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.
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.
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.
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.
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.