The Green Mile
By Bill Herzog
Every steelheader greedily guards their favorite stretch of water. A smile inducing section that – more than anywhere – measures up to your ideals.
This guy is no different. My cold weather place is always my first choice on gas burning day. Top of the list daydream inducer. The distilled definition of my winter steelhead season in its purest form starts and ends at the Green Mile.
Between mile marker two and three lies my favorite piece of steelhead water on the Olympic Peninsula. Chances are, even if you frequent this river (and many of you do) you have not fished here.
Oh, you’ve seen it. Driven right on by. Looks like “meh” water. No one would drive three, perhaps four hours to fish mediocre holding water, right? Worst yet, there are only two runs and pools I or any other (oxymoron alert) sane steelheader would consider cast worthy. There are dozens more succulent runs on this same river that are far more pleasant to fish and hold greater numbers.
I’m one wader-clad-lad out of perhaps a half dozen who fish this mile. I think that number may be greatly exaggerated. Fact is, I look forward to fishing this stretch each week more than any other. Even when I’m fortunate to probe the finest runs on the Wet Side I still love the Green Mile best.
Why? Three big whys.
Scenery first. The forest comes alive at equinox. A thousand shades of green. Try and catalog them all. From brilliant chartreuse on gravel bar fringes to near black of old growth
Second, solitude. Sweet solitude. Nearly an impossible commodity for angling purchase in this brave new world. With blanket closures of Puget Sound rivers, it’s either go west or stay home. Blameless are the seething hordes that scurry over every inch of river bank as if someone has kicked an anthill, they have nowhere else to fish. However, maybe I and many other displaced casters will have a new Green Mile to wander about if the numbers of wild steelhead on the Skagit, Nisqually and even the Yakima continue to improve…
Yes, most of the river here is fast, too steep to hold steelhead. It’s lack of holding water that keeps the anglers away. The best “runs’ are no more than two, maybe three cast buckets. On a good year, when rains are mellow enough to keep bedrock static. Some (read: most) winters produce at least several rain events, biblical deluges featuring the roaring power to flip a productive run into a dry bed. The premium pools are often a half mile apart. Walking gravel bars with baseball to watermelon sized cobble makes that half mile seem so much longer than it really is.
Quite frankly, the third reason eclipses the first two. The steelhead. All wild, each one eagerly lashes at lures. I say one, I mean one. A single fish to the hand is a good day. Two is amazing, a dozen make an entire season a successful season from January through April. Last winter I landed three in thirteen visits.
The Green Mile features clear flows 90 percent of the time. Pair this somewhat unwanted trait with short runs, and this makes finding holding water and swinging water that overlaps for the flyrod rare. Oh yes, did I mention ramping the self handicapping meter to 11 by strictly fly fishing? Real steelhead fly fishing, done on the swing, not by using indicators and weighted glo bugs. Other than cardio benefits from the hike, this makes for a quick fish. One hour, hour and a half tops, done.
Drive eight hours to fish two. To target marginal water at best. With a fly, yet. Crazy.
To be distracted enough to halt casting a beat or two from old growth, alpine snow caps, the wildlife. Grouse drumming. Stopping to breathe deep the sublime fragrance of budding alders, my definition of real spring. Brilliant. I’m going to bottle that smell and surround myself with it 24/7/365. My absolute favorite olfactory punch. Closely followed by a freshly drilled bowling ball.
I have another name for the life and energy you absorb by spending time on a familiar section of flowing water: Hydropsyche. The healing, the mind cleanse, the priceless distractions are simply by products. The sense of knowing a heartbeat before a steelhead will take. Maybe never clued into exactly what, or who, made all this or why. Doesn’t matter which specter spectrum you paint your deity cart, you just know you need to be here.
My only fish last season angrily gripped a green-butted, dark-green marabou/deep green peacock/ black/blue-barred marabou fly I’ve named Yahweh’s Necktie, my favorite for late season native steelhead. Burst several yards into backing one deep shocked breath after the grab. And possibly best of all, this stretch is miles away from flotillas of drift boats choking off lower portions of the last winter steelhead rivers left in western Washington.
Seven pounds, black and white, clear finned male. It’s always a rare privilege to briefly hold and admire the wild silver ghost. We must never forget this when we fish. This one statement is why despite my incessant bitching about colder weather at my age I will always try for late winter native steelhead.
I fished The Green Mile alone today. For two hours. Plenty of time. One grab. I’m good for now.