Matt Dickerson: Steelhead fishing and the Olympics

A brisk wind blew off the Puget Sound. I stood on the third deck of a state-run ferry, looking west at distant snow-covered peaks of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Shades not unlike those of an October sugar maple accented the backdrop as the sun fell into the Pacific. Then my shivering got the better of me. I stepped out of the wind and into the warmth of the ferry’s enclosed deck to enjoy the view through a thick glass.
Twenty-five years ago — before I caught my first steelhead trout — I planned a short summer backpacking trip to Olympic National Park with my younger brother. A day before we were to leave, my brother broke his ankle. We had to cancel the trip. I’ve dreamed of getting out there ever since, and this past week I got my chance. Except instead of a summer excursion to an interior alpine lake, I was there for one day of steelhead fishing on the far western point where several rivers flow out of the park and run the last two dozen miles down to the sea.
My guide was Ryan Bullock, of Rain Coast Guides. The name of the guide service — or rather the informal name of the region after which the guide service is named — made me nervous. The town of Forks is the rainiest city in the lower 48, which is apparently why author Stephenie Meyer chose to set her famous Twilight Saga series there, despite her lack of experience in the area. Spotting his pickup from the attached drift boat, I found Ryan at 6 a.m. at the town’s supermarket, sporting goods store, and café where the specialty drinks all have Twilight-Saga-themed names. A few minutes later, we hopped in his pickup, and drove along the edge of the national park. We reached our put-in spot on a gravelly riverbank, and as the sky lightened with a hint of dawn, Ryan slipped the drift boat off the trailer and into the water.
The national park signs identified the region as a rainforest. The first rain didn’t start falling until we’d been fishing for over an hour. I expected it to last all day. It stopped after 30 minutes, and didn’t start again until after lunch when another soaking shower settled in for an hour. That was all the rain action we got that day. Even if we’d gotten more, it was well worth it. The fishing action was fantastic and lasted nearly all day. Before the middle of the morning, I’d caught my largest steelhead ever — a 38-inch, 18-pound hog — and equaled the most I’d ever caught in a day. By the end of the day, I’d hooked nine wild steelhead and landed five, both personal bests.
Our flies were big balls of red yarn. Ryan didn’t know why they worked. Before live bait was outlawed on steelhead streams, anglers used cured salmon eggs. When new regulations prohibited bait, they switched to yarn balls because they look like the egg balls. However, there is no natural food in the river that looks like a big ball of yarn, or of eggs. (In late summer and fall, steelhead will eat salmon eggs, but winter steelhead in this river don’t see anything like it.) I, however, was not going to argue with a guide. That proved wise. We’d been on the river about an hour and a half when I hooked and landed my first steelhead, a 32-inch male still bright as chrome and fresh up from the ocean.
Not half an hour later, I hooked up with the 18 pounder: a male sporting dark red flanks and a steely red head against a bright green back with hints of gold. It put up a tremendous fight, refusing to be netted for several minutes. When I landed my third fish — a silvery female — without losing one, I started to feel smug. I then lost the next two hookups, illustrating the old adage that pride does go before a fall.
When the fishing slowed down for the next hour, I worried I’d blown my last couple chances. I started asking Ryan questions about the river, the impressive log jams along the shore, and the bald eagle sitting on a big dead tree. The river currently flowed at 1,700 cubic feet per second, which is comparable to a typical mid-June flow on Otter Creek. Every couple years, however, after a good hard rain hammers the mountains, the river floods out at 40,000 cfs. I asked Ryan to repeat that number a couple times to make sure I hadn’t heard too many zeros. The impact of the scouring from that volume of water, and the routine dramatic shifts the channel takes in those floods, was evident along the wide gravel plane on both sides.
After lunch, the fishing picked up again. In the afternoon, I hooked four more fish and managed to land two bright chrome steelhead fresh from saltwater. Though the river does have a fall run of hatchery steelhead, all the fish in the river in late winter are wild steelhead. When I put my hand into the water to release them, I felt how cold it was from the melting glaciers upriver. As the glaciers continue to disappear in the Olympics, the loss of a year-round source of cold water will continue to put strain on the successful spawning of the peninsula’s famous salmon and steelhead. But Ryan expressed even more concern for the warming ocean waters that are bringing to the north Pacific a whole new set of species that are both competing with, and preying upon, the steelhead and salmon.
By the end of the day, my arms were tired from fighting so many big fish and from casting a salmon rod all day. Despite the arm fatigue, I hope I don’t have to wait a quarter of a century to get back.

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