In Like a Lamb

Big winter natives

by Scott Sadil

Not necessarily typical, but still, kind of a classic year — a pattern I’ve witnessed dozens of times throughout my life.  

After periodic storms roll in off the Pacific, bringing rain up and down the coast from Thanksgiving through the start of the new year, high pressure suddenly builds, the window shuts, and we’re treated to weeks and weeks of benign winter weather — dry and chilly, while rivers drop and drop and drop.

If you didn’t get your steelhead early, you begin to wonder. Fish, after all, like water.

Yet the way it often works, at least here in the Northwest, is that sometime about now the window reopens, storms reappear, rain again begins to fall.

And the rivers rise.

And rise.

This past weekend, for example, the Queets River, out on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, was flowing at about 1,100 cubic feet per second before the rains started up again. In less than 48 hours, flows were well over 40,000 cfs. If you need a better way get your mind around this dramatic change, try this: In less than two days, the surface of the river rose more than ten vertical feet.

Still, changes such as this are hardly unusual; fairly typical, in fact, for this kind of winter.

Better still, with a freshet like this, one that invites a last push of winter steelhead to leave the ocean and head upriver, it’s a perfect moment to head over to the Peninsula and see if you can tangle – or tango? – with one of these late-season fish, oftentimes grouped with some of the biggest wild steelhead in a river’s annual run.

Oh, but wait. There’s one problem. As of March 1, the entire Washington coast, including the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, is closed to sportfishing.  Why?  According to a statement made February 23 by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, the closure is part of an effort to protect dwindling wild steelhead populations. The closure, states WDFW, follows review of data that suggests, among other things, that returns of wild steelhead on some rivers will be the lowest ever recorded.  


I apologize to readers who feel they’ve seen enough bad news about dwindling populations of Northwest steelhead. Still, I can’t help but recall the number of trips I’ve made in March out to the Peninsula, always with the hope of encountering what were generally referred to, in the literature, as “the big late-winter natives.”  

“Big rivers, big rods”

A phrase like that is all it takes to stir my blood. There was also the promise that whatever fish you found that close to the sea would demonstrate the sort of speed and strength and jaw-dropping gymnastics you rarely witnessed in steelhead hooked closer to home, long after they entered fresh water and started the long journey upstream.

There’s more to it, of course, than the fishing. The Peninsula is just far enough away that heading there always felt like some sort of adventure. The weather, in March, could be lionesque or lambish – like the fishing, a crapshoot at best. But when you came face to face with those big wild rivers, each one with a character all its own, the big dark flies and big double-handers put you in a completely different frame of mind, one that always seemed right at the edge of something, a boundary you felt capable of crossing, though you knew if you did you might never make it back.

But it’s closed this year.  

Hard to know what to say about that.


Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil hopes that winter steelheaders, like wooden-boat builders, never become a thing of the past.