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Winter Steelhead on the OP

When I first started fishing for steelhead about a decade and a half ago, I was convinced that it was an autumn event only. Those I fished with ventured to the B.C.s Skeena watershed, the Grande Ronde, Idaho’s Clearwater and Salmon rivers, and Oregon’s John Day and Washington’s Klickitat. I was able to fish all of these, and most of them multiple times. They were great times filled with beauty, good fishing, and learning from wonderful people.

As the years went by, my Octobers and Novembers became too busy at home for me to venture to these waters. October can be worth 20 trips and $6000 for me in the Yellowstone region. Early November might bring in another half dozen guided trips. Steelhead, I feared, would become a distant memory. Then I discovered the joy of winter steelheading.

My first winter steelhead excursion happened in 2012 on the Clearwater River in North Idaho. Soon thereafter, I was venturing to the Oregon coast, sometimes successfully, but just as many times fruitlessly. During those early winter steelhead fishing years, I would hear more and more about the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. The OP is full of storied steelhead rivers – the Bogachiel, the Sol Duc, the Queets, the Hoh, the Quinault, and the Calawah. Living in Teton Valley, Idaho, I am surrounded by renowned trout streams, a number of which are within a five to forty five minute drive from my house. If you live in the ground zero community of Forks on the Olympics Peninsula, all those rivers I mentioned above are within a half hour drive.

In 2014, I met my brother (who lives in West Seattle) and made my way to the OP to fish for winter steelhead for the first time. This has now become a bi-annual event. The first two weeks of February every even-numbered year is dedicated to winter steelhead on the OP.

My previous trips to the Olympic Peninsula were spent fishing the Bogachiel, the Sol Duc and the Calawah. This year we hit the Hoh. The Hoh is perhaps the most famous of all OP steelhead streams. It share a lot of the traits of my home rivers like the Snake and the South Fork – moderate to high gradient, braided channels, plentiful riffles, and heavy in cobblestone. A fair amount of tributaries feed it as well.

We fished the Hoh for three days, hooking into steelhead on the first two. The river had a gray glacial look to it that local fly fishers say is close to the ideal color for fishing for sea-run fish. We swung flies with 12’ to 13’ 6” spey rods throughout the day – starting at just after 8am and finishing close to 5pm as the sunlight diminished significantly. T-10 to T-11 tips and moderate sized leech patterns were our weapons of choice. There was no sweet spot in terms of when the bite was on. On day one my wife hooked into one in here first riffle. On day two, both my brother and I hooked ours between 2pm and 3pm. While my hookups came unbuttoned, my brother was able to land two of his. My brother and his wife also each caught a couple of bull trout approaching 20”. Not bad for by-catch.

Marching through the rainforests of the OP with its towering pines and wide, knee high ferns is a beautiful experience, but requires being in some semblance of condition. I come from 6,200ft elevation and was fishing under 500ft all three days. There was still a lot of sweat and some heavy breathing involved.

My 2018 steelhead fix is complete. Well, maybe. I still want to somehow squeeze in a couple days this coming autumn on nearby waters like the Salmon or the Clearwater. Back to my autumn roots. But that is by no means a guarantee. If it doesn't happen, I will be dreaming of possibilities in 2019. That is a long wait, though.

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