Category Archives: steelhead

Steelhead Camp

My friend Beedle has been regaling me with tales of steelhead camp for as long as I can remember. A couple weeks ago I finally got to see it for myself.

After an 18-hour drive from Seattle, plus a few hours of winks  in Prince George, we pulled into camp on the Kispiox River, tributary to the Skeena, near the small community of New Hazelton, British Columbia, and just a few clicks above the Kispiox Indian village. Most of the regulars were already in attendance, their tents pitched on a grassy bar above the river. There was a dentist and a former police chief, a fisheries biologist and a dot-com veteran, a furniture recycler and a professional chef, among others, most of them united by membership in the Northwest Atlantic Salmon Fly Guild. Everyone had another life to return to, but for now they were pilgrims paying their respects at steelhead mecca.

Or maybe pleading at the wailing wall of anadromous fish. Even on the storied waters of the Skeena River system, where the steelhead are all wild and in relatively good numbers compared to their beleaguered cousins in Washington, Oregon, and California, the fishing ain’t easy, and I would discover this first-hand.

Once the fish are in the system and they’ve run the gauntlet of ocean fisheries, bycatch, and in-river First Nations nets, the hopeful angler must worry above all about weather. This is north country and the weather changes its mind like the American electorate in a recession. 

The Kispiox River looks more like a trout stream, with tannin-colored water, rocky ledges, and golden-hued poplars along its bank, yet it is the final destination for some of the biggest steelhead in the world, with record-breaking catches dating back to the 1950s, when reports of huge fish first leaked out to the angling public. Perhaps more enticing, this is one of the few rivers where a greaseliner can have a legitimate shot at a twenty-plus pound steelhead on a dry or “damp” fly, and for many of the anglers with whom I shared camp, the idea of using any other line besides a floating line was anathema.

But I would be casting my floating line on the Skeena for starters. The Kispiox, it turned out, was as low as it had ever been in 70 years of record-keeping. The river was gin clear and the fish ultra-spooky. So we headed for the Skeena, and in doing so encountered some of the classic double-speak (or no-speak) that is typical of the tight-lipped steelheader’s world. A conversation in camp might go like this:

“So where are you fishing tomorrow?”

Pause. “Skeena.”

“Skeena, huh? Well, it’s a little river.”

Little like the Columbia. But steelheaders are notoriously secretive and your best bet is to get them liquored up in camp, which I did the next night while serving my Morel Cream Sauce over steaks, thus prying a few flies out of one of our experienced camp mates. Small, drab, sparsely dressed, the flies he gave me looked more like trout flies. The next day on the Skeena I used one of them and discovered what all the fuss was about. I had on my floating line and a 12-foot leader tapered to 10-pound tippet. The tippet worried me but word was you needed long leaders and light lines to hook these fish in such low water conditions. I tied on one of my new flies and started swinging down through a tasty looking run of broken pocket water and boulders, casting a long line and swinging my fly probably no more than an inch or so beneath the surface. Just behind a rock the fish took.

It was on before my brain registered the fact, leaping in the air in an electric vibrating blast, as if trying to sprout wings on the spot: a huge hen with pink shining cheeks. She crashed back into the pool, shards of water catching the light, and broke for the middle of the river. I watched the line fly off my reel, wondering if the drag was set right and whether I’d have a bird’s nest on my hands in a second, and then, just before reaching my backing, she was gone. Poof, just like that. I reeled in to find the leader snapped at my tippet knot. My legs had the shakes.

Beedle also hooked into a nice Skeena hen, on a Thompson River Caddis fished in the film, and landed her after a good fight. The next day, with a light rain and the rivers rising, we fished the Kispiox, floating pontoons through some of the hallowed runs: the Potato Patch, Date Creek, the Powerline Hole, and the Gold Room. Below the Powerline Hole I landed this handsome buck.

It rained hard all night and we awoke to find…river out. All rivers out, from the Bulkley to the Kispiox to the Copper. Even the Skeena itself was too brown to fish, and rumor had it that anglers on the Dean River to the south were being evacuated by helicopter.

When forces beyond your control get the upper hand and bully you around, you feel utterly helpless. When life goes sideways or kittywampus, you can curse your misfortune in words that any steelheader will understand. River out!

So we spent a few days exploring the Skeena watershed and tuning into the local mushroom picking scene, which was going through its own river out due to the months-long drought and which no brief rain pulse was going to remedy anytime soon.

Amazingly, the Kispiox (“first to go out, last to come in”) actually came back into shape just before our departure, and I got one more crack at a colorful buck, which took me into my backing to the far side of the river and cartwheeled out of the water like a hen before I finally brought it to hand.

As with any pursuit, the detours and back roads are just as noteworthy as the destination. The time in camp telling stories and lies is the real gravy. And we were fortunate to have an old guard steelhead legend among us—his name will be familiar to serious steelheaders, Harry Lemire—sharing his tales of the old days (he quit fishing the Kispiox in ’71 because it was too crowded!),  demonstrating fly-tying techniques, and generally being a gem of a guy with a quick wit and generous spirit.

You might wonder what all this has to do with wild foods and foraging. After all, steelhead on the Skeena system are strictly catch-and-release, as they should be to protect a resource that’s on the ropes throughout most of its range. My answer to that is that the forager’s life is ultimately about connecting with the natural world. Yes, food is a big part of that connection. Yet if you held a gun to my head and had me choose between eating wild foods or merely finding them, I would pick the latter. I love to eat, and learning my way around the kitchen will no doubt be an ongoing education, but it is the time in the outdoors that I cherish above all.

And so these great fish were returned to the river to complete their lifecycle—and perhaps to give some other lucky angler the tug of a lifetime.

Into the Elwha

Say wha’? The Elwha River Valley, on the north end of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula
Last week I backpacked into the Elwha Basin in Olympic National Park to see the place before it undergoes profound change next year. You see, in 2011 the process of undamming the Elwha will begin in earnest and five species of Pacific salmon will have a chance to re-colonize a river that historically supported large fish runs. Since most of the watershed is within the boundaries the park, the habitat remains in good shape and there are great expectations for filling the river once again with fish.
With this in mind, I decided a trip into the Elwha to see the place before the dams come down would be a good thing, a way to compare the before and after. My timing looked bad, though. Local weather guru Cliff Mass was telling his blog readers that this was a week to stay out of the mountains. A dreaded marine layer was headed our way from the Pacific with a forecast of rain every day for a week. Pigheaded as usual, I hoisted my pack anyway and walked directly into the teeth of the storm. 
The rain held off and that first evening I made it as far as the Lillian River, a major tributary, and a dark, dank foreboding place to make camp. Rodents pestered my tent all night but fortunately, with my food bags hung safely from a bear wire, nothing larger. The next  day I got deeper into the valley, leaving behind the popular destination Elkhorn Camp at the 10-mile mark to penetrate another six miles up-valley to where the Hayes River meets the Elwha. It was around Hayes that I felt civilization’s shackles start to loosen—and here is an important lesson known to serious backpackers: go deep. Your destination may be labeled wilderness or national park, but the essence of the wild doesn’t kick in until you’re suitably removed from the trappings of town. In this case I was 16 miles up a trail and another dozen or so miles inside a national park boundary before the magic of the back-country began to percolate. 
And percolate it did. Beyond Hayes the trees got bigger and the forest took on an enchanted quality. A lush carpet of moss covered everything. Winds whistled down from surrounding peaks carrying with them the sounds of glaciers creaking and melting. The river brawled through steep canyons. A fallen tree across the trail was as tall as me in its prone position; someone had counted the rings and noted them on the cut: 560 years old, this tree was a sapling here a generation before Columbus set sail for the New World. 
On Day 3 I left base camp to hike another 11 miles into the valley, making for a 22-mile day. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the headwaters but the weather finally caught up to me. It rained all day and the mountains remained mostly hidden, socked in with fog. I had to settle for close-in views of the Elwha Basin and a look at a tumbling, roaring river that gouged out its banks and stacked enormous logjams of old-growth Douglas-fir like cordwood. In this way the river looked nearly perfect on the surface. But I knew that deep within those dark blue pools behind the logjams—ideal shelter for salmon fry—the currents were empty of anadromous fish. For now.

At Happy Hollow, the last shelter on the trail before it becomes a climbing route, I ran into three trekkers who had just come down from the Bailey Traverse, a famous bushwhack through a remote range in the Olympics that has never seen a designated trail. The trekkers had a fire going to dry their gear and seemed both exhilarated from their multi-day expedition and glad to be found. They had spent a full day lost in the hills and told me they were two days behind schedule and worried that a search party might be sent after them. I agreed to notify a ranger of their whereabouts on my way out.

The mushrooms were just starting to pop and they seemed to grow right in front of my eyes, the shiny red caps of Russulas emerging where there had been only moss just a few hours earlier, and hedgehogs clustering in the darkest patches of forest. I made dinner with a medley of wild mushrooms, including chanterelles, lobsters, and hedgehogs. I also caught rainbow trout and released them back into the river where they will seed the future stocks of steelhead that will hopefully reclaim the river once the dams are gone.
Trips like this got me foraging in the first place and when I reemerged on Day 5 to find my car in the parking lot, the spell of the wild was still on me. I drove back to Seattle in a daze, blissfully unaware of the traffic, neon signs, and hurly-burly of the city, at least for a little while.

Going Rogue

Every year in mid-November I help my friend Bradley close up his cabin near the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon. The Rogue is one of only a handful of coastal rivers that can boast a significant roadless section, in this case a 30-plus mile stretch of river that flows through the Congressionally designated Wild & Scenic lower canyon and the adjacent Rogue River Wilderness. It’s rugged country filled with bears, cougars, hermits, and goldpanners. After the chores are attended to, we hike the trails, fish for steelhead, hunt mushrooms, and whump up big meals on the wood stove.

This annual trip is pretty much the capper on my year of wild food foraging.

Long Live the Queen

I don’t get many opportunities to pick queen boletes (Boletus regineus). They’re most often found in mixed woodlands of the coastal mountains to the south of me, in Northern California and Southern Oregon, particularly the lower elevations where tanoak thrives and puts the hurt on anyone hoping to bushwhack around those river valleys below snowline. I’ve never found them in Washington, probably because I rarely encounter tanoak here.

Besides habitat, the best way to distinguish the king and queen in the field is cap color (see photo at right). Queen boletes will have darker caps at maturation, sometimes a rich mahogany brown, and the younger specimens, while often lacking dark caps at this stage, will frequently have a whitish bloom across the cap that can be rubbed off with your finger. They’re generally smaller than kings too.

One of the cool things about the queen is that it fruits later than the king, at least where I pick it, and often in troops, so you can still get fresh porcini even after the kings have gone to dirt. Our queen is not the same species as the one found in the Old World. That’s Boletus aereus, which by all accounts rivals Boletus edulis, the king, for its porcini flavor and aroma. Boletus regineus is similar with its dark brown cap but tastes milder. On the plus side, the flesh is white and firm like the king yet often lacks the insect infestations of its more heralded partner in royalty.

We ate the queen with steak one night and sauteed it up with black trumpets another night to serve over crackers.

Blow Your Horn

Speaking of black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides), this is another species I only see in the Rogue. We never find large quantities, just enough to savor that wonderful woodsy, almost smoky flavor. Northern California is the strike zone for the trumpet. I’ve heard professional foragers reminisce about enormous patches in the hills just inland from the Pacific.

Supposedly there are a few patches of well-guarded trumpets in Washington but I’ve never found them. Instead I look to the Rogue each year to satisfy my craving. Sometimes we get just a taste that must last us through the year.

“They’re not big, but they don’t know it.”

The owner of the Silver Sedge Fly Shop told me that years ago when I stopped in to buy some fly-tying materials. He was talking about immature steelhead that probe the lower Rogue River before dropping back into the salt to finish their growth. Known as “half-pounders” to locals, these torpedo-shaped flashes of silver average 12 to 15 inches yet attack flies with the hellbent abandon of much larger fish and they’re a hoot on light fly gear.

As in previous years, I took a single hatchery half-pounder home to share with the family so they could get a taste of the Rogue. The other fish, most of them wild, were released back into the drink.

You betcha.

A Sad Record

The interweb has been buzzing recently with news of a tremendous wild steelhead caught on Washington State’s Hoh River. Normally such a fish would be worth celebrating, but these are not normal times. Though I was initially intending to stay out of the fray on this one, it occurs to me on second thought that I’ll be touching on some of these issues in print soon, so I might as well wade into the controversy now.

The behemoth pictured above was hooked, landed, and…killed. The angler has been quoted saying the fish was bleeding from the gill and he thought it would die if released. We’ll never know. It was tallied a day later, weighing in at 29.5 pounds, a state record. The fish was not eaten; it will hang on a wall.

The death of such a magnificent animal—and its pre-spawning removal from a diminished gene pool—saddens me. Wild steelhead are in bad shape throughout most of their range. This fish came from the Olympic Peninsula’s “West End,” the rainforest rivers that drain off the western edge of the Olympic Mountains into the Pacific and contain, by all accounts, the last best habitat for native steelhead in the Lower 48.

Incredibly, on a handful of these rivers it is still legal to kill one wild steelhead a year, a concession that no one would argue is a political bone thrown to the down-at-the-heels timber town of Forks, Washington, where town fathers are convinced a catch-and-kill fishery is necessary to attract paying anglers from around the world who want nothing more than to catch and kill a trophy steelhead. One wonders if these same “sportsmen” would leap at the chance to legally take one of the last Siberian tigers or Javan rhinos.

I’m not opposed to killing fish. Quite the contrary, I enjoy fishing for healthier runs of salmon in the fall to stock my freezer. Mostly, though, I release fish, especially those from beleaguered runs—even if the regulations allow for their taking. No shortage of huffing and puffing has been expended by supporters of catch and kill to point out the hypocrisy of those of us in favor of catch and release. Fly-fishermen in particular are deemed elitist. Now you may wonder why I advocate ending catch-and-kill steelhead fishing but still support catch-and-release. It’s not pretzel logic. Anglers are probably the steelhead’s best friend. Author David James Duncan has already given an eloquent response to this question.

So here’s my position:

First, I believe wild steelhead should be no-kill wherever they are found in their native range. Take hatchery steelhead home for the barbecue; leave the wild fish in the river. This is my practice whenever I go steelhead fishing, which isn’t much anymore. The wild steelhead I’ve caught on the OP and elsewhere have all been returned to the river. I do not keep wild fish, even where it is legal to do so. If I had caught that fish, I would have let it go—bleeding gill or not—and hoped for the best.

Second, I am not opposed to future limited kill fisheries if steelhead conservation measures are successful. Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening any time soon.

Third, I recognize catch-and-release fishing is a blood sport. In pursuing my interest in fishing, I have inadvertently killed released fish; it’s a statistical probability. I don’t deny this. But legions of anglers such as myself are also responsible for the conservation victories throughout the land helping wild fish and watersheds. This may sound like a paradox to some, but it is a fact nonetheless.

Fourth, I cannot imagine staring at that great fish on the wall every day. Far from being a remembrance of a beautiful day on the river, it would make me sick. Those who hunt and fish only to adorn their walls with “trophies” should skip the “manly arts” altogether and turn directly to the back of the classifieds for ads on penis enlargement surgery.

If you’re interested in steelhead and salmon conservation, check out the Wild Steelhead Coalition and the Wild Salmon Center.

Going Rogue

I’m back from the Rogue River Canyon in southwest Oregon, where I helped a friend put his cabin to bed for the winter. This is an annual event, and though the summer steelhead fishing tends to be well past its peak by mid-November, we spend a good part of the day on the river anyway, walking the trails, hunting for river teeth, casting a line, and generally soaking up the spectacular canyon action. Bald eagles soar overhead and otters frolic in the currents. There’s so much to see and do that invariably we wind up walking home in the dark, the “reptilian brain” tuned into every snapping twig (cougar!) and rustling leaf (bear!). Back at the cabin we warm ourselves beside an old woodstove. Meals are whumped up on a propane stove, light cast by kerosene lanterns. It’s a First Principles sort of deal.

This place is deep in my bones. I lived there for the better part of a year in my mid-20s and returned in 2004 for a second tour. Fifteen years ago I caught my first steelhead in one of the river’s hallowed holes and learned how to key out wild mushrooms found in the woods that stretch unbroken for miles around the cabin. It’s safe to say FOTL wouldn’t exist without my experiences in the Rogue.

Fishing for “half-pounders” is one of the local gigs. They’re immature steelhead that run up the Rogue for reasons scientists have yet to fully understand. Too young to spawn, they enter fresh water in the late summer and loiter all winter, eating just enough to stay alive, then drop back down to the salt to finish maturing before their actual spawning run the next year. It’s a puzzling phenomenon that occurs in only a handful of watersheds along the Oregon-California border, most famously in the Klamath and Rogue rivers. Fly-fishermen in particular admire the half-pounders, which generally tape out between 12 and 16 inches and lustily take a fly, providing good sport when the big fish aren’t ready to play.

I don’t eat a lot of half-pounders because I’d rather catch them as bigger adults of several pounds. But a trip to the Rogue wouldn’t be the same without a hatchery fish for breakfast one morning. Like the adults, their flesh is pink from eating shrimp and other saltwater crustaceans. The taste is more subtle than salmon—imagine fresh sautéed rainbow trout with a hint of the sea to it, an essence of shrimp or crab that expands the flavor without losing that fine, nutty troutness. It’s a noble taste that should be enjoyed with good friends.

In my next post I’ll be discussing a type of mushroom—common in the Rogue River Canyon—that might kill you if your identification isn’t up to snuff.