WINTER STEELHEAD SEASON
On the Olympic Peninsula, you can fish for sea-run cutthroat in saltwater during winter and for resident trout in a handful of lakes, but winter steelhead are the main show between late November and the end of April. And the roughly sixty mile stretch of US 101 between the easternmost Sol Duc River bridge and the bridge over the Quinault River crosses arguably the half-dozen healthiest wild winter steelhead rivers in the lower 48 states. Besides turning out impressive numbers of wild and hatchery fish, these rivers continue to routinely produce fish over 20 pounds, and steelhead weighing more than 30 pounds have been caught in the Sol Duc, Bogachiel and Quinault in recent years.
Now that Puget Sound steelhead have been proposed for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the West End of the Olympic Peninsula remains Washington’s last stronghold for winter steelhead fly fishing. Each winter, anglers from around the world travel to the Quillayute System’s Sol Duc, Bogachiel and Calawah and the rain forest’s Hoh, Queets and Quinault rivers when the big anadromous rainbows are on the move.
The relatively sudden transformation of these rivers from the essentially private haunts of local anglers to international fishing destinations, not surprisingly, rankles a lot of people. Unless you know some tricks for getting away from other anglers, it’s way too crowded out here on weekends now. A growing complement of carpetbagger guides swoop into Forks each winter. And we have been laid siege by a glittery array of fish restoration and habitat protection organizations, whose greatest talents seem to be fund raising and self promotion.
A friend and I fished a favorite run on the Sol Duc a couple of years ago. We got there early and had it to ourselves. Presently, we drove downstream, fished a couple of different spots, then crossed the river and headed back upstream. We eventually ended up directly across the river from where we had begun. There were now four nattily-attired anglers fishing it. We hiked downstream and tried a couple of spots that fish best from that side. When we got back to the car, three more fly fishers were getting out of one of those big SUVs, the kind that look like you could milk a cow in the back of them.
Fortunately, the heaviest angling pressure out here this time of year targets the large hatchery runs to the Bogachiel/Calawah, the lower Hoh, and the Salmon/lower Queets. If you avoid those areas–and fish on weekdays–you can still have a nice day and not have to look at a lot other people. Maybe even catch a fish.
I caught a 10-pounder on the Queets a couple of weeks ago. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend. I had been spending my time on the Salmon River, trying to catch a hatchery fish for the pot, to no avail. I decided to put in a couple of hours on the Queets.
It had dropped into good shape during the weekend cold snap, was, in fact, lower than normal for this time of year and still dropping. I don’t know if any boats had worked it that morning, but there were no trailers that afternoon at the Hartzell Creek launch and the road to the gravel bar had an alder across it. I fished a little flat about halfway between Hartzell and the mouth of the Salmon that the boat guys don’t usually target. I got the fish on a fly Don Kaas gave me, a big black marabou spider tied on a gold hook. I didn’t see another person the entire time I was on the river.
For me, the most compelling thing about Olympic Peninsula winter steelhead fishing is its diversity. I was back on the Salmon the day after I caught the steelhead, roll casting a much smaller spider with a single-handed rod and floating line. A few days later, I fished the lower Hoh. Its long runs and glacial water are a perfect match for my Spey rod and big, attention-getting articulated flies and Waddington shanks.
I haven’t fished the Calawah since the big Monday blow, and I’m anxious to see if I can still hike into my new winter drift. A lot of trees came down during the storm, and sometimes they make it nearly impossible to reach a favorite spot. That happened to me about 10 years ago on a very productive pool on the upper Sol Duc. Both the Calawah’s and the Sol Duc’s tight slots and clear water are great places for smaller flies and shorter tips or T-14.
My good friend, John McMillan’s Optimist is a fine pattern for these rivers. It is the fly on the cover of my book, The Color of Winter. It was inspired by his father, Bill McMillan’s, well known Winter’s Hope. John worked as a field ecologist and biologist for the Hoh Tribe and Wild Salmon Center on the West End for eight years and fished about 300 days a year. He is an expert at reading water and uses precise mends to present his fly to holding steelhead.
Body Hackle–Kingfisher Schlappen, palmered
Wing–Hot orange hackle tips, red underwing
Ten years ago, I wrote in Fly Fishing the Olympic Peninsula that, despite its wealth of fly fishing opportunities–saltwater salmon and trout, summer steelhead, Elwha rainbows, mountain lakes, and my beloved beaver ponds–it was the West End’s winter steelhead that keep me living on the peninsula. That is even more true today. And I have been fly fishing these rivers long enough to understand that winter steelhead fly fishing is about far more than merely casting and swinging flies.
It’s about standing on the lower Hoh and tracking the big storm clouds as they drift in from the ocean, watching them pivot against Kalaloch Ridge, and then drift back north, trailing sheets of rain.
It’s about the beauty of steelhead flies on drab winter days–the vibrant blacks and oranges and purples, the spare elegance of Spey flies, the flamboyance of ostrich and peacock and rhea.
It’s about bushwacking through a big-leaf maple glade on the Queets and suddently smelling that lathered-up-horse scent of elk. It’s sitting on a snow covered Sitka spruce snag next to the Sol Duc and marveling at how incredibly good the huge sandwich you bought at the Lake Pleasant Grocery tastes.
And it’s stopping by the Thriftway for groceries on the way home from the Bogachiel and pausing, as always, to look at my friend, Jack Datisman’s, painting above the check out stands. It depicts a Sol Duc steelhead about to hit a Spey fly. Dick Wentworth, Syd Glasso’s talented protege, caught the fish, a 21-pounder, on a fly of his own design, the Mr. Glasso.
As with all thing of value, winter steelhead fly fishing is about a lot more than simply catching a fish.
But it’s always nice to get that first one under your belt.