Editor’s Note: The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has been enacting restrictions on coastal steelhead fishing due to very low returns. Watch for updates to regulations prior to fishing.
Ask any Washington angler for a list of the best fly fishing waters in the state, and there are only a handful of rivers that are guaranteed inclusion on that list. The Sol Duc is one of them.
The Sol Duc River cuts a southwestward course across the Olympic Peninsula through some of the most spectacular scenery in the state.
Some 78 miles from its headwaters in the northern Olympic Mountains, the Sol Duc meets with the Bogachiel River, and the two legendary streams merge to form the Quillayute River.
Along the way are picture-perfect stretches of steelhead and salmon water, bounded by rugged gorges, lichen-encrusted boulders and rainforests that take on a lush, almost otherworldly tone of green.
It’s a pleasure to fish here, even on days when nothing bites.
But with Chinook, coho and sockeye salmon, along with steelhead, coastal cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden running in the Sol Duc during various seasons, it’s a rare day when there aren’t fish to be caught.
That the Sol Duc is a great fly fishing river is beyond question. But to be clear, “great” doesn’t always mean “easy.”
As grand as its rewards can be, the Sol Duc is at times a notoriously difficult river, especially to those unfamiliar with its quirks. Close-growing vegetation makes casting a real challenge, and the river’s boulder-strewn course can make navigating it by boat an exercise in frustration.
Yet anglers brave these obstacles because the Sol Duc River hosts one of the most abundant spring Chinook salmon runs on the Olympic peninsula, and because the strong steelhead run here includes significant numbers of wild fish.
And they do so because the Sol Duc River, with its headwaters protected on National Park land and not a single dam to impede its course, is one of only a few Washington rivers that can still truly be called “wild.”
Be sure to read the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s most recent regulations (linked at the bottom of this article) for the latest rules covering most of the river system. Also check out the Olympic National Park fishing regulations for parts of the system within the park boundaries.
Based on the official Washington State catch reports, steelhead fishing on the Sol Duc River is nothing to write home about. Most years, fewer than 100 steelhead are retained. So what’s all the fuss?
Truth be told, those statistics can be misleading, because the winter steelhead run on the Sol Duc is made up nearly entirely of wild fish, with only the modest number of strays from nearby hatchery runs available for harvest.
Put another way, wild steelhead must be released immediately when caught, and don’t show up on the official reports. Wild steelhead have intact adipose fins, unlike their hatchery-marked kin.
The first few winter steelhead might start to appear as early as December, but overall, the Sol Duc gets going a bit later than steelhead rivers in the region that host earlier-returning hatchery runs.
The best fishing here tends to be in February and March. Hatchery fish usually arrive first, with wild steelhead bringing up the rear in larger numbers on the Sol Duc.
For fly fishermen who target wild steelhead, this river is sacred ground. Nymphs and egg patterns tend to fare best, but Clousers and other streamers can tempt their fair share of steelies, too.
There’s good fly water throughout the river, but many fly anglers prefer the middle and upper stretches, which are less accessible to drift boats and tend to be less crowded. There’s a lot of access along US Highway 101, including numerous informal turn-offs.
Caution is always advised. Steep banks make reaching the river a tricky business anywhere other than the few “official” access sites, and the river’s abundant rocks and boulders demand careful, sure-footed wading.
Fly anglers would be well advised to pack a switch rod, which is a shorter version of a two-handed spey rod. Long casts are seldom needed here, and this type of fly rod is well suited to swinging flies into the slots, eddies and pocket water where steelhead often hold.
Sink-tip lines and leaders longer than 18 inches are favored local anglers. The river often runs clear with a green tint, making a long leader essential to temp shy biters.
Between the burly wild steelhead (and occasional hatchery keeper) and the opportunities for three native trout species, it’s little wonder the Sol Duc is among the best fly fishing rivers in Washington.
Silver spoons and corkies are also an option for spin anglers.
The lower section of the river—from the Highway 101 Bridge in Forks down to the mouth of the river—is more drift boat-friendly and also offers some easier shore access.
Eggs can be effective too, but check the current Washington fishing regulations before you hit the water.
Bait is only allowed at certain times of the year on the river below the hatchery and generally prohibited above that, and there are other barbless hook rules as well, so study up on the latest regulations before fishing.
The Sol Duc River produces a lot of 8- to 10-pound steelhead, but there’s always a shot at a 20-pounder here.
In addition to the winter run, there’s also a somewhat smaller summer run, with quality fish coming to the bank from June through August.
The Sol Duc is unique in many respects, but it’s especially so in that it’s one of the only Olympic Peninsula rivers to support all five Pacific salmon species. Chinook, coho, chum, sockeye and pink salmon all make their way up the Sol Duc.
That means there’s scarcely a month of the year when there aren’t salmon in the river. For anglers, spring and fall Chinook and fall coho salmon are the main attractions, so we’ll focus on those runs.
Quite a few rivers on the Olympic Peninsula—the Sol Duc included—offer a fall Chinook salmon run. But this is one of only a select few that also hosts a substantial population of spring-run Chinooks.
The first “springers” appear in April most years, and the Chinook fishery kicks into high gear during the months of May and June. Expect a mix of wild and hatchery salmon, including some real brutes pushing well past the 20-pound mark.
The peak of the spring salmon run tends to coincide with lowering water levels, which can make fishing a real challenge. It can be almost impossible to traverse the river by boat without clattering along the bottom.
Spring anglers would do well to closely watch the forecast. A good rain this time of year can raise the river and add some color to it, which gets the salmon moving and biting, and it makes fishing much easier.
In the absence of rain, it’s best to fish early in the morning or late in the evening. If you’re wading, move slowly and quietly to avoid spooking the fish, and focus your efforts on the deep holes that salmon use to rest.
Where and when bait is allowed, salmon roe and herring tend to be the top salmon baits on the Sol Duc. Otherwise, a wide range of spinners, spoons and plugs can connect with Chinook. Kwikfish plugs are a particular favorite.
The area from the mouth of the river up to the Sol Duc Fish Hatchery is most popular and productive among Chinook salmon anglers, especially for the hatchery fish that are more open to harvest. (There is a window in the fall when a wild Chinook can be taken.)
There are several excellent access points for salmon fishing on the lower river, including the Whitcomb-Dimmel access site just above the Highway 101 Bridge, and another at the hatchery itself.
If you miss the spring run, there’s another great opportunity to catch Chinook salmon on the Sol Duc River in fall. Late September through October is the best time to be on the river in fall.
Unlike earlier in the year, the arrival of the fall rains, usually coming in earnest sometime in October, really opens up the whole river to salmon fishing.
The higher water levels prompt Chinook to make their way farther upstream, and usually mark the arrival of coho salmon as well.
Coho salmon traditionally appear just behind Chinook in fall, with October and November being prime months to catch these salmon, also called silvers for their bright metallic appearance when still fresh in from the ocean.
Those mid-fall months are often the prime times on the Sol Duc, but every year is different, and cohos are sometimes caught here as early as August.
Although they’re smaller than Chinooks on average, typically weighing 5 to 10 pounds, coho salmon run can in greater abundance most years, although the runs can be somewhat feast or famine.
Catch reports often show at least twice as many fall cohos retained from the Sol Duc as Chinooks. Coho must be fin-clipped to keep.
The Sol Duc attracts some devoted fly anglers who target cohos in the fall. A lot of the tactics are similar to those used for steelhead a few months later.
Streamers tend to be some of the best flies for coho salmon. Focus on pocket water and deep holes where available. For those who prefer spinning tackle, twitch and standard marabou jigs can be some of the most effective coho lures.
Bring an assortment of jig colors that include bright hot pink as well as a few more muted, natural tones.
Jigs work well under a float, but you can also make short casts to likely looking spots and maintain close contact with your lure using a more traditional jigging approach.
Blue Fox and similar spinners can work too, and cohos are just as likely as Chinooks to strike a wobbling plug. The hard part is often finding enough open, deep water to work these lures effectively, especially once you start getting farther up the river.
Much like steelhead and Chinook salmon, cohos will also strike natural baits like eggs and shrimp where and when they are permitted.
Also note the barbless, single hook requirements in the regulations, which likely will mean at least pinching down barbs or swapping out hooks on your lures.
Other Fish Species
Sockeye salmon, also known as red salmon, also spawn in the Quillayute River system, and can be found in the Sol Duc and other neighboring rivers in late summer through fall.
These sockeyes are wild fish, and in accordance with current regulations must be released immediately if caught.
Pink salmon have been documented in the Sol Duc in relatively small numbers, though they’re seldom targeted specifically by anglers.
Pink salmon are fall spawners as well, but follow a two-year life cycle. In Washington rivers, they spawn only during odd-numbered years, but are far more common in several Puget Sound-area rivers.
Chum salmon bring up the rear. They’re the latest of the Pacific salmon to spawn, usually arriving some time in late October or November. Also known as dog salmon, they run in modest numbers in the Sol Duc, and can be caught using many of the same methods used for coho salmon.
Sea-run cutthroat trout make a run up the Sol Dus every summer, and quite a few of them are caught in August and September.
Sea-runs are quite a bit smaller than salmon (around 12 to 15 inches is typical) but are voracious feeders. They give fly anglers some good fight on light tackle.
A native population of Dolly Varden (bull trout) resides in the upper portions of the river, above Sol Duc Falls.
Under both state and National Park regulations, bull trout may not be targeted intentionally, but they are nonetheless caught by fly anglers also chasing rainbow and cutthroat trout, and frequently fall for Wooly Buggers and Clousers.
All wild trout (does not include fin-clipped steelhead) caught in the Sol Duc River system must be released unharmed. This is catch-and-release country for trout.
Planning Your Trip
Fishing the Sol Duc River is a bit different than many other Washington rivers.
The Sol Duc is fairly narrow, and the fishing tends to be more intimate and more technical. Short casts and small pockets of deep water interspersed with boulder-strewn riffles are the norm.
If you’re planning on navigating the river by boat, the lower portion of the river is your best bet.
Even here, it’s usually wise to beach your drift boat a good distance from where you plan to fish, and approach carefully on foot to avoid spooking the fish with the sound of the hull scraping on rocks.
Much of the best fishing, especially for steelhead, takes place during the coldest parts of the year. Plan and dress accordingly to avoid a day of frozen knuckles and wet feet. And of course, this being the Olympic Peninsula, you can expect some rain.
Fortunately, the Sol Duc River tends to be one of the last rivers in the area to get blown out by heavy rains, and one of the first to return to fishable levels. When fishing in other nearby rivers is impossible, the Sol Duc could just save your trip.
Directions and River Access
The most direct way to get to the Sol Duc River is to follow US Highway 101 north from Aberdeen or southwest from Port Angeles. Highway 101 runs alongside the river for a significant portion of its course, crossing it numerous times along the way.
The largest population center near the river is the city of Forks. Located at the junction of US Highway 101 and State Route 110, Forks offers a variety of lodging, shopping and dining options. It’s a popular home base for anglers fishing the Sol Duc, as well as the neighboring Calawah and Bogachiel Rivers.
Olympic National Park
The Sol Duc River flows through a variety of private and public land. The uppermost portion of the river is within Olympic National Park. This is arguably the most pristine and picturesque section of the river, but also where fishing is most strictly regulated.
Sol Duc Road runs alongside the river within the national park, and includes several river access points, the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort and Campground, and Sol Duc Falls. Above the falls, the river is accessible only by hiking trail.
Olympic National Forest
Much of the middle stretch of the Sol Duc, downstream from the national park section, flows through Olympic National Forest. Here you’ll find a variety of access along Highway 101 as well as smaller Forest Service roads (FS 2918 and FS 2929).
The Klahowya Campground, operated by the Forest Service, provides river access and campsites along the river. There’s great fly fishing in this area.
WDFW Access Sites
Several access sites below the national forest section are operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. These sites offer a variety of bank fishing access and boat launch facilities from the confluence of Bear Creek down to the mouth of the Sol Duc River.
The WDFW access sites, listed in order from farthest upriver to farthest downriver, are located at Bear Creek, the Salmon Hatchery, Maxfield Road, Whitcomb-Diimmel and Leyendecker Park. There are numerous informal pull-offs as well, mostly along Highway 101.