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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.

 

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

aaron April 9, 2014 at 9:02 AM

Hi this is a great article. I have been frustrated as well on the OP rivers. I have experienced the curse of the SKUNK. I m not sure if the rivers have less fish or not because I have only fished them on and off for the 15 years. Skunked most of the time unless I fish the Quinault.

If you have the time, I suggest heading up to the Skeena valley and fishing rivers like the Kalum, Kitimat, and Copper for late winter steelhead. Nole Gyger has a helpful website that provides weekly reports. If you are there late enough you can hit the early Chinooks or “Springs”.

The Kalum is like the Quinault having a large lake in the middle so the lower end rarely blows out.

With conservative fishing regulations in place for decades the Skeena system has consistent returns that were found 50 years ago or more.

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Kirk Werner April 9, 2014 at 9:37 AM

Aaron, thanks for commenting. It’s important to note that I don’t put in near enough time on the OP to know the rivers well, and in order to expect the highest success one must know the water. However, that doesn’t change the fact that those rivers, or at least the ones I’ve fished, are low on escapement. With good habitat the fish are likely spawning and juveniles returning to the salt. It’s when they return that they’re encountering issues that affect the catch rate for occasional anglers. Something is happening to the returning fish as they head into the rivers from the salt. Harvest. The Quinault, as I understand it, is a different animal because of the little matter of unclipped hatchery fish. The Skeena system is on my bucket list—thanks for that info.

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Junior Albacore April 9, 2014 at 9:53 AM

Kirk, there is always the possibility that we have no clue what we’re doing. :)

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Kirk Werner April 9, 2014 at 10:17 AM

While I may agree, I would certainly never admit that publicly ;)

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Morris April 9, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Politics, religion, and sexual orientation aside, it sounds a like a fun trip – I think. Looking forward to getting ya liqueur’d up (read as Miller Highlife 32oz oil can) to hear precisely what you really think about the OP fisheries and or my choice of cheep beer.
Cheers.

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Kirk Werner April 9, 2014 at 10:29 AM

Let’s go catch some plentiful and small Firehole fish. They play nicely and make me feel better about myself.

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Chuck Atkins April 9, 2014 at 10:05 AM

Fishing is getting worse everywhere for the most part. Steelhead are just one of many canaries in the “coal mine”. Most of them we ignore. WE only notice the steelhead because we are anglers. Most people have never even heard of a steelhead. Would we care if we weren’t compelled to catch them. Have you stopped eating tuna. They will all be gone in our lifetime! Ninety percent of pelagic fishes in the ocean are already gone! WE are poisoning the planet! No need to wonder whats happening to steelhead; same thing that’s happening to everything else! They can’t find that airliner in the Indian Ocean…..partly because there is so much garbage out there floating around! How many times did they think they found some of the wreckage….only to find out it was just some more plastic garbage? Republicans keep makin it easier for industry to pollute everything. When Bush got in office…the first thing he did was turn back all the environmental legislation Clinton passed! He put Gayle NorTon in charge of the EPA. She had been a lawyer for the mining industry! Ha! Under that cunt ….mountain top mining in Appalachia was unbridled! Over 700 hundred miles of streams were destroyed. Did you care? Nope, because you don’t fish for 5 inch trout in Appalachia.

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Kirk Werner April 9, 2014 at 10:28 AM

To say I don’t care is not accurate—but it’s not an issue I’ve heard about. Just like, as you noted, most people don’t know what a steelhead is, so they can’t help but not care. While you are certainly correct on many fronts, out here there’s one thing that needs to stop—something that can make an immediate and significant: gill netting the rivers. But that’s going to have to be a voluntary act on the part of the netters because no politician is going to risk career suicide to speak out and take a firm and loud stand against the Boldt Decision. Thank God for brown trout. We’ll need some sea-run browns planted out west to make us forget about steelhead once they’re gone.

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Sky April 9, 2014 at 12:34 PM

1 or 2 fish a season, even with multiple trips? Just sounds like winter steelhead fly fishing to me. And on the OP, those hard earned fish still come in a majestic, wild place with ample public access.

Bothered by crowds? Or like Triggs, beads and GoPros? Then don’t fish at the hatchery holes, boat ramps or obvious access points.

I make at least three or four trips a winter and two trips a summer to the OP. Sure it’s more crowded than I’d like, but there are half dozen rivers out there, and not all of them flow through Forks.

And because I’m willing to hike a few miles (through devils club…), not once have I been unable to find quiet, empty swinging water. Water that has a few big, bright wild steelhead still willing to hit an Intruder.

There are real problems with this fishery and its returns. These wild steelhead deserve our respect and care, and the ones we hook should be handled carefully and promptly released without leaving the water.

But if you want to eat, you have to sit at the table.

There are too many user groups on the OP (tribes, logging, development, gear anglers, fly anglers, guides for both, Forks) to logically argue that a few fly guys tapping out are going to change the returns.

More than anything, these fish need advocates.

Advocates to build coalitions with gear anglers and tribes for habitat protection.
Advocates to fight for mandatory wild steelhead catch & release and selective gear rules. Advocates for staggered tribal netting schedules. Advocates for hatchery reform and wild fish gene banks. Maybe even advocates for reduced guide caps, boat fishing regulations and shorter spring seasons…

I’ve never met someone who has caught a wild steelhead on a fly who isn’t mad about protecting and preserving the species. These fish are just that special.

We need more of those conservation-oriented angler advocates, not less.

And the fact is there are still lots of steelhead out there. A quick look at any gear guide’s website or Steelhead U makes it quite obvious (too obvious!), even if they might be difficult to wrangle using our chosen methods.

Sure the OP runs aren’t what they once were, but are any steelhead runs in the lower 48 what they were twenty years ago? Just because they’re not putting out double-digit days should we stop fishing them? Or urge others to stop?

There are a lot of reasonable steps that should be taken if we want to preserve the amazing resource that is OP wild steelhead. But at the moment, I don’t see how not fishing is one of them.

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Kirk Werner April 11, 2014 at 12:32 PM

I appreciate your comment and good thoughts. I totally agree that the fish need more, not fewer advocates. And whether I continue to go there for an occasional outing would not remove me as an advocate. Choosing to not fish the rivers would merely be a personal decision. We all do what we feel is right and not everyone agrees because we all have different opinions.

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Sky April 15, 2014 at 3:36 PM

Most definitely. You know what they say about opinions…
Regardless of differing views on fishing the OP, I bet wild steelhead are stoked to have you as a supporter Kirk. Particularly as you can’t seem to stick many with hooks! Keep it up, this is a subject that needs more attention and posts and conversations like this help bring it to light.

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Chris April 23, 2014 at 8:03 PM

Yes, the Olympic Peninsula rivers are not what they were 20 years ago…. but the escapements on the Sol Duc, Hoh, and Bogachiel are actually higher in 2012/2013 than 1992/1993.

Swinging a fly has always been tough on the Olympic Peninsula and the added pressure has made it even harder. All of the potential solutions are fought tooth and nail by the very advocates we don’t want to lose.

The elephant in the room is that the early returning wild fish are basically gone. They once made up the majority of the run on the coast and we traded them for hatchery fish that neither the sportfishing or tribal communities are willing to give up. We are fighting over 2.5 months of wild fish that used to be 5 months. Fixing habitat won’t work if the run timing doesn’t work for the temperature or hydrograph of the habitat repaired. april spawning steelhead don’t do well in non-snowmelt creeks due to rapidly dropping flows well before fry emerge from the gravel.

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Kirk Werner April 24, 2014 at 7:49 AM

Great comments, thanks Chris.

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Jeff Ferguson April 10, 2014 at 1:26 AM

I’m with Triggs. I conciously decided to not go back to the OP. The Montana guides need to stay home and tie trout flies. Last time I was there guide boats floated right thru water I was working, with their nymphs in the water, my water. I don’t need peckerheads ruining my fishing.

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Kirk Werner April 11, 2014 at 12:35 PM

I haven’t experience the guide boat thing you mentioned—that’s seriously wrong and unfortunate. When I’ve been with a guide out there, our boat has always acted accordingly with proper etiquette. I’m not gonna touch the issue of Montana guides because one of them may be my friend, but I’ll gladly approve your comment for public consumption ;)

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Chuck Atkins April 22, 2014 at 10:26 AM

There are asshole guides everywhere! The most famous guide in Michigan has run his jet boat right by me while I was wading. I waved to him with the middle finger. I was praying he’d stop! The desperation of guides makes them aggressive. When a guide is pimping your water you know things are tough all over! I love to high hole those pricks and yank fish out right in front of them when they are gettin spanked! Best feeling in the world! I love it when I see their clients pointing at me while I land a fish! Ha! You know the guy is sweatin then!

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chris August 10, 2014 at 5:33 AM

Care about op steelhead? Then quit writing about them and stay home. If you don’t live here, don’t fish here. Oh, and nynphing isn’t fly fishing. Hire a gear guide to dredge bait around next time. That’s pretty much what you are doing anyway. That might get you the greedy numbers you out of town bloggers are looking for.

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Kirk Werner August 11, 2014 at 10:28 AM

As a greedy, out of town blogger who doesn’t really fly fish, I recommend you don’t waste your time reading this blog.

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