Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT

ice in the guides 1I will be the first to admit a lot of admiration to those intrepid steelhead anglers who spend many days on the rivers of the Pacific Northwest chasing winter run steelhead. If you’ve never experienced it, fishing for winter run steelhead isn’t a sport for fair weather anglers. Even if the cold and wet doesn’t scare you off, winter steelheading isn’t just trout fishing in cold weather. It is something completely different. Although I’d caught summer run steelhead in Alaska and on the Olympic Peninsula in years past, I had never been winter steelhead fishing. I got my opportunity to try this side of our sport the day before Thanksgiving 2015.

As has been custom for many years, my wife and I leave the dry cold in Montana over Thanksgiving to visit relatives in the damp cold of the Puget Sound in November. With a few days to kill on my own, I let my guide and outfitter friend, Blake Merwin of the Gig Harbor Fly Shop, know I was coming to town. Blake knew another solo angler from out of town looking for a trip so he pulled one together for the day before Thanksgiving.

I’d be sharing a boat with an angler from San Francisco. What would we be fishing for?  Coho salmon were still coming into a lot of rivers and of course the first runs of winter steelhead were beginning to show in some of the coastal rivers of the Olympic Peninsula. But choosing the right river wasn’t an easy or idle choice. The rivers of the Olympic Peninsula are fickle and subject to the whimsy of weather and temperature. One day they are roaring, the next there’s barely enough flow for a safe float. Unlike the world class trout streams of SW Montana, steelhead and salmon are transitory, moving into the rivers from the ocean and quickly upstream to spawn. There’s a bit of ‘right place, right time’ calculation when deciding where to hunt winter steelhead.

Blake had success on the Bogachiel River for the early season winter run hatchery steelhead so that’s where we headed. A week earlier the Bogachiel had reached extreme flood stage with river levels running 8-10 feet higher than what we’d experience on Wednesday. But Blake felt confident that some of the 50,000 hatchery steelhead that return to the Bogachiel steelhead hatchery would be back in the river in late November. It was an early start. I needed to meet Blake in Gig Harbor at 4AM. That necessitated a 3AM wakeup where I was staying.

The Bogachiel is a major tributary of the Quillayute River which forms when the Bogachiel and Sol Duc River meet about 8 miles west of Forks, Washington and about 8 miles from the Pacific Ocean. As the crow flies, Forks is a mere 90 miles from the Seattle-Tacoma area of the Puget Sound but is tucked away on the western slopes of the Olympic Peninsula. Unfortunately, crows don’t carry passengers so our trip to the Bogachiel would entail some 152 miles of winding two lane roads up the west shore of the Puget Sound and over the northern side of the Olympic Peninsula the south to Forks. After picking up our second angler, who was bivouacked in Port Angeles, WA, we made our way west and arriving in Forks about 8AM.

In the full moonlight, we passed by the shores of Lake Crescent, with its unique piscatorial claim to fame. Isolated from the Elwah River drainage and access to the Straits of Juan De Fuca about 8,000 years ago, rainbow trout (steelhead) and coastal cutthroat trout evolved into strains endemic only to Lake Crescent. The Beardslee trout and Lake Crescent cutthroat trout are found only in Lake Crescent. As were passed through Forks, daylight was slow to come around and the sun was still low behind the trees as we launched the drift boat just west of the town.

The launch was a bit challenging because the flood the week before had deposited over a foot of gooey, sticky mud over most of the ramp. It was boot sucking mud and we spent a lot of energy getting the boat in the water and ready to go. Once the on the river, the Bogachiel showed some decent clarity so we were very optimistic as we started down river. The Bogachiel is a fairly typical Olympic Peninsula stream with banks lined with Alders and Firs and wide gravel bars along some deep runs. Our early fishing was with egg flies under indicators, not much different than trout fishing in Montana.

I hooked and landed a couple of late season coho salmon but for most of the morning neither of us connected with any steelhead. Casting accurately and getting good drifts was a challenge as frozen fingers and ice in the guides hampered us all morning. It was a clear, cold morning with temps hovering just below freezing. We were begging the sun to show itself above the tall firs that lined the river. It finally did and the temps eventually hit the mid-30s. As things warmed a bit, we started beaching the boat and swinging streamers through runs off large gravel bars. This was the point in the trip where I was completely out of my element and in 100% learn something new mode.

It became immediately obvious to me from the instructions that Blake was giving me that swinging streamers for steelhead wasn’t anything like stripping streamers for big Montana trout. My instincts and 40+ years of muscle memory had to be abandoned. To complicate things, we’d be Spey casting with 12 foot rods, long grips and fly line the size of 8-gauge electrical wire. Last year I took a Spey casting lesson from Blake in anticipation of a river trip, but weather cut our plans short and the lesson was on a lake, not a flowing river. I did practice a bit in the interim but this trip would be my first real opportunity to put it to work on a real river.

It proved to be a bit easier on swiftly flowing water with actual targets to cast to in anticipation of hooking a fish. Blake’s a pretty good instructor and it took about an hour for me to get the various pieces of the cast working together. The two elements of the cast that are the most challenging for me are the proper use of my hands on a two-handed rod. As a right-handed caster, most of the work should be done with the left (bottom hand) while the top hand merely acts as a pivot point. 50+ years of casting where the left hand did very little but strip line allowed instincts to consistently foil what might have otherwise been a good cast.

The other aspect of spey casting that eventually sunk in was the overall speed and timing of the cast. It is much slower and deliberate and it takes some concentration to keep it all going at the right speed. However, for several hours standing knew deep in the frigid Bogachiel I was able to make Spey casts long and accurate enough to reach productive seams. I did eventually hook a steelhead which managed to free itself after about 15 seconds. It would have been nice to land one, but the experience will definitely have me doing more Spey casting for steelhead and trout in the future, maybe even with a different type of the fly—the tube fly.

Having been tying streamers on to leaders for decades, I had never used tube flies before. When I saw Blake threading the leader through the fly as he prepared our tackle, I knew I was going to get an opportunity to fish some tube flies for steelhead. His box of steelhead tube flies was impressive and he admitted tying them all himself. After I returned home and started doing a bit of research on tube flies, they appear to me to be an interesting alternative to regular “on-the-hook flies” so I plan to start tying some for Montana trout. J. Stockard has a decent selection of tube fly materials and the Globalflyfisher has an excellent collection of essays and how-to articles on tube flies. It will just take some time to get stocked up with the right materials and learn how it’s done. Should be fun and an opportunity for some experimentation.

As expected, Blake was disappointed that we only hooked one steelhead. Were they really in the river yet?  Our answer came as we approached the take out at the mouth of the Sol Duc River. Eight nets spanned the river and were heavy with fish. The Quileute Indians, whose reservation borders on the river, were aggressively taking advantage of the early returning steelhead after a week or more of flood waters that prevented them netting the river.

As I write this, we’ve had successive sub-zero mornings here in SW Montana. The pumpkins are frozen for the duration and it will be early March before anyone in their right mind tackles the big rivers in earnest. I plan on breaking out the switch rod early next year and building on what I learned out on the Bogachiel. Maybe I’ll have figured out tube flies to the point where they will become part of my normal summer routine. December is always a tough month here and if I want to fish it will have to be in warmer climes like another trip to the Olympic Peninsula to fight Ice in the Guides and chase some winter steelhead. We’ll see.

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