Monday, April 21, 2014

Steelhead Math: 8 • 3[5,000?] + |–1| = ?

H: April 17, 2014: Apologies for the delay in posting but my head has been filled with numbers since I returned from the Pacific Northwest—number crunching for the Juliana's Anglers' annual financial report followed by taxes for Uncle Sam (hence the alphanumeric title to this post ;). Where to begin… 8 straight days swinging flies for steelhead. This was easily the most exhausting fishing trip I've taken to date! That much fishing calls for a flygirl mini-novella.

2 weeks of spring steelhead fishing on the Olympic peninsula. When Sam mentioned this trip to me last fall, I immediately replied, "OK, sign me up for a week!" I have a really hard time saying "no" to fishing trips ;). Sam, Demetre, and Mary (Sam's sister) have been going there to fish for the past 8(?) years. They knew the local guides and fishing spots. I just had to pack my gear and show up in Forks.

Mist shrouded Crescent Lake, Olympic Peninsula, WA
Crescent Lake, Olympic Peninsula, WA
It was raining (as it should be) when I landed in Seattle-Tacoma airport, after a 5.5-hour plane ride. I took the Link into downtown Seattle to pick up my rental car and provisions (good wine, cheese, meats) before boarding the 35-minute ferry to Bainbridge island. After a gorgeous 3-hour drive through mist shrouded mountains and around Crescent lake, I finally arrived at our cozy house on the banks of the Sol Duc river. After a relentless winter back East, I was ecstatic to see signs of life, of spring, everywhere. Sam and Demetre were there to greet me, having arrived the day before. I had 3 days of wade fishing with the ladies before we went out with guides.

View of the Sol Duc river from the deck of our cozy river house, Forks, WA
View of the Sol Duc river from our deck, Forks. WA.
Day 1: I had to first get my fishing license, so we drove into Forks. Population: 3,500; Fictional setting for the Twilight series; And one of the wettest places in the continental U.S., averaging 212 rainy days and an annual rainfall of 120 inches. I knew it had received a major tourism boom from the Twilight books and movies but I didn't know what to expect. The main strip contained a gas station, a couple of motels, diners, and souvenir shops selling Twilight this and Twilight that. While paying for my license at the Forks Outfitters (grocery/clothing/hardware store), I noticed a plaque by the register—Bella Swan was employee of the month ;).

Sam Decker at 3-tug run on Bogachiel river, Olympic Peninsula
Sam at 3-Tug Run on the Bogachiel.
With license in hand we set off to fish a spot Sam and Demetre had fished before on the upper Bogachiel (Bogey). With rivers high and off-color from several days of steady rain, it seemed a good bet. After a few hours fishing and 0 action, we left to do some scouting. We discovered another trail to the Bogey from an empty parking spot we suspected was used by anglers. It was a lovely and fishy looking spot. I took out my camera to take a picture, shouting at Sam to turn around. Immediately after I took the pic, Sam yells excitedly that a fish just jumped behind me. We rushed back to the car to get our gear.

The 3 of us each took a shot at that fish by the undercut bank, and we each received 1 tug for our efforts, but no takes. It was a gray drizzly day and by mid-afternoon March Browns were hatching everywhere. They made me think of home and whether spring might soon arrive on my home waters, melting the snow and ice covered banks I had left behind.

Upstream of our newfound fishing spot (3-Tug Run ;), we discovered another prime stretch of water, perfect for swinging. But by 3 pm, I was seriously dragging. Jet lag, the previous day's travels, and hunger (I forgot my lunch on the kitchen counter) took its toll and 5 hours of fishing was all I could manage. We decided we'd return to fish another day.

When we got back to the house, Mary, Sam's sister, was waiting for us. Prior to the trip, I heard stories about her buying new pots and pans to cook with and how she wouldn't eat food touched by someone's bare hands. I tried to keep an open mind. And while she did bring pots and pans ;), she turned out to be great company and very easy to get along with.

Hyun Kounne hiking to bus top pool, Olympic peninsula, WA
On the trail to Bus stop pool. Photo: D. Bove.
Days 2 & 3: The 4 of us fished the Sol Duc and Bogachiel. Sam, Demetre, and I swung flies while Mary nymphed. But none of us had any luck. Despite the lack of steelhead action, I was having fun. I especially enjoyed our hike to Bus Stop pool one morning. The ladies had fished there before but weren't quite sure where the trail began. So we just blazed our own for part of the way, before eventually meeting up with the existing trail. It was a gorgeous hike through lush forest and dense vegetation. I was glad to be in the company of other women game enough to blindly hike 40 mins. into a rainforest on the slim hopes of finding a spot they had fished years ago and a river that might be fishable.

Later that evening, after a very long day of fishing, I joked with Sam that I wished there was a cast-o-meter—a gadget I could wear around my wrist that would track all my snap Ts and double speys. I was curious to know how many casts I had made that day. 500 perhaps? 600? Exactly how many casts are made by the average angler on a normal day pursuing the fish of a 1,000 casts?

I estimated 70–80 casts per fishing hour depending on 3 primary variables: efficiency (e) and skill of the caster, speed (s) of the water, and average distance (d) of the cast required to cover that water (minus time (t) spent admiring scenery or wildlife ;). After 3 days of swinging, I was definitely getting comfortable with my new Rio Skagit Max line and sink tips on my 13-ft, 8-weight NRX two-hander. It was quite a different experience from the Scandi lines and polyleaders I had fished in the past. I was also hitting the sack before 10 pm every night. I can't remember the last time I went to bed so early.

For the next 4 days, we were scheduled to fish with guides. Sam, Demetre, and Mary have been fishing with Jim Kerr of Rain Coast Guides for many years and spoke highly of him. In the past, he would take 3 of them out on his boat and they took turns nymphing, stopping occasionally to swing a fly. But with 4 of us, we needed an additional guide. I had told Sam before the trip that I really only wanted to swing. I hoped Jim had lined up some good guides with spey fishing experience for me and whoever my fishing partner would be.

I didn't think I'd get a chance to fish with Jim as he had been booked by the other ladies. But the evening before our first guided trip we get a text from Jim saying he's taking the swingers the following morning. So the next day, Demetre and I fished with Jim while Sam and Mary nymphed with Ryan, one of 4 different guides booked for the next 4 days.

Day 4: We met in the parking lot of Forks Outfitters at 6:30 am. Turned out all of us were floating the Upper Hoh as water levels had finally dropped enough for it to be fishable. Perhaps today would be the day…

Hyun Kounne, Jim Kerr, and Demetre Bove on the Upper Hoh river.
Demetre and I on the Upper Hoh with guide, Jim Kerr.
Demetre suggested nymphing between swing spots. I reluctantly agreed but warned Jim that my nymphing skills were extremely rusty (severe understatement). He gave a good, concise, 1-minute refresher on nymphing and off we went. I summarily whacked myself on the head with my yarn fly and heavy tungsten putty wrapped around my leader. Ouch! I quickly got the hang of it but I resented staring at that orange bobber while the beauty of the river passed by. (I guess I wouldn't have complained if 20 pounds of chrome found its way to the end of it ;).

Fortunately we only nymphed a few prime stretches of water. The rest of the time was spent swinging through some lovely runs. The first spot was a relatively new side channel formed by the last major flood. Jim mentioned that the Hoh had been unfishable for most of March due to the heavy rainfall they had received. Hence none of the guides had the usual intel on where fish might be holding. While the side channel looked very promising, I had 0 tugs.

In terms of scenery, the Hoh did not disappoint. It was one of the most beautiful floats I've experienced, especially the canyon—it's walls lined with towering old spruces and hemlocks. The temperature literally dropped 5+ degrees as Jim deftly maneuvered us around boulder gardens. A picture is worth... As luck would have it, I misplaced my camera that day :(.

There was one stretch marred by enormous man-made log jams which Jim explained had been constructed to protect the nearby highway. While they're an improvement over the completely ineffective rip rap revetments they replaced, I still wouldn't put my money on them. A powerful river like the Hoh, known for constantly altering her course, will not be stopped by log jams, even ones reinforced with steel sheet pilings and heavy metal chains.

In fact, everywhere you looked on the Upper Hoh there was evidence of the raw unstoppable force of nature—vast expanses of exposed rock and gravel beds where the river had flowed just a few years before; 200-ft tall trees teetering on the edge of sheer cut banks, roots daggling and exposed, waiting to be toppled by the next big storm.... 

As for the fishing, I had one good take that day but I screwed up the hook set. Later that afternoon, we met up with Mary and Sam on the river. They both had had fish on and they landed one along with a SDR (short distance release). Sam described how a huge steelhead had gone after her bobber, scaring the living daylights out of her! ;)

Day 5: Demetre and I fished the lower Hoh with Bret. The ladies had fished with him before. He was a gear fishing guide who had recently picked up spey fishing. That morning, while waiting in line for a coffee, a guy walked in and stood behind me. He turned out to be my guide. When I returned to the parking lot, Demetre asked if I had met Bret. I replied that I had. "Did you notice his jacket?" she asked. "No," I said. "I was looking at his face when I said hello". "How could you miss his jacket!" she replied astoundedly. It turns out Bret is (in)famous for wearing a very torn shabby jacket (1 sleeve is about to fall off) and driving a beat up red pickup with a boarded-up rear window.

Don't judge a guide by his jacket ;). Brett turned out to be a great guy, super smart, and a good guide. I asked him all kinds of questions about gear fishing for steelhead which I knew 0 about. He desperately wanted us to catch a steelhead. But after 8 hours swinging, as we neared the take-out, it didn't look good. Fortunately, in the 9th hour, Demetre hooks and lands 1, on 1 of Bret's flies, too. Yay! Bret looked relieved.

I ended up fishing with Jim for 2 more days, since he decided to take the swingers. Sam joined me those 2 days and was finally able to swing some flies. She had opted to nymph so she could fish with her sister, Mary. But like me, she'd rather swing than stare ;).

Jim Kerr fishes a run on the Lower Hoh river.
You can almost smell the ocean from here. Jim Kerr on the Lower Hoh.
Day 6: We fished the lower Hoh (the same stretch I fished with Brett the day before). It rained for most of the day—the kind of soaking rain that chills you to the bone. I was grateful when Jim heated up some soup for our lunch (along with a side of river stones—nature's hand and foot warmers ;). But neither Sam or I had a tug that day.

I must confess to feeling pretty discouraged by this point. I was exhausted, both physically and mentally, and the glass was looking pretty, damn near empty. At least Mary and Demetre had a great day nymphing with Caleb.

Jim, Mary, Caleb, and Demetre on the Lower Hoh.
Day 7: We met Jim at 6 am and headed for the lower Bogachiel. Our first stop was the Pine Tree. It was there, early on, that I hooked and played a super hot steelhead. It peeled line from my reel like a bonefish but with so much more power behind it. In less than a minute, I was more than halfway into my backing. I stood there somewhat dumbfounded watching my line vanish, thinking it's got to slow down soon, but it just kept taking more... I finally came to my senses and decided I'd better head downriver in pursuit. I shifted the angle of my rod as I turned towards the bank and suddenly, it was all over. God, I wish I had a do-over!

Well, at least I caught a flash of chrome roll on the surface (about 400 feet away) and felt the raw power of this magnificent creature, however briefly. I don't want to think about how amazing this fish would have been to behold... And that was pretty much it, for me. Later that afternoon, Sam caught a bull trout, which Jim said was unheard of on the Bogey.

If I return to this beautiful place, I will definitely fish with Jim again. He's exactly what you want in a guide—has deep knowledge of and respect for the rivers and fishery, an experienced angler, skilled oarsman, and terrific company with a keen sense of humor. But if you want him to just shut up and row the damn boat, he'll do that too ;). I'm not sure how comfortable he felt around me. He definitely swore and cussed a lot less with me than with the others. He gave me some good pointers on spey casting and swinging flies through a run and shared some interesting stories about the local area. I wish I could have landed one for him...

Day 8: For my last day, I planned to do some exploring and wade fish solo. The ladies had Jim for 2 more days but Sam didn't want me fishing by myself. So rather than fish with Demetre, Mary, and Jim, she joined me. We returned to the Pine Tree on foot. It was a good 2+ mile hike in. Jim had warned us about the maze of trails and the likelihood of getting lost. But with the help of my iPhone to reference the river's position, and Sam's tracking skills, we found our way to the spot we had fished with Jim the day before. We even beat the guide boats there. As we walked out onto the gravel bar, we saw a boat upstream, making its way towards us. Sam yells, "run!" I walked briskly to stake our claim but surely etiquette would have demanded they find another spot.

Sam lands some steel on the Bogey.
It wasn't long before Sam hooked and landed a  steelhead from roughly the same spot I had hooked mine the day before. I had a couple of tugs early, and later on I landed a small steelhead, about 16 inches long, which I learned is called a jack. We left by mid-afternoon, following the tracks of a Patagonia crampon shod angler who must have walked in behind us. We swung briefly between plunkers at the Bar further downstream. Smolts were rising everywhere in response to a strong March Brown hatch. But after inadvertantly hooking a few smolts, we called it a day.

And that was it. I was done.

I've never fished so hard in my life! 8 straight days swinging; 3 beautiful rivers; 5,000(?) casts; a few tugs; 1 amazing steelhead hooked; 0 landed (not counting smolts and a jack). Lord knows, I must be crazy! But that's steelhead math for you—it just doesn't add up ;). Many would say this is the norm for steelhead fishing. I guess I've just been very lucky in the past. If you rely on balance sheets and need your columns to add up, find a different sport! ;)

While number of days, rivers, and casts may be quantified, the experience of fishing these beautiful waters of the Olympic Peninsula can't be. Nothing can measure the wonder of hiking into a primordial rainforest—the overwhelming, almost suffocating lushness, the damp musty smell of wet fertile earth, being dwarfed by enormous trees adorned in moss and lichen from head to toe; Or the meditative tranquility of swinging a fly countless times through the milky waters of a mist covered river, ever hopeful of that sweet pull followed by an epic battle, the priceless reward for your crazy persistance and perseverance.

View of the Seattle skyline from the Bainbridge island ferry.

1 comment:

  1. Swinging for steelhead is definitely for those that like things difficult, not sure why I do it as well some times....but there is something just so rewarding when you finally get one. Good for you for fishing the way you want to fish.