Winter steelhead showing up in Olympic Peninsula rivers; wild fish to follow

By on November 21, 2014
Shane Mitts of It's Fish On guide service holds up an Olympic Peninsula steelhead. (Courtesy Shane Mitts)

The approach of Thanksgiving means that winter steelhead are starting to show up in the rivers of the Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, heralding the arrival of some of the best steelhead fishing in the Lower 48.

“Coho and kings are just about over and winter steelhead are just starting to show up,” said Shane Mitts, guide with It’s Fish On guide service on the Peninsula. “It’s a mixed bag in the rivers right now.”

Mitts guides on a set of rivers that rise in the Olympic Mountains, tumble down through some of the most pristine territory left in the U.S., and flow out to the Pacific Ocean. The rivers run through home to lush temperate rain forests supported by one of the highest annual rainfall averages in the country — upwards of 100 inches per year.

The rivers include the glacier-fed Queets and Hoh rivers, as well as the Quillayute and its tributaries, a system with a reputation as one of the best steelhead fisheries on the planet.

The steelhead entering the rivers now are hatchery fish, which Mitts says run in the 6 to 15 pound range. The hatchery run will last until around Christmas, which is about the time that the wild fish start to show up. The prized wild steelhead grow to 10 to 25 pounds, with occasional reports of fish pushing 30 pounds, including a 2009 catch on the Hoh River that made waves in fly fishing blog circles.

“We get big steelhead up here,” said Mitts, who has fished these rivers for 25 years and guided on them since 2011. “Monsters.”

Shane Mitts with a 19.14-pound winter steelhead form the Olympic Peninsula. (Courtesy Shane Mitts)

Shane Mitts with a 19.14-pound winter steelhead form the Olympic Peninsula. (Courtesy Shane Mitts)

Though the wild fish are the stars, the hatchery fish shouldn’t be overlooked.

“They’re fun to catch, too,” he said. “They’re more aggressive, but they’re not as violent as those big ones. Those big wild steelhead, they fight like king salmon.”

Mitts says he leaves his house around 3:30 in the morning to be on the water by daylight. Depending on the river, he’ll float a drift boat for about 6 to 8 miles, making for a trip that lasts up to 10 hours, unless the limit comes in sooner. Mitts prefers drifting bait such as salmon eggs, salmon roe and sand shrimp, though he’ll also turn to spinners, jigs and plugs.

The steelhead fishing follows what Mitts says had been a good year on salmon fishing on the Peninsula. The quality of the fishing tends to hinge on the area’s famous storms, which can send flows skyward and make the rivers difficult to fish. The fishing is best when the streams are dropping and clearing up, so long as another storm doesn’t come through and blow them out.

About Jeff Gillies

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