SEATTLE — It was two months too early for Mother Nature to be playing an April Fools joke, but Eli Rico was still a little suspicious about what he was witnessing.
A full-time guide who routinely fishes the tumbling, steelhead-rich boulder gardens of western Washington's Olympic Peninsula — regarded by many as a metalhead mecca in the Lower 48 — Rico has caught his share of slab-sided winter runs.
But after setting the hook and handing the rod off to a client in early February on the Skykomish River near Seattle, Rico did a double take when he got his first look at the specimen on the other end of the line: a massive, wild buck that would eventually stretch the measuring tape to 41¾ inches and an incredible 23¾ inches in girth.
Washington regulations strictly limit the handling of wild steelhead, so Rico's fish was never officially weighed. But three time-tested formulas for estimating steelhead weights put Rico's hawg between 29.4 and 31.32 pounds.
That bruiser, the first 30-plus-pound winter steelhead taken on the Skykomish in well over a decade, kicked off a month of some of the biggest winter runs in recent history in the Evergreen State, including:
A 44-by-24½-inch (33.0 to 35.2 pounds) hatchery fish — an almost unheard-of extreme for a hatchery steelhead — caught within a day of Rico's, on the Olympic Peninsula's Quinault River.
A bookend pair of 35- and 36-pounders, hooked and released within three days of each other in early March on the Skagit River system north of Seattle.
A 32-pounder that one longtime Olympic Peninsula guide referred to as an "alligator."
A trio of 30-plus-pound fish (including one 38-pounder) caught in tribal nets on three separate Peninsula systems.
In addition, dozens of 20- to 25-pounders have come to the bank this year on multiple rivers west of the Cascades. From the Kalama River in southwest Washington to the Green River, which flows right through suburban Seattle, to the tiny Nooksack River near the Canadian border, 2005 appears to be the year of big steel.
"My clients had already caught eight 20-pound fish by the middle of March, which is way, way more than I'll see in a typical season," said John Koenig at John's Guide Service, who helped land one of the Skagit's 35-pounders, an enormous 42½-by-25½-incher. "It's been a damn good year for big fish."
Thin water, thick steelhead
As western Washington suffered through one of the driest springs in recent memory, Rico and the rest of the state's trophy steelhead hunters were forced to stretch their imaginations and gear around summer-clear, ultra-low rivers during the March and April late-season fisheries.
But those driftboat-bottom-scraping, god-awful challenging late-winter conditions notwithstanding, the big fish continued to come.
"I had the best winter run for native on the Skykomish I've ever had," says Rico. "On my 20 trips out there, we maybe had two days where we didn't get natives, most of those 15- to 18-pound fish. This was by far the best year for potential 20-pound fish in this area in several years."
"My theory is that steelhead are going to come, no matter what the conditions," said Bob Kratzer, who operates Anglers Guide Service and fishes the Peninsula's big four — the Hoh, Sol Duc, Queets and Bogachiel rivers — in April.
"Yeah, the fishing is tough as hell, but April is still the best time to get the biggest fish of the year. Those fish will be here. They'll just be hard to catch."
There is, of course, scientific opinion about the area's big fish surge. It's no accident that the year class of 2005 holds perhaps the biggest steelhead to hit Washington waters in several decades.
"Whenever you judge the success of a fishery, you have to go back to the parent year," said Tom Nelson, who owns Skagit River Outfitters and holds a fisheries biology degree from the University of Washington.
"A steelhead in the 30-pound bracket is going to be 5 or 6 years old, which puts us back to the parent year 2000," Nelson said.
"In 2001, we had epic fish returns, which was indicative of good ocean conditions. Those juvenile steelhead that make up this year's class were already out in the ocean, so they were able to feed and grow quickly during the first year of their lives.
"The whole program when you're a juvenile is to get as big as you can as fast as you can, so you can't fit in other fish's mouths. We also had excellent river conditions that year, so these fish experienced increased survival and advanced growth, and we're seeing it now."
The fact that Rico's big fish, the pair of 35-pound Skagit monsters and the great majority of the sport-caught 20-plus-pounders were quickly photographed and released to remain in the active gene pool also will be a contributing factor in future fisheries.
"We're reaping the benefits of catch and release," Nelson said. "It's allowing us an all-around better survival on these big natives, which is crucial to the continuation of the gene pool."
And regardless of how the season's final days play out, the winter run of 2005 will go down in western Washington steelhead mythology as the best in recent memory.
"The big ones must have eaten all the little ones, because the big boys were all we ended up with," Nelson joked.
"We lacked some components of the hatchery runs, but what we lacked in quantity, we more than made up for in quality. I firmly believe that steelhead run in cycles, and I doubt we'll see a similar peak of 30-plus-pounders for several years."
For more Washington steelheading information, contact John's Guide Service at 360-853-9801, Hot Shot Guide Service at 425-417-0394 and Anglers Guide Service 800-577-8781.
Joel Shangle co-hosts "Northwest Wild Country Outdoor Radio" in Seattle. The show can be heard live nationwide from 6 to 8 a.m. Pacific every Saturday on kjram.com.