Dolly Fishing along the HohWritten: Jul 15 '00 (Updated Jul 15 '00)
|2manykids's Full Review: Olympic National Park|
I wasn't expecting fish the size of my thigh! I'd taken a few days off work and hiked up the Hoh River trail,
on the western edge of Olympic National Park. I'd brought along the obligatory lightweight trout rod, planning
to pass the time casting small spinners for pan-sized cutthroat trout.
The Hoh River is most easily reached by driving up from Aberdeen. It's surprisingly popular, considering the distance one has to drive. When you leave U.S. 101, you'll turn onto a long and level stretch of pavement that follows the lower Hoh River as it meanders from mountains to ocean. At the road terminus is the Hoh River campground and the famed Hoh River Rain Forest. "Rain Forest". Ponder that phrase for a moment. This place receives nearly 200 inches of rain each year and, if you don't like bad weather, don't come. The question isn't "will it rain?" but rather "how much?".
I camped for a night in the very spacious Hoh River Campground. Since it was late September and most of the vacationers were long gone, the place belonged to me, a handful of salmon fishermen, and a large herd of elk. The rut was starting and I could hear several bulls, off in the fog, bugling for dominance. I never saw them.
Morning found me slogging my way through the dense and soggy rain forest. My destination? The back country ranger station that lies about nine miles up the Hoh River trail. Mud, creek, old wooden bridge, nettles, mosquitoes. Mud, creek, bridge, nettles, mosquitoes. The lower Hoh gets kind of repetitive. The river, still huge and dangerous, meandered in and out of view. Finally the grade increased as the trail ascended out of the mud and began climbing ridges. Maples and cedars gave way to firs and hemlock. A few deer fed in the open parkland beneath the old growth timber. Here and there, campsites were clustered wherever the river could be easily accessed. This stretch of the Hoh is both very popular and heavily used between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Due to the low elevation and mild climate, this part of the park is snow-free in early spring and the crowds throng to it. I'd first come here at about age 4 with my parents, inveterate campers.
The trail suddenly climbs sharply as it avoids a tangle of dead, charred trees. A fire had occurred here once and the dead, standing timber can be extremely dangerous to traverse. Past the burn it resumes its steady climb, reaching the backcountry ranger station and a few nice camps at the nine-mile point. Here I shed my pack and made camp in an unused hiker's shelter that borders the ranger station.
The station itself is locked to the public. During the heavy use days of summer, a ranger lives in this small cabin, patrolling the backcountry and providing emergency services to park visitors. On the outside wall of the station is an old, hand-cranked telephone like you'd see in the 1920's: earpiece on a long cord, mouthpiece mounted on the phone cabinet. It's there for emergency use. The trail beyond this point becomes extremely steep and hazardous as it makes the approach to Mt. Olympus and the Bailey Range traverse. People do get hurt up there.
The trail shelter was still in fine shape. I shook out my sleeping bag and foam mattress, claiming one of the bunks in case any other late season travellers happened by. Lunch and a cup of coffee later, I went exploring along the nearby river.
The Hoh at this point may be waded but it remains a dangerous river. Cold water, strong currents, and unstable log jams await the incautious. I worked my way along its gravel bars, casting a small spinner in hopes of getting a few small trout for dinner. After an hour of fishing, ka-wham! Something big hit my tackle and raced into midstream. Rod bucking wildly and line peeling from the reel, I followed as quickly as I could wade the thigh-deep pool. Within a few minutes I beached a fat Dolly Varden (or perhaps a Bull Trout, the two look nearly identical). Dinner, folks, was served. And breakfast. That fish was simply too big to eat in one meal. A small, cold feeder creek served as my overnight refrigerator. Fish, butter, and eggs remained fresh in that frigid water.
The next day, after a breakfast of fried eggs and fresh fish, I resumed prospecting the river for trout. The Hoh at this point is a braided series of rapids and small pools, separated by long gravel bars and intermittently dammed with downed timber. The water runs cold and clean over the gravel, making perfect trout habitat. I'd work my way slowly along the gravel bars, casting small lures into the head of each pool and letting them drift under the edges of the logs. Within a few hours I'd beached a pair of thirty-inch Dolly Varden: green backs and silvery sides marked with iridescent pink spots. A char rather than a trout, the Dolly Varden is a jewel of a fish.
I realized that I'd have to hump a dozen pounds of fresh fish out on my back. I didn't want to kill any fish I couldn't take with me, so I quit fishing and enjoyed a patch of late-season sunlight on the gravel bars. The fish, gutted, were weighted to the bottom of my "refrigerator" creek. I hiked out the next day, a pair of towel-wrapped fish hanging on my pack. I suppose it's fortunate I never met any late season bears on the hike out.
The car was as I'd left it. Fishermen still plied the lower Hoh in their boats, and a few tourists had arrived to stroll the short rain forest trail. On the drive out I packed the fish on ice at some small gas station or other, but dinner wasn't yet complete. Near Olympia I stopped again at the Squaxin Tribal Center for a quart of their excellent, freshly shucked oysters. Oysters, fish, and I headed for home.