It is that time of the year again, when the first winter storms start rolling in off of the Pacific and the nearly gravitational pull of winter steelhead finally becomes to strong to ignore. With those rains come the steelhead, but also higher flows on the streams and this typically means that any idea of planning a trip ahead of time is going to lead to disappointment. However high flows on the big famous waters often mean ideal conditions for the smaller and more out of the way streams. With that in mind and despite the fact several inches of rain had put just about all of the rivers along the coast of Washington out of shape, Chris and I headed out for our first winter steelheading trip of the new season.
With the rain still falling and rivers still on the rise, we made plans to check out a few streams on the way out, but with water looking more like chocolate milk we knew we would have our work cut out for us. With most options not available, we headed out to one of my favorite spots, a little cedar stain stream that is usually the last to blow out and the first to come back into shape. This is where the curve ball from left field hit us. With just a few miles to go to reach the water we ran into a brand new logging company gate and a lovely sign indicating that unauthorized motorized vehicles were no longer permitted. The only glimmer of hope for the day was running into a logging company security worker that apparently felt our pain with losing a favorite fishing spot and gave us a spot to go and check out.
With a new bit of intel, we headed back out on the road to do a bit of exploring. With a little help from out friendly gazetteer, we started our quest for steelhead over again on a small piece of water that this time did not have a gate blocking the road. With the other streams out of shape, we were worried that this one might be too, but upon arriving there seemed to be a good two feet of visibility and before even setting foot in the water we spotted a few coho and some cutthroat hanging out behind them.
As if that was a sign over the next few hours we proceeded to have one of the best days of stream fishing for sea-run cutthroat that I have experienced. The fish weren't huge, averaging 12-14", but they were feisty and plentiful making for fast paced action.
An average sea-run cutthroat
This isn't to say that we didn't run into any other fish either as in the first second hole upstream, Chris got a good hook up. However the fish whether salmon or steelhead pulled right into a log jam and broke him off. This hole also was home to a handful of steelhead smolts and cutthroat, but before long the water upstream was calling our names.
As we worked upstream the river became a tangled mess of log jams and side channels, making the going slow, but it was perfect cutthroat habitat all the same. Every likely looking spot seemed to have some sort of fish in it and in a nice dredged out corner hole I had a brief encounter with a nice about 17" cutthroat that jumped a couple of time before tossing the hook. However the best spot we ran into was a little side channel no more than 10 feet across, where on my first cast five cutthroat charged my fly and even after one managed to nab the yarnie I was fishing the rest of the group continued to try to eat the dropper as I fought him.
While at first it seemed like it was just cutthroat holding in this spot, before long we spotted a few coho and something the looked a lot like a steelhead. Both the coho and the steelhead also seemed interested in what we were offering, with Chris and I each hooking a couple coho a piece and Chris briefly hooked the steelhead before the fish seemed to be on to us.
Fishing remained good on the way downstream and we managed to pick up a few more cutthroat before before deciding it was time to head to another spot.
Our next stop, going off of the tip that we had received, was a tributary to one of the larger rivers in the area and right where the two met there were definitely some fish and fishing was good enough to keep us interested until the light started to fade and we had to hike back out.
The next morning with flows dropping, we regrouped and made the hike into one of my favorite spots. The water had a perfect steelhead green tone to it and a couple of feet of visibility, so we figured things might be good. However with the flows so much higher then when I have fished it before it seemed like I was relearning the water all day and many of the typical spots were moving to fast to hold to many fish.
The first few spots we tried didn't seem to have anyone home, however before long we got our sign of where the fish were. With steelhead being such difficult fish to catch, some people tend to get superstitious about things and I would be included in that bunch. This mostly came after Chris revealed the power of redbull to me last year as a steelhead attracting tool and since I have seen an uncanny increase in my catch rate under the influence of this beverage. So when I see a random redbull can laying next to a random trail to the river, lets just say that I have to check things out.
The water at this spot didn't look ideal as the river was moving a little fast, but it was one a corner and seemed to have some depth so it was definitely worth trying. Chris started off downstream a little ways on a little more likely looking seam along a log jam, while I took the corner. We will just say the corner was the place to be. After enough drifts to figure out where the snags on the bottom where, my indicator shot down, I set and a silver bullet steelhead came shooting out of the water. The steelhead wasn't huge, maybe running five or six pounds, but none the less he was a powerful fish and put up quite a battle. However I got a good set and before long I eased him into the shallows. The buck steelhead was a beautiful early component native that was just starting to show signs of his rainbow trout colors. In the wake of hatchery plantings, these early natives have become quite rare in Washington rivers and while this most definitely wasn't my largest steelhead I would rank it as one of the coolest I have caught.
Another look at the fish just before release
As I had just got a fish, I turned the spot over to Chris and within just a few minutes he hooked into a nice steelhead as well. The fish gave in a few good runs and jumps and he had it on just long enough for us to see it was another native before it spit the hook. We fished through the "redbull hole" as it was now dubbed for a while and got a few more grabs but weren't able to get anymore solid hook ups.
Continuing downstream we checked out one last corner hole that my buddy Johanthan had hooked a good steelhead out of last year. We weren't able to find any steelhead, but I did have a short encounter with my ninth hooked and lost (in a row) coho of the year. This was a big fish going 15lbs or bigger that gave me several good jumps and effectively spooked the hole before throwing the hook and saying adiós. Without a lot of good fishable water below us, we decided that we might as well move on down the road again and check out another spot. This next spot also required a bit of a hike to get into, if you could call it that, as it really was more of an effort to thrash our way through the bushes to the water.
This was new water to us but the first hole looked pretty good, so we figured that we would start there. It didn't take long to start things off either as on my third cast a nice 7 or 8lb hatchery steelhead grabbed my fly and took off downstream. The fish put up a good fight, but before long he admitted defeat and accepted his fate as my honored guest for an upcoming bbq.
Doing my part to keep hatchery fish out of the gene pool
The next hole down looked just about as good as the first one, so I gave Chris first water again and the events of the "redbull hole" repeated themselves. After only of couple casts he hooked another steelhead, but this fish ran downstream into a boulder garden and pulled the fly loose after a few minutes of heated battle.
Chris working a good hole on the river
However in the very next hole down it was finally Chris' turn to land one and after just a few casts he got a beautiful little chrome hen.
With three holes fished and three fish hooked, we decided to push our luck a little further headed to to next good looking pool downstream before we lost what was left of the daylight. This pool proved to be most useful in removing the block that I have been fighting all year when it comes to coho. Towards the tailout, my indicator went down and for the fourth time in the day my fly called the "UVA Bomber" proved its value as a big coho started tearing up the water below me. This was a powerful fish and he put up a great fight before finally coming to hand.
10th time's the charm!
My estimated 15lb native coho
By the time that I got the coho in, it was already nearly dark and there didn't seem to be enough light left to continue our streak to five holes in a role. So with that we called it a very successful day and first trip for winter steelhead. I can only hope that this is sign of a good season ahead of us and that all of my last year's exploring is going to start paying off. However at this point it looks like the biggest factor for the season may be the rain. Especially since as of writing this all of the rivers and even the smaller ones are far to high to fish and will be for the foreseeable future.