West End Steelhead

West End Steelhead

The Olympic Peninsula's West End rivers offer a healthy mix of wild and hatchery fish all through the winter months for growing numbers of Washington anglers.

by Doug Rose

The winter steelhead that return to the rivers that drain the western flanks of the Olympic Mountains are the most productive stocks in the Pacific Northwest. Oh sure, there are river systems with larger runs, and rivers that have been winter steelheading destinations longer. But hatchery steelhead are the supports that prop up steelhead fishing in most of the region today. The rivers of the Olympic Peninsula's West End all do receive heavy plants of winter steelhead. But the Sol Duc, Bogachiel and Calawah of the Quillayute System; the glacial rivers of the rain forest, the Hoh, Queets and Quinault; and the brushy, cedar creeks such as the Pysht, Hoko and Goodman Creek also all still host relatively strong returns of wild winter steelhead.

"This is one of the strongholds for wild steelhead and salmon," said John Meyer, veteran fisheries biologist with Olympic National Park. "These aren't the largest rivers but relative to their size they are very productive."


The healthy nature of these rivers' steelhead is the main reason angling pressure on them has increased significantly in recent years. Fortunately, the region of the Olympic Peninsula known as the West End - roughly from the Lyre River on the northeast down to and including the Quinault on the southwest - is a large area and can accommodate a lot of anglers. Indeed, I fished the upper portion of one of the region's most popular rivers once a week a few years ago, and I only encountered one other fisherman all winter. Last season, my friend, Jay Brevik, and I found solitude on major rivers during the height of the run. Our strategy was simple: We fish during the week, and avoid the lower rivers during the peak of the hatchery run.


So why have West End steelhead runs remained strong, as most of the rest of the region's have faltered? Well, these rivers are a long ways from populations centers, for one thing, and their habitat, especially the headwaters in Olympic National Park, are more productive than rivers in developed areas. The rain, the heaviest in the lower 48 states, knocks the rivers out of shape for extended periods of time, which, in turn, allows significant numbers of wild fish to escape anglers and spawn. There is also evidence that West End steelhead's migratory path along the west coast of Vancouver Island puts them in more productive water than the inland-passage route of Puget Sound fish. The percentages of hatchery fish spawning in the wild are also low on the largest West End rivers.

"Estimated proportions of hatchery fish in natural spawning habitat range from 16 percent (Quillayute River) to 44 percent (Quinault River)," the National Marine Fisheries Service's status review of West Coast steelhead observed. "However, the two largest producers of natural fish (Quillayute and Queets rivers) had the lowest proportions."


Whatever the reason, West End steelhead offer the most productive winter steelhead angling in Washington. Even better, these rivers provide anglers an unprecedented range of options. The rivers range from creeks that you can cast and wade across to glacial torrents with mile-wide floodplains. Anglers who enjoy the greater odds of success on a guided trip have a virtual armada of outfitters to choose from, while steelheaders more interested in solitude can hike above the end of the road on several of the larger rivers.


The variety of regulations on these rivers is also wide - from wild kill zones on the lower reaches to selective fishery and wild release on the upper portions of many of the rivers. The Hoko and Hoh rivers even contain fly-only water.

Rod Ross with a 21-pound buck steelhead he caught and released on the lower Sol Duc. Photo by Jim Richeson

QUILLAYUTE SYSTEM
The Quillayute System, which is comprised of the Sol Duc, Bogachiel, Calawah and Dickey rivers, is the largest basin on the Olympic Peninsula, draining more than 400 square miles. An angler driving to the West End on U.S. 101 from the east enters the Quillayute System at the top of Fairholm Hill, west of Lake Crescent, and follows it over the four Sol Duc bridges, over the Calawah on the outskirts of Forks, and doesn't leave the watershed until cresting the ridge that divides the Bogey and the Hoh basins, six miles south of Forks. The Quillayute rivers rise up on peaks too low to maintain glaciers, however, and as a result they run clearer and clean up faster after storms than the rain forest rivers to the south.

The Quillayute System supports all native Northwest salmonids, but its wild winter steelhead are its gems, and in recent years it has produced more of them than any other system in the region. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that upwards of 19,000 wild fish returned to the system during the late 1990s, although veteran local anglers believe that number is inflated.

Quillayute System winter steelhead, moreover, are not only impressive numerically - they are also bruisers. Steelhead in excess of 30 pounds have been taken in both the Sol Duc and Bogachiel within the last five years, and fish in the 20- to 25-pound range are relatively common. These fish grow large for a simple reason: A higher percent of Quillayute steelhead remain at sea for three or more years than any other population of winter steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. The longer a fish feeds in the ocean, the bigger it gets.

In addition to wild fish, the WDFW releases, respectively, about 75,000 and 100,000 Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead from its Bogachiel Rearing Pond into the Bogachiel and Calawah annually. The hatchery fish return during December and early January, and the fishing is concentrated between the hatchery and mouth of the river at Lyendecker Park, and in the lower Calawah. The Olympic Peninsula Guides' Association and local volunteers also operate a steelhead enhancement program on the Sol Duc; it is maintained with hook-and-line-caught wild fish, and it has released up to 100,000 fish in recent years. There are no current hatchery plants in the Dickey, although strays from the other rivers account for the bulk of its early fishery.

Basically, wild fish may be killed on the Sol Duc from the mouth upstream to the WDFW hatchery at Sappho; wild release and selective fishery regulations are in effect from the hatchery to the winter deadline at Snyder Creek. The Highway 101 bridge is the border between wild kill and wild release regulations on the Bogachiel and Calawah; the North Fork of the Calawah is closed in the winter, and the South Fork is only open through February and up to the Olympic National Park boundary. The upper Bogachiel, which is also selective fishery, remains open through April, including the hike-in only reaches in the national park. The mainstem Dickey and its forks are open to wild harvest through April, although the wild returns to th

e river have been extremely weak in recent years.

Tackle, Guides & Accommodations


Swains in Port Angeles (360-452-2357) has the peninsula's best assortment of conventional tackle. Also in Port Angeles, Waters West Fly Fishing Outfitters (360-417-0937), offers an outstanding selection of flies and tackle, guided trips and the best information on fish and rivers.

 

Olympic Sporting Goods in Forks (360-374-6330) is the West End's nerve center for steelhead, and its proprietor, Bob Gooding, can hook anglers up with traditional tackle guides. Dave Steinbaugh (360-417-0937), J.D. Love (360-327-3772) and Jim Kerr (360-379-3763) guide fly-fishing on West End rivers.

 

The Three Rivers Resort (360-374-5300) and Ocean Park Resort (360-374-5267) have affordable accommodations near the lower Sol Duc and Bogachiel, while the Hungry Bear Motel (360-327-3225) is convenient to the upper Sol Duc. Olson's Resort (360-963-2311) and Straightside Motel (360-963-2100) are located near the Hoko and Pysht. The Westward Hoh Resort (360-374-6657) is on the upper Hoh, near the park boundary.

 

The Washington Department of Natural Resources Cape Flattery (north section) and Forks (south) maps are the best introduction to getting around the West End; they are available at the DNR office in Forks and also at the Thrifty Mart (360-374-6161) in Forks. - Doug Rose

 

RAIN FOREST RIVERS
Vast, boisterous and drawn on a massive scale, the Hoh, Queets and Quinault rivers of the Olympic rain forest are like no other rivers in the world. For one, they absorb more rainfall than any other systems in the lower 48 states. They are also fed by the lowest elevation glacier complex in the region, and the forests that border the river are among the richest biological areas on the planet. As a result, the rivers tend to wax and wane between being in good condition for angling and flowing up in the alders. On the other hand, a trip to a rain forest river can be nearly as much of an aesthetic experience as a fishing trip.

Indeed, these rivers valleys are still without settlement for large areas, and an angler has an excellent chance of seeing Roosevelt elk, drooping mosses, spectral mists and fog.

The northernmost of the rivers, the Hoh is also the most popular yet the smallest of the glacial rivers. Anglers have taken about 1,000 fish annually from the Hoh in recent seasons, with nearly half of them wild steelhead. Each year the Hoh Tribe stocks the lower Hoh (below Highway 101) with about 100,000 Quinault fish during the early season.

By late winter and spring, wild fish are the main attraction, and anglers pursue them in the upper and lower river. The Hoh remains open through April 15, with bait and wild harvest legal downstream of the Hoh Oxbow, while no-kill and selective fisheries in effect upstream.

All types of tackle are popular on the Hoh, with plunking common on the lower gravel bars, conventional drift gear and bait are standard in the middle and lower Hoh. Olympic National Park has implemented a six-mile stretch of fly-only, catch-and-release water between the park boat ramp and one-quarter mile downstream of the Hoh River Campground.

The Queets River flows through Olympic National Park from its headwaters on the south flank of Mount Olympus to the border of the Quinault Indian Reservation, six miles upstream of the Pacific Ocean. Despite this protection, the wild returns have been in decline since the early 1990s, and in both 2000 and 2001 the park imposed wild release and closed fishing early in the Queets. ONP biologist John Meyer suggests that a combination of factors may have driven the production down, including over-harvest, declining habitat quality outside the park and ocean conditions.

The Queets' two largest tributaries, the Clearwater to the north and the Salmon on the south, also provide quality fisheries in their own right. As its name implies, the Clearwater is a non-glacial system and is a good safety valve when the Queets is out. Hatchery fish are the draw on the Salmon, and it is most productive in December and January; it closes at the end of February.

As recently as the 1980s, a 35-pound winter steelhead was taken in a tribal net on the Quinault River. The Quinault Tribe controls Lake Quinault and all the river below the lake. It plants between 250,000 and 500,000 smolts annually, and a very large number of wild and hatchery fish return to the lower river each winter and spring. The only way a non-Quinault can fish the reservation is with a tribal guide, however.

Above Lake Quinault, the mainstem river is managed by the WDFW; it is open through March and all types of tackle are legal. With the exception of limited walk-in fishing around the bridge, the upper Quinault is pretty much a boat show. It is most productive in February and March, and it tends to run clear - often too clear - during extended dry spells.

CEDAR CREEKS
A number of small independent West End streams flow into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Pacific Ocean, and many of them are open during the winter steelhead season. The returns to these rivers are, naturally, considerably smaller than the large systems, typically between 200 and 500 wild fish each year. But the pressure on the creeks and small rivers is correspondingly less intense.

Although pontoon rafts have been recently reported on these rivers, they are too small for drift boats, which further limits the pressure. Nonetheless, most of the small rivers receive hatchery steelhead, and they appear, as elsewhere, during December and January. Traditional drift gear, spinners and flies all perform well on the pockets and slots of small streams. The best time to fish these smaller rivers is after a storm pulls a fresh pulse of steelhead into the river.

On the north, the Pysht, Clallam, Hoko and Sekiu drain into the Strait of Juan de Fuca a few miles either side of the Clallam Bay/Sekiu area. With a watershed of nearly 70 square miles, the Hoko is the largest, and it has hosted the largest runs and harvest figures in recent years. The Hoko downstream of the cement bridge on the Hoko/Ozette Road is open to any type of gear, while the river upstream is fly only and catch-and-release during the winter.

The Pysht is the next largest river, and it has yielded around 150 steelhead recently. Much of the lower river flows through the Merrill-Ring Tr

ee Farm, where a small access fee is charged to fish. This rankles some anglers, but others see it as a filtering device and gladly pay the fee. The Clallam and Sekiu are both smaller and both require anglers to hike behind locked timber company gates. The fly water on the Hoko is open through March, while the lower Hoko closes March 15; the other rivers close at the end of February.

Fewer steelheaders fish the Pacific Ocean creeks, largely because access to the creeks is difficult. The Ozette River is the largest of these rivers, and its only access is a few dozen yards just downstream of the mouth, near the Olympic National Park Ozette Ranger Station; it requires a 40-plus-mile round trip drive from Highway 112.

Goodman Creek is the next largest system, and it is only accessible via the Goodman Mainline (Rayonier 3000). Nonetheless, it receives a fair amount of pressure, including a group of plunkers who occupy the water near the bridge.

To the south, Mosquito Creek is also off the Goodman Mainline; it is even smaller than Goodman Creek, and it receives no plants and considerably less pressure. Highway 101 south of the Hoh crosses Kalach and Cedar creeks; their small number of wild fish requires bushwhacking and near-perfect timing.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Although an overwhelming majority of anglers requested the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in early 2002 to impose mandatory wild release on West End rivers, the commission yet again succumbed to pressure from the WDFW and legislature and voted to continue wild harvest on most large West End rivers. Current regulations allow wild harvest on the Sol Duc, Calawah, Bogachiel, Hoh, Queets, Clearwater, Salmon, Quinault, Pysht, Hoko and Big rivers, as well as Goodman, Mosquito, Cedar and Kalaloch creeks. As it now stands, these are the only rivers in the entire state, other than the Seattle area's Green River, where anglers can kill wild steelhead. The current limit is one wild fish daily and five per year. Anglers fishing in Olympic National Park do not need a Washington fishing license, although they do need a steelhead punch card.



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