Something’s broken with OP steelhead rivers

by Kirk Werner on April 8, 2014

Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is home to rivers that many regard as the last best fishing for wild, native steelhead in the lower 48. To name just a few, the Hoh, Bogachiel, Sol Duc, and Calawah comprise a list of rivers with long traditions of being a mecca for steelhead fishing. The area around Forks is a beautiful, wet, somewhat remote, wet, somewhat unspoiled, wet area that is less than 4 hours from Seattle, including a 30 minute ferry ride. Theses rivers are comparatively short as they flow directly into the Pacific Ocean from headwaters in the coastal Olympic Mountains. Catching a chrome-bright fish is common. Or at least it used to be, so I am told.

When the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife began closing Puget Sound rivers to late season fishing a few years ago, essentially eliminating the best of winter steelhead season, anglers had few choices of locations in which to chase these anadromous rainbow trout. Eastern Washington (inland) rivers, if they happen to remain open late in the season, aren’t quite the same as the rivers of the Olympic Peninsula. Fish in those inland rivers have hundreds of miles to migrate, past several dams on the Columbia River, in order to make their spawning grounds by Spring.  They tend to be smaller than the coastal fish and they’re far from chrome bright by the time they hit their natal streams. And most of them are hatchery fish. By no means are they not fun to catch, but it’s not the same. The inland rivers tend to fish much better in October anyway, while winter steelheading has always been more of a western Washington game. But when WDFW decided to close the Puget Sound rivers early due to depressed fish returns, that began to put more pressure on the Olympic Peninsula rivers. People wanting to pursue wild, winter fish began focusing more and more on the coastal rivers. While I am by no means an avid steelhead fisherman, I’m guilty of jumping on the Forks Bandwagon—at least somewhat.  For the past 4 years in a row, I’ve made a trip to fish the OP. 

Before ever having been to the Forks area to fish, I had a preconceived idea that there were scores of fish in the rivers, and that they would be caught—or at least a few would be. Even if angling unaccomplishments resulted in lost fish, I fully expected several hookups—this was the Olympic Peninsula, after all: Fabled wild steelhead rivers. Free-flowing wild rivers. Fresh fish, still carrying sea lice. Hot, strong, tail-walking torpedos that just hours before were still swimming in the ocean.

With that hope in mind, Schpanky and I embarked on our first trip to the OP in late March, 2011. That first year my buddy and guide, Joe Willauer, took us down the Hoh River where Scphanky caught two nice fish: one early in the day; the other at the take-out. Half-surprisingly, I came home smelling of skunk. I missed a real nice fish, but was glad to see the boy hook up twice so the day was a success in my books. We fished using nymph rigs all day. Fished long, fished hard. Despite the two fish, in my opinion it was a slow day based on my preconceptions. An off day I reckoned. Besides, it’s hard to time things perfectly with only one day to fish in the wettest part of the lower 48 where the rivers can blow out quickly. Perfect conditions are hard to come by unless you fish there a lot. We’d go back the next year and hope that the OP would show us her best, or lat least something better.

Joe and Schpanky, first Hoh River fish 2011

Schpanky and his second Hoh fish, 2011

In late March of the following year we returned to Forks to fish the Bogachiel River with Joe. On this trip we once again nymphed on the go, stopping to swing flies with the Spey rod once—to no avail. While nymphing, Schpanky landed a nice fish and lost a another, while I lost a nice fish and landed a 5 pounder: a colored-up fish that most would call a “trout.” It was slow fishing like the previous year, but we caught fish and at least the river wasn’t blown completely out of shape. So no complaints. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the OP had to be better. I’d go back the next year and hope to encounter a more productive OP.

Schpanky’s nice Bogachiel fish, 2012

My Bogachiel “Participant’s Fish”, 2012

The third year was a total bust for me, but it wasn’t the fault of the rivers or the fish. A strong reaction to a tetanus shot I’d received the day before saw to it that I spent the entire first day hunched over in the back seat of Large Albacore’s raft with a left arm that I couldn’t move. I’ve never felt worse in my life—couldn’t even muster the gumption to pick up a fly rod all day long. Neither Large nor Junior Albacore had so much as a bump that day either. On day two, still suffering from flu-like symptoms so, I ran the morning shuttle for the Brothers before calling it quits. I drove home, cursing my doctor the entire way. After two more days of fishing, the brothers Albacore reported that neither had touched a fish. No bumps, no lost fish. Nothing. And the weather had been uncharacteristically perfect; the Bogachiel was in great shape, just lacking fish despite that the Brothers covering a lot of water with nymph rigs and Spey rods. It was, once again, late March. I began to wonder if this was normal.

Don’t get a tetanus shot the day before a fishing trip

The Brothers Albacore, 2013

After that fateful 3rd year I reasoned that it couldn’t possibly get worse so this year I went back, again in late March. This time I joined the Brothers Albacore and their Pappy Albacore. We fished the Bogachiel River, again. On the first day the river was a bit high and chocolate-colored from heavy rains. Despite the appearance, the river actually gave up a nice chrome hen to Large Albacore’s swung fly. I was fortunate to be there wielding the net. It had been a long time since I’d seen an OP steelhead—I’d almost forgotten what they look like. Relieved to get the skunk off the boat early on day one, we angled on with great hope. However, that was the only steelhead to be landed that day. I did manage a 10 inch coastal cutthroat, but one doesn’t venture to the OP in quest of 10 inch cutthroats. The next day the river was a bit higher, but better-colored. We nymphed, we swung. Not a single bump on day two. Large and Junior each scratched out a 10 inch coastal cutthroat, which we determined was the same fish, and the same fish I’d caught the day before. I had to return home a day early while the Albacores fished a third day. Despite Pappy’s hookup and brief battle, no other fish were hooked. 3 days, 1 fish. It was more productive than the dismal previous year, but the lack of fish willing to play was a tough pill to swallow. I spoke with a WDFW employee conducting creel counts at the end of the second day: a single fish had been reported caught on the lower Bogachiel River.

Large Albacore’s Bogachiel hen, 2014

I’m not going to go into reasons why I think the fishing seems depressed on the OP Rivers. I don’t get out there enough to capitalize on what may be more productive fishing than I’ve experienced, and I am first to acknowledge that catching is never a guarantee on any river, anywhere. But I will tell you that the escapement numbers of returning fish making it into the rivers is down and continuing downward. Make a point to see Shane Anderson’s film, Wild Reverence. Draw your own conclusions. Read Bob Triggs’ blog to hear why he quit guiding for OP steelhead this year.

Will I go back next year?  I won’t say no for sure at this point,  because I greatly enjoy the time spent with good friends. However, despite that my angling prowess insures that my impact is low, it’s starting to feel not right for me to go out there and attempt to harass what seemingly few fish remain.

Something ain’t right.





Wild fish recovery depends on many factors. One of those factors involves hatchery fish, or more specifically, less of them.

A group of anglers, not affiliated with any conservation organization, has pulled together to raise funding to let the folks at the Native Fish Society know that they’ve got support in the face of other groups who oppose the Native Fish Society’s stand on the matter of reducing hatchery fish.

The Adipose Pledge can be your way of sending a message of support for wild fish.  Consider taking the pledge, HERE.

And thank you for your time.




Unaccomplished Angler or Open Fly?

Scores of readers have written in, asking me, “What the hell?  As of late it seems the UA blog posts have been nothing more than announcements when a new show being posted on that Open Fly thing…What gives?  Are you still blogging or what?”  Actually, nobody has written with any sort of inquiry, but any of you still reading my blog may be wondering.

Let me essplain.

Blogs change over time. Sometimes they flow with a steady current of new material, while other times they slow to a trickle. A blog may meander off course from time to time, and sometimes they completely dry up—we’ve all seen that happen. Think of a blog as a river—never the same; sometimes better, sometimes worse. But always changing. And so flows the Unaccomplished Angler.

Since becoming involved in the Open Fly podcast in January, that endeavor has consumed more of my energy, and running this blog has taken a bit of a back seat. Plus, I haven’t done much fishing lately so there’s been little to write about in that regard. I’ve gotten out a few times, but I’ve done more oaring of my new boat than fishing and nobody wants to hear about my oaring (except maybe Morris). In the past I’ve filled the fishing down-time with nonsensical material, and while that will never end, I’ve not done much of that either. The podcast is important to me. We’re not doing it just for fun, although we have a rather good time in the studio. But we also take it very seriously, especially when it comes to our conservation segments.

If you haven’t been listening to the podcast, shame on you! Download the shows on iTunes so you can listen at your leisure, or listen on that Sticher radio thing, or on our website. I’m confident you’ll find something of interest, otherwise I wouldn’t be wasting my time putting in the energy with the show. Honestly the podcast has a lot more to offer than this blog could ever hope to achieve. That said, the UA is not going away—when I’m inspired, I’ll post more of the content all 9 of you have come to expect over the past few years. But for now, the Unaccomplished Angler can be found/heard in the studios of the Open Fly podcast…

Derek, Dave Henry, UA

 This past week found me busting out the UA Noped (a 1987 Suzuki FA50) for a jaunt down the hill on the first nice day of the season. In studio to record the tenth episode of the Open Fly were, in addition to Evan and Derek and I, guests  Sarah and Dave Henry (2 Handed Trout blog), and Ted Nugent. Again. Sarah is by far the most attractive of the group so you may be wondering why she wasn’t featured in the photo (below). Someone had to take the photo, and bring us food and beer…thanks, Sarah.

In Studio

Besides the steady supply of jovial and oft-immature banter, Show 10 featured a conservation interview with Morgan Kupfer, speaking as a representative of CCA Maryland. Morgan is also 1/2 keeper of the blog known simply as TLTFF, or not-so-simply as Tight Lined Tales of a Fly Fisherman. Morgan fills us in on challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay region and how to noodle for Snakeheads. The Guide Stories segment features Brian Wise of Fly Fishing the Ozarks  Brian tells us about his excitement in fishing some of Missouri’s lesser known fisheries: Big trout, big streamers, and western style rivers. Brian offers up a lively interview so be sure to check out the show.

By now you know where to find us. If you don’t, you haven’t been paying close attention. Do something about that, won’t you?

The Open Fly Podcast. Show 10.




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Aquatic invasive species is a topic every angler should be keenly aware of, and on Show 9 of the Open Fly Podcast you’ll learn some good things including the proper way to clean your boots to prevent the spread of alien organisms. Bleach is out, water is in. Dry them thoroughly or put them in [...]

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The Open Fly Podcast, Show 8 (and a tying contest)

March 14, 2014

We hope you’ll agree that show 8 is Gr8. Listen on the Open Fly website or find it on iTunes or Sticher Radio. In our conservation segment we talk with the folks behind the organization, Fish Not Gold. They’re taking on the unregulated suction dredge mining that’s causing considerable damage to Washington streams—streams that are [...]

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