Fly Fishing the Elwha Part 1: Sunset on the Elwha

Posted on September 7, 2011


Part 2: Sweeter than Wine

Part 3: The Last Hurrah

Related: Color…A Most Curious Thing

It Started One Mothers’ Day

I booked a trip with my friend Bob Triggs to fish the Olympic Peninsula this spring. As we were to meet on a Monday, I decided to head over a day early with my friends Beth and Emmie and celebrate Mothers’ Day with them. I really had no plan and the Washington Ferry System is surprisingly light on things that might really help you get around, like maps.

Nevertheless, we adventured on with the vague idea of taking a waterfall picture and stumbled on to the Elwha river. I must fully confess that while the OP is a short ride away, I have spent darn little time there in the last 25 years. At any rate, we stopped at a small fall only about 100 yards from the road, which I did not photograph, but I had fun taking pictures of Emmie inside this big stump.


So, the Elwha is this crazy Caribbean green color, like many rivers spawned from glacial run off.

The Elwha

From there we drove up to the dam where I took some experimental photos for the Nymph series. Then we continued on and I took the picture of Marymere Falls which I have discussed previously, went to the lodge at Lake Crescent, drove the coast, and ended up in Port Townsend. A good day.

For some reason, I fell in love with this river. Later, when I started researching the river for fishing, I found that they were removing the two dams on the river, the largest dam removal project in US history.  The dam has been in place for 100 years, and the trout behind it are essentially landlocked steelhead, just jonesing to go to sea.

The famed rainshadow, weather going right around us on the Peninsula

I knew that this would be the last year I could get behind that dam, up the river and fish these fish. I also knew, based on report after report of people catching fish “up to thirteen inches” on dry flies that much bigger fish had to be in the river. See, in Western Washington the insect life is not sufficient to support fish over 13″. When they get that big they stop coming to dry flies (flies on the surface representing the adult cycle of water-born insects). They eat other fish at that size. So basically I can use the fishing reports of the purists to know that there are numerous fish in a river, and then go fish that river with heavy sinking lines and wet flies that resemble other fish to catch fish they never even imagined were there. I didn’t figure this out, it’s all in the Orvis Guide to Prospecting for Trout, which is a virtual rules engine for trout fishing.


When I finally did catch up with Bob recently he informed me that yes the dam was coming down, which you might think represented some kind of environmental victory, but – despite all of the studies, and all of the protests by scientists, fishermen, conservationists, and other experts on the subject – they are  going to stock the river with hatchery fish. Not only did they spend $16 million of your money on a brand-spanking new salmon hatchery all the studies you paid for said wasn’t necessary, but additionally the local Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe have decided to stock the river with a non-local steelhead strain.

I want to put this in perspective just a little. This is probably the last, great chance to let an American river heal it self. It will take a few (5-10) years to wash away the 100 million tons of silt behind the dam, but during that time, the wild salmon will find the river, the native trout will go downstream. It’s not like we haven’t tried every single thing and know what works and what doesn’t. And yet, political forces have decided to go with what scientists know doesn’t work, because after 100 years, another 5 years is too long to wait. Especially since they are closing the river to fishing for 5 years anyway! Unless, of course, that doesn’t apply to the tribes. Then, I think they should force a 100% gill net rule, one of the most controversial practices might actually be a boon here.

There is so much about this I haven’t even had time to understand. Like, if you want to clone a bunch of steelhead, why not go up river and take the genetically pure stock there? In my opinion, the river would actually be healthier and it would be much less of an environmental travesty to leave the dam in place to segregate the hatchery zombies from one of the last pure stocks in the lower 48.

You cannot just villify the “Native Americans,” although they certainly are not the earth stewards the environmentalists put on their posters and anti-litter campaigns.  As recently as 1970, the state was shooting and beating indigenous people who tried to assert their fishing rights. You might be a little adamant about asserting such rights, too if you established them in this generation. Of course, one hopes that you used them wisely, which has not been the case. When it comes to fisheries, from my limited scope, the tribes are as much of the problem as any industry. In fact, they are industry, and not a very green one.

Getting the Mood Right

Okay, I came late to the play, but I still wanted to catch some fish. I researched the river and the “good fishing” is considered to start at Mary’s Falls, 13 miles in, before the road washed out 5 miles before that.  That makes it 18 miles one-way.  Of course, this wasn’t just a fishing trip, it was a photography trip too, a chance to record something that wouldn’t exist again.  Photography gear, even SLR gear, ain’t light. I had to decide, could I hike 18 miles in a day? Could I do it without a tent? Could I wet wade and leave the waders and boots at home? Could I do it with a dozen flies? Can I live three days on PowerBars (fortunately I already did that for a week once), and forgo a stove?

I waited all summer for the road to get fixed, but it did not. So last weekend Bernard Hymmen (website linked to the right), Mark Hoffman (author of Moanin’ at Midnight), and I decided to do a scouting trip, hiking to the halfway point of Goblin’s Gate, and back  – about 17 miles.  If we could do that in one day, then we could hike in one, fish one, and hike out the next. Even though it was a beautiful day, I felt a little dark inside and decided to shoot it on TMAX3200 film to capture my mood. TMAX is the lingerie of the film world – amazing at any exposure. I love that stuff.

Goblin’s Gate

Goblins Gate

Goblin's Gate, entry to Rica Canyon

I decided to use my lens's tendency to vignette as a tactic

More vignetting

Mr. Hoffman

Mark spent most of the trip staring at his GPS, which concerned me as the week before he couldn’t find Steilacom with it and he spent all day saying “The trail should be 50′ over that way.”

Rica Canyon entrance

Silver Surfers

The day turned out well. I developed and scanned the film last night and now have an approach for the full trip which I want to do at the end of the month, work schedule permitting. Bernard, as always got much more masterful shots. I talked to several other fishermen who all caught copious amounts of fish “up to thirteen inches.”

Oh, and I caught a fish on my second cast, the little bugger hit my line so hard I thought I had snagged bottom. And we continued to catch them at every pool, even though we weren’t on the “money water,” on literally every fly we used. Including taking a couple of 17″ fish on a skated grasshopper pattern once the adiabatic breeze picked up and blew the insects up the valley. The fish were all beautiful, almost no green in them at all, but all silver like the little steelhead they were. No, I didn’t get pictures. It seemed like a lot of work at the time to get them to a place for a photo, and I had places to go. Besides, it’s like insurance that I’ll go back.

The Damned Dam

The metaphor

Mr Hoffman thought we were there to take pictures of him

Tell us what you really think, Mr. Hoffman

Art shot

Turns out the road is closed for no apparent reason, except maybe to keep people from seeing whatever they are doing at the dam. On the way out, we stopped and got some dam pictures. I have a few with the sun bisecting the horizon, but it doesn’t show so well in the straight scan. If I printed metaphors, I’d be in love with it. But I don’t.

Normally, I wouldn’t say this, but go catch those fish, you never will again.

Part 2: Sweeter than Wine

Part 3: The Last Hurrah

Related: Color…A Most Curious Thing

Posted in: Photography