11th Hour Winter Steelhead the Olympic Peninsula

Rob Russell Olympic Peninsula trip

Continuing with my “ten years behind the curve” theme (see Intruder Alert), I finally took a steelheading trip to the Olympic Peninsula last week. That’s after 12 years of procrastination and preoccupation with Oregon’s coastal rivers. I’ve never felt the need to leave Oregon for winter steelheading, so it took some pressure from my friend Monte to get me out of the state. He convinced me to set aside an entire week. He also convinced me to leave my jig rod at home and dedicate the week to swinging flies.

We headed north on a sunny Sunday, arriving at the Hoh Oxbow campground that afternoon. A quick stop at the Hoh River Resort allowed us to organize our shuttles for the week, get the latest intel, and enjoy some friendly banter with the new owners, the Ross family. They recently relocated from California’s Owens Valley to the Hoh rainforest. That’s a major shift in rainfall, but they maintained that they “love the rain.” They reported that the lower Hoh was producing for the gear guys, but the upper river was slow. Based on that, and the fact that I like to be as close to saltwater as possible, we agreed to spend our first day floating from our camp at Oxbow down to a gravel bar known as G&L.

We awoke to a cold clear sky, scarfed up a meager breakfast and launched the boat. The lower river was big and burly, rising slowly throughout the day as the hot sun melted mountain snow. We were impressed by some choice fly water and the occasional boulder field, but spent a lot of time rowing through water that was better suited for gear. As we pulled into G&L that afternoon, a slough of gear boats were loading up, cracking beers and stowing their bags of giant pink worms and assorted baits. A lone plunker situated just above the take out yanked a small steelhead up on the gravel, unhooked it, and booted it back in the river. All in all, it was a lovely and depressing scene for a couple of fly guys. We returned to camp, sipped some fine beers and grilled a couple of steaks for dinner.

Rob Russell Olympic Peninsula trip

Day two was another bluebird day. This time we hit the upper Hoh, taking out at the gravel bar below Minnie Peterson campground. Words cannot adequately describe the beauty of the upper river. Just thinking about it, I’m still spellbound. For me it was love at first sight. But to her I was just another goofy chump vying for affection. Monte and I swung every gorgeous, classic run we came to, but for whatever reason, we found no players. As the day came to a close a strong wind pushed thin cirrus clouds over the sky. The weather was changing.

Day three brought morning clouds. We headed south for the Queets for a change of pace. It has always been my favorite Olympic river, mainly because it is the wildest. The Park Service manages it as such, refusing to build a bridge from the campground at road’s end to the trailhead. Hikers have to ford the river, and I can tell you from experience it is no small feat. Anyway, this winter the river blew out the road above Hartzell Creek, so we had a choice of running the short float from Hartzell to the Clearwater, or coughing up $50 for a shuttle and traveling an extra hour by car to run the upper section. We took the easy and less expensive route and enjoyed another fishless day. Again we fished some classic runs, but were aced out of three of the very best spots by guides with clients. The river ran slate gray, matching the sky above us. As we pulled out at the Clearwater Bridge, we marveled at the high-tech monofilament gill nets scattered through the river below. For this Oregon boy, that was a disturbing sight. We drove up to Forks for a late lunch and scoped out a few spots on the Solduc and Bogachiel. Both were running crystal clear, and gear boats were scattered throughout.

Back at camp that night we hashed over what we had learned. The lower Hoh had fish, but it also had lots of gear boats. The Queets was falling off our radar, and the Solduc and Bogie were just too damn clear to get me excited. All signs pointed to the upper Hoh, and I couldn’t think of anywhere I would rather be skunked. Fish or no fish, we would be in heaven up there. I pushed to launch somewhere in the park, even though there were no ramps.

Day four started with a cool drizzle. Everything felt right. We launched off the road, just inside the park. The river ran clear, contrary to claims that the Hoh’s color comes from her glaciers. The milky color of the Hoh in summer certainly is influenced by glaciers, but we soon learned that the winter color comes from three main deposits of clay that lie below the confluence of the South Fork. Just below our launch we spied a couple of fly anglers targeting a pair of spawning fish. Thankfully we didn’t have to say a word. Once they saw us coming their guilt forced them elsewhere.

We had some close calls in the uppermost reach, guessing which channel would allow us passage. Twice it looked like we might have been cooked by massive log jams, but both times there were escape routes. Unscathed, we approached the classic runs below Spruce Creek, passing through the massive boulder field that serves as the gateway to Shangri-la. This time we knew what tips to fish, where to walk, where to spend our time. We anchored above my favorite piece of water. It was Monte’s turn for first water. He unhooked his fly, flopped it in the water and prepared to cast. As he lifted the line to cast, a swirl surrounded his fly but nothing connected. He cast again and slowly drew the fly through the same spot. “There he is!” he yelled, and the rod finally bent over. But within seconds we both knew this was not the fish we had traveled to the Peninsula to find. A silvery char came quickly to hand, barely tethered to Monte’s giant Intruder.

Rob Russell Olympic Peninsula trip

He was a great consolation prize, and the only fish of the day. Monte did have another grab that afternoon and proceeded to break his leader on the hook set. Poor bastard. I saw the grab, but I was so desensitized by the end of day four, I wasn’t sure if it was a rock or a fish. Monte was certain it was a fish and spent the rest of the evening beating himself up for the rookie move. We agreed to spend our final day on the upper Hoh, focusing on the very best water.

Day five was another perfect gray day. No wind, a light drizzle with breaks. We fished hard. We tried new angles on old pools. Desperation got the better of me, and I converted a wine cork into a strike indicator trying my hand at dead drifting flies through the obvious slots. By lunchtime we had fished all but a couple of runs, and the writing was on the wall. I no longer cared whether I saw a fish. I was already writing the headlines in my head: “Olympic Smackdown” or maybe “What’s that Smell? It’s Olympic Steelheading!”

Monte wolfed down his sandwich and jumped in the river. I putzed and sulked around like a spoiled kid who just got told he wasn’t getting any Christmas presents. A few minutes into it, Monte let out a loud “Woohoo!” Jeez, man. What? Another rock? I looked up to see his rod bent, but only for a second. Whatever it was came free. I really thought he was losing it. But he took a deep breath, kept his faith and proceeded through the run. I stepped in behind him and started working out line. The water was so perfect, that despite my lack of faith, I got caught up in the sweetness of the water and started fishing with intention. And when I reached the exact spot where Monte had let out his wail, it was fish on. For real!

Line tore into the river, the fish rolled on the surface, and the world came alive. Monte grabbed the camera from the boat and I worked the fish to shore. It was a perfect buck, colored, but still fresh, about ten pounds. Monte turned on the camera, raised the lens, and the fish came free, shooting back into the sapphire water. Classic! But nothing mattered anymore. The trip was a success. I was a success. Life was good.

We smiled, laughed, breathed. Monte went through the run again. Halfway through he had another grab, but no stick. Again I followed through and stuck a nice little seven pound buck. This one stayed on for the full photo shoot. Then another, and another. We hooked seven fish in a couple of hours, all in the same gorgeous run, but Monte still hadn’t brought one to hand. I was getting pretty cocky.

Rob Russell Olympic Peninsula trip

Our final piece of water for the day, for the trip, was a beauty. It was the same place where Monte had crackered his “fish” the day before, and he was dead set on hooking up. But he worked through it without a grab. I started in behind him, letting my fly swing right at his boots, praying for one more humiliating grab. That’s just the kind of guy I am. The evening was upon us, the sky was getting dark, and I had the sense that the trip was over.

Monte’s last cast of the trip, fired from an impossible location under an overhanging tree, met with a monster grab. “There he is!” And this time there was no doubt. The rod pulsed under the weight of a heavy fish. I ran for the camera as Monte reefed that fish to shore. He didn’t hold back. He literally wrestled the fish to shore, bending the nine-weight Vision rod to extremes. I clicked off shots as fast as I could, and managed to get a couple of decent pics before he released the fish, a perfect, hump-backed buck of about fourteen pounds. By far the best fish of the trip, and a fitting end to a perfect week.

That night we went into Forks for a burger and some beers. The next morning the rain fell in sheets, and as we drove south, the Hoh rose several feet. The fish gods do have mercy, but they dish it out sparingly…

Rob Russell Olympic Peninsula trip

-Rob Russell

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5 Responses to 11th Hour Winter Steelhead the Olympic Peninsula

  1. Well, I think most steelheaders will tell you they count their catch on a per week basis and not a per day basis. So, was the last shot worth the trip?

  2. Cruiser says:

    Great adventure & told well!! Thanks for taking us with you to the Hoh.

  3. Rob R says:

    The last cast/grab/fish/shot were gifts from the fish gods. Monte’s a great fisherman, but only divine intervention could truly be credited for such an ending to a trip, and to a winter season.

  4. Wayne Esterline says:

    Wow. nice fish, nice photos. It’s amazing how when you finally have a day like that, you forget about all of the days you were skunked.

  5. Nate says:


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