Monday, November 21, 2016

A Thanksgiving Steelhead

Your Olympic Peninsula Fly Fishing Guide.
Catch & Release, Fly Fishing Only!

November Moon
Photo credit: Heather Gilpin

     Fall has been seeping in here one rainy day after another. And we have been fishing on the beaches, in between the wet and windy days, since mid-October. The rivers have been getting their annual autumn rainfall, with cooler, deeper flows. Just in time for the salmon and steelhead runs. The storm winds put a lot of debris, branches, logs and leaves in the rivers. The beaches have been torn up a few times too, with storm damages and higher tides. The October Hunter Moon brought the tides way up. We can expect that the November 14th Full Beaver Moon will do the same. It is remarkable how quickly the beach waters will be clear of turbidity, and the fishing will resume after a storm here. November is statistically the wettest month of the year out here. The western slopes of the Olympic Mountains can get 140-180 inches of rain annually, most of it in the winter. There have been many times in Novembers past when we couldn’t fish the rivers because of high flows and poor visibility, even though the storms had passed days previously. So we headed down to the beaches to fish for sea-run cutthroat trout instead. This is never disappointing. We are in the Olympic Mountain Rainshadow over here on the east side of the Peninsula. And we only get about 17-19 inches of rain annually. 

  “I want to catch a steelhead.
   A few years back my friend Jeff called me, during the week just before his birthday on Thanksgiving. He had the holiday weekend off. He and I had worked at the same fly fishing lodge in Alaska one season. And I had time open to get away with him. So we loaded up our gear in his truck and we took off for the west-end Olympic Peninsula rivers.  There are some smaller coastal streams that could have some steelhead in them around then, mostly hatchery fish. But that would be good enough for us. It was a fairly balmy day, and we got into the water after dawn. The water was low and gin-clear. We walked along the sandy edges of one pool and run after another, easily wading across the shallow tail-outs, scouting for fish as the sun got brighter. We clambered up a small waterfall, crouching on the wet slippery boulders, looking at the Coho salmon holding in the deep plunge pool below, as they waited for the flows to come up, so they could then move upriver to spawn. We stood, barely knee deep, at the edge of one pool, just above the narrowing flows, surveying the water, looking for a sign of fish. After a few minutes we noticed a faint bit of movement- a shadow, an eye, a mouth, A Fish!  And it was right there in front of us, not fifteen feet away, in the shallow fast water. A bright steelhead!
    If you have ever tried to cast to a fish that is holding in fast water, only a few yards away from you, you will understand the frustration of how difficult it is to get a decent presentation of the fly that way, without spooking the fish.  We stood stock still, barely moving at all, as Jeff deftly flicked and flipped one fly after another, with barely more than his leader out of the rod tip, try after try, just showing that steelhead his flies, which we changed with every few “casts.” It felt like an eternity. The fish was marvelous, so bright and fresh from the sea, it’s chrome sides reflected the gravel and sky so well, it would fade into and out of view randomly. It was almost invisible at times, except for the shadow on the gravel bottom beneath the fish.
   We were acting on faith. The fish that we had hoped for was right there at our feet. (It was a little more than we had hoped for actually.)  A fish like that can be very hard to catch. With some drifts of the fly the fish would veer off, avoiding the drift. And with the next cast it seemed to be chasing the fly, briefly, only to go back to its holding position in the flows.. And at other times Jeff actually bounced the fly right off of the fish’s nose. And the fish did not flinch. We tried all kinds of northwest steelhead patterns: big, small, dark, light, etc. We even skated a few greased-liners right across the bow. Nothing doing. With each successive cast, I began to feel like I was in some kind of weird karmic dream. And this whole time, cast after cast, we had not moved our feet an inch. We didn’t dare. At one point the fish was within a yard of us, seemingly taking shelter in our shadow. Probably to avoid those pesky little flies that we were incessantly drifting at it. 

   There’s an Alaska fly called the “Ice Worm.” It was originated by Ted Gerkin at Iliaska Lodge, on Lake Ilaimna. It is intended for the big rainbow trout on the Lake Iliamna and Katmai Park tributaries in the fall. I still had a few in my fly box, left over from the summer guiding season. Imagine a Woolly Booger fly, with a pink shrimp colored chenille body, pink shrimp colored body hackle, and a cream colored collar hackle and marabou tail. Spawning colors. One swing was all it took with that fly. And we went from a catatonic stupor to a shallow water brawl instantly. Both of us were kind of amazed to see the fish actually take the fly. 

    I mean, geez . . . Hundreds of swings, and a dozen flies later?!
    I wish that I could tell you here that the fish put up an electrifying fight, taking the line and all of the backing and going way downstream, leaping into the air, it’s bright flanks flashing in the sun, and that the fish dove downriver - "the reel drag screaming!" - and we had to run, full-tilt over the slippery rocks, leaping over mossy logs and half swimming through deep holes, heroically keeping that bruising brawler on the hook . . . 

   But it didn’t go that way.

   Inexplicablythis beautiful steelhead simply swam around in the shallow water, pulling a little here and there for a few minutes, and then it pretty much just lied down on the gravel at Jeff’s feet and it gave up. It was about 36 inches long, chrome bright, and an early wild hen. It was one of the most beautiful steelhead I have ever seen. 
  You don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to come out to the Olympic Peninsula rivers to catch a steelhead. There are summer-run steelhead and cutthroat trout in most of these rivers year-round. And we often see early winter-run hatchery steelhead well before Thanksgiving. These autumn rains will get them moving, and stir them up. This year we have had some special rules put in place, to protect the wild coho spawning runs. This closed almost all of our good autumn trout fishing waters, especially the big rivers, until mid-November. Ordinarily we would be fishing for summer runs and cutthroat by September. I am guessing that the fishing this November is going to be superb out here. And if the rivers get too dirty and high again, don’t miss out on the good sea-run cutthroat trout fishing on the beaches. We do that all winter. I do not guide on the Olympic Peninsula rivers for steelhead after January 1st.

The most relaxing way to fish for sea-run cutthroat.
One angler, maybe two,  Call or write for details.

Your Olympic Peninsula Fly Fishing Guide and Instructor
Catch & Release, Fly Fishing Only!

    I am guiding fly fishers on the Olympic Peninsula beaches, rivers and streams. We walk and wade, or row along the shorelines in the dory, fly fishing for sea-run Coastal Cutthroat trout in freshwater and saltwater, and in the rivers for Cutthroat trout and summer and fall steelhead. This is all strictly catch and release, traditional, barbless single hook, fly fishing only. Lunch, snacks, soft beverages, and use of some equipment is included. I also offer personalized and private fly fishing and fly casting instruction for beginners through advanced casters. I would be happy to help you plan your Olympic Peninsula fly fishing adventure, for all levels of ability, beginner to expert. Public presentations, Naturalist Guide, rowboat picnics, tide pool and  river trail day trips. Please call, write or email for booking details. Now booking through October, and beyond. Booking on short notice in the fall and winter is welcome.

Bob Triggs
Little Stone Flyfisher
P.O. Box 261
Port Townsend, WA

Licensed Washington State Guide 
Certified Fly Casting Instructor
Trout Unlimited Aquatic Educator Award
2006 W.S.U.Beach Watcher / Water Watcher graduate
U.S.C.G First Aid/CPR/BLS/AED/BBP/HIV Certified

Phone: 360-385-9618

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