Hoh River, Washington

My fingers grew numb while holding the fish in the icy water, and with its strength fully recovered, the native steelhead shot from my grasp, disappearing back into the depths of the silty river. I sat in the rocks for awhile and just watched the water, content.

Author Steve Probasco and Native Steelhead

It's easy to just sit and watch a river, and the Hoh is my favorite river to just sit and watch. I watch the water flow by and imagine its meandering journey from its beginnings, deep within the Olympic Mountains.

The Hoh River is born on the flanks of Mr. Olympus, the Olympic Peninsula's highest peak and the heart of the Olympic National Park [Washington]. There is a certain security with a river whose source is in a protected area, such as a national park. The giant untouched trees within the park's boundaries, some of the largest in the world, are protected from the devastating clearcuts just outside that invisible line. It's nice to know that at least the headwaters of such a beautiful river are protected from the ravages of man.

Mt. Tom and the Hoh as seen from the
Hoe River Trail

The Hoh River is made up of three main branches. The North Fork, which is fed by Mt. Tom Glacier, Tom and Clacier creeks, (Tom Creek is often called the "Middle Fork" of the Hoh) and the South fork, fed by Humes Glacier. The river is also joined by several smaller streams as it travels its 50 or so miles to the Pacific Ocean. For much of its journey the river flows through the Hoh Rain Forest, one of the few temperate rain forests in the world.

To see the upper reaches of the rain forest you must walk there. From the end of the Upper Hoh Road, near the Rain Forest Visitors Center, an often traveled and maintained trail follows the river valley all the way to the flanks of Olympus, some 18 miles distant. To say the scenery along the way is spectacular is an understatement.

Upper Hoh River along the Hoh River Trail,
 15 miles in

From the park boundary down to the mouth there are several access points for anglers, both drifters and bank fishermen. This is a very popular river and when it's in shape anglers seem to come out of the woodwork to fish its bountiful waters. The target species are mostly steelhead and salmon, which return in respectable numbers, all things considered.

Just before emptying into the sea, the river travels through the Hoh Indian Reservation, a small parcel of land near the mouth. Long before the coming of the white man, natives relied heavily on the Hoh's generous bounty for survival.

Upper Hoh inside the park is littered with log jams

If this river could talk, what tales the Hoh would have about its journey from start to finish. Over the past two years I have spent a good deal of time on, in, and around the Hoh. I have walked the distance to Mt. Olympus and have floated every inch of navigable water, from inside the National Park boundary to the mouth. I have seen the many faces of the Hoh, from its gentle summer flow to the tempestuous torrents of winter floods.

Typical local yarn fly Each time I return to the river and wade out into a familiar run, content overcomes my being. And when it's time to leave there is a tug, a force tying to keep me there. The Hoh River means many things to many people. For me, a prettier river would be hard to find, and the thought of a wild Hoh steelhead jumping with my fly in its mouth sends shivers up my spine.

Hoh Rain Forest

Hoh Rain Forest
There is something mystical, almost enchanting, about walking around in a rain forest. You expect to see a hobbit scurry behind a fern, or an elf tucking behind a tree. Standing in the rain forest you feel very small. Humongous trees tower all around and the surreal canopy of green mosses casts a glow on everything. An aqua ribbon of water, the Hoh, winds down from Mt. Olympus through the Hoh Rain Forest, one of three major rain forests on the Olympic Peninsula.

Temperate rain forests look like a tropical jungle. The difference, obviously, is the temperature. They are no less intriguing through, with an intricate biological interwoven ecosystem.

Sitka spruce, western hemlock, Douglas fir and western red cedar all grow to incredible dimensions in the rain forest. Bigleaf and vine maple are abundant, as are licorice fern, maindenhair fern, trillium, oxalis, sword fern, blackberries and huckleberries.

The sitka spruce is unique to the temperate rain forests. They thrive only in wet, foggy conditions along the coast. The needles on the sitka spruce cannot regulate the amount of water loss through them, so the coastal fog is integral to their survival.

You are virtually surrounded by life in the rain forest. Every square inch of ground is covered, and plants and animals live on top of each other. There is very keen competition for space.

All this is possible because of the mild climate and deluge of moisture which averages about twelve feet each year. In addition, conifer needles condense extra moisture from the air, adding as much as thirty additional inches of water annually.

Besides the prolific tree and plant life of the rain forest, a variety of wildlife also thrives. While in the Hoh Rain Forest it is possible to view deer, black bear, eagles, cougar, bobcat, otter and a host of smaller animals and birds if you happen to be in the right spot at the right time.

But, of all the animals found in the rain forest, it is the Roosevelt elk that is viewed most often by visitors, mostly from a distance as they are very spooky by nature. This is the largest subspecies of elk in North America. Some herds of Roosevelt elks stay in the rain forest valleys year-round, while others migrate to the high country.

Although it creates a soggy miserable affair for the unprepared traveler, the abundant rain of the rain forest creates a biologic profusion of life. The rain forests of the Olympics are the greatest remaining true wilderness forest in the contiguous United States.

Olympic Peninsula & National Park

It wasn't until 1885 that the interior of the Olympic Peninsula was explored by Lt. Joseph P. O'Neil, who led the first documented expedition. In 1889-90 an expedition led by James Cristie made a north-south crossing of the peninsula which took five and one-half months. In 1890 Lt. O'Neil also returned and made an east-west crossing.

In 1897 President Grover Cleveland created the Olympic Forest Reserve to prevent the forests of the peninsula from destruction due to poor logging practices. What an insightful man for the time. In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed a portion of that area a national monument. Then in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill establishing Olympic National Park.

Dolly Varden from the Upper Hoh River

Olympic Nation Park is unlike any other national park in the country. There is no other park with such a diverse ecosystem. The area contained within the park varies from rugged seacoast to rain forest to sub-alpine and alpine regions. One cannot drive through Olympic National Park. A few roads lead in a ways, but all travel must be done on the myriad of trails and rivers the park system offers.

As a general rule, every 500 feet you gain in elevation is similar to traveling 100 miles north. Walking up the Hoh Valley and climbing Mt. Olympus at 7,965 feet would be about the same as driving from Washington state to the Arctic.

Although the Olympics are not particularly tall mountains for the most part, they start at sea level, giving the appearance of much taller peaks. Treeline is lower in the Olympics than in the Cascades because of the heavy snowfall, especially on the western slopes. Mt. Olympus, the highest Olympic peak, receives over 200 inches of precipitation each year, most of which falls as snow.

The eastern slopes of the Olympics are much drier, the western slopes and peaks acting as a sponge to the moisture-rich air masses that move in from the Pacific Ocean. In contrast to the 200 inches of precipitation Mt. Olympus gets, less than thirty miles away the town of Sequim on the northeast corner of the peninsula gets only seventeen inches of annual precipitation, as it lays in the rain shadow of the mountains.

Rivers drain all sides of the Olympics, but it is the western flowing rivers that host the largest anadromous fish returns. And it is the Hoh River that gets most of my attentions.

Park Boundary to Highway 101

Hoh Native Steelhead
Steelhead enter the Hoh River every month of the year. There are enough fish scattered around the entire length of the river most of the time that you can have successful fishing or at least fish water containing steelhead, no matter which drift you choose to take. Of course, after long periods with no rain and just after a freshet, new fish will be heading upstream, and lower on the river fishing might be better. However, most of the time there is ample water flowing to keep the fish moving throughout the system.

Floating is, without question, the best way to cover the water. There are three established boat ramps on the Upper Hoh; the first, a half-mile inside the park, the next ramp downstream is at Morgan's Crossing, and the last ramp on the Upper Hoh is at the Oxbow Campground. There are a few other spots along the Upper Hoh Road where the river butts right up against the highway and some floaters winch their drift boats in or out at these points.

Brightly colored steelhead flies Even though floating is the best way to cover the water, there are several places along the Upper Hoh where the bank and wading angler have access to some prime steelhead runs. As of this writing [1999] there are good runs by all the boat ramps, but this changes constantly with the everchanging currents and channels. At several points you can park along the Upper Hoh Road and gain access. There are also a few gravel/mud roads that leave the highway which take you to the river's edge, giving access to a fair amount of water.

For the most part, walking the bank and wading is pretty easy. Most of the time you can simply walk the rocks along the edge of the river, as the area is relatively flat. There is generally enough room for backcasts since most of the good runs can be accessed from gravel bars.

Entrance Station Boat Ramp to Morgan's Crossing

The six-mile float down from the entrance gate launch to Morgan's Crossing has become my favorite drift. At least half of my trips to the Hoh are spent on this water.

Egg patterns for steelhead

There are four or five excellent stretches of classic steelhead fly water that you can easily spend the whole day working during the course of this drift. These straight stretches of prime holding water taper out gradually from rock bars and are of gentle flow. The river bottom is covered with rocks of varying size, making stretches ideal for the standard down-and-across approach with either floating or sinking lines.

There is only one stretch of water in the float from the park to Morgan's that I would consider challenging to the drifter. That piece of water is a couple miles above Morgan's Crossing, just above Coons Bar, and is known as the "Upper Hoh Canyon." There is a bit of maneuvering that's needed to work around some of the boulders here. Those with intermediate rowing skills should have no problem, but it's always a good idea to get out and scout before your first trip through.

One always needs to be cognizant of the fact that these rivers of the Olympic Peninsula undergo constant change. With every flood, channels change, log jams move, and new hazards are born. As I write this, I can only warn of what the river is like now. As you read this, things could be completely different. My suggestion is, before starting a float, talk with other drifters and ask about river conditions. That's what I do.

Morgan's Crossing to Hoh Oxbow Campground

There is no difference in the water or the surroundings in this float from Morgan's down to the Oxbow. Possibly the water is a bit slower, with fewer side channels. There are several of those "classic" steelhead drifts though and we pull our boat over at the very first one.

Tim Mondale tailing a steelhead from the Upper Hoh As with the float from the boat ramp just inside the park down to Morgan's Crossing, you should allow the better part of a day here to do this seven-mile drift. You could float straight through in just a couple hours, but to get out and cover the water thoroughly you really need the day.

About the only technical difficulties the floater will have on this stretch of river is the area around the oxbow. There is some maneuvering to be done to avoid boulders and for lining up with a couple of chutes. If in doubt, get out and scout before committing yourself. Also, be aware of the ever-changing log jams and river channels. You just can't predict what the Hoh will do.

Guide Herb Jacobsen and client on Upper Hoh

There are a couple of bends in the river that make contact with the Upper Hoh Road in this section and offer bank access to the wading anglers. One of the best access points is through Willoughby Creek Campground, at river mile 20, three and one-half miles in from Highway 101.

For those boatless anglers staying in the Oxbow Campground, bank fishing the area around the oxbow can be a productive way to spend an entire day. You can either drive or walk into the oxbow and have at your disposal a large selection of bank-accessible water.

Highway 101 to the Mouth of the Hoh

The stretch of river right in front of the launch, continuing downstream for a quarter-mile is prime holding water for both salmon and steelhead. Most boats row upstream once launched so they can cover the entire run.

Lost it! The Lower Hoh River is favored by many fishermen. Obviously, it gets fresh fish in from the ocean before the upper river. That fact alone, attracts many anglers. Also, the Lower Hoh is a little wider and a bit more gentle than the upper river - again, favorable with many anglers.

There are two main launch and takeout points along the Lower Hoh past the Oxbow launch. The first is at Cottonwood Camp, about three miles below the Oxbow Campground, and accessed by the Oil City road. This camp offers a large section of river bar serving as a launch. This campground and river bar will accommodate several campers.

The second access point is at Nolan Creek Bar, a couple miles further downstream, but accessed from Highway 101. Nolan Creek Bar is a large, boulder-strewn area where most of those floating the Lower Hoh make their exit. It is also a great area for the wading fisherman, with good bank access to about a half-mile of great holding water.

South Fork of the Hoh

For those who value solitude in their fishing, the South Fork of the Hoh is one of those steelhead streams that can offer just that - solitude. Joining the main stem of the Hoh River just outside the National Park boundary, the South Fork works its way into a small stream in just a few miles as it grows nearer its source.

This is the ideal small steelhead streams for the adventurous. To fish it, you must walk and wade. It is too small for boats, and there is no access anyway. But there is a good trail that follows the river and those willing to walk and fish are in for a real treat.


Colorful marabou steelhead patterns
My personal experiences on the Hoh have given me my personal favorites and I will share them with you here. [For the FLIES for the Hoh River, click here.] But I can't emphasize enough that these are just my favorites, and your personal favorites will probably work just as well for you.

Since the Hoh is a glacial river and silted most of the year, I tend to favor bright, flashy flies. Some of the new tying materials much as Holographic Flash, SLF and Lite Brite, as well as old standards like marabou and Mylar, are the materials I favor in my flies.

Sunset over the Pacific just to the north of the Hoh

I would never say that catching steelhead on flies is an easy thing to do. And I would never say that a large glacial river such as the Hoh is the best river to attempt doing it. But if you put in the time on any water it will eventually pay off. Certain times are better than others, though, as concentrations of fish return in a somewhat reliable fashion during the different seasons. ~ Steve Probasco

Hoh River For a MAP of the Hoh River, click here.
For the FLIES for the Hoh River click here.
To ORDER Hoh River direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From the Hoh River, part of the Steelhead River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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