Olympic Peninsula Steelhead
September 29, 2010
Take in a bit of the rain forest. Venture over to the Pacific Ocean. Whatever you do in this wild country, treat yourself to catching a three-salt wild steelhead.
by Rob Lyon
"These are the big fellas," Kenny had told me on the phone several months earlier. "From March on they're nearly all wild fish; over half of them are 'three-salts.' If you want to have a decent chance of hooking a 20-pound native here in the States, this is the place!"
Olympic Peninsula rivers are quick and strong, just like the returning fish they host. A dozen major rivers spiral down out of the Olympic Range, pushed by nearly 200 inches of snow and rain that brushes the peaks in the interior of this rugged country. Rivers with names like Hoh and Bogacheil, Sol Duc, Queets and Quinault are continually infused; when the rains slow a bit in summer the snow starts to melt, and when the snow's gone, the glaciers kick in and take up the slack.
The Olympic Mountains make up the core of Olympic National Park, and a 57-mile stretch of National Seashore was added to the park in 1953. Of the park's nearly 1 million acres, 95 percent is wild; that's a lot of boonies. I didn't know it at the time but this coastal mountain fishery would come to remind me of the Norwegian streams I knew of only through the writings of Ritz and Schweibert - big fish, bred in big water. While the Olympic rivers do not have the gradient of the steepest Scandinavian streams, they too are powerful, hard-flowing mountain rivers.
Fish do not necessarily come easy on the peninsula. In well over a dozen trips out Ken had hooked just five steelhead to date - this from a guy who is second to none with the long rod in his hand. It was my second trip to the area, and I was still looking to break the ice.
Ken Morrish landed this 15-pound buck steelhead -- a Bogacheil native. Photo courtesy of Ken Morrish
BACKWOODS & MORE As the eagle flies, the peninsula is not that far from Seattle. It is an all-day undertaking, though, to reach the outer coast via ferries and driving down one long, timber-shrouded single-lane highway. Jaywalking elk, scattered clearcuts and dour-looking tackle/convenience stores give it a lonely, backwoods flavor. No roads actually cross over the mountains through the park. Make no mistake, though: The Olympic Peninsula is not just another fishing destination, nor your average stack of trees. A magnificent yet endangered ecosystem, the temperate rain forest originally occupied only an infinitesimal .2 percent of the earth's surface. While it is the rivers and its fish that bring you here, it is the rainforest that provides the Leitmotiv.
Ken Morrish and I had arranged with Dave Steinbaugh to fish the Bogie and the Sol Duc. We'd fished with Dave years before when he was dividing his guiding career between the peninsula in winter and Montana in summer. Now he was here full-time, with a busy guide schedule and a thriving tackle shop in Port Angeles.
We'd awakened in the pre-dawn to the sound of surf booming below the bluff and rain collecting in gutters from the roof of our cabin our first day out. We built a fire in the Franklin stove, brewed several pots of coffee and sat down to a fisherman's breakfast of bacon, eggs and doughnuts. When we left our cabin at the Kalaloch Lodge to rendezvous with Dave, the sky was heavy with mist. The rain had let up, and we could hear the hiss of rubber on asphalt as lumber trucks barreled up and down Highway 101 behind the lodge.
The river glinted like a vein of dark ore under brooding skies and mossy limbs as we entered the Bogie to fish. I was glad for every filament of insulation I had under my breathable waders. Ken was fishing his favorite Spey rod upriver when I heard him whoop; he had picked up a fish right off - a stubby 15-pound buck - after a boiling, tough, short-leash fight.
Most of the fish at this point in the season were natives; Ken's was too. It was released to resume its migration. Such quick fish in a trip are often foreseen as an excellent omen, but so many times (I don't know why) a quick first fish, or bird for that matter, often spelled the only action of the day. I put the thought aside and worked a tight haul to drop my fly on a likely midriver seam. The water looked good to be sure, and I eagerly worked my way through it. Soon the rain began again and the river began to color. We decided to drive to a launch point on the upper Sol Duc. Ken's fish had been our sole encounter.
TIPS FROM OUR GUIDE The river was gorgeous; the bottom a collage of brightly colored stones, and the water every range of color revolving around mossy greens and browns. It looked fresh and vigorous higher up where we were that afternoon. We could see a few occupied redds and a few under construction, but had not as yet hooked up in the half-dozen runs and holes we'd fished. I took a minute between runs to get out my recorder and milk a little of the wisdom of our guide.
"During the spring, about this time, especially from mid-March through April and especially on very low water years like this one, I tend to fish more in the lower reaches of the rivers, like where we started this morning," Dave started. "You've a better chance of getting chrome-bright fish, fresh from the ocean. Check the tides and fish the lower Sol Duc, Bogie, Hoh and Quillayute for fresh steelies entering on the incoming tides."
"Most of the time I fish a bright pattern for the newer arriving fish: fluorescent reds, pink, cerise or orange. They'll eat black, too, but I seem to do better with the brights. On the lower rivers, especially when working the tides, I still fish larger, longer flies even in clear water. Flies 3 to 6 inches are not too long. Later in the spring, fish become more aggressive. With the warmer water they'll begin to chase things more and it won't be as critical to get your fly right down smack on the bottom, and mid-depth levels or so are fine. You still try and fish your fly slowly, but you'll begin to see more sign of following fish."
"Unless you're going to stay in one spot on the tide and wait for the fish to come in, you should try and cover as much water as you can. Keep moving. Go through the good stuff a couple of times in a day if you want to.
"A lot of these fish will be spawning. Stay away from fish that are actively on the redds. Stay away from redds, period. Don't walk near the cleaned gravel spots; those fish have earned the right to be left alone. Your darker fish are not prime sport anyway."
It was late afternoon by the time we stopped for lunch. While the guys sat down on the bank to eat their sandwiches, I gnawed a Power Bar and stayed in the water, determine
d to find a fish. Below, the river swung left, while along the near bank I could discern a shoulder just off the main current. Such spots were like rest stops with free coffee for fish that had traveled thousands of miles on a singular mission, and I waded on down to have a go.
It was late February; the water was very cold. Unlike Ken and Dave, who had turned to fishing sink-tips, I'd stuck to my floater. With a 9-foot leader and a weighted fly, I was ticking bottom often enough. I was concentrating on dead drifts anyway; what little swing I had was a pretty tight rise to the surface
I didn't even have to cast at the head of the run, just flipped my fly up to a spot at the head of the V and worked it gently on down through the drift. I'd started well back from the head in case a fish was parked at the top, always the most violent place to meet a fish; odds were they would spin on a dime and head downriver into the body of the run, leaving you stunned with their speed and power, and that was exactly what a fish did just a couple of casts later.
I lifted as soon as the line hesitated, not wanting to yank it completely out of the water if it was only a rock, but wanting enough of a set to bury the tip of the fly if it was a fish. The rod bowed up and I concentrated. Yes! The pulsing - I struck again hard, once, twice; the rod dipped - whum, whum - as the fish twisted left, right. And then the rod bowed quickly into a deep pulsing throb as the fish zipped downriver!
The fish held in bottom center channel as I hustled down opposite him. Leaning hard against it, it was immovable as a rock. After a few minutes of this, I picked up a 3-pound rock and chucked it out. This got him moving, and as it moved upriver, picking up speed as it went, my hook pulled free.
Over the course of the afternoon we managed one more fish, a handsome 12-pound hen that took Ken upriver and down several times before coming to hand. By the time we were at the take-out, it was raining hard. All in all, it had been a very productive day on one of the Northwest's most challenging rivers. We thanked Dave for a fine day afield and headed out, out of the river and out of the trees, out of the rain back to the succor of our cabin on the Washington coast.
Time spent on the Olympic Peninsula may not come easy, but it is always time well spent (in retro, at the very least). The rivers are in their element and the strain of wild fish that return here have my deepest respect.
HOW TO GO ABOUT IT Stay at the ocean; then go into the forest to fish the rivers each day. The steady percussion of ocean surf below the cliff at Kalaloch Lodge sets a grounding beat to a rhythm of streaming water, and the wide-open bank of stars and ocean horizon each morning and night spell a needed relief from the closeness of the rain forest. There is precious little in the way of lodging available along this coast. La Push and Kalaloch are about it. Don't know much about La Push as yet, but Kalaloch served us well.
From Kalaloch it's about 30 miles to the Sol Duc in the north and about 25 to the Bogie, the Hoh about eight and about 15 south to the Queets.
The trick to fishing the peninsula is passion. This is not just another Texas bass impoundment where you fish from the comfort of a tricked out boat, nor is it a spring creek in early summer where you could feel justified in dying and going to heaven out of sheer tranquility. Instead, it is a vibrant stew of rock, water and organic matter, and not always hospitable to the unprepared. In fact, it is the densest biomass in the known world.
To fish here requires a determined attitude to stay upbeat when it's raining and the water's cold and you're exhausted and you've caught nothing. Either that or you've just got to dig rain forests. Give me the alpine or the high desert sagebrush where you can see forever, but this just happens to be Ken Morrish's favorite place.
It helps to be warm and to be well fueled; that should be a given. Stash extra clothing in the rig in case of a spill and a vest full of Power Bars -well, two or three - does me just fine.
Water on the Olympic Peninsula, is coming at you from every direction. We never did get completely dry that week. We dragged ourselves wet-haired into the cabin each night to sleep, then stood under running water (albeit hot) before dressing to go out to stand in it all day.
If you stay mobile on the peninsula, you can generally find a stream, a tributary or a stretch of river that is fishable. After a week of driving through the woods in the rain with little landmarks of distinction, I was dizzy as a 5-week-old puppy, but getting back to the cabin at the coast always brought me back around.
It's a good idea to hire a guide for your first outing to the peninsula. If not, get a handful of maps: forest service, highway, topographic and cultural. You'll need them all.
Much of the Olympic Peninsula coast is made up of Native American reservations or the huge stretch of wilderness seashore. Highway 101 only touches in once at La Push before reaching the coast again at Ruby Beach another 20 or so miles south. Then it parallels the coast for another 15 miles before it reaches the Quinault Reservation and heads inland again.
The lodge at Quinault is supposed to be deluxe; if you're fishing the southern rivers, you might want to consider a stay there. Both the Kalaloch and the Quinault lodges are national park concessions.
Weather in the spring can range from snow to warm. It's a good bet the rivers are cold and the ambient temperature around them cool. Moisture is a way of life here. Be prepared to wring yourself out at night and to dry your clothes or bring spares.
WHAT TO BRING If you're coming through the area when the shop is open, I'd stop at Dave's and get lined out. He'll set you up with everything from info to tackle. Otherwise, pick it up before you head out. Here's an idea: "KBE flies," the ad in the magazine read: "Most flies 92 cents each. Most tied in the USA!" I liked the odd quality of 92 cents and the suspicious emphasis on "most." A week later I got a very decent selection of flies in the mail from a young Kelly Allen, flyfisherman and entrepreneur.
As for tackle, these are burly fish in burly water, so No. 8 and No. 9 weights rule. Of course, match that with a quality reel (disk drag preferable) capable of some good 20- or 30-pound backing. A hundred yards ought to do you.
You can bring along a whole sack of lines on your visit here and use them all - quick sinkers to sink tips to floaters. When the water warms up, your swings will be more effective. A full sink is good for that. Meantime, a sink-tip or floater will give you a decent dead drift.
Editor's Note: Robert Lyon is a veteran fly-fishing journalist and author. His second book, Water Marked: Journal of a Naked Fly Fisherman, speaks to fly-fishing t
he premier waters of the Northwest: the Deschutes, the Yakima, Olympic Peninsula streams and many more. Each narrative includes complete resource information. Jerry Dennis says: "Robert Lyon is a dharma bum of trout rivers . . .he knows the rivers of the Northwest as intimately as he knows his own soul . . . this collection will yank you to your feet." It's available from Water Marked Press in the San Juan Islands, (360) 468-3250, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maps & Info Information and maps can be obtained at the North Olympic Peninsula Visitor and Convention Bureau's main office at P.O. Box 670, 338 W. 1st, Suite 104, Port Angeles, WA 98362; telephone (800) 942-4042.
Olympic National Park: 600 E. Park, Port Angeles, WA 98362; (360) 452-4501 ext. 230.
U.S. Forest Service/National Park Service Information Centers: Five miles north of Forks on Hwy 101; (360) 374-6522.
Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, 600 Capitol Way N., Olympia, WA 98501-1091; (360) 902-2200.
Washington State Tourism, Map and Directory, (800) 544-1800.
GUIDING & GEAR Waters West: Dave Steinbaugh, Guide service, retail fly shop, 219 North Oak, Port Angeles, WA 98362; (360) 417-0937.
KBE Flies, (888) 808-7067, www.flyfishingflies.com.
LODGING Kalaloch Lodge, (360) 962-2271, www.visitkalaloch.com.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Washington-Oregon Game & Fish