On the Water with John McMillan

It is early January when I board the ferry crossing the Puget Sound. I’m on my way West to the coast, to the hallowed rivers of the Olympic Peninsula, to catch up with John McMillan and swing a couple runs. The trip is a welcome escape from Seattle’s traffic and high-rise construction projects towering over homeless encampments. Of course it is raining. On my phone I scroll past reports of skyrocketing house prices to look for updated flow data. As always, I’m apprehensive about how the rain will affect those volatile river systems. I’d been out in December on a well-known hatchery flow and the river had risen a couple feet, transforming from low and clear to turbid, while my friends and I fished. We drove home ahead of schedule that trip. This time I’m hoping the rivers stay in shape and a few wild winter steelhead are moving upstream.

The summer tourists are long gone this time of year, but I’m part of the wave of fisherman and guides that mob the peninsula each winter. I understand that it used to be a lonely, isolated place to fish. But now we come from all over, lured by photos of huge, chrome fish and the descriptions of pristine rivers on fly shop blogs, outfitter’s pamphlets and magazine articles. Locals head to the coast when the Puget Sound rivers close at the end of January to protect the few remaining fish among collapsed populations. Other fishers make long drives or arrive to regional hubs on airplanes. The crowds will drag gear, pull plugs, throw spinners, drift beads under bobbers and swing flies. Some among them will catch a steelhead. Those using the most efficient methods will probably catch a number of them. Many of those individual fish will be caught multiple times. Everyone will get soaked by the endless rain.

The next morning, we survey our options. The rain the night before has charged up the rivers and the first one we look at is dark and pushing hard. We leave the paved road and are soon slogging our way down a narrow, muddy path. The truck drops into deep wheel ruts and branches scrape loudly along the roof and both sides. I’m not sure where we’re heading, but I tell John I’m glad I’m not driving. He laughs and concedes that an ATV might be a better option for accessing these particular runs, but if a guy isn’t in a boat and he wants to fish good water, he can’t worry about the paint job on his truck.

The same principle applies to counting redds, surveying habitat or snorkeling rivers to find fry, smolts and adult fish. You do what you have to do to get to the fish.

That dedication pays off. This river is flowing perfect green. The long run is choppy at the top, with most of the flow focused against the far bank, before widening into a broad tailout flowing over boulders. Anyone who has spent time on a steelhead river would recognize it as ideal structure. The air has warmed a touch and the rain has let up. We’re a few miles below a landing and it is unlikely that anyone else has been here yet today. It feels great to be on the river.

John encourages me to make the first pass. As I put my rod together, he points out buckets and slots where he finds fish at these flows. It is a generous act, but I immediately realize that I was reading the water differently. The places he has pointed out were further from our bank and tied to specific boulders and channels I didn’t see at first glance. The approach I was planning would have missed them. When I admit this, he shrugs. Those are the places where he has caught them in the past and where he has seen them holding when he snorkels the river.

That statement reminds me that I’m with someone who spends hundreds of days each year on the water as both a scientist and a fisherman. As good as that run looks, and as much as I love catching fish, I recognize this as a moment to be patient and try to learn something. Maybe reconsider my habits and assumptions as they pertain to the swung fly. I decline the first pass and happily settle on the bank to watch John fish.

Besides a couple years spent in Oregon for graduate school (his research was on steelhead populations in the John Day river), John has been living, working and fishing on the Olympic Peninsula since 1997. Steelhead brought him here, but he was a steelheader long before he arrived. He grew up on the banks of the Washougal River, in Southwest Washington, the son of renowned fisherman and conservationist Bill McMillan. He caught his first steelhead on a waking muddler minnow when he was five years old. He has journals documenting details about every steelhead he has caught since he was ten years old. He has built his life around these fish.

As a biologist and fisheries research scientist, he has worked for the Forest Service, the Hoh Tribe, the Wild Salmon Center and with NOAA Fisheries on the Elwha River’s dam removal project. In 2014 he joined Trout Unlimited’s newly formed Wild Steelheaders United project as the Science Director. In that capacity, he continues to do research and publish on the diverse life histories of steelhead and how fish repopulate rivers after dams are removed. The role also represents a full step from the observational life of a scientist into the role of advocate on behalf of steelhead and their rivers.

He is a gifted communicator. I’ve seen him deliver fascinating presentations describing the diverse life histories of steelhead and often heard him discuss the problems with hatchery practices during appearances in documentaries and on podcasts. I religiously read his Science Friday updates when they are posted on Wild Steelheaders United’s social media feeds. As we discussed steelhead biology, run timing, ocean diet, and interbreeding with resident rainbows, I was astounded by the amount of information pouring out of him during our short drive to the river. Immediately overwhelmed, I admitted I could barely keep up with all of it.

He laughed. He said that as much as he loves these fish, and as much time as he has spent thinking about, pursuing and studying them, he is always finding evidence that they are even more amazing and mysterious than he thought.

John fishes aggressively. He wades a deep line and moves down the run quickly. Contrary to the trend of shorter rods and lines in recent years, he still fishes a fourteen foot two-hander and a longer shooting head. When he first moved to the OP, he fished a floating line in the winter. Now he runs a nine foot piece of moderate sink-tip and three-inch bunny leeches tied with weighted eyes and chenille heads. He favors touch-and-go casts that land with a fair amount of slack so the fly has time to fall through the water column before it comes under tension, rises and swings. Each year he gets a few fish while the fly is drifting and tumbling in the current, but the moment it snaps to tension is most often the trigger that makes an aggressive fish grab.

He mends meticulously in an effort to grease line the leech broadside down the run for as far as he can before it swims for the near bank. He targets specific slots and boulders with extra attention, referring to the dark, deep water as the “five o’clock” shadow of the run. When the fly has passed through the zone he is trying to hit, he picks it up and cast again rather than waiting for it to swing all the way around to the dangle each time. Later, in the tailout, he swings a broader arc. In heavy water, he’ll fish a more traditional down-and-across swing to slow the fly.

He makes long casts, longer that look necessary to me. When I ask him about it later, he explains that it gives him more control over the speed and angle of his swing. The intersection of scientist and angler also informs his strategy. Years of observing and filming fish has taught him not to underestimate how far sound travels underwater. He casts further in an effort to keep as much distance between the fly and the angler as possible. Steelhead are incredibly aware of their surroundings. They demonstrate signs of nervousness as wading anglers bang among the rocks. Rather than hovering in the middle of the water column, ready to move in any direction, they tuck their fins in and drop deeper in the flow, sometimes settling down among the rocks, as they grow dour. He shocks me by saying he’s seen steelhead react to the sound of anglers speaking on the river bank. I immediately regret every time I’ve banged the oars into the rocks when landing a boat at a run I want to fish.

We walk downstream and fish another gorgeous piece of water. Now I’ve become hyper aware of how often I fall into a sort of trance while moving down a run. In those modes, I cast and swing the fly automatically each time, no matter the structure. It is a methodical approach, and probably just fine on gradual sloping gravel bars where the fish are moving. But on the dramatic structure we’re fishing that morning, I know I’m guilty of getting thoughtless and robotic when I should be precise. This time as I fish, I try to think a bit more about placing my casts well and planning where I want the fly to pass near certain physical elements within the run.

Neither John or I have an interaction with a fish of any kind, but while we are stepping down the second run a guide boat arrives and catches a small hatchery fish on a plug in the tailout along the opposite bank. They take photos, cut the fish’s gills and put it in the cooler before moving on. I’m not angry about it because I like seeing hatchery fish get pulled out of the system before they can spawn and the boat was in a portion of the river we couldn’t have reached without somehow crossing. John isn’t surprised by where they got the fish. He has snorkeled that bank in the past and there is a cut on that side that can often hold fish.

I ask him how many fish he finds when he snorkels these runs. “In past years, I’ve sometimes seen these runs filled with 30 to 50 winter steelhead,” he says.

I am astounded by those numbers. I look at the river again, imagining it full of fish.

John continues, “Last year, my peak snorkel count for this run was six fish. The year before it was eight. The numbers have been really down the last 7 to 8 years.”

There is a reason novels about vampires are set in Forks, Washington. Between the thick forest and constant winter rain, it can be a dark place. It feels darkest to me whenever I’m reminded of the grim reality of steelhead populations on the Peninsula.

The Hoh River is estimated to have supported 35,000 to 50,000 returning steelhead in 1920. Since 1988 the management goal for the river is 2400 spawning fish. In the last 15 years it hasn’t even made those paltry numbers half the time. The steelhead in the Queets are understood to be about half of their numbers since the 1980s. They were already down massive amounts from historic abundance by that starting baseline. In 2016, only 733 wild fish returned to the Bogachiel River. It is the lowest count ever recorded on that river.

The OP was one of the last places where sport anglers were still allowed to kill wild steelhead. Commercial gill nets still kill substantial percentages of them today. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch

advisory program still regrettably lists most of those gill net steelhead fisheries as a “Good Alternative” to eat.

Sportsman are now legally obligated to release wild steelhead, but there are more fisherman than ever and they are really good at catching the fish that do manage to avoid the gill nets. Documented catch rates are higher than returning populations, meaning that fish are being caught multiple times during their upstream migration, spawning and return to the Pacific.

Hatcheries aren’t helping either, though I’m guilty of chasing those fish during the early season since the historic early returning wild fish are all but gone. Those facilities pump their clones into several OP rivers, ostensibly to support harvest opportunities, but the science is clear on the survival and fecundity effects these inferior fish have on wild steelhead populations.

All this is on my mind as we walk back to the truck. I ask John about his evolution from dedicated scientist and passionate angler to activist. He admits that the politics can eat you alive. He’d always been involved to some extent, and he saw the toll it took for his father to carry on against the status quo. But he knew he had to do more. “Steelhead, and these rivers, have given me so much. I’ve been fortunate. I want future generations to know and experience them the same way.”

“We need everyone to be involved,” he continues. “If you’re someone who loves steelhead, and steelhead fishing, there is no other option any more. It is going to take all of us advocating for sound science if the fish are going to have any chance at stable populations, let alone any kind of recovery. It is our job to align the best management to the best habitat and that is what we have here on the Olympic Peninsula.”

He’s right. The majority of OP rivers have never been dammed. Their headwaters are protected inside of Olympic National Park. In many ways, the remaining habitat is actively being improved by road removal, by better logging practices and culverts being removed on tributaries. All in all, it is some of the very best habitat still available anywhere in the Pacific Northwest and we need to let the fish utilize it. They are trying to, but dead fish can’t spawn and hatchery fish corrupt and dilute the process.

“Steelhead are incredibly resilient and adaptable. And we know what needs to be done to help them, because we see what works elsewhere. It is a matter of taking a step back and reducing impacts on fish when they are struggling,” John reminds me. He points to the Umpqua River in Oregon. Wild fish are allowed to thrive without hatchery inputs and unsustainable amounts of harvest. As a result, it remains one of the most stable populations anywhere along the Pacific Coast. Look to the Skagit River. Since fishing closures and the end of hatchery plants, we see steelhead populations start to cautiously tick upwards again. There is no reason to think the OP rivers wouldn’t show the same results if managed with buffers against over-harvest and an emphasis on wild fish. The habitat available on the OP is even better than what remains on the Skagit.

There have been victories along the way. The Sol Duc river was declared a Wild Steelhead Gene Bank and the steelhead hatchery there was closed. Fishing out of boats was stopped on the Upper Hoh to alleviate some pressure. Fisherman stopped killing wild steelhead even if the nets still do. The Elwha River saw the largest dam removal project in history. A partnership between Washington State, Trout Unlimited and the Wild Steelhead Coalition raised funds for a sonar project on the Hoh in an effort to get more accurate data on returning fish numbers and timing.

It all certainly helps, but more needs to be done, and it needs to be done now, because business as usual is a path to collapse.

Before it gets too late, I thank John for his time and hit the road. It starts raining again as I drive towards home. My head is spinning. I’m alternately inspired by what might be possible if a better management philosophy could be implemented and filled with dread by all that has already been, and continues to be, lost. I tell myself to spend more time working on behalf of the rivers and the fish, even if that means having less time to actually swing a fly.

As I drive over the Elwha River, I remember something John had mentioned earlier in the day. During recent research in the upper river, they’d been surprised to find wild summer steelhead adults. Any anadromous fish above the old dam sites is good news, but the summer steelhead are especially astounding. Those fish are most likely descended from the wild rainbow trout that had been cut off from the Pacific by the dams. Latent genes had been expressed and some of their offspring had smolted and gone out to the Pacific. For the first time in over a century, they were able to return to their headwaters to spawn.

That is the instinct that we must honor. That is the cycle we must protect while we still have a chance.

Puget Sound steelhead and coho, photo by John McMillan

Additional Notes:

Fortunately for those of us interested in the biology and conservation of steelhead and salmon, John McMillan has been committed to synthesizing and broadcasting the relevant science throughout his career. He routinely shares fascinating information and photography (and some great fishing observations) in his Science Friday posts on the Wild Steelheader’s United blog and on his Instagram feed. Find them at www.wildsteelheaders.org and @rainforest_steel. They are not to be missed.

Podcast fans will enjoy the two long conversations he had with April Vokey on her podcast Anchored. They can be found at www.aprilvokey.com/podcasts. If you do take the time to listen to those conversations, it is also worth searching her blog for a letter McMillan wrote afterwards expanding on and clarifying some of the points he was making about hatchery steelhead. The topic is complex and nuanced. Fishery advocates are right to get their facts correct.

He discusses the state of Olympic Peninsula fish populations, and steelhead in general, in Shane Anderson’s film “Wild Reverence: The Wild Steelhead’s Last Stand.” Bill McMillan is also in the film discussing the impacts of hatcheries in the Columbia River and Puget Sound watersheds. If you missed it, or want to re-watch it, it is available for streaming and download at North Fork Studio’s Vimeo.com page.

This article originally appeared in the 2018.2 issue of Swing the Fly magazine.