Fly Fishing the Elwha Part 3: The Last Hurrah

Posted on October 19, 2011


Once More into the Breach

Part 1: Sunset on the Elwha

Part 2: Sweeter than Wine

Related: Color…A Most Curious Thing

If you know me or follow this blog, you probably know that this summer I developed an obsession with fishing the Elwha river above the Mills Lake dam before the dam comes down in the largest dam removal project in US history. It may seem paradoxical since the dam really has no impact on the upper river, and ostensibly the whole dam removal project is supposed to restore the river to it’s once pristine state so chock full of 100 lb Chinook (King) salmon that you could walk across them.

The Elwha

The Elwha

If only. Unfortunately, the powers that be, in clear defiance of the powers that know, are not going to wait for the wild fish to return, but instead are going to fill the river with hatchery clones.  The beautiful, genetically pure fish above the dam will soon be out-competed for resources and have their gene pool diluted by more zombies than cable television. This has been spun so well that even venerable publications like The Drake, have gotten the facts wrong and environmentalist tree huggers are dancing in the streets of Port Townsend.

It’s not all bad news, some groups are paying attention.  The Wild Fish Conservancy located in my current home town of Duvall are  suing over this.  At the fly shop in Port Angeles, Waters West, the theory is the implants will not make it up river through the rapids of Rica and Grand canyons.  Wouldn’t that be nice? On the other hand, most rivers in Western Washington only have trout because they have salmon. The insect life is generally too poor to support a vast population of wild trout and they eat salmon smolts.

The Elwha does have the best insect population of the Western WA rivers, though, which is what has allowed their population to exist sans salmon. So, if wild salmon get up river and the hatchery salmon and steelhead don’t, the wild population up river may just maintain itself, and even thrive. There is some evidence to support this localization species based on the fact that the Lillian river, a high mountain tributary of the Elwha,  was once stocked with non-native redbands from the Deschutes river and those fish still look distinctly different from the main stem fish.

Elwha 'bow

Elwha 'bow

And those mainstem fish do look different. At first I just wanted to go up there and catch these fish because they are steelhead who have been locked from the sea for 100 years. I had no idea before I went that they actually look like steelhead. Completely chrome with just a blush of pink to their sides. If you don’t fish, it might not make sense to differentiate one fish from another. But like an oenophile who can distinctly recall the nuances of different vintages of Cabernet, and I can remember a Burgoyne Aligote I had when I was 12,  I appreciate each and every fish I catch as a little miracle of coalescence, brought from an unseen dimension for a momentary marvel, and returned unharmed for another magical encounter in the misty future. I can remember particular fish, even without photos, how they looked, what made them distinct.  Whether it was driving all night and catching wild 4″ brook trout with my nephew, or the first spawned up brookie, or that first 16″ fish I ever took from the Wallace. Like that glass of wine, searching to repeat that experience brings me back to the banquet of our wild rivers again and again.

None of those fish of memory compare to the fish we take out of the Elwha. I only regret that the first day the fishing was so easy that I didn’t take a few pictures. On the first hike, I fished as soon as the trail hit the river, caught a fish on my second cast, and caught fish on every fly I tried, from 2″ grasshopper dry flies to white streamers.  As I’ve thoroughly documented in previous posts, the only really challenging part of the trip is the fact that Forest Service has closed the 5 mile Perfectly Good Road to the trailhead, adding 10 miles to the hike.

The first trip we hiked the road, hit the river and hiked back, an 18-mile round trip to verify we could make the 18-mile distance to the fabled “money water” at Mary’s Falls up river.  I was running 8-9 miles a day to train for this. In addition to making the distance, on this hike I wanted to both prove I could catch the fish in new water, and document the experience photographically in a way that suited my mood.  We only fished two holes on that trip.  We caught a variety of fish on a variety of flies, including Mark Hoffman’s first ever fish his first ever time fly fishing (if you hang out with me you will get your trial by fire).  I got a few good shots. The hike was grueling, even though we wet waded and only had 20 lb packs, but we figured it was doable..

The next hike, Mark and I took $100 mountain bikes up the road. But with 55-pound packs they mostly became rolling walkers on the way up. We hiked in 12 miles, camped at the Lillian River, hiked to Mary’s falls the next morning, caught fish, and hiked the 4 miles back to camp in the dark. The next day on the way out we bushwhacked to the river, found a sweet section just upstream from the first section we ever hit, and were tantalized by fish rising to a hatch on the far side of the unfordable river just beyond casting range. I broke three of them off, but brought none to hand for my first skunk all summer. To say that finding a pod of fish within 2 miles of the parking lot after hiking nearly 40 miles in three days, with  55 lb. packs the whole time, and going home skunked was a trifle disappointing would be like saying the government’s plans for the river are a triumph for wild fish. We biked out in the rain and although I was too exhausted to finish my beer at dinner (true story), we were already trying to decide if the weather would hold for one last trip before the end of the month when  the river closes to fishing for a minimum five years. (Because I guess the zombies need to dilute the native populations before you bother them?)

And so, the rains came and we started watching the flows like a dog waits for the mailman.

Elwha flows summer 2011

Elwhat flows summer 2011

This is a very interesting chart. Notice the blue line and the gold triangles below. The blue line is this summer, the triangles represent the 9-year median. One of our challenges has been that the flows have been 3x the median! At 800 CFS, the river is unfordable, but at 700 you can wade across in certain spaces. This is important because almost every place you can get to in a day hike is on the outside of a bend and you really want to be fishing on the inside of the bend (other side of the river). So our fishing conditions never were ideal. Also, flows as low as 250 CFS would really concentrate the fish, allowing you to cover all of the water with a fly and really increasing your chances of finding them.

Originally when we went on Labor Day (Sept. 3), the flow was about 8oo CFS.  Between that and October 1, our second trip, the flows hit just about 5000 CFS, a six-fold increase. And this was not a heavy rain.  That is a sure sign of a steep river. For example, on the Oct. 3 trip is just started to sprinkle, the ground never even got wet, and the rivulets feeding the river became torrents of whitewater. I took due note that the people living in the valley are all building foundations under their houses and wish them luck when the dam comes down.  When it spiked on the 8th, I checked it every hour. On the 15th it was 800 CFS, and we decided to head out the next day, a Sunday when it fell below 700.

You see, despite the great fishing on the first day, I still hadn’t had the epic day I envisioned, but we knew the best fish were within day-hike striking distance and I dreamed of those fish rising with clock-work regularity across the water their red stripes flashing in the late afternoon sun like neon motel vacancy signs after a long day on the road. I wanted those fish.

Mark, stalwart companion he is, could not go. My good brewing friend Daron Tavish graciously decided to go.  I don’t think people trust me alone in the woods. He is an avid hiker, but hasn’t fished since high school. He bought some waders, and I supplied boots rod, and flies.

Daron "Tavish" Sullivan

Daron "Tavish" Sullivan

I packed the day before and took my pack when I left the house to go chanterelle hunting with Bernard. We both spaced and drove by the chanterelle grounds, but decided to just head into the mountains running down some potential sites on my mental list. We didn’t run into any mushrooms, but we did end  up on my favorite river (quelle suprise!), which had a bunch of silver salmon rising in a pool like trout after a hatch. If you fish, you know what happened. If you don’t fish you can imagine hearing a big splash targeting it before you know what it is, and when you realize they are salmon in fresh water, which do not eat, you are torn between what you know and what you want to be true. They look like trout, they are behaving like trout, maybe just this one time…I’m not completely crazy, two years ago in this pool I took three pink salmon on three successive casts, all on muddlers while fishing for trout. The moral is, you are there, you might as well fish.

Secret spot, photo by Bernard Hymmen,, and yes, I'm wet wading, for about 4 casts.

Bernard is a patient man and so I broke out my gear, literally, snapping the tip off of my custom Cal-West rod built on a custom Dan Craft blank.  You can’t just send this back to the manufacturer and get a new rod. So now I had to go home and snatch an unfinished 4wt 10′ off of the rod lathe, and hope it would fish my 5wt sinking tip line without breaking. Exit $500 rod, enter $40 ebay kit rod, unfinished and unfished.   It only had one coat of varnish on the threads. Then it was off to my friend’s art show, and the ferry to have dinner with friends before picking up Tavish on the 5:30 boat.

Too much wine and did you know Avery is now selling beer in cans like Dales? But thank you Brandon for introducing me to Widespread Panic, yet another blues jam band I never heard of. Add that to Gov’t Mule and Chicken Shack. Thankfully there is no 5:30 ferry on Sunday, so after crashing his bike into the bushes at the dock, Tavish let me sleep in until 7. We hit the trail head by 9, and it turns out that a bike is a lot easier to ride with a 40 pound pack than a 55er.  Of course it could be lighter except I consider two cameras and a tripod to be part of my 10 essentials.  We blew up the trail in a record 90 minutes. I had decided  that we would bushwhack in about half a mile above the honey hole from the last trip, as that water looked really fishy from downstream on our last trek.

Just before we got to the river, we got to a stand of old growth and stood on the chantrelle-studded moss carpet with the light streaming through the trees at that late fall angle.  Something let go inside of me, and I was finally here and not there. I was in the moment, and I turned to Tavish and said, “Welcome to the Cathedral. You have no idea what it means to me that you would come on this crazy hike with me.” Him and Bernard and Mark who all supported my vision even if they didn’t, at first, share it. To my good friends who all know that even my bad ideas are fun, here’s a pint for you!

After that, we walked across a lunarscape of rocks and 150′ Douglas Fir jetsam to finally reach the water at noon. Over the whitewater I heard a “HUFF!” You learn to trust your instincts out here. I looked where I thought I heard it and sure enough a river otter poked its head up, and then another. They floated away backwards downstream through the whitewater half of their bodies poking up like furry periscopes.  Them laughing at us and me laughing at them. You can occupy Walls Street, braid your armpit hair, own your own business, I don’t care – when you can do that, talk to me about freedom.

We fished it hard and nada. I find this is oft the case when you are not the first predator in the run. I had Tavish fishing a hopper pattern as we had seen a number of them and nothing is as fun as taking big,dumb fish on big, dumb flies while I worked muddlers behind him. We were working the whimsical and the proven on the assumption that something should hook us up. We blew through some damn fine water without so much as a bump.

In retrospect, one thing that was working against us was  every time we’d fished the river had been midday under bluebird skies, whereas on these cold days the evenings were probably going to fish a lot better once the water warmed and the hatches went off.  We did not see a single rise. I even tied a Prince nymph on to his hopper in a classic hopper-dropper combo to take advantage of his nice wide casting loops and see if we could sucker something in.

Nevertheless, we cleared that water quickly and went back to the other hole where an unnamed stream joins the Elwha on the far side of the river and the fish sit in the hole made by the confluence. In a river where each run seemed to hold one or two fish, I’d seen six rising within 10′ of each other on our last endeavor.  Only 100 CFS less than two weeks ago and the river was 10′ narrower.  High mountain streams have almost zero pollutants and thus no algae, we waded across like we were on velcro and I showed Tavish how to fish dry flies upstream, knocking the rust off of his skills before he got to the pod.

I had roughly figured out how to fish the 4wt with either a 5wt sink tip or a 3wt floating line,  and was pretty happy with my $40 investment originally built to be a single-handed Spey rod for mountain lakes for WPA-stocked brookies. It wasn’t elegant at the heavier weight, but the fish don’t care and I was able to forget about it for a while. We started with tiny elk hair caddis imitations, but then I worked him up to big orange stimulators, which is what worked two weeks ago in the same spot. He hooked a beauty, while I lost two. One broke my leader in the butt section while I was watching Tavish get a fly from a tree, and one nailed my streamer on a sink tip 6 or 8 times before he gave up on it.

Tavish’s fish showed where the name Rainbow trout comes from. He rotated it in the light while I took a few pictures. It looked like one of those pearlescent cars that change color as you walk by. Unfortunately, that fish took the fly so hard, that even though I’d lent him my forceps and watched Tavish  debarb the hook, there was no way it was coming out. We cut the line and let him go. That makes five fish in that hole that now are running around with my stimulator flies in them. His one, the one I broke off that day, and three from the last trip. It must be like a trout fetish parade at the bottom of that inlet.





With fish as rare as they are on this river and the sun fading from the narrow valley,  I figured three hits in one hole was about as good as it would get. At 4:30 we decided to move on so that Tavish could see Goblin’s Gate and perhaps we could fish the run where I’d caught so many fish the very first day when I thought fishing the Elwha was easy. Ah, hubris. We bushwacked out to the main trail and busted down to Krause Bottom.  My 40lb. pack was almost comfortable to wear. When we got to the run the sun was already over the ridge and it was obvious to me we would be hiking out in the dark.  What the hell, might as well fish it.

I was beyond disappointed to see a man at the bottom of the run fishing dry flies. Normally, when I come to a run with another person, or they come to mine, I roll up the gear and go home. But I’d walked or biked nearly 80 miles (Tavish calls it the fly-fishing triathlon),  and driven over 600,to fish this one run and had not had my one epic fish. I walked downstream admiring his cast. He obviously knew what he was doing. Well except for fishing dry flies over and over again in the same section of fast water without moving. He was standing on the bank in jeans and I pointed upstream to where two branches the river rejoined, water you need to wade to fish.  “You mind if I fish that fast water upstream for a just a few casts?” He seemed surprised that I asked and allowed that it was no problem.

Elwha flies

Elwha flies top to bottom left to right: grey ghost, ugly muddler, ridiculous hopper, orange stimy, white leach, elkhair caddis, prince nyph, reverse spkder, hornberg. Only the prince, caddis, and spider did not take fish. The smallest fish I caught, 12", stopped the big white fly dead in the water.

Mostly, on these trips I had worked hard to make sure Mark and Tavish caught fish, and I can honestly say putting them onto beautiful, large fish was a real joy. To do so I fished a variety of flies and techniques and usually let them work the water first. But dammit, I wanted a fish. I put a muddler on the sink tip, took my forceps and trimmed off the ridiculous wing feather and some other extraneous garbage that had bothered me all day, and cast just where we’d caught a 17″ ‘bow on our first trip on a hopper pattern the very second it splashed down. Tavis already had a hornberg on from the last pool. You know me, I take risks all the time, but I go tried and true when the money is down.

I was moving fast, planning on only covering half the distance ‘twixt me and the other fellow, casting, taking three steps, casting, passing Tavish up as I went. The other fellow had gone jogging off upstream. I wanted to tell him he had a long way to go before the trail hit river again, but he was too far away.  I felt a little bad, but my mission had a mission, and now I had twice the water to cover.

There is something about fishing a fly you are confident in. I had not liked the muddlers I bought for this trip, but felt much better after  my modifications.  I knew I was going to hit fish even with another person fishing on either side of me.  Suddenly, just on the edge of the fast current, the line stopped. There was none of the head-shaking aggression of a rainbow.  It was more like having a medicine ball on the line. A steady pull, but he never went for the fast water or left the pool. I got downstream of him and worked him across the current. At some point, I saw the white flash of fin and knew I had hooked a bull trout, a very rare trout, char actually, and technically illegal to target in the Elwha.

Elwha bull

Elwha bull

Elwha bull

The reason

I never really understood what that meant, as fishing deep with heavy flies is the technique I use for trout in most rivers, certainly in Western Washington. In  fact, that while all of the reports I’d read on the upper river talked about people catching “numerous 10-13″ fish,” I’d only seen one fish in three trips less than 12″ and only three less than 15″.  Certain techniques work in certain waters for larger fish as I’ve often documented.  I suppose had a game warden been there and been pissy about it, I could show him my blog to prove it.  I could call Cracker who would be aghast that I had anything but muddlers and hornbergs into court to testify for my distinct lack of fly-fishing character. In fact on our second trip, every fish brought to hand was taken on muddlers. And to be honest, I never really considered running into a bull trout this low, but on reading up after this fish may be moving up from the lake as they drain it.

Abused muddler: this muddler took 6 fish before I retired it. The gold wire should be wrapped around the shank to sink the fly

Abused muddler: this muddler took 6 fish before I retired it. The gold wire should be wrapped around the shank to sink the fly

But I won’t lie. Catching a 20″ fish on your  last cast of a Quixotic quest, well,  it fit for me even if it was on the endangered species list, and even if that’s not a large bull trout. It was my first.

By the time I landed it, we needed to use the flash to get a picture, also technically illegal as I lifted it a few inches from the water, but it was another embedded fly, actually taken through the outside of the lip.  I couldn’t just slip it out with the forceps as I usually do.  (Before you flame me note that I usually don’t even take fish pics, and when I do they are usually in the water, even for ‘bows.) While Tavish broke down his gear I head to the gentleman’s camp site to tell his girlfriend how much I appreciated him letting me fish through. On the way, I saw the footprints of our otter friends heading back upstream several miles from where we had all put in.

The woman and her boyfriend had a fine haul of chanterelles and a fire. It looked to me like he was fishing for dinner. Between the illegal fire and the illegal harvest, I didn’t feel quite so bad about spooking him off and maybe I had done a good deed sending him away from the fish. We booked for the Gates so Tavish could see them, and got to the parking lot just in time to bike down with headlamps in the dark. No food in Kingston that late, but Snow Cap was on tap while we waited for the ferry and this time I finished two.

Fishing attunes you to the little things around you.

Fishing attunes you to the little things around you. This rock fascinated me.

At the end, I achieved what I set out to do. I pushed myself and all my friends, I think, a little beyond our comfort zones. I personally have changed mentally and physically: I lost 12 pounds on the second trip I never gained back (more weight than I lost testing exercise equipment 90 min a day for 8 months) and even though I haven’t run in three weeks, I just clocked one of the fastest five-mile times I  ever ran.  My compulsion is sated, and I’m okay with the river closing and perhaps being a different river when it opens. I know we did some things that may never be done again.  That’s a bittersweet milestone, for sure.

Goblin's Gate Elwha

Goblin's Gate

Yet, as I write this,  it’s 65 degrees, and I notice that the flows are down to 600 CFS.  There might be time for one more trip. Anybody want to fish the Elwha?  I got it dialed.

Part 1: Sunset on the Elwha

Part 2: Sweeter than Wine

Related: Color…A Most Curious Thing

Posted in: Fly Fishing