In Search of
Last Best Steelhead
This article originally appeared in the Winter Issue, 2011 of Harbors Magazine
Terry W. Sheely
Like a long looping cast of wet black fly line U.S. Highway 101 unrolls through the dreams and ambitions of fishermen, rolling across the last best rivers of steelhead and salmon inWashington State.
Sol Duc, Bogachiel, Calawah, Hoh, Queets, Quinault, Clearwater; internationally famous river names as revered in Europe and Asia as in New York, Detroit and Seattle.
The dark deep rivers roll downhill through boulder gardens, rapids and riffling tailouts flowing out of mountainous, glacier basins critical headwaters of a dozen great rivers. Rivers that host sea-run fish that shatter records, spool reels and leave fishermen shaking and grateful.
I have my rod, a good 10 weight, waders and boxes of big wet flies. I’m not yet sure where I’ll stop. There is a cathedral quality to this place, ceilings of muted grays and greens, towers of conifers and old growth maple, pastures where elk graze, and a green that sparkles with rain drops and can humble emeralds.
The rivers hold 20 and 30-pound steelhead, chinook salmon that will bottom-out 50-pound scales, coho to brag about and so many sockeyes and chums that few count them.
Big fish. Two seasons ago Peter Harrison swung a home-grown Spey fly dubbed the English Pete Number 1 into a sullen piece of water on the Hoh River and into the record books. When the screaming 200 yard run was over, when the 45 minutes of thrashing and splashing were finished, a gorgeous steelhead was at the bank, a giant that weighed 31½ pounds at Olympic Sporting Goods in Forks. It was officially certified at 29½, and certified as the largest winter steelhead taken anywhere by fly with 8 kg (17.6 pound) tippet.
Record-book country, one of the last places in America where wild steelhead populations support catch-and-eat fisheries, although catch-and-release is strongly advocated, and the regulation is hotly debated.
This is a place apart.
Peninsula fishing guide Pat Neal (www.patnealfishermansprayer.com) describes his remote home waters as, “a hundred years from nowhere,” then teases me with Sol Duc River success that includes a trio of 20-pound plus late winter steelhead.
The town of Forks, (pop. 5000) is river fish capital of the Peninsula, bunkhouse for a bevy of talented steelhead and salmon guides
www.olympicpeninsulaguidesassociation.com, where double-ended drift boats and hip-booted pedestrians are more common than traffic lights, and where Bob Gooding delivers the latest where and how information across the counter at Olympic Sporting Goods (360-374-6330).
A drift-boat float with a steelhead guide lops decades off the learning curve of most anglers, and take giants steps toward hookups. These rivers are all best fished from boats, yet if an amateur is on the oars they can be dangerous rock banging tests.
The calendar of Forks area fishing goes something like this, floods, droughts, squalls and windstorms with clearing always hopeful.
Runs of rare summer coho attract anglers, especially to the Sol Duc, in August and continue through October when fall silvers arrive. Summer coho average 10 to 12 pounds and are a hoot in low summer water. The Sol Duc is the best for summer silvers.
The Peninsula’s biggest fish arrive in late October when a surge of chinook and coho salmon hit the rivers. Fall chinook can exceed 60 pounds and average around 30. The fall coho weigh 10 to 20 pounds and swarm into Peninsula rivers right behind the kings. On fishing trips in late October and early November it’s common to catch kings and silvers plus overlaps of late summer steelhead, sea-run cutthroat and bull trout. The later into November that you can fish the more ocean coho you’ll see rolling in the rivers, free-jumping, in pools. These late silvers are the biggest of the year; great hook-beaked cohos.
December turns primarily to steelhead. First are the hatchery returns dominated by 7 to 10 pounders, progressively replaced by bigger wild fish that peak in late February and continue into April.
The Sol Doc delivers year-round wild and hatchery steelhead plus summer and fall coho, fall chinook, sockeye, chums, pink salmon, cutthroat and bull trout. Almost two thirds of ‘Duc steelhead are wild fish in the 15 to 20 pound range. This is a good bank fishing option, and a spectacular drift boat river but it can be exceptionally tricky for novice boatmen.
The Bogachiel is a tall legend among steelhead and salmon fishermen, flowing along Highway 101 to join the Sol Duc a few miles west of Forks. Anglers hit the Bogey for winter steelhead, spring and fall chinook, and a solid run of fall coho. The late fall chinook fishery is coveted for producing monsters.
Another big name must-fish the Hoh River is easily the top winter steelhead river on the Peninsula. A wide, powerful, deep sullen river that heads high in ice fields on Mt. Olympus and drops until it reaches the ocean 15 miles west of Forks. The river along Highway 101 hides summer and winter steelhead, cutthroats, spring, summer and fall runs of kings, and fall coho. A huge plant of hatchery steelhead return to the Hoh in January and February, followed by a solid surge of large wild steelhead that test tackle well into April. It fishes best October-December when steelhead and mixed salmon runs overlap.
The most consistent trophy steelhead river on the Peninsula is the Quinault, a fishery managed by the Quinault Indian Nation. This is a complicated river famous for delivering 25 to 30 pound steelhead which for most steelheaders is the fish of a lifetime. For super trophy fish wait until February and March. Requires tribal permit and guide.
Bob Kratzer, guide and owner of Angler’s Guide Service
in Forks sends photos that make me drool, photos on every river around Forks that would make braggarts humble and humble anglers brag.
For accommodation local information check the web at:
North Olympic Peninsula Visitor & Convention Bureau,
Forks Chamber of Commerce,
As steelhead guide Pat Neal points out, the steelhead and salmon are only part of the Peninsula’s charms. The other parts are adventure under glacier-crusted Olympic Mountains, rain forest silence, undammed rivers, curious otters, browsing elk, cathedrals of conifers, the occasional gravel bar black bear, stoic eagles and moss so deep a napping angler disappears into it.