RANGE RIDING AND HOWLING WITH WASHINGTON WOLVES

A major part of my role at Conservation Northwest is to communicate about our different conservation programs, including our work for Cascades grizzly bear recovery, wolverines, Canada lynx, elkmule deer and habitat connectivity. But in the world of conservation, few things are as talked about or as contentious as the recovery of wolves in the American West.

Conservation Northwest takes somewhat of a middle path when it comes to wolf recovery; working with, not against, ranchers, farmers and hunters whenever we can, and supporting the lethal removal of problem wolves when such an act is recommended by sound science and preceded by thorough conflict avoidance efforts. But we are a wildlife conservation group, and we fully support natural wolf recovery.

Highwayman's Hole II (10)
Your’s truly hunting mule deer in an area near the territory of several wolf packs. Photo: Chase Gunnell.

In contrast to many national wildlife organizations, one of Conservation Northwest’s biggest strengths is that we are on-the-ground, with staff working directly in the communities most impacted by Northwest wolf recovery. This local presence in places like Twisp, Omak and Colville provides the advantage of working collaboratively to address the things residents in wolf country are concerned about, from livestock depredations to grazing access to impacts on prey populations to poachingIn our view, to be successful wolf recovery needs to work for people, too.

Whether you support or oppose these keystone predators returning to the Northwest, the fact is they aren’t going away now. They’re returning to Washington naturally from populations in B.C., Idaho and NW Montana, they pose very little threat to humans (certainly less than bears or cougars), they are vital for healthy wild ecosystems, and they have just as much a right to be a part of our landscapes as deer, elk or any other native species.

That being said, wolves are a species that can and does cause problems. And they should be managed accordingly.

Lookout Pack territory WSU study ride-along
Riding along on a livestock survey in the Methow Valley, home to the Lookout Pack. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Wolves aren’t wolverines, bound to alpine wilderness areas. From what I’ve learned from experts in the field, and the tracks I’ve seen first hand, they love to travel on Forest Service roads, ATV tracks and human trails. Most prey species don’t spend their winters in craggy, unpopulated highlands, and neither do wolves. Much like the deer and elk on which they feed, their territory overlaps with developed areas, ranch lands and private property. And though attacks on humans are exceedingly rare, wolves are known to be aggressive towards dogs, and anyone traveling in wolf country should plan to take many of the same precautions they usually would for bears, including carrying bear spray.

In the majority of cases wolves or wolf packs will stick to natural prey, but if livestock grazing in wolf territory aren’t supervised, they can become an easy meal. And though Conservation Northwest directly supports predator conflict avoidance measures such as range riders, fladry and guard dogs that are proven to be effective, we’ll be the first to admit that they aren’t a cure-all for every circumstance.

Teanaway Fladry Project
Hanging fladry to deter wolves from entering a calving pasture within the range of the Teanaway Pack. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Like the dogs they are, wolves can reproduce at impressive rates. Though wolf packs and overall populations do self-regulate based on prey and territory availability (through repressed reproduction and lethal conflict between wolf packs and individuals), an overabundant wolf population does have the potential to cause real negative impacts on healthy deer, elk and moose populations. Particularly when they overlap with high populations of other predators such as cougars.

But while excess predation is a real concern, there’s been no scientific findings that this has yet occurred in the Northwest. Though some parts of Washington might appear to be packed with wolves when you look at the state’s pack map (sorry, northeast corner. I’d support wolf translocation), with only 52 confirmed wolves and a total population of likely less than 100 statewide, Washington state is far from its recovery goals and nowhere near an overabundant wolf population. In areas of the Rocky Mountains with significantly higher wolf populations there have been localized population impacts (including some changes in elk numbers towards healthier levels) and more generalized changes in prey behavior and movement, but still overall deer and elk hunter success has not been reduced.

Sinlahekin bull moose
Bull moose in north central Washington. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Hunting and killing something I can’t eat has little appeal to me personally. But still I believe that once scientifically sound wolf recovery goals are met and Endangered Species delisting has occurred, states should take reasonable steps to manage wolf populations if necessary to prevent overabundance. Just like we do with so many other species, from deer to cougars to coyotes.

What those steps should be (regulated public hunting seasons vs. government predator control agents) is a debate for another day. But whatever the methods, wildlife managers need to take into account the social nature of these iconic creatures, and the evidence that disrupting pack stability by killing key wolves may actually increase breeding activity and as well as conflicts with livestock.

When it comes down to it, the realities of wolf recovery aren’t nearly as black and white as extremists on either side of the debate might like to believe. These gray wolves are not non-native Canadian killing machines, or the tools of some conspiracy to kick working people off the land and end hunting by decimating game populations. Nor are they a fantastical anthropomorphic “spirit animal” that deserves unlimited reverence and protection.

Wolves are truly neat creatures, deserving of the same respect and stewardship we give other native wildlife species. They are complicated animals in complicated (and often damaged) ecosystems whose preferred range regularly overlaps with our own. And by working together across dividing lines, it is possible to make their recovery work for wolves, other wildlife species and people too.

In that spirit of responsible, collaborative wolf recovery, over the summer I had the chance to lace up my boots, pack up my deer camp kit (sans 30.06) and head out to the range to experience a bit of on-the-ground wolf management. Below is the account (and a video of howling with wolves) that I penned after our range riding trip.

RANGE RIDING AND HOWLING WITH WASHINGTON WOLVES

This past August, Jay Kehne, Conservation Northwest Okanogan County outreach associate, got a call from one of our ranching partners whose family grazes over two hundred head of cattle on an allotment in the Colville National Forest, within the territory of one of Washington’s wolf packs.

With funding help from Conservation Northwest and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), these ranchers have been using diligent range riding and other non-lethal conflict avoidance methods in this area for several years. The program has been a great success, and since the range rider has been in place the herd has experienced no confirmed depredations from wolves or other predators.

But this year, the wolf pack had chosen a rendezvous site for its adolescent pups very near where the ranchers were moving their herd in preparation for bringing them in for the season. The ranchers and range rider had been supervising the herd around the clock, and no conflicts had yet occurred, but they were rightfully nervous about the wolves’ new location.

As partners in wolf-livestock conflict prevention, the ranchers wondered if Jay and some Conservation Northwest staff could come out for a few days to give the range rider a rest and provide some extra eyes on the situation.

In addition to new knowledge about ranching and wolves, Chase came back from the range riding trip with this neat video of using howls as a tool to locate the wolf pack, and make sure they were separated from the rancher’s livestock. Video: Chase Gunnell

Heading out to lend a hand

Happy to do what we could to help, Jay rallied myself, conservation associate Alison Huyett, and an experienced volunteer to come lend a hand.

We packed our tents, binoculars, boots and bear spray, and headed out to remote northeast Washington to see if we could help keep our partners’ cows and the wolf pack from getting into trouble. For me, it felt like packing and heading off for hunting season two months early, but this time toting a camera and airhorn instead of a deer rifle.

After getting the lay of the land and some training from the rancher on working around cows and calves, we began patrolling the area. Driving rough Forest Service roads and hiking brushy game trails, we were out until dark monitoring for injured, sick or separated livestock.

At the same time, we also provided an extra level of human presence to help deter the wolves from thinking that the valuable cows and calves might be unprotected prey.

Colville National Forest Range Riding
An injured cow we found with her young calf. The ranchers quickly brought this pair down, placing them in a protected corral until the cow’s limp had healed. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Using the range rider’s knowledge, and if they were available, howling, scat and tracks, we also tried to keep tabs on the location of the wolf pack. And when our pre-dawn coffee was interrupted by a chorus of barks and howls that sent the cows running, we split up and headed into the thick timber.

Our goal was to use human presence and noisemakers to push the wolves away from the core of the grazing allotment, and towards a nearby roadless area. Hopefully it was a move that would protect both the cows and the wolf pack from potentially lethal trouble.

While other members of our team began hiking up the valley bottom where the wolves and the main group of cows and calves were located, the rancher dropped Jay and I off at points on the ridge above. With luck, our locations would prevent the pack from doubling back towards another group of cows we had located in a meadow the evening before.

As I moved carefully (and loudly) downslope, the howls and barks coming from in front of me began to move off up the ridge to my right. Sure enough, with a few more howls from the mother wolf telling her “teenage” pups to come along, the pack took off. It wasn’t the exact location we’d been hoping they would go, but it was away from the cows and deeper into the woods.

At least for the time being, the pack had moved on.

Colville National Forest Range Riding
Fresh wolf scat found during our patrols. Range riders regularly check wolf scat to make sure it doesn’t contain cow hair, which might alert them to a depredation. This scat is full of deer hair. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Learning to coexist on the range

We later learned that the wolves did eventually return to their rendezvous site. But as the herds come home for the season, the ranchers are reporting no cows or calves lost to predators. It seems that thorough range riding, smart livestock management, and maybe even the extra boost from our Conservation Northwest team helped keep things free from conflict.

And despite their close proximity to cattle much of the summer, the wolf pack has so far been content to leave livestock alone. If their scat is any indication, they’ve been feeding on the healthy populations of elk, white-tailed deer, moose and wild turkeys found in the area. Many of which we saw during our trip, not to mention a big black bear!

For our team, it was a hands-on experience of just how range riding actually works. We talk about this program regularly and support the work of these modern-day cowboys and cowgirls through funding, expert training and other resources. But for me, it was my first experience actually stepping into the boots of a range rider in wolf country.

Colville National Forest Range Riding
Ranchers and their herding dog rounding up the cattle. If grazing is rotated and managed responsibly, open areas like this meadow can provide defensible space for the cows and calves. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Beyond seeing firsthand the real challenges that ranchers in wolf country face, and how having a good cowboy can help prevent conflicts between predators and livestock before they even begin, I came away with renewed admiration for both wolves and cattlemen.

This was a hardworking family making a living in a wild place, and they don’t want to lose their livestock or their way of life. But they also have a sincere desire to use responsible grazing strategies and predator conflict avoidance methods to leave that wild place better than they found it. They held high respect for the land and for their new toothy neighbors, understanding that wolves are a natural part of where they’ve chosen to live and work. And that just killing them was neither an ethical or effective option for stopping potential problems.

More than just memories and pride from helping our ranching partners, our team also brought back practical experience and first-hand knowledge that will help guide our range riding program, and my communications, well into the future. 

Despite the wolf-livestock conflicts publicized so much in the Northwest media recently, and the supercharged opinions on both sides of the wolf debate, after our trip this summer I’m as confident as ever that hardworking people collaborating with respect can make wolf recovery a success. And that Washington can still be a state where native predators returning to the landscape works in the long run for wolves, wildlife and people, too. 

On-the-ground collaborations with our ranching partners in Eastern Washington are proving that this goal is achievable.

Colville National Forest Range Riding

Wolves are a native part of the Northwest ecosystem and they are recovering in Washington naturally. Conservation Northwest wants wolf recovery to work in  the long run for people, wolves and all our wildlife.

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 almost always wins, on any given trip there’s a better than 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 calculated at 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?

There are of course losses from many other cuts, natural and human, but 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 killing 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 July 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, capable of 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 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