Most avid anglers will attest that the pursuit of their favorite quarry is most often an exercise in patience, persistence, and flawless technique. Even when all those factors are correctly employed, often it is things out of your control that dictate success or failure. Even under perfect conditions, it is entirely possible to come away from your outing completely empty handed.
Clay Butler (left) and Kris Olsen Jr. with a giant hatchery steelhead caught on a plug.
While that unfortunate circumstance is a fundamental reality most serious anglers learn early in life to deal with, it is the stories of success that keep anglers motivated, waking up at ridiculous hours to do silly things like drive two hours to a distant lake to be certain to arrive two hours before daylight. Whatever the species, you always begin the day with eternal hope that today is going to be the day where everything falls into place and impressive things are going to happen.
As fishing excursions go, over the course of any given season an angler will draw several blanks, but also have a few terrific days, staging an on-the-water seminar for anyone who might be in the vicinity. Most often though, success is found somewhere in between those two extremes. In essence, good anglers have just enough action to keep their helmet on and stay in the game, but rarely enough to call and brag to their buddies about the clinic they just put on. That said, anglers are always hopeful of every star in the solar system aligning perfectly and hitting the proverbial jackpot. I’m talking about those days that only come once every five to ten years, if not once in a lifetime. It is said in angling that it is always better to be lucky than good, but for gosh sakes, being good ought to pay off occasionally should it not? Having a trusted and experienced guide is always an advantageous place to start when aspiring to such lofty aspirations. Over the last thirty years, I have enjoyed the company, the jokes, the laughter and especially the expertise of Quinault guide Clay Butler. I was joking with him recently that his mug is in at least ten of my truly favorite photos. While serving a long law enforcement career as a Federal Agent with the Department of the Interior, Clay has also guided many lucky anglers to their most cherished memories. Now fully retired from chasing bad guys and semi-retired from guiding, he only guides selected days with his oldest clients. I am very fortunate and extremely thankful that he continues to take my calls.
Clay has his pulse on some of the best salmon and steelhead water in Washington state, the lower Quinault and lower Queets Rivers as well as their tributaries Cook Creek and Salmon River. The ecosystems of these streams are in excellent condition and the hatchery programs run by the Quinault tribe are second to none. Combine healthy wild stocks with prolific hatchery enhancements and you end up with salmon and steelhead fisheries that can remind even old-timers of the aptly named good-old-days.
I long ago learned to check my expectations at the door when I leave the house. That philosophy applies whether I’m doing a guided trip, self-guided trips in my drift boat, spending a morning on my local kokanee lake, or gearing up for a week in Alaska. Too many times I have drawn blanks when I was sure we would slay and slayed when I thought conditions were far from ideal. But as a wise man once told me, if you don’t shoot, you can’t score, so you must at least have a line or two in the water before anything good can happen.
I try not to put myself behind the eight-ball, making sure conditions are at least favorable before heading out. As I said earlier, under perfect conditions there are no guarantees, so why make it tougher on yourself by going when conditions aren’t in your favor. Maybe when I was younger, but age does indeed bring a sense of wisdom. Even on such vaunted rivers as those that flow through the Quinault Reservation, it is possible to have a real slow day. Trust me, I’ve had my share of them. However, the chance at that magical day of which all anglers dream is also just as possible, probably there more so than any other place in Washington.
From September through late November I spend most weekends either drifting my favorite fall salmon rivers, or fishing select dates with Clay numerous times each fall hoping to land a monster Chinook or way-lay big numbers of fat ocean-fresh coho just coming in on the tide. 2018 was no different and I had a fun time salmon fishing with Clay last fall, making three or four trips up to the Queets or Quinault.
It was at the end of one of those trips that I determined to get back over there for the upcoming steelhead season with Kris Jr., who has also enjoyed fishing with Clay since he was about fourteen. On those trips he has joined me, he has usually made me look like a proverbial amateur, out-fishing me more times than I care to admit. While I would never admit it to his face, I always enjoy seeing him have success, more so now than ever before. The challenges he has faced since his cancer diagnosis in February 2016 presents an uncertainty where creating memories has become a major priority for us.
It had been a couple years since I did any winter fishing as local rivers have become far too crowded and unproductive for me to enjoy the experience. The exception of course is when doing so with Clay. Limited access means limited competition, so we were determined to book a day in January for winter steelhead when the hatchery fish are charging through. The vast majority of my steelhead outings over the last ten years have been limited to summer-runs in my drift boat, when the rivers are low and boat traffic is essentially non-existent, although a fantastic October trip to Idaho’s Clearwater River with Mel Stottlemyre Jr. a few years back is a very pleasant memory that I would love to re-live.
There were a couple impediments to our plan. First and obviously, cooperative weather. Second, my work schedule is flexible allowing me easy weekday opportunities, but Kris Jr.’s is not, so we really needed a weekend to make it work. Complicating things even further was the fact that he was in the middle of twelve bi-weekly chemotherapy treatments that leave him utterly exhausted the entire week of treatment. It was only the second week after treatment where he felt more up to doing things.
I called Clay and we decided to shoot for Saturday, January 12th as that fit Jr.’s schedule best. As expected, torrential rains had the entire coast flooding the week prior to the 12th. We re-scheduled for the following Saturday, January 19th, even though we knew Kris Jr. might not be feel-ing all that great from his chemo earlier that week. Once again, a coastal deluge preceded us and blew things right back out just as the rivers were falling into shape. We again re-scheduled for the following Saturday January 26th, hoping that the third time was the charm while also getting back on a preferable week for Kris Jr.
On Tuesday morning the 22nd, the coast got another inch of rain, but the forecast for the rest of the week was cold and clear so our fingers were crossed, praying the Quinault would drop and clear enough to allow us a fair shot at it. We watched intently as the USGS gauge near the lake rose to around 6800 cfs before tipping over and beginning a steady decline in our favor.
Thursday the 24th the gauge was of course acting up, but my check-in call to Clay that evening was met with his usual childlike enthusiasm when things start getting fishy. It appeared the third time was indeed going to be the charm. Just how charmed we had no idea, more on that in a minute. He said he was going to fish the following day on Friday, so like two curious kids we could not help ourselves from calling him again on our drive over for a fishing report. Something about great fishing and a 24-pound hatchery fish got us instantly juiced for the following morning.
This bright hen of around 14 pounds looked diminutive in comparison to the giants we had been encountering.
We met Clay at the usual place in Amanda Park Saturday morning the 26th at 7:30. Yes, bankers’ hours are alive and well on the reservation, but that is understand-able given the general lack of competition. In mere minutes our gear was stowed and we were launching his sled. A quick survey of the water conditions found that they were just as you would draw them up in the steelhead playbook, dropping fast with three feet of visibility and that beautiful emerald green color. In other words, holy water.
I call it that because the Quinault is one of the last places in Washington where the holy grail of steelheading might still be encountered, the 20-pound monster. It was about then that Clay pulled out his phone and showed us a photo of the 24-pound hatchery beast they had conquered the day prior. A humongous specimen, it was proof positive that we weren’t in Kansas anymore and that we had better be ready for anything.
For those who are uninformed about such things, not all Quinault hatchery steelhead have clipped adipose fins. Often times a close examination of the dorsal fin is required to determine if a fish is of wild or hatchery origin. It would also be a mistake to think that all sport-caught fish on the reservation get bonked. Most hatchery fish of course do, but only the occasional wild fish will get Clay’s blessing to find a home in the fish box.
Over the years I have come to know Clay as a consummate conservator of his resource. He is always informed on current hatchery counts and has released countless beautiful wild steelhead on the Quinault and especially the lower Queets, as well as many salmon that show just a hint too much color. We always leave it to his discretion one way or the other whether to harvest a fish or release it.
With the river still flowing at an inflated rate of around 4000 cfs, we knew fish would continue moving. Our best bet was going to be pulling plugs in the travel lanes. You’ve likely heard it said or possibly learned from experience that generally speaking, when the river is high, fish low in the hole and when it is low, fish high in the hole. We did basically just that. Finally, it was game-time as Clay gave the order to let out our plugs in the first tail-out.
With a wink and a nod, he indicated it should not take long and he was right as usual. As he swept the tailout from side to side and the plugs swung just past a large boulder, the middle rod buried. Kris Jr. was first to do battle and after a brief chase down river, I slid the net under a gorgeous mint-bright hen around 17 pounds. We were on the scoreboard before our morn-ing coffee had even worked its way to the drainage spout. It was our first indication that the day held serious promise, and our high-fives were exchanged with exclamation points added.
Things slowed a bit after that, becoming more like normal steelhead fishing, hurry up and wait. We watched as the rod tips danced with the mesmerizing beat of each separate plug. After roughly another hour, suddenly and very violently, Kris Jr’s rod torpedoed toward the water. He was quick to respond, and the head shakes told us we were yet again into an oversized beast. Line smoked off the reel as the big steelie tried hard to have its way. Kris worked it like I taught him as a youngster, slow and steady, giving when challenged and recovering line at every opportunity.
Eventually it too found my waiting net as Clay expertly maneuvered the boat. When it hit the deck, we marveled at the remarkably beautiful buck we figured to be in the 19-20 pound range. This fish was truly an amazing specimen, long, chrome, without a scale out of place and a big square tail that had powered it up 35 miles of river in just a few short days. For casual steelhead anglers, a fish like that comes to hand once in a generation. On that cold, clear blue-chip sunny day, had our success ended right there we would have been damn happy campers as we had two gorgeous steelhead in the boat.
Little did we know, the Good Lord still had plans for us. Clay made a move that took us closer to the lake, where soon after deploying our gear the middle rod buried once more. Unfortunately for us, the cold steel of the hooks missed their mark and what was a solid strike quickly turned into a simple drive-by. We had little time to cry over that fact before Kris Jr’s rod got crushed yet again.
He was busy enjoying the scenery, so it took my jabbering for him to get a clue. He made what looked like a solid hook-set, but when the furious steelie broke the surface, the plug went one way while the fish went another. In less than ten minutes, we missed two excellent opportunities. From that point on things are somewhat of a blur and I don’t remember the exact order of action, but after properly resting our original runs, we returned to find even more success.
I finally got in the game and fought yet another big buck of around 17-18 pounds right to the boat. As sometimes happens, netting issues (not Clay’s) prevented that fish from coming over the rail, but let’s face it, we’ve all been there from time to time, so after the initial blustering, we didn’t dwell too hard on it. Kris Jr. shortly followed that up with a bright hen of around 13-14 pounds, which somehow looked diminutive in comparison to the giants we had been encountering.
We were sitting there late in the afternoon, enjoying the sunshine and thinking about what an awesome day we were experiencing. What happened next is what every steelhead anglers’ vision is of total euphoria. Clay set the boat up to make another sweeping pass through the tail-out in which we first started. As the plugs danced around the same big boulder as earlier, the center rod once again buried.
The rod ended up in my hands and instantly I knew there was something different about this steelhead. Instead of blowing the place up like usual, this giant hulked toward the bottom and delivered head shakes more commonly associated with a big Chinook salmon, sulking, deliberate, pulse pounding for sure. Keeping the line tight was not an issue as it made some strong, impressive runs, daring me to retrieve so much as an inch of line.
Kris Olsen Sr. and Jr. with one of the big hatchery bucks caught that day.
Our first glimpse was only that of a large tail as it vacated the premises when sensing its vicinity to the boat. I worked it close once more before it disappeared into the depths with a final desperate run, after which the tug of war commenced one last time. All of us were holding our breath as we knew this was one extraordinary steelhead, the one we all dream of landing. Nearing the end of the battle, Kris Jr. broke out his phone and caught the last little bit of action on video as Clay secured the beast in the net.
Ear to ear grins abounded as the reality set in that we had just landed one of the holy grails of steelhead fishing, a big colorful buck we estimated to be right around 22-23 pounds. After a quick dorsal fin inspection, Clay was positive this was a hatchery-reared fish, so it got an official welcome. I later measured the length at 37 inches with a girth of 22 inches. Using several online weight calculators, the fish weighed 23.10 lbs.
While I have guided several clients of my own into a fair number of such monsters during the heyday of the spring catch and release season on the Skykomish back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, this was my personal largest steelhead landed. I could now count myself among the few anglers on the planet fortunate enough to have accomplished the feat, joining Kris Jr. who joined the club with a similar-sized wild fish on the Sauk River we released many years ago when he was still a teenager.
The mere possibility of such magic is why we drive the three hours from our home to get to this enchanted place. When that ever-so-elusive day unexpectedly materializes, there is no better feeling on Earth. Almost every fish we hooked that glorious January day was a large three- or even four-salt fish. Seven solid chances morphed into four ultimate successes, including one firmly in the trophy category and another within sniffing distance. Every fathers dream is to share an experience like that with his son.
I can’t thank Clay enough for the many years of laughs and thrills, but most of all for the incredible memories that will last us a lifetime. To all you anglers out there waiting for your own magic to happen, keep swinging for the fences. Everyone experiences slow days, but if you stick with it, I promise you that elusive, once-in-a-generation day will find you when you are least expecting it. It is those very rare occasions that make all the time, effort and expense worth it. If you remember nothing else, remember this. If you don’t shoot, you can’t score!
MORE GREAT ARTICLES FROM STS