Posted on September 1, 2015
Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier is a 14,400 foot active volcano with one of the most spectacular views you will ever see. It’s also the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states of the U.S., which means a steady supply of melting ice that spawns six major rivers flowing cold and fast out of the park. It’s a towering landmark that stands as a sentinel overlooking the major cities of Seattle and Tacoma, an icon of the Pacific Northwest recognized by anyone familiar with the area.
Mount Rainier is the focal point of this National Park, established in 1899 as the 5th National Park in the system. I entered via the Stevens Canyon entrance on the southeast side through a haze of wild fires that were lighting up the forests in eastern Washington and smoking up the entire region.
This park is special to me. I’ve admired it from a distance and experienced it up close. I’ve hiked the trails, skied the slopes, climbed the mountain, slept up at cold Camp Muir, and enjoyed the cozy warmth of Paradise Lodge. As familiar as I am with Rainier, I’ve never explored the waterways. Since it’s impossible to put a handcrafted wood drift boat into the trickling streams of the park in the early stages of their life cycles, I did my initial exploring by boot instead of by boat.
I picked the Cowlitz for my river experience. It’s the largest river of the six and named for the Native American Indian tribe that still calls this area “home.” I hiked up the path to the glacier that gives it life and then, just outside the park boundary, I fished it – with a favorite fly-fishing friend on his favorite stretch of that river.
There was a time when Rick LeBlanc and I chased steelhead all over the Pacific Northwest – once even riding a historic old canyon train in the very Northeast corner of Oregon to catch wild winter steelhead as we struggled to keep the eyes of our fly rods from icing shut. Rick is a fisherman’s fisherman. Though it had been years since we were together on a river we wasted no time in picking up exactly where we left off – a brothers’ bond of rivers, fish, flimsy rods and fancy flies. It was great to reconnect.
His signature cigars that marked our scent and announced our presence on the river. Our breath still hung in the early morning cool air when he hooked up with the first steelhead of the day in the second pool we fished.
He made it look easy but the fish we pursued are at the high end of the “elusive” scale. Known as the “fish of a thousand casts” to hardcore steelheaders, these fish are fussy phantoms of the Pacific Northwest and require devotion, attention to detail, and unbelievable patience from every fly fisherman that picks this fish to chase.
I tied on one of my favorite summer steelhead flies to swing through the next pool. It had a 15’ drop-off ledge and Rick advised caution as I left the boat to work the water. I wondered aloud whether my favorite steelhead fly from another river would entice a fish from a completely different fishery. I didn’t wait long for the answer.
On the very first cast, I put a downstream mend in the line. Before the D loop in the current could take effect, one of largest steelhead I’ve ever seen came charging out of the shadows of the ledge and grabbed my fly right off the surface in a swirling boil that gave me chills and bent my rod to the water.
I regained my composure quickly, as my reel screamed and fly line shot through the eyes of my rod in the first of several down river runs. The drag finally slowed the steelhead enough for me to start recovering some backing in my line. We started a 20 minute tug of war that almost ended prematurely when I slipped on the ledge with a backward misstep sending my feet in the air and my butt to the hard bottom of the underwater ledge. Most of my body went under – only one arm and my head remained dry as I caught my fall with one hand while keeping my rod hand high above the surface still fighting the fish. I’d like to think it was a scene out of “A River Runs Through It” but Rick described it as more like America’s Funniest Home Videos. Once I got back to my feet and recovered my balance, I resumed the battle, grabbed the net and finally brought in the fish.
Naps are common after early-morning steelheading. I tried out a new hammock from Therm-a-Rest back at Cowlitz Falls Campground before dinner.
My favorite meal on the river…steelhead on cedar planks, roasted potatoes, corn on the cob, and grilled asparagus.
Only had one campfire on the entire trip – burn bans on open fires were in effect for most of the entire Pacific Northwest.
Another early morning, another cup of coffee, and we were ready to roll.
Our second day of fishing for steelhead produced a couple of nice take-downs and a fish or two “on the line” – but we couldn’t get a fish to the net or to the boat despite my best attempts with a fluffy pink fly. Temps reached 90 by late morning on one of the hottest and sunnniest days of the year on the Cowlitz. So we fished til early afternoon, called it a day and parted ways.
At 4 the next morning I drove to the top of Sunrise Peak, the highest point in the park you can reach by vehicle, and watched the first light of the day reflect off the snowy peak of Mount Rainier.
Photo contributions by fellow fly fisherman…. Seth Patterson.
Find your next park at…. findyourpark.com
Find Pendleton National Park Blankets and Coffee Mugs at… Pendleton Wool National Park Collection
Find Therm-a-rest Cots and Hammocks at…. Therm-a-rest
Find Patagonia Gear at…. Patagonia