(For those of you who have signed up for the newsletter since it went online, in the past I always devoted the back page of the hard copy winter issue to a retrospective of my year in the field with rod and gun. This is the first one on the website.)
The year that is now coming to an end has been interesting and productive. I had really good saltwater cutthroat fishing during the chum fry migration on Dabob Bay in March. I also had a lot of fun with summer-runs and sea-runs on the Calawah this summer, and I discovered a couple of new bugs on the Elwha that improved my fishing between the dams.
I finally finished my new book, Fly Fishing Guide to the Olympic Peninsula, which should come out in June. By far, the most enjoyable part of writing it was the time I got to spend with Dick Wentworth. He generously contributed a number of his beautiful Spey flies, and photos of him and Syd Glasso and steelhead for the book. I will always treasure the stories he told me of fishing the West End rivers as a young man and later with Glasso.
I also interviewed Port Angeles’ Don Kaas, who contributed a number of wonderful flies and many fascinating anecdotes. John McMillan let me use many of his superb photos again, and my good friend Joe Uhlman provided many fine shots of the southern Olympic rivers and saltwater.
If I had to characterize the last year, I would describe it as a time of new explorations and deeper investigations into the places I hunt and fish on the Olympic Peninsula. At this point in my life, I found this both welcome and liberating.
The most profound change, of course, was my wife’s and my move from the Olympic Peninsula rain shadow to the Queets Valley. I have fished the rain forest rivers and other West End rivers for a quarter century now–I even wrote a book about them–but actually living five minutes from the Queets and Salmon and Clearwater is, well, it’s incredible.
However, my most satisfying accomplishment this year didn’t have anything do with the rain forest rivers or our new place. It was, rather, a little project I set for myself to find new hike-in area on the Calawah for summer and, especially, winter steelhead.
Over the years, I have always liked and been intrigued by the Calawah. Indeed, I hooked my first steelhead on it. I have always been fascinated by its dark slow water, its pools and rock gardens and deep slots. For some reason, though, I have always spent most of my time on the Sol Duc and Hoh.
My good friend and artist, Jack Datisman, (he did the great masthead photo on this website) told me about a stretch of fly water that he used to fish 30 years ago. I knew roughly the spot he was talking about and had fished above and below it. If you know what you’re doing you can wade up or down to it during summer but you have to cross the river twice. I wanted to find a way to get into the spot during winter high water, when you can’t wade the river
Early last summer, I began trying to find a way into the hole. Although I knew where I wanted to end up–and had topo maps and Google Earth and Jack’s directions–it took me six trips to nail down the simplest and shortest route. It wasn’t hard and didn’t take any particular ingenuity–it was just a process of hiking around gated roads and through clear cuts and dark stands of dog hair fir until I found the easy way.
I found it in late June. I broke out of a side hill of second growth above a large grassy swale. It was surrounded by old growth Sitka spruce and ancient big-leaf maple and alders. I kicked up four cows and six calves as I hiked through the swale, toward the sound of the river.
I came out on an elongated pool, probably thirty yards long. It tails through narrow slots along the far, alder-shaded bank into a long, steep rapids. There is about a 60 yard run upstream of the pool, and then a shorter rapids. It is the sweetest, most perfectly-configured piece of fly water I have seen in a long time.
Jack had told me of a particular tree, an old broken-topped Sitka spruce snag. He said that the slot beneath it usually held a steelhead.
“It doesn’t look like it would, but unless it’s changed it nearly always has a summer run in it.
At summer level water, the fish hold up tight against the far, inside bank of the run. All you have to do is cast downstream at a 45 degree angle, mend once, and then simply follow the fly with your rod until it hangs downstream.
The very best thing about the place, as I’m concerened, is there is no other way to reach it from either upstream or downstream in winter. In other words, not only do I have a staggerinly beautiful piece of summer-run water–I can also pretty much count on it being all my own during winter.
Not everything this year was as satisfying as finding my new Calawah water. Those of you who have received the winter newsletter over the years know that I always included a photo of me and my yellow Labrador, Lily, on the back page, usually with a mallard or pintail or widgeon.
For five years, we lived adjacent to a private saltmarsh and Hood Canal shoreline, and Lily and I hunted it pretty much every day during the open season. It was one of the greatest outdoor experiences of my lifetime.
Last year, we had to make do with public areas, and neither of us, spoiled as we are, had a very good time. The less said about it the better, in fact.
One of my main tasks after moving west was to find new, more inaccessible areas to hunt ducks. I knew we weren’t going to be able to hunt the way we are used to–on tidewater for mallards and pintail and widgeon. But I was confident that I could find some beaver ponds or sloughs along the rivers, and they often contain mallards and teal, maybe even ring-necked ducks.
I have always been fascinated by ringnecks, by the flooded woodland habitats they love, and their stunning brant-like black and white plumage, and they way they dive bomb, straight through the trees, without circling before landing.
Well, to make a long story short, I didn’t find anything promising during a lot of cutthroat fishing and grouse hunting in September and October. I only saw ducks in one small forest pond. It had exactly one pair of mallards, and I wasn’t about to extirpate its only ducks. I began to despair about having decent duck hunting again this year.
I stay out of the woods during the big game seasons. Lily is about the size of a small deer, and the Filson “tin coat” I wear grouse hunting looks a lot like a summer elk hide. When the general seasons ended in late November, I decided to check out the little pond with the two mallards.
It was about three times the size it was in early fall. I glassed it rapidly, looking for birds. I spotted a narrow patch of slightly rippled water. It looked as though something had just swum through it. Moving the glasses foreward, I saw a column of five, no six, seven mallards.
It is probably sort of pathetically silly how excited I was. ButI was. Then, glancing over at the dog, I noticed that she too was aware of ducks–by smell in her case. She looked at me with that intense, completely focused way retrievers do when birds are around. If she could talk, I’m sure she would have said, “Come on old man. Shoot one.”
I didn’t have my gun so we stayed up on the hill above the pond and I looked for ducks with the binoculars. I saw two more mallards–perhaps the local couple–and then noticed water moving in the thick blowdown directly beneath us. After re-adjusting the binoculars, I picked out four black heads and two brownish ones. They were ring-necks.
Lily and I hiked down to the pond a couple of days later, to locate a good place for a blind and to, ideally, see how the birds came and went from the pond. They didn’t move for us, but we did find another pond, nearly as large, a quarter mile up the basin. It had about 20 ring-necks and mallards.
I can’t imagine a nicer Christmas present than finding my own private piece of duck hunting water.
I hope you all have a fine holiday season this year, and get to spend just as much time on the water and in the fields next you as you want.