Since I’ve been chasing winter steelhead a bit more lately, I started running low on flies. Or at least flies I like. So Skyla jumped in, eager to learn a new craft, and after a few lessons, I put her to work. I showed her how to tie a simple bunny leech, let her choose the color scheme from a big box of materials–I figure a kid’s vision is as good as any when it comes to steelhead flies–and this is what she she twisted up. Looks pretty good for clear-water, big-river fish, don’t you think? Only issue is that she wants to keep everything she ties now. Dangit!
They don’t call it WINTER steelheading for nothing… Before the big warm rains and resulting river blowouts, I ran back over to the Olympic Peninsula for a couple days. Mostly it was a social occasion, to hang out with good friends Nate and Jeff, and stop in for another visit with JD. I went to school with Nate way back when, we’ve fished together all over the place, and now he lives in California. He’s also one of the people who first made me aware of, and encouraged me to participate in, fish conservation. So a chance to celebrate his birthday on the river wasn’t to be passed up.
The weather, though, had it’s say. Air temps stayed in the 30s, we had mixed rain and snow, the occasional white-out blizzard and some pretty sketchy driving. Water temps stayed low, and very few fish were being caught. Probably because there simply aren’t many around this year. I was lucky enough to hook one during a brief–and coincidental, I think–moment of sunshine (shortly after the picture above was taken), but otherwise we heard of little success. And a lot of the time, we were treated to a persistent, wet, mix of slushy snow and rain. Like this:
But numb fingers and slow fishing did little to dampen the enjoyment of time on the river with good friends. With all the politics around Olympic Peninsula wild steelhead now, and some pretty serious issues about their future survival, it was further incentive to participate in the challenge of saving them–if for nothing more than to have more days like these ahead.
The crowds. Declining wild steelhead runs. Fish Politics… A few years back, I pretty much quit the Olympic Peninsula, for any number of reasons. Since then, I’ve been lucky to spend most of my steelhead time on the Bulkley, the Kispiox, the Skeena and Nass, unnamed BC coastal rivers and other places far and wide. Then there’s the food fishing in Puget Sound, Willapa Bay and the Columbia. Plenty to keep me busy, but I was jonesing to swing flies for wild steelhead, and this year, for the first time in a long time, I felt the pull of the OP.
Fellow fish fanatic Danielle and I headed west shortly after torrential rains had blown out every river in the state. We had to kill time before the rivers were fishable, so we walked into the Lower Elwha Dam Site and felt the power of a full and free river tearing through the canyon. We stood on the new Elwha Delta and watched the river meet the sea. Then we pushed on farther west.
The OP rivers were falling into shape, and we were soon swinging flies through high, dirty, yet fishable water. The skies cleared. Temps dropped. Snow fell. Conditions went from marginal to perfect. Not many fish around–Perhaps the bulk of the run (2-salt fish) perished in The Blob?–but enough to keep it interesting. And so much killer water to swing through! I had forgotten how much I love this place, and it felt great to remember.
Another bonus was time with JD Love, a good friend and the dean of Olympic Peninsula fly fishermen. We had a gorgeous elk-roast dinner with the Loves at their home on the Sol Duc, and a few hours here and there on the water together. JD’s generosity extended beyond local knowledge and dinner–he and his wife also came to the rescue when we found a lost beagle on the lower Hoh and spent the evening tracking down its owner.
As the days passed, I looked with fresh eyes at the natural beauty of our rainforest landscape, watched the crowds of bobber-tossing guided anglers grow as the waters dropped (one day I counted 17 boats in at Morgan’s Crossing on the Hoh…), and yes, even managed to scrape up a few fish on the swung fly.
I think it’s one of those things where you forget the treasure you have in your own backyard, take it for granted, grow frustrated with it. But after some time away, you understand and appreciate what you have, and perhaps love it even more than you did before. I will be back on the OP again. Soon.
Sometimes the best foraging is right at home–in this case, in the very back of the freezer. I was digging around for razor clams to cook for Christmas dinner and came up with a long-lost package of hot-smoked king salmon bellies from 2015. September 2015, to be more exact, meaning they were more than a year old. I thawed ’em out and, incredibly, they were delicious. Perfect. Still firm, still dripping with fat, still smoky and salty and awesome.
And looking at the date, I remembered fishing Willapa Bay with my good friend Sweeney, and how the pelicans posed on pilings outside the harbor that morning, and how the sky turned black with sooty shearwaters in the evening. And how we had to scratch to find our kings, and how stoked we were when we put a couple nice ones in the box. Amazing what you can find in the back of the freezer.
Last month I spent a few days on the Clearwater River, outside of Lewiston, Idaho. I hadn’t fished it before, and wanted to experience a salmon and steelhead river so far from the sea. In an icy downstream wind, we found a fast-flowing coldwater river of broad riffles and perfect, cobbled bottom running through hills covered in pine, dry grass and rock. The steelhead were few and far between, but it hardly mattered–this was the kind of water I dream of, in a place of exhilarating beauty.
An eddy was littered with the bodies of spawned out king salmon, and it was hard to look at them and not think of what it took for them to get here. 450 miles. Eight dams. Uncountable threats. And these fish did it as six-inch smolts going downstream, roamed the Pacific Ocean for years, and somehow found their way back as full-grown adults.
The night before, there was a hearing in Lewiston on the removal of the four Lower-Snake River dams. Two weeks later, there was another in Boise on the same day as a crowd rallied and marched in Seattle to bring down these deadbeat dams. There is opposition, for sure, but momentum is building. I can feel it. We need to keep the pressure on, the interest up, and I think we can one day make the trip home easier for thousands of inland salmon and steelhead. I want to be there when it happens.