By Bret Wirta-The Incidental Explorer
Distance: drifting a few miles
Time: all day
Rating: Fun with a good guide
July 19th 2011
Catching a steelhead
Steelhead fishing isn’t easy especially for those of us who don’t fish much. If you manage to entice a cunning steelhead to strike, they’ll fight hard, throwing the hook or break your line. Steelhead are large rainbow trout that return to rivers to spawn after living in the sea for a few years. Unlike Pacific salmon that die after spawning, steelhead can make the journey back to the river several times. Result – a strong fish adept to the ways of the world.
Many have been steelheading more than once and have never landed one. I’ve fished for steelhead in the winter, standing in a bone-chilling river with no luck. I’ve even fished for steelhead on a river designated for night fishing, using glow in the dark lures. Fish on? Nope. So this time, when I decided to go fishing for summer steelhead on the Olympic Peninsula, I surrounded myself with experience; my fishing-crazed friend, “The Rat” and Pat Neal, guide, writer and wild man of the Olympic Peninsula.
“The Rat” is a cheerful guy who makes other guy’s wives and girlfriends uneasy because he lives on next to nothing while spending his days golfing, hang-gliding, snorkeling and especially fishing. Our guide, Pat Neal is the most eloquent curmudgeon I’ve ever met. While Pat readily agreed to show this Seattleite how to catch steelhead, he began one of his recent blogs, “It may be just a coincidence that tourist season and bug season start at about the same time. These seasonal pests have a lot in common.” Well, at least there’d be plenty of interesting conversation I thought.
But Pat Neal wasn’t just a man of words; he is a man who can catch fish. After launching his slightly leaky drift boat, he guided us right to a spot where we had one strike after another. One fighter that I hooked jumped five feet out of the water as it tried to throw the hook. We’d drift downriver then Pat would row that heavy boat back upstream to the beginning of that same reach. He repeated that at least half a dozen times while we brought steelhead into the boat. The Rat landed most of his fish without drama. Though Pat was always there with succinct coaching and a quick net, a few of my fish managed to wiggle free.
I hooked into the last steelhead of the day. Downstream it swam, into the rapids, pulling out line though I had my drag set tight. The wily fish hid behind a rock, snagging my line as the current swept our boat on past. Pat stiffened his back and rowed back upstream against the whitewater until I could untangle my line from the rock. When that fish saw us again it jetted downstream, this time catching my line on a clump of branches. Once again Pat backed the boat against the fast moving river until I could lift my line off the branches. This time Pat netted the elusive fish. Pat has been river guiding and rowing for twenty-five years. I wouldn’t want to arm wrestle him.
We caught our limit and since all had been raised in a hatchery we were allowed to keep them. They were not wild steelhead, but as Pat said, “Fishermen complain about hatchery fish until they hook into one.” Pat had plenty of opinions about hatchery fish. He makes his living guiding city-folk like me during the day and writing wonderful books about the Olympic Peninsula at night. I love his column in the Peninsula Daily News. His writing has been called, “Quick, pointed, thoughtful and dangerously funny.”
As Pat rowed to the take-out ramp it began to mist. I zipped up my windbreaker. I didn’t mind the chill, especially when the rest of the country was melting in a debilitating heat wave. From the shore of the cold river to the snowy Olympic Mountains in the distance, waves of dark fir trees swayed in the cool breeze. I know Pat wouldn’t want to hear this, but I wish our heat-stricken countrymen could visit our wonderful paradise and try steelhead fishing.
To get to any of the steelhead rivers on the west end of the Olympic Peninsula from the Quality Inn and Suites, Sequim where I was staying:
- Just head west on Route 101.
- Call Pat Neal before you go.
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