Hopelessly watching basketball instead of steelhead fishing.
After sitting out last year’s trip to chase
unicorns steelhead in Forks with the Albacore clan (brothers Large and Junior Albacore, and their Pappy), I looked forward to joining them this year, if for no other reason than to enjoy their fine company.
Winter steelhead fishing is a dicey proposition in the very wet, very upper left-most corner of the continental United States. Forks, WA is located near the Hoh Rain Forest which is in the Olympic National Park. It’s called a rain forest for good reason: it rains a lot—like, 150 inches per year (that’s 12 FEET or rain). During the winter steelhead season it can be very challenging to plan a trip that doesn’t coincide with coastal rivers being blown out due to copious amounts of precipitation. The times I’ve gone in the past I’ve gotten pretty lucky—not to have avoided rain altogether, mind you, or even to have caught a fish–but to have at least encountered fishable rivers. When headed to this part of the country, to fish for steelhead this time of year, all one can do is hope that the heavy rains will be less heavy. Forge ahead with cautious hope. If the weather cooperates, that’s a victory. If a fish is caught, that’s a huge bonus. If a fish is caught while swinging a fly on a Spey rod, well, you best go buy yourself a lottery ticket.
The winter of 2015-16 has been very wet in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle proper (actually one of the drier locations in the region) has had “the wettest rainy period on record” according to local news sources. Officially, the rainy season is from October 1st through March 31st. As of March 13th, Seattle, which has an annual average rainfall of 36.15 inches, has racked up nearly 42 inches of rain (the average rainfall for that period is 25.97 inches). Rivers have been blown out on many occasions, and I’m not referring to just the rivers of the Olympic Peninsula. The local Snoqualmie River, which runs through the down in which I live, has flooded 5 times this winter, and winter isn’t technically over yet. But I digress, back to Forks. With an average annual rainfall of 99.5 inches, Forks is way wetter than the Seattle area. And remember, this has been a record wet year.
We knew a storm front was coming in late on Wednesday, the day of our departure. It was going to be wet but we held out hope. Ironically I bought a couple bottles of Olympic Rain Natural Spring Water for the drive. I probably shouldn’t have. It wasn’t raining when we boarded our ferry crossing. By the time we docked on the other side 30 minutes later we could no longer say that it wasn’t raining. 2-12 hours later, when we arrived at our destination (The Forks Motel), the bottled Olympic Rain was gone, but the rain was coming down in buckets. And the wind was starting to blow pretty good, or pretty bad, depending on how one chooses to see it. We hunkered down for the evening, passing the time by enjoying a beverage or several and watching Big 12 Basketball. Well, at least
some of us the others enjoyed the basketball part of the equation.
We had planned to fish with guides on Thursday. When we awoke the next morning a quick call confirmed we had already feared: there would be no fishing that day. It had rained 2 inches overnight and the rivers were all blown to smithereens. It was a rather dreary morning in Forks.
It continued to rain steadily for most of the day, but at least the rain was also accompanied by a strong wind. And fortunately there was more basketball to watch. All day. A basketball game may only last an hour or so, but there were multiple games to be watched. It was one of the longest days of my life. During one brief reprieve from the basketball and rain, Large Albacore and I took a stroll around the block and contemplated engaging in some tourist activities. But even those businesses were closed. Soon the rain resumed so we made a hasty retreat back to basketball central.
The day did improve, however, and by afternoon a double rainbow emerged, giving us a small glimmer of hope that tomorrow would bring better things–that we’d be fishing. I also hoped that if we weren’t fishing the next day, at least basketball wouldn’t be on television the next day. One can always hope, right?
The next day, Friday, we had planned to fish by ourselves. We did bring two boats with us, after all, so it would be nice to use them. Upon waking that moring we checked flows and it was determined that floating would not be an option. While the rivers were coming down, they were still way high, and the boats would remain on their trailers. To ward off cabin fever we hopped into Large Albacore’s truck and drive around looking at rivers, much to our disappointment. Everything was gray, from the sky to the rivers and everything in between. One might go so far as to say that there were as many as 50 shades of gray but I won’t go there. We decided to drive into the Olympic National Park and check out the upper Hoh, hoping that the farther upriver we went, the better conditions might be. We did not find much to give us hope, although we did wader-up and ply the gray waters of one run for about an hour and a half. Despite a solid 3-4 inches of visibility, fishing was an act of futility as there was just too much water. After losing my second fly to unseen rocks I was done. Large and Junior Albacore had no better success than me, although I believe they kept all their flies. Papa Albacore was the only one smart enough not to have donned his waders and strung up a rod. With age comes wisdom.
Lest one should think things were miserably without hope, there were many good things about the day: the rain fell only lightly, the wind was fairly nonexistent, and there was more basketball to watch back at our motel room. We checked flows (again) and remained desperately hopeful that we would be able to get our boats on the water the next day. An unexpected call from the guide both surprised and delighted us: they had moved some trips around (meaning they had cancellations) and could accommodate us on Saturday, if we were so inclined. We were. And so we slumbered that night, dreaming of low rivers and plentiful wild steelhead.
We awoke the next morning hoping for the best, and while the best may not have been what we encountered, we noted that it didn’t look like it had rained all that much overnight. We checked the flows (one final time), and ate breakfast. When we met with the guides they were honest in their assessment: we could certainly fish, but it didn’t look very promising. We mulled it over for a few minutes and even went so far as to drive down the road to take a first hand look at the Sol Duc River. It was then that we opted to cut our losses and called fishing time of death at 7:20 AM. I honestly felt bad, and not for ourselves but for the guides. It had been a rough year—no doubt cancellations had been all too common. Top Ramen would continue to be their meals of choice for some time to come.
Rather than spend the rest of another day watching basketball, we decided to pack up and head home a day early. Being the eternal optimist that I am—able to always see things in their brightest light—it’s actually a good thing we came home a day early. Had we stayed until the next day we’d have driven home during another, even bigger, storm; one that brought with it very strong, damaging winds. The Hood Canal floating bridge was closed for several hours, which would have added at least 3 hours to our return trip. And 2 of the 3 Albacores had to then proceed east over the Cascades, where a winter storm was dumping a foot of snow. So, at least we didn’t have to deal with all that.
I’ll leave you with a little Creedence Clearwater Revival.