Olympic National Park
August 28, 2012
Most fly fishers who travel to Olympic National Park come to catch wild steelhead and salmon. This makes sense because the park's rainforest rivers support the healthiest stocks of winter steelhead in the lower 48 states, as well as strong runs of Chinook and coho salmon. But Olympic National Park is actually, as its literature proclaims, "three parks in one." The bulk of its 900,000 acres encompasses a core of glacier-flanked mountains, and its western rainforest valleys drain into a 60-mile reach of Pacific Coast seashore, most of it roadless wilderness. Each of these ecosystems supports diverse populations of fish.
Hiking anglers take trout from scores of mountain lakes and the Elwha River, arguably the finest rainbow trout water in western Washington. Fjordlike Lake Crescent has turned out 14-pound Beardslee rainbows as recently as 1999. Redtail surfperch and rockfish roam sandy and gravel beaches, and sea-run cutthroat drift into coastal creeks on summer high tides and freshets. [See "Puget Sound Cutthroat," December 2004. The Editor.] Taken together, these fisheries provide compelling year-round fly-fishing opportunities. Best of all, "Olympic," as the park is known locally, is as much a refuge for anglers as it is for fish. The best waters for fly fishing are usually uncrowded and the backcountry fishing is virtually untapped.
Wild winter steelhead in Olympic National Park grow large—with 20-pounders relatively common—and they return over an extended period, typically from November through April. Although they are called winter steelhead, the best fly fishing for them usually occurs between February and April. As much as 50 inches of rain falls on the park's western valleys during early winter, and the rivers, especially the glacially influenced Hoh and Queets, are often out of shape for days at a time. The rivers are lower and clearer during spring, which makes it easier to swing a fly, and they are warmer, which makes the fish more aggressive. First-time visitors will have the most success drifting the river with an experienced fly-fishing guide, but persistent freelancers who can read water also have good chances at steelhead.
The Queets is a classic rainforest river characterized by expansive gravel bars, immense logjams, and moss-draped sentinels of Sitka spruce and red cedar. The southwestern arm of the park, known as the Queets Corridor, extends from Sams River down to the boundary of the Quinault Indian Reservation, six miles from the ocean. Hatchery fish bound for the Quinault tribe hatchery on the Salmon River, a lower Queets tributary, attract large crowds of conventional anglers during early winter, but the upper river is much less crowded later in the spring.
Queets River Road parallels the south bank and provides access to three boat ramps. The road only touches the river at a couple of locations, but anglers park at turn outs and bushwhack the half mile or so to the river. The road normally ends at the Queets Campground, a rustic camp that is also a staging area for spring steelhead fishing, but a major mud slide in 2005 has blocked road access above Matheny Creek, approximately halfway to the campground. Boat anglers can still launch at Hartzell Creek and float down to the Clearwater Bridge, and there is plenty of hike-in water between Hartzell Creek and the washout, but it is unknown when or if the road will be repaired.
You can choose between three sections of the Hoh River—the main stem, South Fork, and the mouth. Fly fishers are most interested in the six miles of the main stem between the park boat ramp and the Hoh Campground. The National Park Service manages this water with catch-and-release, fly-only regulations, and access is from Upper Hoh Valley Road. Much of this water consists of washboard riffles, shallow meanders, and fast riffles where you are not likely to find steelhead, so concentrate on the waist-deep flats, pocket water, and creek mouths.
Access to the South Fork involves driving more than 15 miles on gravel logging roads and then hiking two miles. If you want to find solitude, this is a good place to start looking.
The lower mile of the Hoh flows through the South Coastal Strip, and its tidal water can be reached from the Oil City Road. Located downstream of the last boat take-out, this area can be crowded during the hatchery runs of early winter, but it is often deserted on weekdays during March and early April.
The Bogachiel is the only Quillayute tributary in the park that is open to fishing during both winter and spring. The park boundary doesn't begin until two miles beyond the end of the road, so the only way to fish the upper Bogachiel is by hiking. Undi Road, which forks off Highway 101 near Bogachiel State Park, and Forest Service Road 2932 provide access to the Bogachiel Trail. Both roads wash out frequently, but if you can get there, the upper river is remote, quiet, and lightly fished.
The "Bogey" has a good run of late-returning native steelhead and tends to stay in shape more predictably than the glacially influenced Queets or Hoh. The Quinault River above Lake Quinault is a good river in March and has heavy steelhead, but bank access is difficult. Floating this difficult water is best left to experienced guides.
The Elwha River was one of the Pacific Northwest's most productive steelhead and salmon rivers before two hydroelectric dams—without fish ladders—were built on the lower river a century ago. All five species of Pacific salmon spawned in the Elwha, including documented 100-pound Chinook, and steelhead swam deep into the mountainous backcountry. Salmon have been absent from the upper river since the dams were built, and its rainbows are actually landlocked descendants of the river's steelhead.
After decades of struggle, the Elwha dams are scheduled to come down in 2009. With more than 80 percent of the watershed located above the dams in pristine park wilderness, biologists believe the upper river could again support steelhead, spring and fall Chinook, coho, and migratory trout. For more information, view the Elwha River Restoration Plan at: nps.gov/olym/elwha/home.htm.
Rainbows are the main attraction on the Elwha today, and you can fish for them along Olympic Hot Springs Road between the park boundary and Glines Canyon Dam, or hike into the backcountry above Lake Mills. Twenty-five years ago, trout were scarce and small downstream of the dam because of liberal harvest, bait fishing, and easy access. Under current catch-and-release regulations, 10- to 12-inch trout are average, with fish to 15 inches possible.
Upstream of Lake Mills, the Elwha Trail parallels the river for 27 miles between Whiskey Bend and Chicago Camp. The trail hangs high above the river for the first 10 miles, but spur trails allow you to fish Rica Canyon and Krause Bottom as a day hike or easy overnight backpacking trip.
The Elwha's glory water begins at Elkhorn Camp, 11 miles from the trailhead, and continues another 12 miles to Buckinghorse Creek. The river is close to the trail through this area, and fish between 12 and 15 inches are common.
Both trout and aquatic insect populations on the Elwha suffered from a devastating flood in 2003, but were on the mend in 2006. Although the fishing has not completely recovered, it is still possible to have 20- to 30-fish days. The upper river is famous for its caddis hatches, but there are also Pale Morning Duns, Western Green Drakes, Salmonflies, and Yellow Sallies. October Caddis are abundant in the upper and lower river in September and October, as are Blue-winged Olives. Terrestrials are important all summer and fall.
Continued - click on page link below.
Sea-run cutts filter into the Queets, Hoh, Quillayute, and the coastal strip portions of Kalaloch and Goodman creeks between midsummer and late fall. The Hoh tidewater is deep and often crowded with gear fishermen making it difficult to fly fish, but the Quillayute and lower Dickey River estuaries are easily fished from boats, with launches at Leyendecker County Park and the mouth of the Dickey.
Sea-runs favor slow, snaggy water, and a selection of Muddler Minnows, Knutson's Spiders, Spruce Flies, Elk-hair Caddis, Woolly Buggers, and soft hackles are all you need. Although not quite as good as the Elwha, the North Fork of the Skokomish in the south-central park has resident cutthroat and rainbow trout and is open to fishing along the North Fork Trail through September 15.
Low and High Lakes
Olympic National Park has 800 miles of maintained trails and an abundance of backcountry trout lakes. Dozens of solitary lakes lie in gorgeous cirque basins, but hiking into clusters of lakes increases your odds of finding cooperative trout. Most of the park trails are snow-free—or at least passable—by July 1.
Seven Lakes Basin is the best known group of lakes and includes Sol Duc, Clear, Morgenroth, and Heart lakes. It is located at the headwaters of the Sol Duc River, approximately eight miles from the trailhead at the end of Sol Duc Road.
Grand Valley's Grand, Moose and Gladys lakes are about four miles from the trailhead at the end of Obstruction Point Road. In southeast Olympic, near the North Fork Skokomish River, Flapjack, Black, and White lakes are popular because of their large trout.
The park's best known stillwater fishery is Lake Crescent. Biologist and author Robert Behnke wrote: "If I were asked what Pacific Coast lake holds the largest nonanadromous rainbow and cutthroat trout, I would say Crescent Lake, Washington." Beardslee rainbow trout in Lake Crescent have been documented up to 20 pounds. The record Crescenti trout is 12 pounds. Crescenti trout are descendants of steelhead and sea-run cutthroat trapped in the lake by a prehistoric mudslide. They adapted to the 9-mile, 4,000-acre lake by gorging on juvenile Kokanee salmon. Crescenti trout swim up Barnes Creek to spawn, while Beardslee trout spawn in the Lyre River outflow.
Lake Crescent has become increasingly popular with fly fishers since the park imposed catch-and-release regulations and banned fishing weights over 2 ounces. Most fly fishers wade the shoreline points and creek mouths, and catch trout up to 15 inches, but a fisherman in a boat can work a Kokanee pattern deep on a fast-sinking line and catch much larger trout.
Lake Ozette is a shallow, swampy, cedar-stained lake framed by low coastal hills. It is the third-largest natural lake in Washington, sprawling over more than 6,000 acres. Cutthroat trout swim up the Ozette River from the ocean in late summer and autumn and feed in the lake until they enter the lake's spawning tributaries.
Ozette is big water, and the only practical way to fish it is from a boat. Sculpin and three-spined stickleback patterns are effective during fall. Use #8-10 peacock-and-white or pink-and-white Clouser Minnows or my Nerka Rose when ocean-bound cutts prey on juvenile sockeye during spring.
My favorite time to fish Olympic National Park is during September and October. Despite its reputation for rain, the Olympic Peninsula is nearly always dry and warm in early autumn, with cool, clear nights and midday temperatures in the 60s or low 70s. Although this off-season is no longer a secret among hikers and tourists, you seldom see other anglers. Summer steelhead are the primary attraction, but hungry trout in mountain lakes, October Caddis on the Elwha, and salmon and cutthroat in coastal rivers make it difficult to decide where to focus your energy. No matter how much I fish in autumn, I always feel like I'm missing something.
Summer steelhead are less numerous than winter steelhead, but they trickle into the Queets and Hoh during the summer and early fall in fishable numbers. Backpackers are especially fond of the wilderness section of the Queets. The Queets River Trail begins across the river from the Queets Campground, where you must ford the river. The current is swift, so use at least one wading staff and studded boots, and be sure of your wading ability. Do not attempt to ford the river if the water is unusually high from recent rain or snowmelt. Again, the road was damaged in 2005 and you may not be able to drive to the Queets Campground in 2007.
The Hoh main stem and South Fork also produce summer steelhead, and the lightly fished, special-regulations water on the Hoh is just a short hike from the road. Smaller runs of summer steelhead filter into the upper Bogachiel, Sol Duc, South Fork of the Calawah, and Quinault rivers. Low and clear autumn flows encourage dry lines and waking, skating, and greased-line presentations.
All five species of Pacific salmon spawn in park waters, but Chinook and coho salmon are the primary fly-rod targets. Fly anglers using Spey rods and high-density sinking-tip lines have the best shots at Chinooks. Coho usually hold in shallower water, are more responsive to the fly, and match up perfectly with an 8-weight, single-handed rod.
Hatchery coho from the Quinault tribe's Salmon River hatchery appear in the lower Queets in September, a month before wild coho. This is a good time to target them, because single barbless hooks and no-bait regulations are in effect, which discourage conventional anglers. The Hoh tidewater is also open in September and October, but you may be shoulder-to-shoulder with gear and bait anglers. The Quillayute estuary is basically a boat show, although you can cast from sandbars at the Mora Campground when the river is low. The Sol Duc's summer coho swim up the Quillayute in August and September, providing rare summer fly fishing for cohos.
Redtails and Rockfish
Redtail surfperch are abundant along Olympic Peninsula sandy beaches year-round, but the surf usually isn't calm enough to safely wade until spring, and fishing remains good through summer. The best strategy is to walk the beach and identify fish-holding troughs and holes on a low tide, then return at high tide and cast orange or pink shrimp patterns to the same spots using a sinking-tip line. Kalaloch and Beach Four are productive perch beaches, accessible from Highway 101. Surefooted anglers can probe the kelp pockets off nearby rocky beaches for black rockfish, but be careful. People drown every year along this coast.
The 19-mile North Coastal Strip and 22-mile South Coastal Strip (to the north and south of Quileute Indian Reservation) are roadless wilderness areas. Anglers hiking into these areas must negotiate headlands and creek mouths, and monitor tides for safe passage. Fishing for surfperch along these beaches is excellent, as is fishing for sea-run cutthroats in the estuaries and creek mouths in September and October.
Doug Rose is the author of Steelhead Fly Fishing on the Olympic Peninsula and Fly Fishing the Olympic Peninsula (Amato). He owns Olympic Peninsula Fly Fishing guide services (360-796-0101).
- Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort
- The Lost Resort at Lake Ozette
Fly Shops and Guides