The 2014-2015 summer-winter steelhead season was definitely the best in my brief history of the sport. It started with an absolutely spectacular summer run, which shocked me for fish numbers on many occasions. We explored a bunch of new water, and were met by numerous fish at each location.
In all honesty, sometimes the real treat wasn’t the ample fish we found, but rather the spectacular new places we visited – a few of which have become favorites.
In many cases, we were also surprised in another way: finding other fish that we never expected to be there, including summer running coho and huge schools of fall running anadromous dollies.
With the summer run and fall run season slowly ending, and salmon slowly tapering off, I couldn’t help but hope the winter run season would be a fraction of what the summer run season presented. The winter season didn’t disappoint, and below are a few of the favorite summer, fall and winter fishing adventures.
Perhaps the coolest summer fishing trip wasn’t the one with the biggest numbers, but the one of a biggest surprise. We were on the island to visit a buddy for beach fishing and were poking around a few different flows. On the way to meet him we happened across a pod of fish in a canyon section. We assumed they were all pinks, with maybe a few steelhead mixed in (we photographed one fish in the tail out clear enough to know it was indeed a steelhead), and continued on with our adventure.
On the way back to the ferries that weekend, we decided to leave a few hours to check those fish out. It turned out to be a pod of 200+ steelhead, with some in the high teens, and dare I say a few 20 pound fish. We had a half dozen chances all on our own (either misses or losses) at them before we had to head out. It was an awesome experience. It’s a flow not known for steelhead, and they were by far the largest summer runs I had ever seen on the island. We did return there back in the fall and never found those fish again, but I hope to find them in following years.
Most of the rest of the summer blazed past with a bunch of steelhead (along with trout and char), but no truly “memorable” experiences. Before I knew it, Kitty and I were done work and on the island for our last university stint in the fall.
The very first weekend back was spectacular. We started out hammering some extremely early and large September coho, and then went hunting for steelhead.
We found the pod that seems to be in the relatively same area every year. This year there were easily 150 of them stacked up. They didn’t like the normal offerings they were generally so eager to take, including my never fail nymph. We eventually figured them out – and it’s what made the trip memorable. Over the next couple hours we hit a dozen of those fish, stripping in streamers just as we would for coho.
The hits were vicious and the fights were hard. Never before had I been able to strip streamers for steelhead and had them actively pursue – let alone commit in a spectacular fashion. Although the fish kept biting, we decided to leave them alone and went back to the coho which were just as feisty. We never did re-visit those fish for the rest of the season, but that place is one that we visit every year.
The next fall trip that I will never forget was one that had been on the bucket list for years. It was a river that many of the good rods talk about in their circles, and one I had stumbled on through research originally. We planned this trip 3 separate times this fall, which always fell through because of rain and blow outs. We had one last chance before it closed. Again the rain pounded hard, but it was our last chance and we risked it despite news of the logging roads being washed out and blown out rivers. The first of 2 days there was a shot in the dark. We picked on somewhat coloured coho in the lower section of the river for a bit before exploring some upper water (after not finding any steelhead yet). The first run we walked into produced a surprised steelhead out of some pockets retrieving a spinner.
2 runs below that produced another 6 in short order. Amazingly spunky fish that were out of the water more than in, and were possibly some of the prettiest steelhead I had ever laid my hands on.
We kept working runs and hit a crazy number of fish that day. Our original plan was to only hit this river one day, and then explore some closer to “home base” the second day. The original plan was overruled by Marc and I, despite Kitty’s brief discomfort with the idea saying, “remember that time we hit 10 fish our first day in the …, and then struggled for 2 the next?” We didn’t care and took the chance on the nearly 2 hour drive again on crazy, partially washed out logging roads the next day. It was a great choice. We got 6 or more fish out of every run we fished that day – we couldn’t do anything wrong whether with spinners, spoons, flies or float gear.
Besides the fish, maybe the coolest encounter was with a wolf that followed us for a little while, before crossing over the river to us and scampering off. We saw a couple other wolves farther up in the water shed, but that was definitely the most I had ever seen of one of those solitary animals.
Another “on the brink” trip we did consisted of a buddy and I making our first ever trip to a river right on its closing date after/during a high water event. It proved to be another memorable trip just due to the success we had on our first ever exploration of this watershed – it had spectacular water, and a bunch of awesome fish that were very willing on spoons and flies.
I ended up hitting my personal 100th steelhead of the “summer season” on only my 30th trip, and had a sequence of 3 steelhead landed in 3 casts for the first time ever. This was a testament for me on how good the returns had been this year, and how it seemed a bunch of rivers were finally recovering.
The last memorable fall experience was actually a number of trips over a 2 week period. I got asked by a buddy to help him do some DNA profiling and tagging of summer steelhead. We spent 5 days on the system capturing and tagging fish.
Again, we couldn’t seem to do anything wrong with the cooling water temperatures. Trophy tackle spinners, R&B spoons, and flies were the weapons of choice.
We tagged over 80 fish in those trips, and got to explore some amazing water. One of the perks of the tagging session was that we did get to fish a closed section of this flow for a couple days once the angling open area of the river ran dry (we started getting a number of recaps, etc). Amazing (and extremely tough/sketchy) canyon water that I’m sure many wouldn’t have trekked in to anyway, but it provided a couple of really good days.
The first real “winter experience” was the very last day of November. Although not true winter fish, they were very late running, super fresh fall runs in sub zero temperatures. I rose 6 fish to dry flies that day, something I had never done so late in the year, and especially not in these temperatures.
The luck continued after that into the second week of December (before heading back home for Christmas break), where I saw a bunch of fresh early winter running fish, even in places I didn’t know they could get to. I did quite well bringing up fish to small swung intruders on a dry line all through December, something else I had never done.
Besides doing well on the fly, all of my favorite gear chucking rivers were on fire. It wasn’t uncommon for a buddy and I (or Kitty and I) to go out after class and have 6 fish evenings consistently. Another thing we noticed was that the fish were not just in great numbers – they were much larger than usual!
Over winter break Kitty and I also managed to make it to one of our all time favorite systems. This one isn’t a secret, with flocks of people heading there every year. We hit it extremely late for the first time, only 4 days before it closed and had been pounded all “season.” We only ended up with one fish; one that I hit behind Kitty as she got discouraged and sped up through the run losing her “swinging grid.”
Kitty was extremely persistent and demanded we go up on closing day to give her another chance at achieving her “yearly fish” out of the system. Things weren’t looking great half way through the day with many popular runs fished and nothing produced. We were nearing where I picked up my fish last time, and Kitty stayed methodical in her approach this time. I watched as her perfectly thumping rod tip came to a hard stop with a fish. The fish turned out to be a 37 inch doe, somewhere around 17 pounds we figured.
I had never seen her so elated. Three casts later she was into another one – a much smaller doe around 9 pounds.
Kitty released it and continued through, and had another fish nearly take the rod from her hand. 3 fish in very short order. Unfortunately that was it for the day, but those 2 fish she did land were maybe one of my happiest angling moments ever. It was a success for me, because she had stayed persistent through very sub zero temps and icy guides just to get her one fish – she’s come an incredibly long way from just starting out only just over a year ago.
After the spectacular early winter season, we can fast forward to March – which would prove to be my most memorable steelheading month to date, and possibly ever. We had a span of 5 days/trips where Kitty, a buddy and myself hit well over 100 steelhead (and a number of by-catch) on systems we never in our dreams expected such numbers from. To top off the insane action – it was all done using my favorite method – swung spoons! It really was a treat to see these rivers doing well. On top of it all, some fish were extremely large; we got twelve in that span that were over 15 pounds.
Did I mention the by-catch?
We also got to explore some new flows in March that proved to also be some memorable experiences with beautiful fish! We also hit some of our regular flows with good results!
The season definitely slowed down towards the end of March due to low water, but picked up again in April.
Although we didn’t get out much in April due to school, the trips we did have were quite memorable. The majority of them were on new rivers, and they all produced fish – in many cases much more spunky than expected.
Probably the most memorable was a 4 hour trip with Kitty on a new river we’ve always wanted to try, where we hit 6 fish on metal (including a first cast fish) before having to leave for a dinner commitment.
With the closing of this season, I can only hope for another even half as good. It truly was a once in a lifetime adventure, and I’m lucky to have gotten out as much as I did on such a great year with Kitty and my friends. Much of my total time fishing is spent on these impressive sea run rainbows, and I snuck out a total of 93 times between May 2014 and April 2015 for steelhead (winters and summers) this season. This was also the first year in my “young” steelheading career in which I didn’t have a single skunking after boxing day during the winter season (Dec-April), even on busy rivers like the Vedder – something I had never previously thought possible. Now it’s time to transition to some trout fishing, and to catch the new beginning of the summer runs.