Fly Fishing the Elwha Part 2: Sweeter than Wine

Posted on October 6, 2011


Part 1: Sunset on the Elwha

Part 3: The Last Hurrah

Related: Color…A Most Curious Thing

A mystical place

A month ago, over Labor day, I hiked the Elwha with my friends Bernard Hymmen and Mark Hoffman. I’ve been on a mission since I discovered the Elwha earlier this year. The river is undergoing the largest dam removal project in the history of the United States, ostensibly to restore the native fish runs. However, the true story is that they are going to fill the river with hatchery zombie clones which will prevent the wild salmon from coming back, and worse, replacing the native trout, probably one of the last genetically pure steelhead stocks with non-native fish. The story has been spun so well politically that the very people who would be protesting it are dancing in the streets in joy.

Mark Hoffman

I’m not much of a political person. My statements are personal. Somehow how I got it in my brain that I would hike in above the dam and catch these fish, perhaps for the last time, before they closed the river to fishing for five years (even though it will take 3 to raze the dam…) and zombify the place. I get like this. I have an idea, sporadically, focus on it manically, and somehow often convince other people to take part. You’ve been to Balefire, right?

In researching the river, I found that the “good fishing” was 13 miles in at Mary’s Falls.  That is a good hike in the mountains. Worse, the 5 mile access road has been closed all summer, making it an 18 mile hike. All summer long the park department has been telling me it will “open next month.” If only the government were that timely using my tax money to  drop bombs on unsuspecting farmers in foreign lands in the name of democracy.

Finally, understanding the bureaucratic run around when we saw it, we decided we would hike in 9 miles to just above Goblin’s Gate, see if we could catch fish, and hike out in one day. The theory being that if we could do a halfway round trip in one day, we could make it all the way in one day, fish for a day, and come out. I’d been running a couple of times a week and had made it up to 9 miles so I hoped I had a chance.

To recap the previous post, the road was perfect, the fishing was awesome, and we made it back.  My job kept promising to send me to Singapore so I couldn’t set a date for the trip, but after working 70 hours one week, by Thursday, I decided to take Friday off, conned Mark into going back, packed my bag and hit the 11 PM ferry to stay at my friends’ Brando and Diana’s on the OP to get an early start. Actually, it was just to keep me from obsessively checking my email through the night.

We figured that we could take advantage of the Perfectly Good Road by taking mountain bikes up it, locking them up at the trailhead and coasting down, thus alleviating the artificial 5 mile barrier to entry. Mark got his perfectly fitting little girl’s mountain bike at the dump, and I borrowed a $100 Huffy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bike that didn’t have quick-release hubs before this.

A man and her bike

We soon found that with 55 pound packs (we weighed them at Brando’s on the way out), the road was a wee steep for biking. We decided to push the 35 lb. bikes up the hill just to have something to lean on and be able to coast out. About a mile from the car, Mark realized he forgot his wading boots, bought especially for the trip. On the Labor Day trip we had wet waded, but on October first, that just seemed too big a risk. I dropped my bike and my pack, and thankful for the respite, ran to the car and back, sending Mark on ahead. I ran, pushed, pedaled up the hill and caught him a couple of miles later blowing like a rutting stallion. We passed the dam, all blocked off from view (how did they get the cyclone fencing up the closed road, one wonders), and made it to the top. I figure we rode about 1/3 of it, so there was a net savings of  about 30 minutes, including my 2 mile run.

View of the valley coming in

I gladly shared my water with Mark so I didn’t have to carry it, and we continued on. I’m a little crazy, but I knew 18 miles was a long day, even with the pre hike.  My plan B was to stop at the Lillian River camp, 12 miles in, use that as a base camp, day hike to Mary’s Falls (the original destination), fish and come back.  This turned out to be what we did.  By the time we hit Lillian my planar faciitus had flared up and I couldn’t use my right heel at all. No problem going up hill, where I’m a machine, not so good coming down.

Lillian River, tributary to the Elwha and a welcome respite

We pitched camp, I also filtered a liter of water out of the river and drank it thinking that sometimes, water is sweeter than wine. Mark immediately went to bed and I spent some time photographing fungi (enough for a feast) and pulling a few beautiful native ‘bows out of the river just to say I could.

Brain mushroom, edible delicacy

Chicken of the woods, another edible mushroom

Spent a while just shooting water drops


The Lillian is narrow, fast, and steep. Barely enough room for a fish.  I prospected a bit  and finally found one spot with some flat water. (Took me years to realize fish can’t hold on a hill and you should only fish the level spots.) I tossed in a muddler and  pulled out two beautiful fish in two casts. I felt kind of bad that I hadn’t at least used a stimulator (dry fly), but it was a long day. The fish were completely different than in the main river, with a lot more green in them. Some of the fish we pulled out of the main river earlier had almost no green at all, just silver and black with a faint lavender blush on the sides. Wet wading the icy water, or catching the fish, seemed to cure my feet so I headed to bed.

Lillian River 'bow

Other 'bow

Sleeping next to the river was like listening to a jet engine all night. It was awesome. We slept 14 hours. Honestly, as much as we are both working, we needed the sleep more than the fish. Got up at 8 and headed out. My pack had two cameras, digital and film because I intended to shoot it all on film with a pinhole camera and only use the digital as back up. In addition I had a light meter, tripod, one change of clothes, 12 power bars, one liter of water, a filter, waders, boots, two rods, a couple of reels, and some flies. Mark carried the tent in, so I left only my sleeping bag and pad in camp and  left with about a 5o pound pack.

The pool at Mary's Falls camp

It took two and a half hours to reach Mary’s Falls.  I hooked one fish immediately and broke it off. I tried fishing technically (matching the non-existent hatch), then went straight to muddlers in the fast, deep water. Even though the pool at the Mary’s Falls camp looks so fishy, after that one hook up, nada. Mark fished the pool and I went downstream where I saw Mary’s Falls. I bet 99% of the people who camp there never figure out where it is. In fact, doesn’t even have a picture of it, so I mailed mine to them, even though it’s a tad blurry. Turns out shooting pictures with really heavy pack adds some unanticipated challenges, especially if your pulse is racing.

Mary's Falls as seen from the river

I promptly caught my first fish, a 13″ wild ‘bow, lost my lens cap and my brand new shades in about 2 minutes. People say that the river holds fish “up to 13″. ” But this was the smallest fish I caught or saw the whole trip. Look at that fish, doesn’t he look like a chromed up just-from-the-ocean steelhead?

We probably worked one mile downstream where we each caught and landed 17″  fish, and I lost several more in that size range, before we bushwhacked back to the trail, went 1/2 mile upstream and fished back to our packs.This was a huge day, for Mark to land his second ever fish on a fly on his second ever day, both on the Elwha. Landing a 17″ wild fish in heavy water is no mean feat, as evidenced that I lost 5 for the one I landed.  One I lost tail-walked right across the pool to me before he looked me in the eye and spat out the hornberg. Despite this being the “money water” we were only finding one fish/pool, no where near the density we’d seen in the lower river.

One of my largest fish of the year

Mark's very nice 2nd ever fish on the fly

I was totally ready to send Mark on and bivouac the night in the open, but I rallied and we hiked out at dusk. We did the whole last hour in the dark, but still cut 30 minutes off of our time. I was, as they say, motivated, even though I hadn’t been able to use my heel since 10AM. Another soak in the river seemed to help it out.

The third day was the easy day, we hiked out back to the car. We knew the bikes would make the last five miles easy, so we went back into the river close to our original spot a month before. We ended up bushwhacking the last 1/4 mile over the worst dry log jam I’ve ever had to cross. By now we’d hiked 30 miles in just over two days. My lead poisoning was acting up, as it does when I burn the fat where it is stored. We put our waders on and followed a stream to the river, where I curled up into the fetal position and shook for a while.

Here, an unnamed stream comes in across the way. The water betwixt was fast. We fished it with muddlers to no avail, but where the streams met there was an area about the size of a bath tub with numerous large fish rising. One had such a red stripe it looked like a pink salmon. Oh, I wanted those fish.

When muddlers fail, you occasionally have to go technical. Even though I saw only a few mayflies, there must be a hatch the trout were keying on. I borrowed Mark’s brand new weight forward floating line, under the auspices of teaching him to cast it, and started laying out 65′ casts into the pool. I’d been casting for a while and not feeling so good, each cast was getting shorter, until I saw a big fish rise. I tied on a yellow stimulator to match the fly I saw go by, and dropped it right on him, at the front of the tub. The water between was so fast I had about a 1′ drift before the fly went sailing away. Ideally, I would’ve crossed the river and fished the pool from the near shore, but I could not do that without a very long hike.

I found that was typically the case on the Elwha, all of the water we could reach was the outside of a bend, whereas typically you want to fish the inside of the bend where fish sit in the slack water or back eddy and pick up food going by in the fast water on what is called the “seam,” the demarcation of fast and slow water.  Yet, we consistently hooked big fish on the outside of the seam on both trips, a learning experience for me. By the way, it turns out Mark has an innate knack to know exactly where the fly should be, even if he can’t quite attain the placement yet.

At any rate, the fish took the fly and I tried to set the hook. Unfortunately, at that distance you have a lot of slack in your line, or at least I do, and could not set it. Or so I thought.  I roll cast to reposition my fly and noted it was gone. So I tied on another, and 10 casts later same thing: fish hit, set the hook, no fly.  And again. Hmmm. This was kind of pissing me off. I wanted that fish so bad that at one point I fell in the river wading to a better position (that’s what fishing glasses are really for, so you can see the bottom when you wade). Turns out that my dry fly box must’ve gotten wet with salt water at some point as the eyes to the hooks had rust in them that acted like a saw and cut the line as soon as I hooked a fish. I just couldn’t see it without my glasses on.

How frustrating is that? Working until midnight every night. Running a couple of times a week as far as you can. Pouring over maps and books. Hiking until you literally drop in the last weather window of the last month before the politicians take over and ruin the pristine water, making epic casts, and you let your flies rust so that you cannot capture that one true fish. (Shows how often I use my dry fly box.) First fishless day for me all summer.

We had a hell of a bushwhack out, to the trail. The last .5 mile uphill was one of the longest anaerobic workouts I’ve ever had. I counted it as 1300 steps putting the trail at about 45 degrees, a gasp for every step. After that  the bikes were indeed a godsend. We made the 5 miles out in 30 min, and even before we got on the bikes Mark’s GPS gave us a rate of 2.6 MPH for the trip. The best part of it though was that we had the entire valley to ourselves the entire time.

The hell of it is, the best fishing we found was not 18 miles in. It was 2 miles from the parking lot, only 1/2 mile from the first spot we ever fished. It’s still 5 miles of hell walking up the Perfectly Good Road, but it’s right freaking there. We’re already watching the water flows and figuring out how to go back and do it again, one more time, before it’s gone forever. I think the Ducati can make it around that gate, and what are they going to do, tow me? Besides after hiking 36 miles in 3 days with 55 pound packs, I still have 6 power bars and what else will I ever use them for?

More photos here.

Part 1: Sunset on the Elwha

Part 3: The Last Hurrah

Related: Color…A Most Curious Thing