PAT NEAL: Steelhead fishing in the good old days

WINTER MUST BE my favorite time of year.

There are no bugs.

The air is clear and that’s when we fish for the winter steelhead.

January was called “the month the steelhead spawn” by the Quileute.

Steelhead were harvested in weirs placed across a stream where fish could be speared.

Since the steelhead is a trout, it does not die after spawning like the salmon but returns downstream to the ocean.

They can return to the river several times to spawn before they die.

In the old days, spawned-out steelhead were a valuable food source. Since their flesh contained little fat it would not spoil when dried so it could be stored for a long time once it was smoked.

The first historic reference to a steelhead came from the Corps of Discovery on Aug. 22, 1805, when Captain Meriwether Lewis had the men make a brush drag in the Lemhi River in Idaho.

Brush drags were an old-time method of catching a lot of fish quick by dragging tree tops down a stream, it would drive the fish into the shallows or a weir, net or even a gunny sack where they would be caught.

That particular effort caught 528 fish, among them 10 or a dozen of a large and well-flavored species of trout that were silver with blue backs.

We figure those were probably steelhead.

On March 16, 1806, Lewis and colleague William Clark bought another what they called a “salmon trout” from one of the Indians they traded with.

One member of the expedition named Goodrich was “remarkably fond of fishing.”

He caught a steelhead with a spear, Lewis fried it bear grease that “furnished a dish of very delightful flavor.”

Steelhead were always an important food fish since they ran in the winter months when there were no salmon in the river.

Lewis said that the salmon trout could not be caught on a hook and this may have been very true.

No doubt there are many modern-day anglers who, after spending weeks in the unsuccessful attempt to hook a steelhead on a hook, would have to agree with Lewis.

Elsa Schmidt, called Ahablip by her Indian neighbors, grew up on the upper Hoh River.

She once told me they never bothered steelhead fishing with hooks on the homestead.

Hooks were expensive and hard to get back then.

The line you tied to a hook was probably cat gut that would break off when you hooked a big one.

Elsa said they used pitchforks for all their steelhead fishing.

Although pitchforks are not specifically mentioned in the latest Washington State fishing regulations, we’ll assume that’s illegal now.

Another pioneer method of steelhead fishing was best described by Chris Morgenroth in his autobiography, “Footprints in the Olympics.”

Morgenroth homesteaded the upper Bogachiel River in the mid-1890s.

He wrote that “no stream in the Olympics can compare with it for fishing.”

On any given day, I would have to agree.

Morgenroth’s favorite method of steelhead fishing was to ride his horse out in the middle of the river, cast downstream and hang on.

He claimed that one big advantage to fishing from horseback was that he could fasten the line to the saddle horn to play the fish.

Having tried this method myself with disastrous results, I can only guess that training a horse to play a steelhead in fast water would require a special breed no longer available in the modern age.

I prefer to use a boat to fish steelhead.

Now, if I could just find some bear grease.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwild [email protected]

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