Chasing Chrome – Steelheading in Western Washington

Washington’s western peninsula is characterized by evergreen canopies that sprawl across the terrain, extending from the coastal shores through the Olympic mountain range. Beneath the canopy, a forest of old growth, flora and fungi flourish. The peninsula is home to glacier-fed river systems that originate in the heart of the Olympic National Park and empty into the Pacific. These dynamic waterways tolerate over 100 inches of precipitation annually, evolving the velocity and character of each river season by season and fostering arguably the best steelhead and salmon fishing on the west coast.

5am on a January morning appears no different than midnight. The sun rises late and rests early during the winter in the Pacific Northwest. Anglers itching to be first down river launch their boats by headlamp and wait patiently for daybreak before pushing off the bank. I remember seeing the warm glow of first light peek over the treetops, exposing the fog that hovered above the Sol Duc River as we navigated the first bend and immediately drifted into a set of rapids.

My fishing expertise at the time of this trip could be described no greater than amateur, with the entirety of my angling experience being bank fishing the intercoastal waterways of south Texas. Although fighting red fish can be exhilarating, it does not compare to the challenge of repeatedly casting from a drift boat into fast moving waters. The key to success in these channels is knowing what lies beneath the surface – every current, rock shelf, boulder and log. Because of this, many anglers choose to fish with a guide, who can navigate the river with ease and offer advice on which pools have been known to hold trophies.

Our drift boat captain was a young, tenacious fellow, who had started his guide service a few years back but had been catching steelhead and salmon in the peninsula river systems since he was a boy. He offered a wealth of knowledge and respect for the aqueous habitat and the species that migrate through it. He was also patient enough to laugh with me while he untangled my line the [several] times I snagged on rocks {and that one tree..}

The 4.5 hours spent drifting down river that morning flew by in what felt like a blink of an eye. The action never ceased, and I quickly learned not to make the mistake of taking my eye off the bobber – in my mind, I imagine that attention lapse cost me a 20+ pounder, but we’ll never know. The first bites of the day that were realized were sucker fish, jumpers that were quick to swallow a bead. They’d strike your line, your heart would skip a beat, then you’d realize by the bite’s force that it was either a tiny steelhead or average sucker fish. A few minutes later, you’d toss a squirming fish fry (my clever terminology) back into the water. We stopped only once for a 15 minute break before setting off again in pursuit of steelhead that had proven to be elusive thus far.

About 2.5 hours into the float, we struck chrome.

We all know the rush of adrenaline that pumps through our veins when we first glimpse our rod tip bend, giving in to the pull of a startled fish realizing their prey was falsely advertised. In float fishing, that adrenaline rushes once you realize that your submerged bobber isn’t the result of an undertow, but rather – fish on! Upon making this realization, you’re then tasked with quickly reeling in the tension to achieve that coveted bend in your rod.

I remember experiencing a slight twinge of anxiety as I quickly reeled and felt my line stretch taught as the fish barreled away. The fight ensued – it charged the bank, made a 180-degree turn, and ran down river again, repeating this sequence several times as I pulled it closer to the boat. In a final attempt at freedom, the fish maneuvered around a boulder, momentarily snagging my line, but then charged again, giving my friend at the front of the boat the opportunity to scoop it into the net.

Stepping on to the bank and examining the steelhead buck I had caught was surreal. As I mentioned, the full extent of my angling up until that point had been for red fish, flounder and speckle trout down in Texas. Although incredibly fun to catch and delicious eating, their aesthetic appeal is not on par with that of a steelhead in full display. Chrome glistened as water beaded off its scales before we released him back into the river to continue his mission upstream.

That buck was the highlight of our trip and turned me on to the sport of drift fishing, which is common for both salmon and steelhead in the PNW. I caught my first coho during the winter run last year as well. Yet, steelhead have an intrigue that salmon didn’t quite trigger for me.

Wild steelhead are magnificent, even among anadromous fish. They are born in a redd that a female dug into the gravel high upstream. After rearing in the fresh water, young steelhead travel to the ocean where they mature in the marine environment for several years, exposed to the oceanic predators of the salt water, only to endure the treacherous migration back to their place of birth with the sole purpose of spawning. Unlike salmon, steelhead do not die after reproducing, but rather go through the arduous migratory cycle several times throughout their lives.

Although we are still in the heart of hunting season, I’m already itching to get back on the river and chase chrome. If you ever have the chance, take a trip and catch some steelies for yourself.


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