The Cold Shame of Winter Steelhead

The Cold Shame of Winter Steelhead

Not for the faint of heart nor the weak of spirit

  • By: Scott Sadil
The Weather
In the Rockies it's snow. In the Northwest, it's rain. When it all breaks loose, as it did last week, I like to check the river levels online, scoping out the magnitude of the hydrological giddy-up that makes the region the special place it is. Example: Between the second and sixth of November, flows on the Queets River, on the West End of the Olympic Peninsula, increased from 600 to 115,000 CFS, the river rising, in the process, 20 vertical feet. These are not typos but, instead, the stuff of wildrivers, a shot of genuine Northwest weather, and, perhaps most important, the raw material of healthy, anadromous fisheries. Still, the point is to avoid these epic spates despite the allure of their Biblical dimensions.

Oddly, the majority of photographs I bring home from winter visits to the West End are garlanded with low, clear water and sparkling blue skies-evidence I go fishing mostly when a strong high-pressure system stations a protective shield across the region. This strategy probably costs me dearly in numbers of fish, but in this case I feel prudence takes precedence over my tendency toward the long shot. A serious storm or soggy front can break the ardent steelheader's spirit in a way that fishless days rarely do. In the right light, he can conceive of fish in every shadowy lie, no matter the number of empty casts he strokes over the likely water-while casting, chilled to his Capilene in the gloom of dirty skies and high water, even the most sanguine stoic feels the limits of his resolve. Only a fish itself can oblige the sodden angler's hope, compromised, hour by hour, by thoughts of dry fleece, warm food, camaraderie, and renewed interest in the plausible benefits of distilled fare.

The Nights
Nights, for some of us, prove tougher still. Consider: 4:30 PM and you're already pressed by darkness off the water, stumbling back to your vehicle, fish or no fish, in a mildly hypothermic daze. Adorned in headlamp you change attire, making absolutely certain you isolate boots and waders and rain gear, which will not dry one iota by morning. On the drive back to camp you consider your options: No, for some reason, dining out in Forks, the sole hamlet of consequence en route, seems contrary to the demands of the sport, a descent into comfort you feel might undermine your chances the next day. Instead, back in camp, you build a fire, seeded by dry kindling stored, like water in Baja, in the safest confines of the van, and you set about fashioning dinner, seeking to strike that perfect balance between expedience, efficiency, fuel intake and flavor in a form other than yet another Wrangler hotdog or quesadilla.

All of this presupposes, of course, a dry evening-unlikely unless that high pressure you bet on really does hold firm. Even then, it is entirely possible for rain-or something quite like it-to fall on the peninsula from beneath star-studded skies. But whatever the form, should precipitation arrive, you unfold a camp chair in the back of the van, bring the Coleman lantern inside, and while condensation begins to drip from above, you finish your meal, imbibe if you're so inclined, gaze out at the dwindling fire, and try everything in your power to stay up past nine before bedding down for a night you won't soon forget.

Dawn, you understand, doesn't arrive until sometime near seven. That's a long night-unless, of course, you're fortunate to have the company of the appropriate partner. But let's get real about this, the few people you can drag, midwinter, to the West End of the Olympic Peninsula are mostly sickos just like you: wrinkled, newt-faced anglers hoping to hold it together long enough for another shot at a chrome-bright missile willing to grab a swinging fly.

The Rivers
I like the Queets. I like the Bogachiel. I like the Sol Duc. I like the Calawah. I'd probably like all of the West End rivers, but I'm just a visitor, and when I show up in winter I tend to return to what little water I've come to know.

The good news is there are so many West End rivers that, despite the rain, you can generally find water that's in shape. The sad news is, unless you live on the peninsula or hire a guide, you're going to often feel like you're taking shots in the dark. As in all steelheading, West End knowledge is precious and hard-won: You touch a fish one run, you remember that spot for life. The dilemma, then, is this: Do you return next time to water you know, or do you venture somewhere new?

In his exemplary reference Steelhead Fly Fishing on the Olympic Peninsula, Doug Rose talks about his willingness to walk "an hour or more to fish a drift the size of an Airstream trailer." That's how it is. In much the same way that fish will school in only a few select spots along a given beach, a winter steelhead river is, by and large, empty.

The old steelhead adage states, not insensibly, that "steelhead are where you find them." The practiced hand understands this to mean that the fish in question are unpredictable, highly individualistic, and that they must be hunted before any attempts to fool them with a fly. At the same time, the successful steelheader-especially a winter steelheader-harbors a list of precise lies, or holding water, where he has found fish before, and where he knows steelhead will hold again. Knowledge of holding water is the reason a select few West End steelheaders expect to catch a steelhead, even in winter, any time they venture to the water-and why visitors will generally feel they are shooting blindly into the forest in all but those few places where they have moved fish to the fly before.

In a larger view "where you find them" speaks to a quality of environmental integrity that lies at the heart of what both the steelhead and steelhead fly fisher seek in their private, contrasting desires. Today, the West End rivers of the Olympic Peninsula share the largest runs of wild winter steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. By way of contrast, in California, steelhead have been eliminated from 90 percent of their historic range.

The difference? In a word, habitat. Not only are West End rivers free of dams, but the upper reaches of each watershed lie beneath what Rose calls "the umbrella of protection" of Olympic National Park. For nearly a hundred years now, while habitat degradation has eroded the health of anadromous fisheries up and down the Pacific coast, spawning and fish-rearing habitat in the Park has remained virtually undisturbed. Old-growth forests, tragic victims throughout the rest of the region, continue to supply the big trees crucial to the integrity of rivers that, in their lower reaches, receive as much pressure, from sportsmen and Native American anglers alike, as other Northwest fisheries. Scramble into the catch-and-release "fly-only" water on the upper Hoh, however, and you'll find springs and tributaries, scrubbed and silt-free gravel beds, spongy side channels and enormous logjams-all surrounded by canopies of dark, fecund, moss-laden forest-and you'll see what healthy habitat really looks like and how it plays into a genuine narrative of exuberant salmonid nurseries.

The Fish
Emerging from a tangle of riparian hardwoods, I recognized the sort of steelhead run that recurs in fly anglers' dreams: broad, deep, evenly-paced, embellished with hidden boulders revealed as seams and ribbons of current woven into the restless texture of the river's blue-black face.

It helped that I was miles upriver, far from the hatchery and requisite gear anglers crowding the banks, above the highest driftboat access, an hour's walk through the dripping hemlock, alders and fir, beyond the end of an abandoned logging road washed out by recent high waters. Steelhead, we sense, seek something similar that stirs within ourselves. Or at least we are happier fishing for them where we feel they lie resting undisturbed, momentarily more vulnerable than pressured fish to the lure of the swinging fly.

I started high in the run. Of the bits and pieces of advice I shuffle through each time I step into the river, a cautionary note from an old Haig-Brown story has stayed with me as if a line of sacred text: Start high, higher than you think you should start. In time, experience teaches the seasoned steelheader that fish can hold in the upstream extremes of a run, holding water that is often neglected by anglers eager to wade deep and throw a long line. I'm not always as methodical as I intend to be. But as hours, if not days, of casting go unrewarded, and confidence wanes, the steelheader recalls the few absolutes he's come to trust, a litany of beliefs as much folk knowledge as actual wisdom.

The fish took during the long moment when, as the fly hung directly downstream, I wondered if it was time to pick up and cast again. The most profound truth in all of fly-fishing, of course, is that you don't catch fish without your fly in the water. And in fishing for winter steelhead, perhaps more than in any other type of fly-fishing, keeping the fly in the water is an act of faith that separates, figuratively, the men from the boys. More than success, the serious winter steelheader seeks absolution for the hours and days spent-or wasted-in empty-handed pursuit. With the fish on the reel, boring off in current, I felt not so much elation, nor even relief, but a grave sense of foreboding that now, finally, something could really go wrong.

This time it didn't. The fish, bright and wild, with the small head and sweeping configuration of a hen fresh from the sea, seemed almost translucent in the dark shaded water, and when I slid it into the shallows, I could imagine it, months later, high in the watershed, combing its redd in the profuse healthy habitat of the Park. Of course, I knew nothing about this particular fish-its origins, its history, its fate-beyond the simple fact that on the first day of winter on a river on the Olympic peninsula it grabbed a fly I presented on the end of a swinging line.

The Flies
Along with the rain, the big rivers and wild winter fish, the West End of the Olympic Peninsula is known in fly-fishing circles as the home of Syd Glasso, whose steelhead flies changed the face of the sport forever.

Little has been written about Glasso's life. Yet his famous flies, inspired by somber, utilitarian Atlantic salmon dressings from Scotland's Spey River, captured the imagination of Northwest steelheaders and, half a century later, now seem as much a part of regional traditions as catch-and-release ethics and two-handed rods. There's not a serious steelheader who doesn't tie some sort of "Spey pattern," even if the designation today means little more than a fly with oversized hackle palmered around at least the front half of a long, sweeping hook.

Although linked to centuries-old patterns, Glasso's flies were a radical departure from the popular West Coast steelhead flies of the 1950s and 1960s, bringing an aesthetic elegance to the practical demands of swinging flies deep in big water. Prior to Syd Glasso, steelhead flies were short, bright and stocky, suggesting as much a painted lure as they did a fly fashioned out of feather and fur. Glasso's flies were, by contrast, subtle, seductive, even sensuous-depending more on the lifelike movement of materials undulating under tension in current rather than on color, shape, or size.

Do steelhead care? No doubt Spey patterns have proven remarkably effective for West End steelhead, and their popularity throughout the range of the sport recommends them to anglers who need the assurance of time-tested flies. Then again, I am willing to bet that the Glo-Bug-or any other "fly" that imitates a single drifting salmon egg-fools as many winter steelhead as all other flies combined. I would like to offer that observation as evidence of some profound truth, a conclusive remark about flies, fly fishers and steelhead, and the terrible inutility of venturing forth in winter to cast a long line into unknown waters under dark, uncertain skies. There are, I suspect, better ways to catch winter steelhead and, probably, better ways to spend your time.

I just don't know what they are.