Editors note: This is the first in a multi-part series looking at both the decline and recovery of wild steelhead runs.
By Bill Herzog
Here I am, as far into the corner of eastern Washington as you can get, waist deep in the mighty Snake River, two hander whooshing around me every few minutes. I’m immersed, literally and figuratively, in my favorite activity of swinging flies for summer steelhead. The Snake, just below the mouth of the Grande Ronde in late October through November is where and when I fish for summer steelhead these days.
The Snake, you see, is the only place I know to consistently find wild summer runs in Washington.
To quote the talking heads: How did I get here? It’s not that I wanted to drive this far. I just don’t have the choices I used to. I never left the Puget Sound area for what seemed like forever — plenty of rivers lousy with hatchery and some wild steelhead, ready and waiting for my flies and lures.
We as steelheaders up here in the Fourth Corner are all too aware of the trials and tribulations of our wild winter steelhead. But what I want to know is, what happened to my summer runs, specifically the wild ones of the Olympic Peninsula?
How much do you hear about wild summer steelhead?
Other than the legendary Deer Creek fish of the Stillaguamish system, very little or dare I say nothing at all. Truth of the matter is wild steelhead runs in western Washington have always been well hidden, so to speak, due to locations where they can be found. Most require risky scrambles down canyons or long hikes up steep river valleys to headwaters. Because of such a small group of anglers who even bothered to find them, when the runs began to fade you heard nothing. Like a giant tree in the rain forest, because no one knew it even existed when it fell there was no reporting, no remorse. Sadly, without any fanfare the wild summer steelhead of western Washington, in my experience went away as fast or even quicker than their winter run brethren.
When you look up run statistics, there is just not much to find about run sizes and timing for western Washington rivers. So for the purpose of this blog, let me ramble on from personal experience.
For the last thirty plus years, I, along with a few select close friends, have pursued hatchery summer steelhead in the Bogachiel, Calawah, Elwha, Dungeness, Wynoochee, Humptulips, Nisqually, Green (King Co.), Cowlitz, Kalama, North Fork Lewis, South Fork Toutle, Snoqualmie and Stillaguamish. A diverse list of river types for sure, we enjoyed the artificial fun provided by these high quality man bred fish summer after summer. But as great as these fish were to fight and eat, we looked forward to the pursuit of the real ones, the wild summer fish that were oh so rare even back then.
We worked damned hard to find them, as no one gave any information on where or when to find them. The ones in the know were either extraordinarily tight lipped or just were unaware of their existence. We made expeditions to find the wild summer runs that made Lewis and Clark look like lazy tourists. Driving thousands of miles, hiking canyons and long trails, most of it just leading to pretty stretches of barren water. But once in a while, if you pulled the handle enough, the jackpot would come.
These were small yet predictable runs of white-hot fish between five and eight pounds. A fish in the teens was rare. They were angry fish, so quick on the take it took your breath away each time. Leaps as high as your head. The Olympic Peninsula wild summer runs were some of the strongest steelhead I’ve ever encountered, hands down.
My very first summer steelhead came from the Duckabush canyon back in 1980, a bright seven pounder. A photo of yours truly hangs above my head as I type this, a very young, bell bottomed, long haired single stash version, holding the fish riverside in Camp Collins. The same hook (a gold Eagle Claw, unsharpened), bit of flame yarn, wound leader and brass swivel are in the frame next to the photo.
We hiked every square inch of those rivers, found the sections and times where they briefly slowed and enjoyed the best steelhead fishing you could imagine for the hardest fighting creatures this side of the Dean River. From 1979 to 2002, it was automatic and quite frankly we took this world class fishing for granted. Then, in just a few seasons, they all went away. East, north, west rivers…so fast it seemed there was no rhyme nor reason for the swift, chilling collapse.
They were just….gone.
First thing I figured out was our biologists in the 80s and 90s were unaware of the wild fish in Hood Canal. When asking one gent about the Canal wild summer steelhead he told me with a straight face that there were no summer steelhead in Hood Canal rivers, the ones we were catching had to be hatchery strays. I naturally insisted that the steelhead we were finding in the canyons of those streams were indeed more than wild, he just blew it off and said something to the effect of there was no records of wild summer steelhead being there. While we did catch a hatchery stray now and then, mostly from the coastal rivers, the Canal streams were 99 and 9/10ths pure. You could tell a hatchery dip in the second it was hooked, as they were usually larger than the wild fish and fought well but nowhere near the ferocity and power of real ones.
The Hood Canal fish could be found just above the Blue Hole in the Hamma Hamma, above Steelhead Campground in the Dosewallips, above Ranger Hole in the Duckabush and up ten miles above Browns Creek on the Skokomish, peak of their runs was the first week in July. Go ahead, head up there, invest a cast of two. You won’t find any. I’ll take that back: I hope you find one. They trickled in through October, but the main push was at the end of snow melt. All four rivers saw a fast decline in runs in the late 90s and by 2003 we could not find more than single occupants of the pools, if any at all.
You can only assume that the reasons for the sharp drop in runs are the same suffered by winter steelhead of the same rivers and smolt migration. We know of Hood Canal Bridge and how it affects smolt travel, but what about the west side glacier/snowmelt rivers? All of these rivers, both sides of the OP feature nearly pristine headwaters where the wild summer fish eventually reach and spawn. Save for perhaps the Queets and Quinault which see a small commercial fishery near tidewater when the summer fish enter the estuaries, there was never enough angler pressure to see a drop in run size. Yes, we killed some (it was legal), but most were released. No way could taking six or seven steelhead each summer be the death call for an entire run.
Historically, the numbers of wild summer steelhead remain a mystery to me. Perhaps my research is not stout enough, but I cannot find any information on historical run size for coastal wild summer steelhead. I can only assume from personal experience, which is pretty thorough after almost 40 years, most Hood Canal rivers never saw more than a few hundred fish at the time we “discovered” them, the coastal rivers perhaps no more than around a thousand apiece.
It’s been years since we’ve seen our favorite fish.
Yes, my partners and I still hike into the canyons and upper reaches of all these rivers, looking for ghosts. Once or twice each summer, we find several on the coastal rivers, virtually none in the Canal streams. In sacred holes where there used to be dozens, now empty, beautiful places. I hear second hand stories of wild fish encounters on all these rivers by anglers, and I truly want to believe they are still there. I have to say I miss those wild summer steelhead far more than any winter fish, so much so that my bucket list has catching just one more wild summer run from either a Canal or west OP river as its main entry.
I need an updated picture of another Duckabush wild summer run to put above my desk. Might even pull out my old bell bottoms for that shot.