Don on Lake Crescent with his dog, Walter, and cat, Dizzy.
I’ll bet that a lot of anglers who fish the Olympic Peninsula have seen, perhaps even had a conversation with, Don Kaas without knowing it. That’s because Waters West, my friend, Dave Steinbaugh’s, Port Angeles fly fishing shop, is pretty much a required stop for out-of-town anglers, especially those heading to the West End rivers. And ever since Waters West was in its original location on Oak Street–and continuing at its current location on Front Street–Don was nearly a fixture of the shop.
An older gentleman, tall and lanky, with gray hair, he usually sat near the counter. He almost always had a cup of coffee in his hands. Don spent hours talking to Dave and Curt Reed about fishing and fly tying and how things used to be on the Olympic Peninsula. And if you hung around the shop long enough, he might include you in the conversation. If that happened, you’d better hold onto your hat, because Don was gruff and funny and opinionated
“The Sol Duc is a dying river,” he would occasionally say.
For anglers who think of the Sol Duc as one of the great remaining Pacific Northwest anadromous fish systems–and who, not incidentally, have made a long drive to the peninsula and invested a substantial amount of money to fish it–such pronouncements could be a bit of a bummer. But Don’s perspective on the Sol Duc was long, and his judgement was informed with an intimacy that few will achieve again. He not only remembered the days when the salmon and steelhead runs to the river were robust. He remembered when the carcasses of the decaying fish helped support dense insect hatches.
“There used to be a logging camp up at Heckelsville,” he told me. “I’d stop there to buy gas. In March or April when you drove through there, the salmonflies would be going ’splat splat’ against your windshield. I would have to stop and buy Bon Ami to clean the windshield.”
I don’t imagine very many of the people who spoke to Don knew was that he was one of the Olympic Peninsula’s most accomplished and creative fly tyers and most widely experienced fly fishermen. That is quite a statement in a region that has produced internationally heralded tyers like Syd Glasso, Dick Wentworth and James Garrett. But those sentiments aren’t only my own.
“More people need to know about Don Kaas and his contribution to our area and craft,” said Dave Steinbaugh.
Most people haven’t heard of Don because he was cut from an entirely different, more modest, cloth than many modern fly fishers, who seem to be continually auditioning for some unknown contest. But among long-time local anglers he was the fly fisherman’s fly fisherman, the standard you compared yourself to. He was a superb fly tyer, who excelled in a number of different styles, and kept experimenting and learning throughout his life. He also was highly experienced fly fisherman and fished all over the peninsula for every type of fish. And he was incredibly generous with information, flies and, best of all, stories.
When I was working on my book, Fly-Fishing Guide to the Olympic Peninsula, Don showed me scores of his original patterns. He had a real flair for fly design, and they were all beautifully tied. Like many of the other old time fly tyers on the peninsula, he didn’t bother naming most of his dressings. However, three of his flies have become local favorites–the Sand Rock, the Meadow Hole, and the Lab Rat. All are available at Waters West, and through their mail order service.
The Sand Rock and Meadow Hole are the names of well-known holes on, respectively, the Sol Duc and Calawah. Both are primarily summer steelhead or cutthroat patterns. Keeping with the Olympic Peninsula fly tying tradition begun by Syd Glasso, both are sleek, simply designed, and favor feathers over fur. The Meadow Hole has a peacock herl body and peacock sword and pheasant rump feather wings. With its swept back grizzly and teal hackles, and partial floss body, the Sand Rock is essentially a dressed-up soft hackle.
“I fish the Meadow Hole the most in the fall,” Don said. “The Silver Hilton and that are about the only ones I use then. The rest get left in my box. The Meadow Hole on a 200R hook works so well in tail outs and slow water. It rides just beneath the surface. The Silver Hilton is the only fly I can think of in my box these days that isn’t mine.”
The Lab Rat is an all-white bunny type leech. It has dark dumbell eyes, and when you hold it horizontally it looks just like a white rat. Don created it for salmon, and it had one of the best trial runs in the history of fly fishing for Chinook salmon.
“I got a fish the first time I fished it,” he said. “It came from about 15 feet away. I saw it. It was about 14- or 15 pounds. It about blew my mind.”
Don caught three of four other springers with the Lab Rat that year. In addition to Chinook, he fished it in black or chartreuse for steelhead.
Sol Duc Crawdad
In my opinion, Don lived at exactly the right time to experience the extraordinary richness and glory of Olympic Peninsula fly fishing. Born in the 1930s, he was a young man when the fish populations were still robust and when there was little attention directed at them. But he lived long enough to fish graphite rods and modern lines and after more exotic materials became available.
Don said that you could still hear the big kings rolling in the Elwha when he was a teenager. “They were just heavy in there. The humpies came in like herring and there were still a few sockeye.”
And then there were the bugs.
“The carpenter ants were thick on Lake Mills. I used to go up to the head, by Wolf Creek. There would be a carpet of them a couple of inches thick. I’d get out by where the current was in a big eddy, and the fish would be swimming around with their mouths open.”
Don began fly fishing in high school but he wasn’t particularly serious about it until he was discharged from the Navy in the early 1950s. Nonetheless, he regularly fly fished the Elwha and Lake Crescent, where his aunt and uncle owned a resort at La Poel. He also fished for cutthroat on the upper tributaries of the Dickey.
“My uncle ran the lokey (the logging train),” he told me. “I’d go in the East Fork during grouse and deer season. It was really good. You’ll never see it like that again. There was a big beaver pond on Skunk Creek.”
Another facet of Don’s having lived at exactly the right time was that he was old enough to have met many of the seminal Olympic Peninsula fly fishing pioneers.
In the early 1960s, Don and his family were camped near the spring creek at the site of the present WDFW salmon hatchery at Sappho. “This guy comes along says, ‘Do you mind if I fish here?’” Don told me. “It was Syd Glasso. Afterwords, I gave him a cup of coffee. I didn’t have any idea who he was then. I used to run into him a couple of times of year after that. He gave me four flies. They were kind of like Speys on a number 4 hook. I used them up.”
Don was a close friend of James Garrett, a brilliant fly tyer who created patterns such as the Black and Orange Olympic Stonefly and Hoko Hummer, and was the subject of a chapter profile in Trey Combs’ Steelhead Fly Fishing. “I used to watch him tie flies,” Don said. Garrett worked for the old Washington Department of Fisheries and lived for a time at the Bear Springs satellite hatchery near Sappho.
Don told me that he and Garrett used to sit on lawn chairs by the hatchery outlet on summer evenings and watch for fish. One time they saw a steelhead withing casting range when carpenter ants were heavy over the water. Garrett grabbed a rod and cast his ant pattern. “He didn’t get that cast where he wanted but the fish peeled seven or eight feet right to it.”
Of all the fly tying luminaries and innovators that Don met, probably none will resonate more powerfully with contemporary fly fishers than Roderick Haig-Brown. During a vacation on Vancouver Island, Don and his family actually ate dinner at Haig-Brown’s house on Campbell River.
According to Don, he simply drove to their house and knocked on the door. Haig-Brown’s wife, Ann, said that Haig-Brown was down at the river, but she invited them in and gave Don’s children cookies and milk. Eventually Haig-Brown returned, and they ended up staying for dinner.
At on point, Haig-Brown, who was an innovative creator of dressings that took fish but who conceded a lack of interest in the actual craft of tying flies, showed Don his fly tying box. “It looked like a burlap bag exploded,” Don said, with characteristic bluntness.
Kaas Feather Duster
One of the things I most admired about Don was that as a tyer he kept experimenting, kept trying new materials and new types of flies throughout his life. Indeed, Don didn’t really get into winter steelhead patterns or Spey flies until the 1980s, after Quality Fly Fishing opened in Port Angeles and he got to know Garrett. He was in his early 50s by then.
“I like Spey flies for tail-outs,” he told me. “I tied the ‘Graywolf’ for Tom Thompson at the old Graywolf Angler.”
More recently, Don created a series of steelhead flies, his Kaas Feather Dusters, that employ feathers obtained from actual feather dusters. They feature a swept back wings in three segments, separated by tinsel bodies. He tied them in a variety of combinations.
“I tie it in sections because it gives it more motion but without so much bulk,” he said. “It just pulses.”
Don used the same segmented look on Sol Duc Crawdad. He told me he got the idea for it after watching big cutts feeding on the bits of crawdad that otters leave. “I’ve found them in their bellies. Big cutts will hit it like a freight train.”
Now, Don wasn’t particularly into modern synthetics. He liked Edge Brite and tied a lot of steelhead patterns with it in his latter years. But for the most part, although he kept creating new, inventive flies, he stuck to traditional materials.
“He was old school as you could get,” Dave Steinbaugh said.
For many fly fishers, the Olympic Peninsula means one thing: steelhead. If there are steelhead around they fish; if not they tie flies or do something else. Don took as many steelhead on flies as anyone over the years, but I was always impressed by his interest in and experience with the region’s other fish and settings. I still lived on the east side of the peninsula when I first met him, and one time he surprised me by talking about the lakes near Lilliwaup, on Hood Canal.
“I’ve never seen cutts as deep (bellied) as the ones on Melbourne Lake in the sixties,” he said. He told me that the lake was used as a broodstock operation by the state and wasn’t open to fishing until after WWII. “I would get 12- to 14-inch fish that I bet were almost two pounds.
Don also fished Prices Lake. “It seemed all I got in there were Eastern brooks.” He said the cutthroat in Upper Jefferson Lake, which is ensconced on a narrow bench in the upper Hamma Hamma basin, “were the prettiest cuts.” He also caught cutthroat in Miller Marsh, the network of beaver ponds, sloughs and feeder creeks that once sprawled over the upper Lilliwaup. “They used to have pictures of the fish on the wall of the store,” he said.
The upper reaches of the Calawah were also a favorite destination. “I used to go out to the North Fork and get a limit of grouse in about an hour-and-a-half. Then I’d get a limit of cutthroat.” He told me that he caught his first summer steelhead on one of those outings. “It hit a number 10 yellow Humpy.”
As much as he loved all of the Olympic Peninsula’s diverse fisheries, Don definitely had a home water, and it was the Sol Duc. “I have a hard time driving by the Sol Duc,” he used to say.
When he was a young man, Don had an old Model A and drove it on the logging railroads and log roads between Riverside and Schuwah. “There was a swinging bridge right above Riverside. There’s a spawning ground there. I’d sit there for hours and watch the steelhead . . . watch them take alder cones and hemlock cones and cigarette butts.”
Unlike the glacial rivers, which change after every high water event, the Sol Duc stayed pretty much the same for Don’s entire life. “There are only a couple of places I can think of that changed.”
Don particularly favored tail-outs and the Sol Duc’s infamous rock gardens. “They (the rock gardens) are my mainstays. They’ve got hidey holes and the gear guys have a hell of a time. They lose their gear.” Don fished them with a floating line, even in winter. “I don’t use anything but a dry line. I’ve got a couple sink-tips but I got tired of them. In the real heavy rock gardens I just put on a big hook or a weighted one.”
Even though he might tell you that it was dying river–and it certainly doesn’t have as many fish or salmonflies as when he was a young man–Don kept fishing it, as often as possible. As he said, “I have a hard time driving by the Sol Duc.”
Photos courtesy of Christopher Kaas and Joe Uhlman.