THE PAT NEAL COLUMN: Autumn on the North Olympic Peninsula

AUTUMN JUST MIGHT be the best time to experience nature on the North Olympic Peninsula.

Before the rains arrive, the low water levels in our rivers — as summer turns into fall — provide an abundant opportunity to observe many rare and colorful species of birds and animals.

Also fish, as they struggle to survive in a drought-stricken wilderness.

As the water drops, creatures of the rain forest are forced to gather closer about the shrunken remains of majestic rivers.

The fish are the first to suffer.

Baby salmon are trying to migrate out to sea.

The adult salmon are waiting out in the ocean to come up the river.

The salmon are being mercilessly decimated in the low, clear water by a myriad of predators, which must feed heavily to put on fat before the first snows of winter.

Some of these predators fish in a cooperative manner that increases their success and passes on fishing skills to a younger generation.

For example, the belted kingfisher is an almost crow-sized bird with a beak too big for its head and a head too big for its body.

The kingfisher has a call that sounds like someone shaking a can of rocks and an annoying habit of hovering in the air in a manner totally against the laws of science.

Once the kingfisher spots a fish, it dives into the water and spears it, then erupts from the surface like a feathered missile.

I don’t like watching kingfishers hover.

It inevitably means one less fish for me.

But, recently, I watched a kingfisher hover in one place for almost a minute.

This might have been some sort of record, if there is such a thing for kingfisher hovering.

Like I said, I don’t enjoy watching kingfishers, but this stupid bird just kept hanging in the air until I figured it out.

There was a family of common mergansers — these are saw-billed fish ducks — strung out in a line swimming up the river.

They were pushing fish to the kingfisher, which dropped like a rock with a big splash not 20 feet in front of the fish ducks.

The mergansers dove to catch the fish that the splash of the kingfisher had spooked back to them.

I have observed many variations of this enlightened fishing behavior among bears, herons, otters, ravens, crows and eagles, sea lions and seals.

Other predators require solitude to pursue their prey with a more individual fishing technique.

Every year, these many species of predators migrate to our Peninsula from every corner of the globe to fish in the solitude of the rain forest.

It is during periods of low water that these shy creatures are forced to converge on the lower portions of the river, where the overcrowding produces an aberrant fishing behavior that is amusing to watch.

“The twinkle-toed fly fisherman” is an ornery critter who needs a lot of room to fish because of his habit of whipping a steel-tipped length of line about his head in an attempt to fling it, the line, out into the river.

“The long-leadered flosser” is another odd species of angler.

He tries to cast a piece of fishing line through the teeth of a racing fish that may have been spooked upstream by “the hardware tossing spinner fisherman,” who is trying to hook a fish in the mouth without snagging it in the dorsal fin and being branded a “brazen snagger.”

That is a morally corrupt species who attempts to snag the fish with big hooks. They are only one evolutionary step above the common gaffer, a rare predator who gets his fish out of the river with a gaff hook.

All of these species have one thing in common.

They want to ban the other guy’s gear.

We’ve had what has seemed like record low water in our rivers this fall.

Fortunately, the rains are now returning, and the salmon are running upstream.

Many of the predators will soon disperse into the uppermost reaches of the rain-swollen watershed — where I will miss them.


Pat Neal is a North Olympic Peninsula fishing guide and humorist. His column appears every Wednesday.

Pat can be reached at 360-683-9867 or, or see his blog at

He tells tales on radio KSQM 91.5 FM at 9 a.m. Saturdays, repeated at 6 p.m. Tuesdays. The “Pat Neal Wildlife Show” can be heard on the Internet outside the Dungeness Valley at

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