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IN WASHINGTON: The Quinault River
Roderick Haig-Brown
April 07, 1958
A river that rises in the high Olympics, accessible but unspoiled, yields a rich harvest of steelhead, cutthroat and salmon to the accomplished fly-fisherman
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April 07, 1958

In Washington: The Quinault River

A river that rises in the high Olympics, accessible but unspoiled, yields a rich harvest of steelhead, cutthroat and salmon to the accomplished fly-fisherman

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My wife calls the Quinault "that dark river." But she thinks of it as it is in November, with rain and mist rolling in from the Pacific Ocean, the heavy woods dripping, the current of the lower reaches creased with leaden lights and splashed with rain. In the late fall my wife and I used to run upriver with Herbert Kapulman from Taholah to visit a gill net at the site inherited by his wife, in the difficult eddy under a dark claybank. As he pulled in lead line and cork line, shaking out leaves and drift, mending where necessary, picking out the big bright silver salmon and occasional early-running steelhead, Herbert would talk freely and well to us about his river and its promise of some kind of fish nearly every month of the year. "You should come fish," Herbert would urge me. "We have a pretty good river here."

The Quinault River rises on the slopes of the high Olympics, flows westward through Lake Quinault and empties into the Pacific Ocean at the Indian village of Taholah, behind Cape Elizabeth. The upper river is made up of the North and East Forks, which join above the lake. The lower river flows 35 miles from Lake Quinault to the ocean, through the Quinault Indian Reserve. U.S. Highway 101 crosses the river near the lake's outlet, and from there to Taholah no public road goes near the river. Puget Sound and the roadless Olympic Mountains stand directly between Seattle and the Quinault. The Quinault is accessible, yet remote, and so it is one of the least-known and least-spoiled streams in the United States.

The fisherman has two approaches to the lower Quinault: to work up from Taholah at the mouth or work from Lake Quinault downriver. Working from Taholah has one advantage: the ocean beaches are right at hand; for an interval away from fishing, the beaches are an exciting pleasure. There are times in early spring and fall when working out of Taholah in the lower and middle reaches of the river may be the better plan.

Generally speaking, however, working from Lake Quinault down is probably the better choice, because the first 12 or 14 miles downriver from the lake hold more broken and varied waters. The lower river is entirely bound by the Quinault Indian Reserve, and no one may fish it without an Indian guide. Since there is no way to get to the good water without a canoe, this point is as much a necessity as a law. In any case, the guides, their canoes and the reserve itself are a good part of the pleasure of fishing the Quinault. The Quinault Indians have always been fine canoemen. Like the Nootkas of the west coast of Vancouver Island, they were whale and sea-otter and fur-seal hunters who took their ocean canoes 20 or 30 miles offshore into the Pacific swells.


The Quinault guides are very casually organized and are very independent characters. According to local resort owners, some are unreliable and likely to turn up late or not at all for an engagement, though I have had no experience that would confirm this. Judged by the highest standards, they are canoemen rather than fishing guides; but they are fine canoemen and have had a wonderful record of safety over many years.

What does a trout fisherman look for on the Quinault River? Primarily cutthroat trout, running up from the sea or dropping back from the lake, for there are few, if any, resident trout over the legal limit of 10 inches. After those, perhaps a summer steelhead. From August on, possibly jack salmon (small Chinooks or silvers) or black salmon (large Chinooks). And after the first fall rains bring the river up, silvers, early-running winter steelhead and harvest cutthroats. The trout season is open from May 19 to November 15, and the best month is July, when cutthroats are abundant and the river is in good shape. I suspect that the fall fishing after the first rains may be just as good if not better, especially if the silver salmon are taking freely. But few people fish at that time.

When I set out to fish the Quinault toward the middle of September last year, I had an open mind. I was hoping for the usual fall variety of a Pacific Northwest migratory stream—some big cutthroats, a few jack salmon, perhaps a steelhead or two or an early silver; perhaps, beyond these, something quite new and strange. But I admit I wasn't too much concerned. I have loved rivers and canoes from childhood. I admire and enjoy the Northwest Indian people. I chose to try the more varied waters close to the lake. Accordingly, I looked up Jonah Cole, the 67-year-old dean of the guides who operate from Amanda Park on the lake. I found Jonah working on a new canoe, still shaping the outside with an ax, though it was almost ready for hand adz and plane.

"The river is very low," he said. "Lowest I've ever seen it."

"Too low for fish?"

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