If looking to escape crowds in your winter steelheading quest, you don’t have to travel to the far north… there may be an option much closer to home where the fishing is just as good, if not better!
Casting our bobbers tight to shore, all five attempts hit the mark. Soon a wall of presentations were making their way downriver. But before the boat drifted through the sweet-spot, one bobber went down. Before the other four anglers could react, a second float plunged beneath the dark green water.
Soon, my wife, Tiffany, and I were admiring a pair of winter steelhead. The next pass found our 10-year old son, Kazden, locked in battle with a feisty fish, followed on the next pass by my dad, Jerry Haugen putting a fish in the box. Three passes, four fish.
“Man, we should get a big one out of here,” piped Robert Thomas, Quinault Indian Nation guide and owner and operator of Private Waters Adventures. Believe me, the family wasn’t too crushed over just having landed four steelhead, the largest going 12 pounds.
“Let’s drift through that slot again, there’s gotta be some big fish around,” Robert encouraged.
We made two more passes without touching a fish. The big fish weren’t in that hole, then again, neither were any people. In fact, in two-and-a-half days of fishing three different rivers cutting through Reservation land, we saw only one other boat. It was the kind of escape many anglers believe is only attainable by spending high dollars to fly as far north as possible, or hiking for hours into secluded holes tucked amidst Cascade-born streams found throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Not only was the seclusion a special treat for all of us, but the beautiful water, great company, cozy accommodations and fishing action was more than expected. As a father and lifelong angler, I was excited to fish multiple rivers with my family, sharing with our two sons the various ways steelhead can be fished. The best part—besides catching lots of fish—was that it all took place in a relaxed atmosphere, with no sense of urgency often brought on by crowded streams.
With so much water to explore, escaping crowds was the least of our worries. Because we were fishing on tribal land, it’s required to hire the services of a guide whom is formally registered with the Quinault Indian Nation.
The Quinault Indian Nation consists of the Quinault and Queets tribes, as well as descendants from the Chinook, Chehalis, Cowlitz, Hoh and Quileute tribes. Each of these names are quite familiar to salmon and steelhead anglers, and convey how deeply rooted their culture truly is within the fishing world.
Situated on the southwest corner of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the Reservation land encompasses a vast diversity of habitat. With more than 23 miles of beautiful coastline, over 208,000 acres and numerous lakes, rivers and streams, it truly is one of the most beautiful places in North America.
I first set foot on Quinault Nation land nearly a decade ago, when I was invited on a spring hunt for black bears. The hunting was great, in fact it was some of the best I’d experienced, and I’ve hunted bears in many places. Since that first trip I’ve returned to hunt bears many times on the Reservation, and each time I yearned to learn more about the fishing.
I dreamed about one day fishing the world-famous Quinault River, and after hearing all the big-fish stories in bear camp over the years, my desire grew deeper. Stories of 20—pound fish were common, with even more attention-getting stories and photos of steelhead caught each year in the upper 20 pound class. The Quinault National Fish Hatchery is one of the best known and successful in the steelheading world, and with fishing having eclipsed the mind-boggling 30-pound mark, it’s easy to see why.
As for the fishing, we could talk numbers and weights that would keep any honest angler second-guessing what they’d just read. Having hunted bears with Robert Thomas, I knew he wasn’t one to stretch the numbers. In fact, if anything, Robert expresses sizes and numbers on the conservative side. It’s his humble demeanor and level of dedication that first caught my attention, and why I look forward to hunting and fishing with Robert.
A couple weeks prior to our arrival on the Quinault, I regularly checked in with Robert for a fishing report. Every day found them with double-digit catches, with many 20-fish days being flirted with. The number of 20-plus-pound steelhead blew my mind, and led to some sleepless nights in anticipation for our family adventure.
Getting our sons, Braxton and Kazden, on fish was top priority, and Robert assured me he was ready. What impressed me about Robert was his sincere interest in helping our sons catch fish. He’s dedicated not only to fishing, but also to developing a rapport with those in his boat. Overall, Robert is a man of relatively few words, but his knowledge of and passion for fishing is top-notch, and contagious. “We’re going to start by covering water,” Robert announced as we all hopped into the boat. Turning the nose downstream, Robert motored us to a stretch of river where he’d been having the most success over the past week. “Right here is where we landed an 18 pounder two days ago,” Robert noted. We couldn’t get our lines in the water, fast enough.
Soon, five floats were bobbing across the surface, the occasional tipping of their top-ends indicating sinkers were finding bottom, slowing down the presentations as they moved through the fast current. Bobber-dogging from a sled boat allows a mind-boggling amount of prime water to be covered, and it’s easy to do.
After making our first three passes and catching four fish, we continued downstream to the next hole. Seeing Roosevelt elk feeding along shore, bald eagles soaring overhead, and not another angler in sight, reminded me of what it was like when I first began steelhead fishing over 40 years ago.
The next spot we fished was wider, faster moving water close to shore with slower, deeper water stretching into the middle of the river. “Let’s run three baits close to shore and let two plugs out the back,” Robert encouraged. We all worked together in readying the gear, which our sons appreciated being a part of.
Feeling confident with the bait approach, the boys and Grandpa worked the floats while Tiffany and I ran the plug rods. My plug, a 3.5” cerise Mag Lip, was in the most unlikely place to catch a fish, but produced, first. I could tell by the takedown it was a heavy fish, a slow-steady pull that, when it came tight, made it hard to lift the rod from the holder.
Shortly we were admiring a 17-pound buck. Though he was starting to turn color, what amazed me was where this fish struck. The bite came where the water was low and fairly clearly, no more than three feet deep on the rising side of a gravel bar. This was my first steelhead on a Mag Lip, and since then I’ve caught others in multiple rivers. One of the things I’ve learned about this amazing plug is how it’s sporadic action captures the attention of fish from great distances, enticing them to aggressively move in for the strike; I’m certain that’s what happened on this, my first Quinault River steelhead on a plug.
Braxton hooked up next, a small, bright fish being brought to the net. My dad hooked and lost one, and Kazden later got on the board again with another Washington steelhead. Before the day was over, Tiffany would catch another fish on the Mag Lip, and another on a Maxi Jig. Dad also landed a chrome bright fish on traditional drift fishing gear, his favorite way to go after steelhead.
The next morning Tiffany and the boys stayed back to explore the area around Lake Quinault, while Dad and I joined Robert on the Queets River. Here we fished some of the most classic steelhead water Dad and I had ever set eyes on. The textbook gravel bottom screamed steelhead, and soon we were sidedrifting our way downstream. On the first cast Dad hooked a bright, 10-pound hen. I followed with a nearly identical fish.
This was the only place we saw another boat during our time with Robert. Late morning found Robert heading the boat upstream, to hit virgin water higher on the Queets. But before reaching the target holes, Robert took us on a detour up the Clearwater River. Though we fished only the lower few hundred yards of the Clearwater, we found steelhead were there.
Pushing upstream, we went back to side-drifting rags and bait. Robert strategically maneuvered the boat amid blown-down trees, root wads and sweepers. Though the drifts were short and precise, the water was perfect. Dad landed the first fish here, taken from behind a massive root wad.
Moments later, I hit the fish that brought me here. Robert positioned the boat perfectly as we quickly drifted past a long, partially submerged cottonwood that created the perfect holding spot. Dad drifted the inside seam, me, the one tight to the tree. Just as we prepared to bring in the lines, mine went tight.
The fish darted right at the boat and it was all I could do to keep up. A few head shakes and a quick run, and the tinfoil-bright steelhead tauntingly broke the surface within net’s reach of the boat. When the fat fish turned, the hook pulled out. It all happened so fast, and I did a terrible job of setting the hook. Just like that my big Quinault Reservation steelhead was gone.
“Ah, he was 20 pounds, huh?” I helplessly glanced at Robert.
“Na, I don’t think so,” Robert played it down.
“Seriously, that was a 22 pound fish, wasn’t it?” I came back.
“Na...I think he was bigger than that,” smiled Robert, shooting me a wink.
Quickly, my dreams of catching a monster steelhead that day came and went. It was a helpless feeling, but knowing fish like this can come at any moment, I tried not to let it get me down.
That afternoon the family was together again, catching more steelhead on the Quinault. Be it from the boat, shore, tossing bait, working jigs, pulling plugs or dangling pink worms beneath a float, everything we tried produced fish.
From an educational standpoint, it was the best scenario one could ask for when it came to teaching youth multiple ways to fish. The best part, it all happened in one place where fish were caught utilizing every approach, with not a single fellow angler to contend with.
Each evening when done fishing the Quinault River, Robert motored us to the front lawn of our quaint motel, the Quinault River Inn, situated on the banks of the river. Here, Tiffany prepared fresh-caught steelhead over an open flame and in a Dutch oven. From the catching to the cleaning to the cooking, the boys participated every step of the way. Each night was spent around the campfire, telling stories.
Exploring the stunning scenery around the Reservation was an experience the family will not soon forget. Standing at the base of the world’s largest spruce tree, absorbing the culture and participating in world-class steelhead fishing were all part of this memorable family adventure.
To be able to share it all with three generations of Haugen’s, and one of the hardest working guides I’ve had the honor of fishing with, made the whole journey even more meaningful. The day after we left, Robert got a client on a 24-pound monster steelhead, right where we’d caught some of our fish.
Though I had my crack at a big steelhead, it wasn’t meant to be, not on this trip. I can’t say I’m totally disappointed, however, for now I have good reason to return to this magical place...and yes, there will be a next time.
Written by Scott Haugen | All Photos by Scott Haugen
Note: For signed copies of Scott Haugen’s popular book, 300 Tips To More Salmon & Steelhead, send a check for $30.00 (includes S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489, or visit www.scotthaugen.com.