About this blog

This blog is all about fly fishing for native trout. On it I cover trip reports, fishing tactics, conservation, the latest news about native trout species and much more. This site provides a companion to my web page Nativetroutflyfishing.com.


Sunday, May 15, 2022

A winter steelhead season in review: Part 1

I have been a bit behind on getting this post out, this is primarily due to life being more chaotic than usual over the last few months. The main driver has been a major career shift as I moved on from my role at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and started a new position as the Steelhead Science Advisor with Trout Unlimited. While winter has long since past, I still wanted to get this two part series of posts out before the summer trout fishing season really sets in.

 The 2021/2022 winter steelhead season in Washington was an odd one. The season started out among the rainiest in reach memory but was followed by an unusually dry spell in the middle of the season. However, this was not the most abnormal part, as the season also saw some of the lowest returns of steelhead on record in the Pacific Northwest. While issues in freshwater certainly played a role in the low returns, such a broad scale decline point to over arching issues, with poor ocean conditions being the primary driver. The lower returns along the Washington coast led to complete closures in some watersheds and early closures in most others. Between the low returns and a shoulder injury from my fall outing for Chum, I was on the water significantly less than previous years. However, with the poor returns I also figured that this year wouldn't be a horrible one to scout out a few streams that I had been planning check out for sometime now.

My first  scouting trip was a near complete failure. The first stream that I checked out was a mix of highly degraded habitat and private property, which made it easy to cross it off my list of waters to revisit. The next stream I had been meaning to scout was not far away but upon arriving at the logging road gate, there were three cars already there. As this stream was not large by any means I did not think that it could handle any additional pressure so I decided to call it a day, but made a note to return and take a look on my next trip to the area.

A couple weeks after my failed scouting operation both my buddy Chris and I were able to line up a mid-week day to get out on one of my favorite rivers. As the trip approached, the both the weather and the flows looked great so we were in business.  We arrived at the river before the sun was up with air temps in the low 20's promising cold fingers and iced guides. Chris had driven and had the honor of the first cast. While steelhead are typically known as the fish of a thousand casts, today it ended up being the fish of a single cast, as half way through his drift he got a solid take and hooked up. Chris's fish fought well and even attracted the attention of another steelhead that rolled while he was fighting it. However, after a few minutes he was able to bring it into the shallows and I successfully tailed it.

Chris' one cast wonder- a beautiful wild hen. Frozen fingers for me...

After warming my now numb fingers for a moment, the next cast was mine and sure enough the fish we saw roll was still there and was just as grabby as Chris' hen and I got a solid hookup on my first cast as well. This fish proved to be quite powerful and after battling it for a couple of minutes in the where I hooked it, it decided to head straight for a log right at the top of the run. Unfortunately, I could get the fish to turn before reached the log and it managed to break me off. It was hard to be two upset though, as with an unprecedented two fish hooked on two casts the day was off to a good start.

A crisp morning on the river

We decided to try moving down river first, but the next couple hours on the river didn't produce anything other than frozen guides and numb fingers. This lack of activity encouraged us to try another part of the river. While hiking upstream to the next piece of water, we briefly stopped at a bluff overlooking the river and could see a steelhead holding near a log jam that was every bit of 20lbs. It looked like there was a good crossing just upstream, so I decided that I would stay up on the bank and sight while Chris tried casting to it. On the first cast, the fish moved and looked at Chris' offering, but after that showed no interest in anything he tossed at it. While it certainly would have be amazing to see Chris get this fish, it was an absolute pleasure to simply spend some time watching and how it reacted to Chris' presentations. However, I couldn't spend all day watching it and with its disinterest in what Chris had to offer, it was time for us to move on again. 

The shadow in the deep

Not far upstream, we came upon some of the best looking water of the day with a series of deep runs along a rock face. At the first of these we spooked a river otter that had been actively fishing so we decided to save fishing there for our downstream journey. The next run didn't produce anything, but in the uppermost run I got a good drift along a rock ledge resulting in a solid hook up. While this fish was much smaller and did not have the power of the one that had broken me off, it was quite acrobatic and put up a solid fight before coming to hand.

My first steelhead of 2022 - a small wild buck

While I was fighting this fish, we spotted another angler working his way downstream and didn't want to cut him off, so we started also started working our way back downstream. By this time the run that the otter had been fishing had been given a nice long rest, so we were hopeful there might be some fish around. Sure enough after just a few casts Chris hooked into one. This fish lacked to spunk of the previous steelhead and after a short battle we were able to land what turned out to be an early kelt.

An early season wild kelt

The rest of the journey downstream was uneventful and the big fish from earlier had moved on, so we decided to drive up to one more spot further upstream. This location had two likely steelhead lies, with Chris taking the upper one and me taking the lower one. I had barely gotten in position to cast, when I heard Chris shouting that he had a fish on. The bucket that Chris had hooked the fish in was rather small and the fish didn't want to move into shallow water so it took a stay deep, brute strength approach. However, with limited room to run it wasn't long before Chris got the fish to budge and I was able to tail it. The fish was a beautiful buck, that unfortunately looked as though it had been poorly handled by a previous angler, as it had noticeable wear on its back and side (likely pulled up on shore). This wear is likely to make this fish more susceptible to fungus and other pathogens during the arduous spawning period and is a reminder handle these fish with as much care as possible. By the time we had landed the fish, another angler had moved in below us and after a few more casts to make sure there were anymore fish holding in front of us, we decided that it was time to start working our way towards home. 

Chris' wild buck steelhead

After wrapping up, Chris and I had a little time left on the day so we decided to scout out the over crowded stream from my previous trip. This time there were no cars and the blue bird day made for a nice walk into the stream. We only spent a couple hours at this stream and didn't hook any fish but the water was absolutely gorgeous and I certainly plan to return next season to explore some more.

The beautiful new stream that I plan on spending some more time on next season