Finding Grace in the Rainforest

"My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy." —Norman MacLean

ABOUT TEN YEARS AGO, JAY BREVIK AND I SPENT A DAY FISHING several of the Olympic Peninsula's winter steelhead rivers. I don't remember where we started, probably the upper Hoh, because we both loved the wide open gravel bars up there. And I'm pretty sure we hit a little pool on the Calawah. The thing I know for certain is that we ended the day on the upper Sol Duc, on the selective fisheries, wild‐release water up by Sappho.

Steelhead ‐ Finding Grace in the Rainforest

The run we fished is about a 20‐minute walk through the woods. Some years, the blowdown is so bad that you can't reach the river. We didn't have any trouble on the trail, but we continued having the same trouble we'd been experiencing all day, the standard winter steelhead trouble of finding fish interested in our flies. After thoroughly working the run without a tickle, we decided to call it a day. As we wriggled out of our waders back at Jay's pickup, four fly fishermen with Spey rods and new wading jackets approached us on their way to the trail.

"Hi," Jay said.

"How's it going," I added.

The guy in front nodded. It may not exactly have been a dismissive nod, but it was certainly curt. He was apparently the alpha angler, because the other three didn't communicate at all, just walked past us briskly, avoiding eye contact. Their faces had the expression of people you see outside the doors of a courtroom. Jay looked at me and shrugged.

"It doesn't look like they're having much fun," I said.

I hate to say it, but a lot of the people I encounter with fly rods on the West End of the Olympic Peninsula in winter and spring these days don't look like they're having much fun—much less getting anywhere close to Norman MacLean's father's state of grace. The region's fabled Sol Duc, Calawah, Bogachiel, Hoh, Queets, and Quinault rivers still host some of the healthiest stocks of wild winter steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. They still turn out good numbers of 20‐pound fish and the occasional documented 30‐ pounder. And if you are willing to pay a guide and fish bobber and nymph rigs from a boat, you have an excellent chance of hooking a steelhead on a fly rod.

Crossing a river ‐ Finding Grace in the Rainforest

But if you want to fish these rivers the way Syd Glasso and Dick Wentworth and Pat Crane did when they pioneered Olympic Peninsula winter steelhead flyfishing in the 1950s, '60s and '70s—that is, to wade into the river and swing a fly—it is harder than ever. It's all about the pressure. As the steelhead runs in other regions of the Pacific Northwest have collapsed, these remote and once lightly fished rivers have become increasingly, obscenely, overcrowded. This dramatic increase in angling effort, coupled with the extremely effective methods of fishing now used by steelheaders who don't swing flies, has resulted in far more steelhead spending time on the end of a hook than as recently as a decade ago. A few years ago, an estimated 70 percent of the steelhead that escaped the tribal nets on the Hoh were caught and released.

The odds of connecting with a steelhead on a swung fly plummet when they are under this much pressure. It's also pretty hard to have a good time, let alone achieve a state of grace, when you spend half your day trying to find an empty piece of river to fish. But all is not lost. Not long ago, I hiked into a favorite run on a drizzly March morning. The river is less than a quarter mile from the road here, on the far side of a big clearcut, but you can't see it from your car. It takes longer than you'd think to meander around the slash and blackberry tangles to the border of Sitka spruce and big‐leaf maple the loggers left along the bank. But, as always, there were no signs of other anglers. I tied on a Syd Glasso pattern, an Orange Heron, and waded into the head of a long run. I got my fish 45 minutes and 100 yards downstream. It was a bright 10‐pound hen.

So there you have it—an intrepid fly fisher can still enjoy fine winter steelheading on the rain forest rivers. But unless you want to pay a guide for a boat ride, you will have to invest some time, most likely quite a bit of it, in locating a few drifts and pools where you can find unstressed fish and solitude. Syd Glasso, the creator of the first Spey flies for steelhead and the father of all Olympic Peninsula steelhead fly fishers, put it this way in an article for The Creel in 1970:

" . . . shouldn't a man stand on his own two feet and catch his own steelhead? Maybe put out some effort and find his own fish just for the fun of it?"

Spey rod ‐ Finding Grace in the Rainforest

As for the art and grace, you need to have a solid grasp of winter steelhead flyfishing—the casting and wading and line handling— before you can begin the journey toward grace on these rivers. That's because you're not going to get many chances at fish. Once you have achieved that, once you can fish with relaxed concentration, with deft and instinctive motions and reactions, you will then be able to give yourself over to these rivers and their fish and their stories. Art is technique touched by creativity. Grace is about the soul.

After more than 30 years on these rivers, I still don't always attain a state of grace myself. But I know some of the ways to begin the process that leads toward it.

ADJUST YOUR EXPECTATIONS. Catching a winter steelhead by yourself on a swung fly is a really big deal. In my opinion, it's at least as much of an achievement as killing an elk with a bow. You can only kill one elk a year, but many anglers expect to catch a steelhead every day or at least on every trip to the West End. I always tell people that they should set aside at least three days to have a reasonable chance at hooking a winter steelhead. If you make a couple trips to the peninsula each winter and manage to catch a steelhead, you should consider it a successful season.

You will know you are making progress toward grace when the other aspects of your day on the river sustain you and give you nearly as much satisfaction as hooking a steelhead. The rainforest valleys are magnificent places, after all, home to some of the largest trees in the world and wintering herds of Roosevelt elk, eagles, otters, bears, and spectacular mountain views. The rivers themselves, each with its own character and changing moods, are endlessly fascinating. And then there's the act of swinging a fly itself.

"I have always figured it was the classic way to steelhead," veteran West End flyfishing guide J.D. Love told me once. "It's a relaxed and almost meditative way of steelheading."

PICK YOUR RIVER. There are three basic types of steelhead water on the coast: 1) the Quillayute System rivers, the Sol Duc, Bogachiel, and Calawah; the glacial rivers, the Hoh, Queets, and Quinault; and the "cedar creeks."

The Quillayute rivers run clearer than the glacial rivers, stay in shape longer during storms, and come back into shape quicker. But they can run colder and clearer than you want during cold snaps. They are also tough to wade, with lots of slippery boulders, and trees that grow down to the bank can make casting difficult, especially with singlehanded rods.

The glacial rivers blow out easily and can stay that way for a week or more, but they are a better bet when the nights are dropping down into the 20s. They have large flood plains, and that translates into lots of big gravel bars. As a result, backcasting room isn't much of a problem. The downside is that fly fishers really love the glacial rivers, especially the Hoh, and when they are in shape the easily accessible water bristles with fly rods.

The creeks are primarily a local's show, but the fly‐only water on the upper Hoko, which is only accessible by foot, appeals to anglers who like small water and hate crowds.

Most fly fishers are drawn to one of these types of rivers and eventually to a specific river. Once you discover "your" river, concentrate on it exclusively for an entire season. It's tempting to try to do it all on a short trip to the Olympics, but you will have a much better chance of getting a fish if you select a few drifts on a river and learn them thoroughly.

THE PATH TO SOLITUDE. It's impossible to attain steelheading grace in a crowd. The most obvious way to find solitude on these rivers is to hike into water above the highest boat ramp and beyond the reach of the road. The headwaters of most of the major coastal rivers are within Olympic National Park, and several of them are open to winter fishing and have trails along them. There are fewer fish up this high, and they are usually difficult to find. But if you discover a good pool it may provide fine fishing and solitude for years.

I had a spot like that on one of the glacial rivers. It was about three miles upstream of the end of the road. I assumed I would catch a steelhead there in autumn and got one about every other trip in winter and spring. I fished it for nearly 10 years, and in all that time I only ran into two other fishermen. Unfortunately, the river changed course during a big storm about eight years ago. I haven't found its replacement yet.

Release -  Finding Grace in the Rainforest

You don't have to fish the headwaters to be alone. One of my favorite rivers is paralleled closely by a paved road for several miles but has little obvious access, and if you avoid the campground and boat ramps, you seldom see anyone. Also, some of the sections of these rivers are tough floats and don't attract much boat traffic. If you hike into these areas, you will often be all by yourself. And don't forget the extreme lower reaches of the rivers, the areas just above or within tidewater (those outside Indian reservations), because most people don't fish them and you can always beat the boats to them.

FISH A LOCAL FLY. I imagine the majority of Olympic Peninsula winter steelhead taken on the swung fly in recent years have been caught on variations of Intruders, bunny leeches, marabou spiders, and General Practitioners. It wasn't always this way, though. During the late 1950s and '60s, when the only people flyfishing these rivers in winter were Syd Glasso, Dick Wentworth, Pat Crane, Walter Johnson, and a few Canadians, almost all of the steelhead fell to Syd Glasso Spey flies and flies inspired by them. Glasso modeled his dressings on the traditional flies of Scotland's Spey River but substituted brighter body colors and an upright hackle tip wing.

Only a handful of us fish Speys on the coastal rivers these days, but they still work. A couple of years ago, as the late winter daylight dwindled on a long fishless day, I handed my client a Sol Duc Spey. "Try this," I said. He worked his way carefully down the run. As the fly swung into the gut of softer water along the edge of a seam, he calmly said, "There she is." It was a 12‐pound hen.

Glasso dressings aren't the only flies that carry the good energy of local origins. James Garrett is most well known for his Olympic Stonefly Series of nymphs, which were profiled in Trey Combs' book Steelhead Fly Fishing, but his feather wings, Garrett Shrimp, and Hoko Hummers also take fish. And Garrett's good friend, Don Kaas, was a prolific and innovative tyer. Recipes and photos of his Kaas Feather Dusters and Lab Rat are available in my book, Fly‐ Fishing Guide to the Olympic Peninsula.

MAKE THE PILGRIMAGE. The final leg of the journey toward grace on these rivers involves populating them with some of the characters and stories that make up the Olympic Peninsula's flyfishing heritage. The most interesting way to accomplish this is to mount a pilgrimage to a few sites near Forks with steelhead flyfishing significance.

The Re‐Load: Head north out of town on Highway 101 and turn left onto the La Push Road. Proceed to and turn onto the Quillayute Airport Road, then turn right at the first road after that. This is a private Rayonier timber company road. The blue gate may be open but don't pass through it; it may be closed at any time. Park at the turnout and walk through the gate to the bridge over the Sol Duc. Historically known as the Re‐Load Bridge, this is where Glasso fished his Sol Duc Spey for the first time. It was March 30, 1958. He caught five steelhead.

Sitting -  Finding Grace in the Rainforest

Wentworth Wading the Quillayute: From there, head back to the La Push Road, turn right and drive to Three Rivers Resort. Turn right just past the resort and continue a short distance to the Lyendecker boat ramp. Located at the confluence of the Sol Duc and Bogachiel, which form the Quillayute River, this is where Walter Johnson, one of the first Puget Sound‐area fly tyers to fall under the thrall of Glasso's Spey flies, saw Dick Wentworth wade across the Quillayute—a feat few anglers would even consider.

Hoko Fly Water: Drive over to Clallam Bay and continue west a couple miles on SR 112 to the Hoko‐Ozette Road. Turn left and follow the Hoko River up to the iron bridge. Park at the gated log road just before the bridge and hike uphill. This is where the Hoko fly water begins. The first fly‐only water for winter steelhead in the state, the Olympic Peninsula Fly Fishers lobbied for it back in the 1980s. The Hoko is down in a tight little canyon at first, but if you walk far enough you will find places where the grade flattens and you can cut down to the river. This is where James Garrett took Trey Combs when Comb's was working on his chapter about Garrett's flies for his book.

Hecklesville: A few miles west of Lake Crescent, as Highway 101 parallels the upper Sol Duc, you pass a sign that says "Heckle Road." There used to be a settlement there called Hecklesville, with homes, a gas station and lunch counter. When Don Kaas headed out toward the river in his Model T from Port Angeles during late spring in the 1940s and '50s, the salmonflies would often be so thick that he had to pull over at the gas station and buy a can of Bon Ami to clean his windshield.

Conclude your pilgrimage back at the Thriftway in Forks. Get something to drink at the coffee shop. The baristas are all pretty and friendly. Then pick up some roast chicken and jo jos at the deli. Before you head back to your motel room, take a long look at the painting of the steelhead hanging above the check‐out stands.

It shows a large winter fish about to hit a small orange fly. Painted by Jack Datisman, a former Forks resident and steelhead fly fisherman, it depicts an actual event. Dick Wentworth caught the steelhead in the painting on the lower Sol Duc in March of 1981. It was just shy of 22 pounds. He was fishing with Glasso. Wentworth caught it on a new fly of his, the Mr. Glasso, that he had created to honor his former school teacher, mentor, and great friend. It was the first day he'd fished the fly.

Does knowing any of this help you catch a steelhead? Well, I may surprise you by saying, yes, I think it does. That's because if you are serious enough about steelhead flyfishing to have honed your skills to the level of an art, I think deepening your connections with these rivers, becoming more intimate with them on multiple levels—in other words, attaining a state of grace with them—makes you more receptive to those subtle messages and hunches that often make the difference between a fishless day and one where you connect with a bright, wild Olympic Peninsula steelhead. And it certainly makes the long hours between tugs a lot more interesting.