NEW JOB, NEW DOG AND SUMMER WRITING

If you happen to follow this site you may have noticed it’s been a few months since I’ve added any writing, photography, trip reports or other content.

After taking a new job as Communications Manager at Conservation Northwest this spring and having a new puppy around the house that needs near constant attention, all while trying to get out and enjoy this awesome summer with friends and family, personal writing projects have been put on a serious backburner.

SRC Beach Trip

I’ll still be posting writing, photos, video and other projects to this site on occasion, but if you’re interested in a more regular stream of content I’m working on, head over to the Conservation NW website, Scat! blog or my monthly Conservation Connection E-newsletters.

And while you’re at it, why not join us in keeping the Northwest wild.

Here’s a few pieces of recent work:

Recovery Planning Proposed for North Cascades Grizzly Bears | August 21st, 2014

Tips for Hiking in Wolf Country | August 1st, 2014

Summer News from the Range | July 27th, 2014

I-90 Wildlife Crossings Animal GIFs | July 11th, 2014

USFWS: Don’t Downlist Woodland Caribou | July 10th, 2014

ATVs, motorized recreation and Conservation Northwest | June 23rd, 2014

Fladry Protects Wolves and Livestock in the Teanaway | May 16th, 2014

And a fun video I created of a wolverine attacking one of our trail cameras:

Oh, and all that new work doesn’t mean I haven’t gotten out hiking, camping, rafting and fishing. In fact, despite less days on the water than any summer in recent memory, it’s been a pretty fishy season.

Eastern Oregon Brown

JUNE SPLITBOARDING ON MOUNT RAINIER

There are literally hundreds of spring and summer tour routes on all sides of Mount Rainier.

And if you’re willing to put in the time and effort (and navigate crevasse and avy danger) , it isn’t hard to find yourself at the top of a perfect several-thousand-foot descent that hasn’t seen human tracks in days. Or even weeks or months.

June 1st Touring on Rainier

But like so many other northwest backcountry skiers and snowboarders this time of year, I keep going back to the Muir Snowfield.

Sure it’s literally the beaten path. And the conga-line of crowds on a summer weekend can stretch for miles. But the views are typically stellar, the conditions are reliably carve-able corn until mid-July, and with the exception of finicky alpine weather, and loose-wet slides in the area around the Nisqually Chutes, the technical hazards are minimal.

Camp Muir Touring June 1st

There are miles and miles of the mountain I’d still like to explore. But I just don’t think I’ve ever had a bad day touring or hiking up the mountain’s mellow south flank to Camp Muir at 10,080′.

And June 1st was certainly no exception; great weather, crowds but more than enough untracked lines for all, and buttery smooth snow to rip all the way down to the car.

June 1st Touring on Rainier

Camp Muir Touring June 1st

Camp Muir Touring June 1st

Camp Muir Touring June 1st

June 1st Touring on Rainier

Camp Muir Touring June 1st

Camp Muir Touring June 1st

Even though I’ve been there well over a dozen times, I still can’t wait to go back.

LINGCOD ON THE FLY

Catching a bottom-dwelling saltwater fish on a fly may seem a little absurd. Because it is.

Despite fancy sinking lines and other technical innovations, flies and fly rods simply aren’t as effective fishing at depth compared to lead jigs or weighted bait rigs.

Roche Harbor Lingcod

Being no stranger to absurd goals, catching a lingcod on the fly was one of my main fishing objectives for 2014.

And thanks to a hand-me-down 12 WT rod, some RIO 450 grain Striper sinking line, an extra heavy MOW T-17 sink tip, and an eight inch herring fly, I was lucky enough to make it happen last weekend up in the San Juan Islands. Twice.

First lingcod on the fly

All around, I was impressed with the effectiveness of the heavy sinking fly line at getting down to depths of 60 feet or more, even with a big, brushy fly tied on the end.

Even more importantly, the line still allowed my fly to suspend and flutter nicely off the bottom when I casted it up against rock piles or kelp beds. Something a leadhead jig would never be able to do.

Roche Harbor Lingcod

The lings that came on the fly were both right at the low end of the keeper range (26″ – 36″ in the San Juans and Puget Sound), but over our two days on the water our crew managed to hook close to a dozen nice sized lingcod, including two that were well over 40″.

Roche Harbor Lingcod

It was more than enough to feast on fish & chips each night and still send everyone back on the Friday Harbor ferry Sunday afternoon with a few fillets in the cooler.

Throw in a handful of spot shrimp, cabezon and oysters, a lot of beer and whiskey, and some spectacular island sunsets and it was a great weekend celebrating a good buddy’s birthday in one of the Pacific Northwest’s finest places.

Roche Harbor Lingcod Fishing

Even after landing my two fish on the fly and a few more on gear, I’m still imagining what kind of bend one of those over-sized sea monster lingcod would put in a fly rod.

And I’m looking forward to the day I find out.

Roche Harbor Lingcod Fishing

Bent fly rod photo by Max Cole.

SOMETIMES THE MOUNTAIN SAYS “NO”

Mount St. Helens is one of my favorite spring splitboard tours, even if the volcano and I have a ragged history of false starts, poor weather and aborted attempts.

Still, the moderate twelve mile roundtrip Worm Flows / Swift Glacier tour from Marble Mountain SnoPark, a nontechnical route that provides a great taste of mountaineering for any prospective climber, can put out some fantastic turns in April and early May, and it’s a trip I try to squeeze in every year before the summer dust and hiking crowds arrive.

With our first permit dates of this season cancelled due to a storm in the first week of April, my ski touring buddy Max and I were stoked to get up Helens this past weekend for a mellow tour and some views down into the Dante’s Inferno-like caldera that can be seen from the crater rim.

The forecast was decent, ten to 14 mph winds and precipitation likely, but little-to-no snow accumulation expected.

As you can see, things started out that way. But as is so often the case in the Cascades, mother nature choose to throw us a curve ball.

Mount St. Helens Splitboard Touring

Mount St. Helens Splitboard Touring

Mount St. Helens Splitboard Touring

Mount St. Helens Splitboard Touring

Mount St. Helens Splitboard Touring

Mount St. Helens Splitboard Touring

Mount St. Helens Splitboard Touring

With decreasing visibility and wind-loaded snow that was rapidly piling up to dangerous amounts, we decided to hunker down behind some boulders just under 6,000′ feet and see if things lightened up.

It only took about five minutes of watching the storm deposit fresh, avalanche prone powder onto our planned descent route to decide it was high time we got down the mountain, and fast.

After some careful route picking in the whiteout, we soon made it to clearer elevations and enjoyed a few pow turns and a nice, if soggy, ride back down the trail until spring snow turned to gravel and dirt.

Regardless of the conditions, it was still a fun day to get out, get wet, get cold, and a solid reminder that the mountain is always in command.

REFLECTIONS AS ANOTHER STEELHEAD SEASON COMES TO A CLOSE

The fishing may have been a bit slow, but with 70 degree weather and sunshine on the Olympic Peninsula last weekend, it was still a perfect trip to close out another winter steelhead season.

The one fish our crew brought to hand was pretty sweet too, a healthy, dime-bright wild hen fresh from the salt.

Much has been written in fishing circles lately about the pros, cons and ethics of pursuing iconic native winter steelhead on the fabled rivers of Washington’s “OP”.

Rainforest Steelheading. Photo credit to the talented Ben Lim: benlimdesign.com

Both gear and fly guides have called it quits, citing struggling wild fish returns, crowding and too much “GoPro gloating”.

Others aren’t seeing the cost-benefit value in driving three or four hours multiple times a season and coming up empty handed, an experience I share on more than half my trips to the west end.

Undoubtedly, this sport takes time and serious commitment. The way I see it, swinging flies for silver ghosts through a northwest winter is a deeply personal endeavor. And so is the choice of when, where and why to fish. To each their own.

But perseverance, dedication and downright stubbornness in the face of poor odds (and weather) are simply part of the game. I manage expectations chasing these elusive sea-run trout because I know that like a casino where the house always wins, on any given trip there’s a good chance we’ll get skunked.

Or we might catch the fish of a lifetime.

Grays Harbor Steelhead Float

We all have to draw our lines somewhere. Even if I don’t agree with their assessments, I applaud anyone who identifies something they believe is a real problem and chooses to no longer be a part of it.

And there are real problems with wild fish runs across the Northwest. Particularly on the Olympic Peninsula where substantial habitat protected in Olympic National Park means runs of native steelhead “should” be recovering. But wild returns and estimated spawner escapement continue on a downward trend. Some argue that Washington’s wild steelhead are slowly going extinct.

Looking at the 2012-13 creel reports for the Olympic Peninsula, it’s clear that we sport anglers do have some blood on our hands.

On one popular river, 858 wild steelhead were recorded as landed and released by recreational fishermen last season (2013-14 saw 611 released). With fish contacts often going unrecorded by the checkers, it’s fair to assume that the actual number caught was over 1,000, out of a total run whose return is estimated at just under 4,000 fish annually in recent years. Of those, 46 were recorded as kept by neanderthals anglers that felt the need to bonk a wild steelhead and throw it on the grill.

When you add in a C & R mortality rate of close to 10% (coldwater, selective gear release mortality estimates vary from study to study, from below 2% to nearly 20%. If anyone has a better estimate for wild steelhead, please add it in a comment), it’s fair to assume that anglers killed somewhere around 150 wild steelhead on this river between December 1st, 2012 and April 15th, 2013, accidentally or intentionally.

That’s a substantial number of dead fish. Clear evidence that all recreational fisherman, whether they’re swinging flies or pulling plugs, should consider their impact and take steps to reduce harm.

But does that impact mean as ethical, responsible catch & release anglers should stop fishing our state’s coastal rivers for wild winter steelhead? Particularly in light of so many other more destructive factors threatening these fish that we can focus on?

At least for now, I don’t believe so.

Rainforest Steelheading. Photo credit to the talented Ben Lim: benlimdesign.com

I’ve personally seen enough doomed fish thrashing in gill-nets to know that 150 dead fish in a season pales in comparison to what other user groups take from these rivers. Even without finite tribal harvest totals, some basic math when looking at wild spawner escapement versus total run size is pretty depressing.

If sport fishermen may kill around 150 wild steelhead annually on the OP river mentioned above, and the total run size is estimated close to 4,000 wild fish, yet spawner escapement in 2012-13 was only 2,218 fish, even if you assume the actual return was somewhat less than 4,000 that year, where did the other (estimated) 1,500 wild fish go?

One look at the netting schedule (up to five consecutive days a week on many rivers) or the gill-nets stacked from bank to bank make it pretty clear what the biggest factor currently damaging runs of Washington’s threatened state fish on the Olympic Peninsula is.

I unabashedly support the right of the sovereign tribal nations to harvest Washington’s salmon and steelhead. Our ancestors signed those treaties just like theirs did, and we need to honor them.

And for conservationists, the native tribes can be vastly impactful partners and allies. They have undertaken important habitat restoration, environmental protection and economic and cultural development work in recent years. Washington’s tribes are valued members of our state’s community and deserve our respect.

But the responsibility that comes with being a steward of the resource includes the need to take a hard look at species abundance when determining your harvest. And in the case of steelhead, it is simply not sustainable to continue netting these iconic fish at anywhere near the current rate if you take into account the trend in wild returns.

What’s more, a nearly ten to one split of the catch is hardly the equitable division of resources promised by the Honorable Judge Boldt, even if that resource management system itself is purely focused on extraction and far from conservation-oriented.

If we want to get real about wild steelhead recovery, and truly act as equal co-managers, then the gill-nets should come out from February 1st to June 1st annually to protect native spawners. Or at the very least, serious harvest method and schedule changes need to be considered.

Rainforest Steelheading. Photo credit to the talented Ben Lim: benlimdesign.com

Over-harvest might be the most pressing concern for native steelhead on the OP, but it doesn’t take into account the decades of suppressed spawning potential resulting from the dozens of tributaries and creeks that have been clear-cut around, diverted, armored or blocked by culverts. All too common sights on any drive up the Washington coast.

And let’s not even get started on fish hatcheries.

Compared to the host of greater challenges they face; from archaic harvest practices to hatchery mismanagement, hydropower and overabundant logging and development, in my opinion the impact of responsible catch & release sport anglers on the health of wild steelhead returns is minimal enough to keep my fly in the water for the time being.

For me, reducing my personal harm to an acceptable level means playing and handling wild fish carefully, keeping them in the river prior to release, and asking my buddies to do the same. It means I won’t use bait for native fish if I happen to be gear fishing. And I won’t name drop certain rivers or share locations for coastal steelhead fisheries on forums, social media or this blog.

I’m not going to tell you where to go, but I’m also not going to urge you not to try. Just know that anyone who steps into our hallowed steelhead waters shoulders a share of the responsibility for their fate.

And minimizing my impact means I certainly won’t exercise the antiquated legal right to kill a wild unicorn steelhead every year on some Washington rivers.

But most importantly, I strongly believe that the potential for conservation-oriented fishermen (and women!) to be a part of the solution for these wild fish outweighs the limited impact we have when catch & release fishing with selective, barbless flies or gear.

Rainforest Winter Steelhead Camp

When it comes to wild steelhead, I don’t believe that keeping them secret will keep them safe. Because what these fish need most of all is more advocates, not less.

Advocates in the gear and fly fishing communities to lobby the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife for mandatory statewide wild steelhead catch & release, no bait and selective gear regulations, as well as additional rivers set aside as wild fish gene banks.

Advocates who will collaborate on habitat restoration with the NWIFC, Quinault, Hoh, Quileute, Makah and other native tribes, as well as environmental groups like Hoh River Trust and the North Olympic Salmon Coalition.

Advocates who will pressure tourism businesses and the City of Forks to support better resource stewardship and spread the idea that folks don’t need to kill a wild fish to come spend money in their towns.

And advocates who will work with the tribal co-managers to create a new management system where both user groups are receiving full access to their legally mandated 50% of the resource, without surviving fish beyond the escapement goal simply being re-allotted to the gill-nets downstream.

Maybe we even need advocates for further hatchery reforms, shorter fishing seasons, limits to fishing from a boat, increased non-resident license fees, reducing the number of in-state guides and a ban on all out-of-state guiding outfits… But that’s a conversation for another day, preferably streamside over Rainiers chilled in cold glacial melt.

Rainforest Steelheading. Photo credit to the talented Ben Lim: benlimdesign.com

I have yet to meet someone who encounters a native steelhead and isn’t immediately passionate about protecting them. They are just that special.

And so are the wild places where they swim.

The soft clean smell of moss and moisture that hangs in the rainforest air. The gurgle of cold turquoise water flowing among countless shades of green, melt from glaciers on Mt. Olympus and a dozen other craggy peaks.

Sitka spruce, hemlock and red cedar trees that have lived since the Dark Ages, their branches clothed in long strands of Grandfather’s Beard moss that nearly touches the waist high sword ferns on the forest floor below.

And the elk, otter, bear and other wildlife whose presence is seldom seen but frequently suggested through tracks in the mud, fresh piles of scat in a meadow or a musky scent on the breeze.

I would visit these places to hike, camp and explore even if there was not a single fish in the rivers.

Rainforest Steelheading. Photo credit to the talented Ben Lim: benlimdesign.com

But under those cloudy waters and typically dreary skies, some of the world’s largest anadromous rainbow trout swim on a journey towards cold, clean gravel in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains. They have spent the last few years feasting in the ocean somewhere south of the Aleutians, and now they return home.

Wild steelhead are undoubtedly “one of the best things the fish world has come up with.” A species that has inspired an angling tradition as cherished and storied as any in North America.

Native fish big, bright and supercharged from the salt. Strong enough to run against the heavy current at incomprehensible speeds, stripping even the hardiest drag until the angler on the other end is sweating bullets and expecting to see the arbor knot at the end of their line at any moment.

Fish we’ve chosen to celebrate by naming them one of our official state emblems. Fish who perfectly embody the wildness of the place they, and we, call home. Fish worth fighting for.

Rainforest chrome

That’s not to say the Olympic Peninsula steelheading experience is everything that’s been preached by dozens of fishing mags or pimped by guide outfits over the decades.

And it’s not what it used to be, when anglers like Syd Glasso could catch two dozen fish in a morning swinging traditional Spey flies. 

The rivers do get crowded. Patience and miles of bushwhacking through devils club can be required to find quiet water. And as soon as you find an empty run, a parade of drift boats might just appear around the next bend.

But with a few marquee systems being the main focus, it’s easy to forget what else is out there. If you drive Highway 101 from Port Angeles to Aberdeen, there are over a half-dozen steelhead rivers within your reach. The crowding is real and should be taken into account when considering any trip, but if you’re willing to do your own scouting and seriously work for it, there will almost always be good water.

And if one of those boats does happen to come floating through your hard-earned spot, I believe a friendly wave and a good attitude goes a long way in this fanatical brotherhood.

It’s important to remember we are all spending valuable time and money in pursuit of the same goal: an encounter with a wild creature in an untamed place that takes us back to something purer than our modern condition.

Rainforest Steelheading. Photo credit to the talented Ben Lim: benlimdesign.com

I’ve been lucky enough to make a good number of trips the past few years to swing flies and (occasionally) float gear on the steelhead rivers of Washington’s rugged coast.

And we caught a few fish.

In no way are these fisheries perfect; challenges plague the runs on every river out there. And that’s not even counting the standard winter fishing problems like pissing rain, finger-numbing cold, finicky fish, muddy or snowy dirt roads and rivers that frequently resemble a slurry of chocolate milk.

The Olympic Peninsula is not what it used to be. But what part of the American West is? Fishing for winter steelhead is tough to begin with. And it’s tougher today than it has ever been.

That’s part of what makes it so special. And so damn rewarding.

I was lucky enough to be born in this state to a family of commercial and recreational anglers, hunters and outdoorsmen. My grandfather’s stories of multiple twenty pound steelhead from a single run are something I can barely fathom today.

But that doesn’t stop me from trying to recreate them.

On the Washington coast there are still big, bright native fish to be caught in truly epic wild places with ample public access. That’s a rarity just about anywhere on earth, certainly in the Lower 48.

Grays Harbor Steelhead Float

Fishing and time spent outdoors, though an integral part of my life and upbringing, is now mostly a weekend passion.

That’s because I’ve spent my workdays consulting on political campaigns, lobbying legislators and state agencies, and crafting media relations, communications and online marketing plans for public policy issues.

And I’ve had the pleasure of working with numerous local companies, conservation groups, Native American tribes, agencies and state, local and congressional politicians in my short career.

One fundamental thing I find again and again is that people, whether elected leaders or everyday citizens, don’t care about abstracts, data or talking points.

They care about things that matter to their lives, their families and their communities. Things they can experience. Things they can see, touch and feel a connection with.

I believe the same rings true for protecting wild steelhead.

The average citizen doesn’t know or care much about these fish. They haven’t experienced the connection to heritage, history and the pulsing natural world that pursuing them can provide. Nor have they felt the soaring excitement and simple fun that comes when doing battle with such a worthy opponent.

And they don’t know the quiet satisfaction and reassuring sense of place that comes while watching one swim strongly away, a brief detour from it’s timeless journey to further the cycle of their species.

Abandoning our catch & release angling access to the fish and rivers of the Olympic Peninsula (and the rest of the Northwest) is only going exacerbate that apathy and disinterest, while doing next to nothing to slow the decline of wild steelhead in our state.

The core group of anglers and conservationists who currently work to protect these fish are not going to be enough to save them in the long run. They don’t have the votes, the voice or the manpower.

After over a century of habitat destruction and mismanagement, restoring runs of wild steelhead (and salmon) on the Olympic Peninsula and the rest of the West Coast will require the tireless effort of people who care deeply about these fish. Everyday people who will get their hands dirty, literally and figuratively, to fight for them. 

There is no better recruiting tool I know than the feel of a big, wild steelhead dancing frantically on the end of a fishing line.

We each need to draw our own lines, in fishing and in life. And as long as I am able, my line will continue swinging through a rainforest river in pursuit of these iconic fish at every chance I get.

Rainforest chrome

If you’re going to fish for wild steelhead in our state, take the time to do your part to keep them around.

Write the GovernorWDFW Commission, legislatureBIA or Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission about the need to protect wild steelhead with mandatory catch & release and selective gear regulations, additional wild fish gene banks, increased wild spawner escapement goals, and serious changes to in-river netting harvest, methods and schedules.

Opening rivers with (somewhat) healthy wild steelhead returns closer to the population centers to reduce angling pressure on the coast would be a big win as well.

Support local businesses and guides who preach that the value of a wild steelhead in tourism and sportfishing income is greater than the supermarket price-per-pound of a dead one in a net. Or if you want to get dirty, volunteer for a redd survey or stream restoration work with one of the many conservation groups in our region.

And if you see others abusing the resource, whether it’s a net blocking the entire river or a restaurant with wild steelhead on the menu, don’t hesitate to take a picture and call them out.

For more information on what you can do to help wild steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, please join the Wild Steelhead Coalition or check out the film Wild Reverence by Shane Anderson.

Casting, Tree, Waders, Log, Firepit and Sasquatch Flask photos by the talented Ben Lim. All others taken by Chase Gunnell in Washington during the winter and spring of 2014.

All Rights Reserved. Please reuse only with permission.

CHUM BABIES & RAINY MARCH SEA RUN CUTTHROAT FISHING

Rainy SRC Fly Fishing at Hood Canal

Spotted the first out-migrating salmon smolts of the season off our beach on Hood Canal this weekend.

Couldn’t find any Sea Run Cutthroat feeding on them today, but I’m looking forward to some great fly fishing action on the saltwater this spring as the trout feast on chum babies at creek mouths, oyster beds and beaches around the Salish Sea.

WINTER STEELHEAD CAMP IN THE RAINFOREST

After weeks of staring at work calendars, steelhead reports, river flows and weather forecasts for one of the wettest places in the country, some friends and I finally pulled the trigger and headed out for a long weekend on the Olympic Peninsula.

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

With early season conditions and temperatures well below freezing on the coast, we were content to treat this as an exploratory mission with a low bar for success.

Fly fish remote glacial water. Camp in an ancient rainforest. Drink beers by the fire. Anything else was extra.

But those modest expectations went out the window pretty quickly when a nice Bull Trout came to hand and we lost a bright steelhead in the first hour of fishing Friday morning.

OP Steelhead Camp - Bull Trout Updated

As is so often the case with winter steelheading, those were the only chances we had with decent fish on the first two days. A few yearling steelhead and surprisingly hefty coastal cutthroat took our swung flies, but overall it was slow fishing in bitterly cold temps.

But with tree’s reminiscent of Tolkien’s Ents ringing our camp, and perfect glacial runs only a short cast from the tent, there was nothing but the cold temps (as in 14 degrees once the sun went down) to complain about.

At least until Saturday morning when the effects of too much Rainier, Fireball and Evan Williams took their toll, and I woke up with minor frostbite numbing the tip of my pointer finger.

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

After fishing hard for two full days with only the briefest hint of steelhead to stoke our hopes, the temptation was strong to sleep in on Sunday, lounge around camp, and then drive the four hours back to civilization.

But I didn’t. At first light I forced myself out of a warm sleeping bag and into frozen wading boots.

After pounding some Starbucks VIA , I tied a fresh six foot flourocarbon leader on my Spey rod, pocketed my steelhead box, and hiked past moss covered giants to the best run I’d seen the day before.

While debating whether to start the day with a black Intruder or a purple Fish Taco, I took in the perfect turquoise color of the river and the deep green of the old growth around it. And thought about the wondrous places these anadromous trout call home.

And then I casted, mended and swung my fly low and slow across the run.

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

My fish didn’t come on that first cast. Or even the fiftieth.

But over an hour later and a few hundred yards down, standing on a midstream gravel bar and doggedly swinging towards a tailout, a sharp tug brought my line tight.

And then it quickly went slack again.

Shaken, I angled my fly out of the holding water and waited. Desperately wanting to cast again, but knowing the best chance of another take would come after giving the run a rest. I stood still as heron, staring at the roiling blue-green water.

And then I swung a tight Snap-T and popped my sink tip and fly well above the spot the fish had struck. Nothing.

Taking two steps down, I casted again just high enough to allow the fly to sink before swinging through the spot I imagined the fish to be.

And suddenly, just as the water begin to carry the fly broadside through the riffle, a very angry wild steelhead jerked the line tight.

After a few frantic headshakes, the buck took a searing run downstream, making my reel scream and ripping line towards the leader-snapping rapids below us.

Holding ground and slowing his run with a careful hand on the drag, I angled the fish back into the deeper part of the pool. Instead of dogging me in the slower water, he turned and ran straight back upstream, for a second making me think he had come unhooked.

But the fish rolled and thrashed again on the surface and my rod tip bounced as I picked up the slack. Stepping backwards in a slow game of give and take, I kept the long Spey rod low to the water and eased the chrome fish, fresh from the Pacific just over twenty miles away, into the shallows directly above me.

Stripping some line loose from the reel with my free hand, I released tension and quickly moved in to grasp the roughly twelve-pound buck just below its impressive adipose fin.

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

This is why fishermen endure long drives. Days of uneventful casting until even the most beautiful places get old. Pouring rain and blown out rivers. 14 degree nights in a tent and perpetually numb finger tips. Too much cheap whiskey, Clif Bars and freeze dried meals.

When a perfect native steelhead comes to hand, none of that matters.

You smile and laugh like a maniac. Snap a few hurried pictures, rest the fish in the river’s gentle flow, and slowly loosen your grips as it darts off to complete it’s upstream journey to the spawning beds and back to the ocean again.

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

When the fish was gone, I stood on the riverbank and stared for a moment. Utterly unsure if what had just happened was real.

Then I cranked in my slack line, pinned the purple Fish Taco to the reel, and walked back to camp past elk tracks, thousand year-old evergreens and sword ferns that reached above my waist.

Once there, I cracked a cold breakfast beer from the cooler, sat down on a mossy log, and smiled a contented smile.

I have yet to sight-fish the salt flats for bonefish, battle a hundred pound tarpon or witness a Green Drake hatch on a classic spring creek.

But I have a hard time imagining that any fishing, anywhere, can be more satisfying that the feeling a steelhead angler experiences when that swung line comes tight in a perfect rainforest run.

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

THE DISCOVERY OF A CUTTY STASH

In a sheltered bay on Hood Canal lies a Cutthroat Stash.

Where fallen trees point across oyster beds towards crumbling pilings, the resident sea run trout of the Salish Sea feed undisturbed.

That undisturbed part is all my fault, and it’s starting to change.

Hood Canal Sea Run Cutthroat

You see, my family has had a cabin on this beach for three generations. I’ve crabbed, sailed and fished Washington’s fjord all my life. The education I received from the Canal, and from the family I spent time with there, is an integral part of who I am.

Learning how to bait a crab ring and haul shrimp pots, without stinging Sea Nettle jellyfish covering your arms. How to dig clams and shuck oysters, or when to pull one spitting from the grill. How to troll downriggers for Chinook and drift fish the estuary for chum. How to start (and restart) an outboard, and right a small sailboat in rough seas.

And how to clear brush, pull weeds and split a cabin’s worth of firewood.

Sunrise on Hood Canal

Despite my salt-soaked upbringing, it wasn’t until I fell hard into fly fishing after college that I grasped what might lurk above our oyster beds when the tide came in.

I knew the Sea Run Cutthroat fishing on Hood Canal could be good. And we had occasionally trolled with spinning rods and Dick Nite spoons for the twelve- to twenty-inch anadromous trout.

But I had never casted flies for them.

Never stripped in a streamer until a wake appeared behind it. Never watched the surface shatter in a splash of silver as the line comes tight to a frantic little predator.

Hood Canal

Armed with a six weight rod and the cabin kayak on my first exploratory SRC fly fishing trips, I found I could cover the entire bay and come up with just a fish. Or none.

But when I walked down the beach at the proper tide, fishing towards that pocket of water that swirled between white oysters, black mussels and the skeletons of tarred and salt-worn timber, they came on nearly every cast.

Then the tide went slack and they were gone again.

Big for coastal trout, aggressive and confident. Sea Run Cutthroat feed with a frenzy on the sculpins, worms and baitfish that call the beaches of Puget Sound and Hood Canal home. And they will take flies with reckless abandon.

But they’re not easy to find. And as a catch-and-release, barbless-hooks-only fishery, you lose as many as you land. But they fight with the vigor and frenzy of the salt, enough to forgive a few long-line releases.

And when a thick Sea Run comes sliding into the net they are toothy and green-backed, adorned with spots, limpets and barnacles. A perfect specimen of the wild world that swims beneath tidal waters so close to the places we call home. And home away from home.

Hood Canal Sea Run Cutthroat

Sea Run Cutthroat are typically open for catch-and-release fishing year round in Washington. In the saltwater, nine foot five and six weight fly rods with light, clear sinking tips, seven foot leaders and salmon fry, baitfish and sculpin fly patterns work well.

The best fishing often occurs in late-fall, winter and early-spring.

Any gently sloping beach in the Salish Sea can hold Sea Runs. As most tidelands are private and restricted access, a small boat or kayak is a great way to cover water. Look for moving tides and geography or structure that alters the water’s flow, including points, pilings, creeks and oyster beds.

Fish will hang in water anywhere between one foot and ten feet deep. As they are almost always on the move, keep working up and down the beach until you locate a pod.

Or a Cutty Stash.

Hood Canal Sea Run Cutthroat

ANOTHER SEASON ON THE DELTA, LAKE AND MARSH

I was a boy when my grandfather first took me duck hunting.

Despite two pairs of thick socks and a wool hat pulled tight over my ears, the November cold stung as we sat in our plywood blind. I remember staring out at the decoys, floating quietly while tendrils of white fog drifted low over calm gray waters.

From time to time, the old Yellow Lab at my side would look up and whine softly, her eyes shining with anticipation for birds that would not come.

Mostly, I remember drinking a whole Stanley thermos of hot chocolate, listening to my grandpa’s hunting stories, and not firing a shot.

Snohomish County Duck Hunting

Well over a decade passed before I got back in a duck blind last fall.

I had a 12 gauge, neoprene waders and friends who hunted the Snohomish floodlands. When they invited me to come along it seemed worth the cost of a bit of camo to give it another try.

For my grandfather and that old Lab. And for my own hunting stories.

In the predawn darkness we walked over a mile to a small public-access pond, spent hours crouching in shin-deep mud, and called in just one flock. But one was enough.

Though I’m still not sure I was the one who actually hit the Wigeon I brought home that day, a swell of excitement, camaraderie and heritage splashed down along with that first duck.

Snohomish County Duck Hunting

With limited local hunting options, no duck boats, no feed-field access, no dogs and certainly no private duck club blinds with built-in propane heaters, this was no gentleman’s waterfowling.

But I loved it all the same.

For me, duck hunting fits squarely with the same philosophy I put towards swinging flies for steelhead or earning splitboard turns: learn to take joy in the process and anything more becomes icing on the cake.

The journey is the reward.

Hood Canal

I love hiking in with the weight of a dozen decoys burning in my back, my grandfathers shotgun on my shoulder and coffee in my hand. The path ahead lit only by headlamp and glittering reflections on the silver sheetwater. 

Owls glide towards the roost and songbirds flit through brambles as we gauge the wind, set the decoys and construct forts out of grass, reeds and sticks. 

Excitement and anticipation rise with the sun as eyes turn skyward, watching for the morning’s first residents to leave their hideaways and wheel above our spread. Ears are keen for the rush of beating wings blown in off the salt, or the splash of divers landing beyond our range.

Finally someone whispers “shooting hours” and dirty hands reach for cold shotguns.

The rest of the day is spent kneeling in the marsh, smoking Black & Milds, scanning the sky, half-whispering friendly conversation, and usually not shooting much of anything.

Duck Hunting

I’ve spent two seasons now on the marsh, lake and delta.

I’ve still got much and more to learn, but the bags of Mallard pinfeathers in my garage and the smoked Shoveler in my fridge are testaments that claim improvement.

But I still hunt public land. I’m still learning to call. I’m too cheap for a hunting guide. I don’t have a well-trained retriever, a hundred decoys or a boat blind. And I don’t fill tailgates with dozens of dead birds. I’ve never even come home with a full limit.

But then again, that’s not what I go hunting for.

Hood Canal

SPEY CASTING FOR WINTER STEELHEAD ON THE SKYKOMISH

Skykomish Steelhead Drift

Skykomish Steelhead Drift

Skykomish Steelhead Drift

Skykomish Steelhead Drift

Yours truly launching a two-handed Snap-T cast into my favorite run on the upper Skykomish River over the holiday weekend.

Still searching for that first winter run steelhead of the season, but with some sustained precipitation finally in the forecast and trips to the Olympic Peninsula on the calendar, hope is flowing high.

*In case you’re wondering: Yes, I forgot my waders in the garage.