Trout and 'Shrooms in Washington's Olympics

Wild Harvest in the Elwha River Valley
By E. David Thielk
  |  Gorp.com
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Getting There

The Elwha River trailhead is located about 12 miles from Port Angeles, Washington in the Olympic National Park. To get there, drive about seven miles west on Highway 101. Turn left on the Olympic Hot Springs Road and this once-upon-a-time salmon river comes into view. Before 1913, the year the Elwha Dam began operation, impressive runs of coho, pink, sockeye and chum salmon, and cutthroat, char and Dolly Varden trout all earned at least part of their living in the Elwha watershed. Today, the upper river supports only resident rainbow trout and Dolly Varden for the angler willing to limit their gear to a single barbless hook and no bait. Some say that the rainbow trout are descendents of steelhead that were imprisoned by the dam. Whatever their genetic ancestry, however, 14-inch fish are common, and fish up to 18 inches are taken by some.

Follow the road past the park entrance. A quick stop at the Backcountry Information Center for the latest details on bear and cougar warnings, campsite closures and trail conditions is worth the short delay. When planning an overnight trip, obtain a backcountry permit here. Just beyond the information center is the junction with Whiskey Bend Road. Five miles of narrow, steep twists and turns lead you far above the river. Driving slowly is a necessity, but has its rewards. The sights, smells and sounds as you progress up the incline prepare you for the hike. The driver who can keep one eye on the road and one on the forest may find an occasional cluster of oyster mushrooms growing from the trunks of old alder lying in or near a streambed. One year I found a giant sulfur shelf fungus, sometimes called chicken-of-the-woods, protruding from a dead tree along this drive. When the road ends, abandon your vehicle, gather your tools, and put your foot to the Earth.

The trail begins over relatively flat terrain, starting high above Rica Canyon. As you progress, traces of burns, large stands of old-growth, early homestead cabins, and picturesque riverside campsites can be found, along with grouse, quail, jays, and if you are lucky, bears and cougars. A common destination for day hikers is the Humes Ranch, an old homestead site located 2.3 miles from the trailhead. A cabin still remains there.

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Warm breezes rise from the canyon below and gently rock the footbridgeunder my feet. Although it is mid-September and the smell of decayingleaves is in the air, T-shirts and shorts are comfortable attire and I amreminded that summer is only reluctantly giving in to fall in the OlympicMountains of Washington State.

Upstream, the Elwha River tosses, turnsand gushes, angry at being confined to the narrow canyon channel.Carpets of moss, sword ferns and salal line the forest floors.Downstream, ancient Douglas-fir and Western red cedar trees lie likefallen soldiers on the bank. Scattered boulders and small islandsdisturb the river's flow while spreading its channel wide.

I have come to this valley for two reasons: to fish for rainbows in the river below and to hunt chanterelles and other species of fungus in the forests above me. Armed with knife and basket, and rod and reel, I relish this fall ritual, and on most occasions, enjoy some gastronomic rewards aswell.

Inherent in the pursuit of trout from mountain rivers, and mushrooms fromforest floors is a gentle but deep satisfaction in the hunt itself. TheElwha river valley provides a perfect backdrop for the experience. Lyingonly a score of miles east of the Peninsula's rainforests, where annualrainfall can exceed 200 inches, the valley is partially protected fromthe deluge by the mountains themselves. By September the river has begunto relax and the cool nights and occasional rainfall dampen the forestfloor. The result is a comfortable outdoor environment and idealconditions for fishing and hunting mushrooms.

Trout Fishing

The fall is the best time to fish the Elwha for several reasons. Theriver has settled and holes and pockets can be fished easily with wet ordry flies. By mid-September, the water is translucent, and free of theglacial silt that limits visibility throughout the spring and summer.This year, the color is excellent, although a wet winter, spring andsummer has left the river with greater flows than usual. Still, thereare many fishable spots, and fat, 11-to- 14-inch trout are being takenroutinely.

The trail to Humes Ranch, is an easy 45-minute walk. If you wantopportunities to fish along the way and don't mind a slightly longerwalk, take the marked trail down to Rica Canyon about half-mile from thetrailhead. Descend through the burn using the switchbacks until youreach the river. This lower, parallel trail leads between Rica Canyonand the old Humes homestead. There are numerous locations to fish and camp onthis lower trail. However, the fishing pressure is great here, due toits proximity to the trailhead, and most who know the river well fish ator above Humes Ranch.

Adjacent to the Humes homestead is an island with a massive logjamon the upstream bank. An ideal place to fish is on the far bank of theisland. To get there, carefully maneuver yourself over the logjam, walkto the far bank and then back downstream.

On this warm September day, while the small alders across the river waved gently to me, I watched a mid-day mayfly hatch near the bank. Others who have fished this spot tell me that this mid-day hatch is common, although most reserve the dry fly (try an Irresistible pattern) for late afternoon and evening. Golden stoneflies are also common and this year the Yellow Stimulator is a hot pattern - both fly shops I stopped at had sold out of these flies. Stonefly nymph imitators (try a Goldbead Hare's Ear) are used with success, especially earlier in the day. The Elk-hair Caddis and salmonfly nymph imitators are also effective.

There is plenty of water here to be fished. In the half-mile between theisland at Humes Ranch and upstream to the Dodger Point Bridge, the riveris wide, and the banks are free of brush. You can cross the river (nosmall adventure this year because of the high water) and fish theopposite bank down to the island with success.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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