Mar 24, 2014

Fly Fish the Olympic Peninsula

Olympic Peninsula, Washington
Sam Sickles Reports

Sam Sickles | Steelhead Outfitters
I spend around 150-200 days per year steelheading and guiding steelhead. Admittedly there are places I haven’t been and things I haven’t done but, I have a pretty good grip on what’s what! For me steelheading is about the pursuit of the absolute beast and one of the epicenters of where that happens in the world is unquestionably the Olympic Peninsula. In order moving North they include the Queets/Clearwater, the Quinault, the Hoh, the Bogy (Bogachiel), the Callawah, and the mighty Sol Duc. None of these rivers are the same even though they are all within a 60 minute drive from Forks, WA and all of these rivers kickout monster fish. I’m only gonna talk about the ones I’ve fished.

"150-200 days per year Steelheading"
All hands on deck
This is not the kind of place where you hire a guide, he takes you out, and you put the fish of a lifetime on deck. It could happen but most likely not. It’s also not the kind place you just show up, do what you know how to do and find success…in fact far from it! This is the A-club! There are multiple local anglers with 30 pounders notched into their fighting butt. One drive into Forks on the tourist route and you’ll see twenty pounders mounted…no one local even turns a head…big deal! We lost a super hot 18 pounder on the Hoh our first day there in front of a local guide, his comment, “You guys need a bigger net, don’t want that to happen on a thirty!”. Translated, “that was an average fish, don’t do it on a good one”! Really? Yeah, really! Day two we lost a fish that if not twenty was close, we never had a chance. Boulders mid stream, boat moving down river with no place to stop or get out, twenty pounder going nuclear, changing directions, flying under water making a wake like a Trident Submarine, heading 45 degrees upriver through the rocks 100, 150, 200 feet upriver and away, heads back downriver briefly…gone, heartbroken. This isn’t Canada; having a thick wallet doesn’t get you a goliath fish, they’re earned, every one of them. The fish below came off the Hoh two days after I left. Jeff Brazda’s crew put this thing on deck, the angler was a fifty year vet, “biggest steelhead he’s caught anywhere he’s fished”. Brazda said, “second biggest fish he’s seen…ever!” Seriously, this is where you pay your dues, period.

Just one more personal opinion, if all you wanna do is swing, good on ya' man, me too! The fish above came indicator fishing as most of them do, I don’t know a single angler who’d pass a shot at this fish because it wasn’t swung. Hell, I’d take it on any kind of rod! I am a swing only guy except for when I go to the Olympic Peninsula (more on that later). The guys catching the bulk of the fish on the OP are fishing under an indicator and for good reason. Most of the fly guides up there don’t even have spey rods in their boats, and if they do it’s just for looks.

Over the last decade I’ve camped out, stayed in cabins, and also in hotels in Forks.
I will do each of these things again, no problem but man a hotel in Forks is dry, warm and close to nice accommodations like cold beer and warm food. It’s also a good time to look around and see what happens in Forks after dark, watch out for Vampires and Werewolves. That’s it for travel advisor back to fishing.
The Queets is the most isolated of the rivers and the most mysterious. A Google search will get you the 411 but in short, since the lower road got taken out it’s a long drive around to an awesome campground and a short float with a do it yourself shuttle. We used to go all the way down but it’s a logistical nightmare now so we don’t do it, probably a big mistake. Lots' of big, big fish come of the Queets and pressure is low. This river runs dirty often. The Clearwater, a major tributary is floatable, has fish, never done it, that’s all I know.

The Quinault is a tribal river until you get to the other side of the lake.

Quinault: "Your best chance at a monster!"

This one often runs dirty as well. The Tribal broodstock program is 180 degrees of everything you’ve read from the Native Fish Society folks. Check it out, I have and its awesome and exclusive! These folks manage quality only and here’s an average fish below. Common comment on a fish like this from the local guides is ‘one a day…at least’! This river is your best chance at a monster!

Call Rich Underwood $625 a day (in the rear of photo above).

The Hoh is a living breathing creature with monster fish. This is the most popular fly fishing river on the OP. If you want to swing a fly this is the place. There are several high steep clay banks which add to the green blue color of the Hoh and the river has reduced clarity in most conditions. The closer to the Park Line the clearer this river is and vice versa at low river levels. There are many long broad flats, and if you can find a fish in the zone, they’ll which often leads to heart break. Several of what the locals refer to as boat ramps are nothing like boat ramps at all, usually they’re just a place to push you rig off the trailer and rope it down to the river, so if your boat is real pretty talk your buddy into bringing his!

I’ve known about the Sol Duc a long time, my old man was married to a gal from Forks back in the day. We drove back and forth from Hoquiam when I was a kid. All of our in laws fished the “Duc”, but I’d been told “this one’s a boat eater”, “the Duc doesn’t have swing water”, “if you like to swing you won’t like the Sol Duc”. So ten years on the OP I took the plunge, after my first 5 minutes on the Sol Duc I had already decided that it was the best river on the Peninsula. All the BS fed to me, keeping me off this gem…gullible!

The Sol Duc, or the “Duc”, is several rivers in one. Each float has a completely different personality begging to be figured out. The river was pretty high the first day we were there with zero bank access and no place to get out from Whitcomb-Dimmel down to the rivers meeting with the Bogy. There may or may not have been some center pinning and pink worming going on as we explored this challenging river.

The next couple of days we went up higher to check out the whole thing.

In a nutshell, the Sol Duc has lots of good swing water plus some bonus creative spots (experts only). I wish we would have spent more time swinging and less time bobber fishing but that’s how it goes sometimes. The Sol Duc fish are by far and away the most powerful and worthy steelhead I have ever met. Truly unlandable fish swim the “Duc” every day. Truth: this river has multiple classed rapids that increase in danger exponentially as the levels come down (think JAIL). Did I mention there’s no river gauge, oh wait there’s a slab of concrete below a bridge you can look at; these folks are nuts! There’s tribal knowledge out there, find it before attempting to float the Sol Duc, or call my buddy Rooster Levins and pay to shorten the learning curve. Sol Duc…I’ll be back real soon, straight up, no centerpins, guaranteed! See you soon.

Sol Duc River, Washinton
There used to be a time when we had to fish to learn. Today there’s the internet with maps, info, GPS coordinates that can make the learning curve faster. That said I’ve got a lot of days on the OP and still know I haven’t come close to garnering the knowledge required to be successful every time I go out, that takes time. It’s like anywhere, days on the river and local knowledge matter.

Tactics and Equipment

Swinging, at a minimum, 7 weight spey rod, short is better in case you wanna do some boat swinging, I like the 7129 Winston Boron IIITH. A reel that can pick up line fast Like a Hatch 9 Plus will be critical. Leave the Hardy at home, these fish don’t need an equalizer. Skagit lines are standard and consider bringing an intermediate Skagit as well. Sink tips for various conditions, light to heavy. Bring standard winter flies but be prepared to fish high flows and low visibility as well as gin clear. Don’t go any lighter than 15# maxima UG.

Spey Equipment List

Nymphing, I don’t nymph for steelhead anymore I use a centerpin rod, it’s easier, takes more skill, and is much more effective, plus I have a bad shoulder from a lifetime of nymphing! But seriously, nymphing, minimum 9.5-10 foot 8 weights, large arbor reels. You’re going to need some decent sized indicators to float bigger weights, I like thingamabobbers. If you’re doing it right you will lose lot’s of gear, for this reason I like beads. Beads are effective and more importantly inexpensive. Today there are beads for everyone, I like 10-12mm in orange, red, pink but pick your poison. Try fishing the beads in tandem as well.

Here’s what I know. A quote from Rooster, “you got a better chance of getting hit by a Russian satellite than swinging a fish up here”! Seriously, if you have fresh water, swing it, these fish will eat a fly for sure but be ready to fish under a bobber, indicator, whatever, as your floating these rivers. There are simply too many fishy places that you can’t get out of the boat, if you pass them altogether folks who know what’s up won’t complain. Better yet swing the runs then beat ‘em up with indicators as you float through. As more and more anglers use the river and target these fish with boats, bobbers, etc, these fish are no longer in the preferred lies where they’ll eat a fly, or more importantly, where you can swing a fly in front of one. It’s a long drive up there so when in Rome…

Sam Sickles | Steelhead Guide

Sam Sickles is a Oregon Steelhead Guide 
and Contributor for the Gorge Fly Shop Blog: The Rusty Hook.
"Fly Fish the World with Us"


  1. I realize Oregon laws are different, but Washington law forbids removing wild steelhead from the water (especially their breathing apparatus) for any reason, photo ops included. If you did not know that, you do now. Posting photos for any reason that show or suggest such only gives ammunition to those who would like nothing better than to deny us all the opportunity to fish for wild steelhead and might well get you a visit from WDFW.

    On tribal lands, you can probably do whatever the tribe allows, they seem to have their own rules.

    One other thing: Now you can say you know (of) someone who would pass on a chance at a wild thirty pounder if he had to use a bobber or beads...

    1. The Gorge Fly Shop TeamMarch 31, 2014 at 10:00 AM

      Let me start by saying that in no way does Gorge Fly Shop promote the harvest of wild steelhead and you are correct that no wild steelhead is to be removed from the water. After reviewing the content again, I understand and agree with you that we should be careful of what ammunition is on display for those that as you say “would like nothing better than to deny us the opportunity to fish for wild steelhead.” However upon further review it has been determined that this photo is on the tribal part of the Quinault River. The tribal area of the Quinault nation is governed by the tribe and tribal restrictions are in place. Quinault Indian Nation Sport Fishing regulations. The picture in question clearly shows the authorized guide Rich Underwood who not only has guided these waters for over 25 years but is also councilman for the Quinault tribe. Again let me repeat and I speak on behalf of Gorge Fly Shop that we DO NOT promote the harvest of wild steelhead legal or not.

      In response to fishing with bobbers and/or beads, I and the GFS team share the same passion as you of catching fish on the swing. It is the challenge and the feeling of the connection to the fish when he grabs our fly that provides us with the ultimate accomplishment in fly fishing. GFS promotes fishing steelhead on the swing but you must understand it is not our place to discourage anglers from a fishing technique that is legal. Not all anglers’ possess the same passion or skill as we do. While you and I strive for the ultimate challenge others are content with just catching a fish. The approach GFS takes is to share the excitement and reward that comes from this ultimate challenge in hopes that anglers will follow. Some will get there and some will not but our experience in telling someone what they shouldn’t do does not promote a desired effect.

      Let me conclude in saying that GFS strives to bring you good newsletter and blog content that is honest, educational, fun and inspiring. Month to month it’s a tough challenge in itself. We try our best to make sure that no one is offended in any way. While this article contributed by Sam Sickles (an independent guide) has triggered a small amount of controversy let me assure you that we have known Sam for many years and we wouldn’t promote Sam if we didn’t know that he has integrity and is a respectful guide. He has earned his knowledge by fishing open mindedly and can offer a great guided trip no matter what technique you wish to pursue.

      Thank you for your concerns and comments - The Gorge Fly Shop Team

  2. The Gorge Fly Shop TeamMarch 31, 2014 at 11:19 AM

    The Gorge Fly Shop Team - Here is the Link to the Quinault Indian Nation Sport fishing regulations


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