Outdoors Diary: Hunting Steelhead on the Quinault Indian Reservation

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QUEETS — A seven-hour fishing excursion through the Quinault Indian Reservation had come down to this. Three of us turned a corner as the fourth person in our group stood in the middle of the river battling a steelhead, looking desperately for someone to net the fish for him. I dropped my poles and made the 50-yard dash toward him, kicking up water along the way. Would I make it in time? 

 

Constructing a plan

The idea seemed obvious. Two of my friends, my step-dad and I had all spent the last month searching for steelhead in Southwest Washington. The friends, Tyson Lorton and Garrett Dokter, had each caught one chrome steelhead this winter, while my stepdad, Ray Hawks, and I had found no luck. Hawks and I just got back into sportfishing this fall, years after giving it up. So why not improve our chances by taking every advantage we could?

Hawks is an enrolled Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) member, and has been so since I was a little kid. The Quinault Indian Nation is comprised of Quinault and Queets tribes and descendants of five other coastal tribes: Quileute, Hoh, Chehalis, Chinook and Cowlitz.

Hawks is Chinook, an unrecognized tribe whose ancestral grounds are in Pacific County. Being enrolled as a Quinault allows him hunting and fishing opportunities not afforded to the white man, as Dokter and I are. Hawks gets access to some of the most prime and coveted salmon and steelhead fisheries in the entire Pacific Northwest.

The Quinault Indian Reservation encompasses the southwest corner of the Olympic National Park, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Olympic Mountains. It includes 23 miles of ocean coastline and over 200,000 acres of land.

It also includes the Quinault, Queets and Salmon rivers, along with Cook Creek, which produce not only some of the biggest salmon and steelhead runs in the state but also some of the largest fish in Washington. A tribal member can bring up to three non-enrolled fishermen with them for walk-in trips. That’s where Lorton, Dokter and I come into play.

 

Adventure time

The four of us converge in a dark parking lot in Aberdeen at 5:50 a.m. Sunday before beginning our trek to the Olympic Peninsula. Instead of chatting about our upcoming sport fishing we’re about to embark on, we all begin trading commercial fishing stories. Hawks has run his own crab boat for 30-plus years, Dokter has been a commercial fisherman since he was basically 13 and Lorton and I are both former commercial fishermen who have since left for “normal” jobs. 

It’s still dark when we arrive at Cook Creek, a tributary of the Quinault River, which contains the Quinault National Fish Hatchery and provides salmon and steelhead fish for the both systems. It’s one of two hatcheries owned and operated by the tribe, the other being the Salmon River Fish Culture Facility, which produces fish for the Queets and Salmon rivers.

The Quinault National Fish Hatchery, located 15 road miles inland on Cook Creek, first opened in 1968. The hatchery grew from raising fish in small, wooden tanks, to the current facility that raises more than 3 million juvenile salmon for release into select coastal streams each year. That’s one reason why we’re going here first. 

The other being that Lorton, who just got the news that he received the required 50 signatures to be adopted into the tribe, knows this area well. He’s fished these rivers on the reservation for years with his cousin. So while my step-dad is our native guide, Lorton, who is also native, is our actual fishing guide.

 

First hole

It’s a bumpy, muddy three-mile journey on rugged logging roads before we arrive near the mouth of Cook Creek. It’s still dark out at  7 a.m., as we rig our poles up and wait for the light of morning. We’re the first ones here, though the tire tracks, fire pit and day-old steelhead carcasses show we’re not the only ones who use this spot.

An hour of casting our jigs and bobbers and the occasional spinner yields us no luck. Even worse, the creek is too high to cross in our chest waders, Lorton says. So we pack up our supplies and head for Plan B: Salmon River, a more popular spot that typically has more fish but is sure to be packed by the time we arrive around 8:30 a.m.

Sure enough, after a 30-minute drive, we round a corner and come across 20 or so vehicles on the side of a logging road next to a tall bridge that spans the river.

“Don’t worry,” Lorton says as we cruise past the crowd of fishermen. “Only tribal fishing is allowed on the other side of the bridge.”

We come upon a locked gate a mile or so up the road that leads to the Salmon River Fish Culture Facility. Lorton has never seen this gate locked. We debate whether to turn around and go fish in the public spot with all the people we passed, or make the unknown-distance walk down to the hatchery. We decide on the latter.

 

Salmon River

Finally reaching the hatchery, which proved to be a half-mile walk, we come upon steelhead-rearing ponds full of tiny, juvenile fish that hammer the surface when a hatchery worker throws out a scoopful of food pellets. Walking along a small stream that connects the hatchery to the Salmon River gives us a glimpse at something even the most experienced angler rarely sees: dozens of steelhead slowly wafting in the water. It’s a sight I’ve never seen before. The 3-feet deep water is crystal clear, allowing us a remarkable view of these prized specimens, some with the distinct red stripe running along their side. This stream is closed, from its mouth at the Salmon River up to the hatchery.

Steelhead, one of the most prized sport fish in the world, brings thousands of out-of-state and even out-of-country visitors to the Pacific Northwest each year in hopes of landing one of the beauties. It’s their heralded fighting ability, beautiful coloring and now their rarity and declining numbers that make them enticing.

 

Trending down

The WDFW released regulations Dec. 14 to aid native steelhead populations, as all but three coastal rivers in the state are expected to have below their escapement goals. That includes banning fishing from floating devices and the use of baits and scents.

The Olympic National Park announced Jan. 11 the early closure of the Queets River, of which the Salmon River is a tributary of, starting Feb. 1. The 2020-21 forecast for Queets wild steelhead is expected to be 637 short of its escapement goal of 4,200 fish. Wild steelhead on the river have failed to meet their escapement goal in each of the last four years, and returns in recent years were among the lowest on record.

For now, the Quinault Indian Nation rules allow for the retention of three winter steelhead per day on the Quinault, Queets and Salmon rivers, along with Cook Creek.

 

Back to fishing

The first deep hole we come to has long been spoken for before we get there. Just across Salmon River is what looks like a summer camping trip. Dozens of people are set up on this rocky sandbar, with pole tents set up, campfires puffing up smoke and numerous bobbers floating in the water. I spot a chrome-bright steelhead hooked to a stringer. We could have gotten here at 5 a.m. and they still probably would have beat us to the spot.

Towering over the river is what looks like someone decorated a Christmas tree with orange and pink decorations. Really, it’s hundreds, and I mean hundreds, of jigs and spinners snagged in the branches. If a person was able to break one of those branches off they’d be set for life.

We cast a few times anyways, hoping, just maybe, that we’ll catch a wayward fish that hasn’t already been spooked. Nothing. No bites.

Lorton leads us on what will be a two-mile adventure upriver in search of waters untouched. The four of us stick close by the entire time. All non-enrolled fishermen must be accompanied by a Quinault tribal member while fishing, and stay within 100 feet of them. We must also abide by the tribe’s lengthy list of COVID-19 guidelines, which includes maintaining 6 feet of distance from non-enrolled fishermen, and wearing a facemask when in close proximity to each other.

It only takes about five minutes of walking before we spot our first legal steelhead. Three of them. The hatchery does not clip the fish it produces, so they all have their adipose fin intact, meaning every fish we catch here is legal to retain.

I cast my gold spinner in front of the group, hoping to entice them to take the bait. Seven casts later brings not even a wiggle of interest, so we ford the river downstream a bit and continue on.

We hit every deep, dark-green hole we come across on this perfect winter day. It’s a balmy 50 degrees with no clouds and zero precipitation. Couldn’t ask for better weather.

 

Heart of the forest

We pass a large weir, a low-head dam that controls the water level of the river. At one point, I notice a bald eagle watching us fish on a large sitka spruce, perhaps laughing at our feeble attempts. We cross the strong-flowing river multiple times, sometimes coming up to our waists. We emerge on the edge of the Queets Rainforest, a remote, pristine area that looks exactly like pictures of the Olympic National Park you may have seen before. Thick blankets of moss hang off every branch, chest-high sword ferns pop up out of the ground and towering old-growth trees dominate the temperate rainforest. A bucolic stream, about 3 or 4 feet wide, winds lazily parallel to the Salmon River. This area holds some of the largest remnants of ancient forests left in the country. 

That’s when we see it. The print. No, not sasquatch. This print is human. Specifically, one wearing a felt-bottom shoe that typically goes with a pair of chest waders. We’ve been trailing at least one fisherman this entire time. Every hole we’ve been hitting has been sloppy seconds.

At this point, nearly a mile upriver, we decide to continue on. We’re already here; might as well keep going until we actually run into them. Spoiler alert: we do.

For the next mile or so, we each get at least one bobber down that might have been a steelhead, but also might have been our jig bouncing off the rocky river bottom. It can be hard to tell sometimes. Then, rounding a corner, we see them. Three fishermen about 100 yards upstream. This is our turning-around point. Being the first people we’ve come across in two miles of river, we don’t want to intrude. It’s a common courtesy. We hit a few of the holes we previously fished on the way back, but mostly it’s a trudge back to the truck. We’re seven hours in and, with little food, we’re getting hungry and tired.

 

End of the road

As Hawks, Lorton and I stop to fish one of the last holes, Dokter breaks off and continues downstream around a corner. We cut through a trail to hit what was our first hole of the day and what will be our last. The bank campers are still there in full force. I was half expecting a karaoke machine to be set up by now. Fifteen minutes of casting yields not even a single bite. We backtrack to find Dokter, who’s probably wondering where we went.

As we emerge out of a thick blanket of brush, we see Dokter standing in the middle of the river, leaned back with his pole bent sharply. Is he snagged?  “I got one!” Dokter yells.

I drop my two poles and begin dashing through the water toward him. He’s a few minutes into the fight already and nearly has it worn out. He guides it toward the shallows where I grab it by the tail, but the beast wiggles free and darts back into the deep water for one final push. Dokter brings it back in and Lorton grabs it by the tail with one hand and the body with his other hand, lifting it toward the bank. Dokter holds the fish while my stepdad and I snap a couple quick photos before he releases it back into the river. It jets downstream immediately and is gone within seconds. It’s all we talk about as we walk the half-mile back to the truck.

Even though only one of us caught a fish, it’s still a successful day. For three of us, it was the excitement of exploring and fishing new territory. For the other, it was reliving past memories. For all four of us, it was about creating new memories. As we part ways, after a nine-hour fishing trip, we make plans to head back together the following weekend. We’re each looking forward to creating even more memories next time.

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