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Fishing trip delivers steelhead serenity

FORKS, Wash.--A few years ago, I wrote a story for the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors section about a trip to Alaska's Kodiak Island, where I was in search of the elusive steelhead trout. I've continue my quest for this fish by traveling to t...

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Rick Mercil of Grand Forks mans a drift boat during a recent steelhead fishing trip to the Pacific Northwest. (Photo courtesy of Rick Mercil, special to the Herald)

FORKS, Wash.-A few years ago, I wrote a story for the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors section about a trip to Alaska's Kodiak Island, where I was in search of the elusive steelhead trout. I've continue my quest for this fish by traveling to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, the most western edge of the continental United States.

I make this trip the week of Good Friday each year. This is the time of year when the steelhead migration is in full swing. After years of being in salt water, the fish venture back to their birthplace to spawn. Washington's Pacific Coast is one of the few places in the world where this occurs.

The Olympic Peninsula lies across Puget Sound from Seattle. It is home to a temperate rain forest. The landscape is breathtaking in many ways. The Olympic Mountains range cuts through the center of the peninsula and is home to Mount Olympus. The western edge of the 3,600-square-mile land mass is home of the Hoh, Queets and Quinault rainforests, which are named after river systems of the same name.

Go with the flow

Fishing on these rivers is dictated by flows-the amount of water in the river flowing into the Pacific Ocean-and anglers monitor these flows daily to determine which rivers provide the best steelhead opportunities.

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These flows determine the success or failure of catching steelhead, as the fish will enter from the sea only when water temperature and flow rates are perfect.

I like to think this type of fishing is more a science than a sport. Glacial discharge at the top of the river, as well as the constant daily rain, all play a factor in the success for steelhead on their reproductive journey as they move upriver.

This year's flows steered me toward concentrating most of my week fishing the Hoh River. From top to bottom, this would allow me about 50 miles of river to float and in some cases walk and wade.

My fishing buddy, Riley, is a Seattle wildlife biologist, and he has fished this area for many years. Having him as an informal guide was a godsend. The two of us have fished several rivers together, and each time, I learn something new.

Spending a week together in the rain, cold and gray climate of the rainforest tests not only your skills, but also your friendship. It is cold, wet, and you are tired. Every day, you have wake up at 4:30 a.m. and be on the water at 5:30 a.m. We fish all day in tough conditions.

Lunch is typically a soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and you convince yourself that this is a slice of heaven.

It is not uncommon to fish for days without even a nibble on the end of your fly.

Gearing up

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Our equipment consisted of our boat, a couple of 14-foot two-handed fly rods and several boxes of tied flies. We would fish these steelhead using a style of fly fishing called spey fishing. The casts have names such as "Double Spey," "Snap- C" and "Perry Poke."

The river was flowing fast, and we used weighted sink tips to get the fly down to where the fish were holding. To cast, we'd swing the flies upriver, allowing the tip to sink into position and then swing across the river downstream.

We make thousands of casts, much like in muskie fishing.

Swinging a 14-foot rod and placing the fly in the desired location is no easy task. The fish definitely have the advantage.

To further diminish our chances, steelhead are not feeding when they are on this reproductive journey upriver. Their focus is only on one thing: moving toward their birthplace to spawn. Fishing these beautiful, seagoing freshwater fish with a fly is considered the ultimate artistic choice.

As with all outdoor adventures, our enthusiasm started on a high note, but after a few days of gear still wet from the day before, I began talking to myself, wondering if golf might not have been a better choice for a recreational activity.

Then came the tug.

In that instant, my heart immediately increased, and my shivers turned into the sweats. The one thing I knew is I didn't want to miss the hook set.

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The fish takes the fly and the fight begins.

Single goal

I'd pinched the barb on my fly so the fish had all the advantage. This was, after all, catch-and-release fishing. My only goal was to have a brief opportunity to cross paths with this beautiful creation, share a moment and let the fish go on its journey to live another day.

I had traveled halfway across the country for this one moment.

As the fish took line, I leveraged my 14-foot rod to slow the muscular beast down. The wild fish breached the surface several times trying to shake the hook. My fishing buddy, Riley, was yelling at me to keep the line tight, rod tip down, then up, then right or left.

I fought the steelhead for 20 or 30 minutes and finally, the odds started to shift in my favor.

The chances of netting the fish were getting better every minute, but I had been in this situation before and couldn't mention-or even think-words such as "camera," the ultimate jinx in fishing.

As all of us who fish know, there are no guarantees.

In the end, the fish and I had an exchange, and our paths crossed for this moment in our lives.

A spiritual calm came over me as I gently grasped the fish, which weighed about 20 pounds, and positioned it upstream to allow oxygen to fill its gills. Riley took a quick photo, and I hesitantly released the catch.

I felt the constant drizzle on my face and smelled the sweetness of the moss on the trees. I could hear the quietness of the flowing river.

It was the week of Good Friday; I paused, gave thanks and took that moment to smile. I appreciated the glorious picture of the mountains, the river and all of my surroundings.

Mission accomplished; it was time to go home.

Mercil is a Grand Forks retirement counselor, avid fisherman and small plane pilot.

Related Topics: FISHING
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