets away from your car, always carry safety gear, including a compass and flashlight. The woods get quite dark early and late in the day and when it rains. It's also a good idea to leave a note on your vehicle saying when you plan to return, and where you plan to fish.
The same tackle and lures work in this area as below Hartzell. But many of the anglers who hike into the Queets are flyfisherman. Spey rods have become increasingly popular, both for the ease with which they let an angler make 80-plus-foot casts and, perhaps more importantly, for their excellent line-handling qualities.
Whether you use a two-handed or traditional single-handed rod, most steelheaders now favor "multi-tip" lines. These lines have floating, intermediate and several densities of sinking tips. Type 3 to Type 6 and 200 to 400 grain tips are those most commonly used on the Queets.
As with lures, flies featuring purple or black colors are more productive. Larger flies, some as long as 5 inches, are often most productive in the Queets' colored water.
Call (360) 565-3131 for recorded updates on weather and road closures. Pinpoint them on a park map. A "walk in the park" might just be your road to great steelhead fishing.