As we pulled our boat out of the backpack, inflated it, and launched onto the emerald green waters our minds couldn’t stop thinking about the huge steelhead that were surely surging up river this Valentines weekend. A lightweight inflatable packraft was the perfect boat to hike through the rainforest to the river, float for 3 days, and hopefully hook into our first ever chrome, winter run steelhead.
The Soleduck, Hoh, and Quinault receive most of the hype when it comes to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula coastal rivers, but the Wynoochee can be a hidden treasure for steelhead. It is inland from the coast on the south part of the peninsula. Starting up in the Olympic mountains, it flows 60 miles into the larger Chehalis river, then to Grays Harbor and finally the Pacific.
We drove up the river valley and dropped our car with Mick’s local fishing shuttle service. From there we hiked in a couple miles to the river, roughly 30 miles from our take out. Our packraft for this trip was the Alpacka Gnu; an 8 lb 2-person packraft that allows for either more space for one angler with gear, a lightweight row frame, or two people.
Due to the ingenious inflation bag, this backpack drift boat can be hiked in and inflated in areas with no roads or boat launches. For this trip my girlfriend Kristy was up front fishing, hoping to catch her first ever steelhead, while I was in the back paddling, baiting hooks, and fishing for my first winter run steelhead.
When we arrived at the river we used the “cargo zipper” to load our camping gear into the boat’s air chambers and then inflated the packraft. On the deck of the boat we had The Packraft Table for rod holders as well as to manage jigs, lures, and other fishing gear. Between us on the floor was a cooler full of bait and food. On top of that, my big green pack to store the camera and various gear we needed access to throughout the day.
We pushed out into the emerald green water and began floating past huge moss covered maples. There were beautiful waterfalls running off thickly forested cliffs, adding to the powerful Wynoochee. The river is pretty rowdy in the upper sections then mellows out and is class I-II for the majority.
We encountered a few rapids and rocks right off the bat that were fun and allowed us to test the boat. It maneuvered great and tracked well because the camping gear weight was lower in the air chambers of the boat. Even in unavoidable rapids the Gnu barreled through like a tank and felt stable.
Both Kristy and I fished as much as we could in the upper section, but didn’t have much luck. The water was still pretty high from an earlier rain and after trying everything we had, we pulled over on a large gravel bank to set up camp. The weather that day had been surreal; rainless, sun-filled skies are almost unheard of for Washington February steelhead fishing.
Having run some rapids but caught no fish, the next day we decided to change up the bait. After switching jig colors, Kristy finally lost sight of her bobber and fish on! The steelhead immediately ran right back towards the boat and did a mctwist flip about 2 feet off the left side. Pop! Just like that, the fish was on and then gone. That chrome flash left us wanting more and boosted our spirits for the day of fishing ahead.
Not long after, Kristy was drifting eggs through a section of small rocks and bam! Another big fish was on and screaming back up river as the packraft floated quickly downstream toward some upcoming riffles and larger rocks. I paddled to keep the boat positioned best for the fishing and rapids but the fish kept running up river, fast. After it weaved in and out of the rocks, the leader broke off. Kristy was in shock of the power of these large fish.
With the winter sun quickly going down, we decided to start looking for a camping spot. Finding only marshy bottomland, not suitable for a campsite, we decided to keep going and look for a better spot.
As we cruised past a big rock smack in the middle of the river, Kristy couldn’t help but cast an egg cluster. It drifted perfectly and fish on! She set the hook and the fish raced down river and turned us about face. I worked the boat over to a large eddy on the side of the river as Kristy kept fighting.
She hung on as the fish shook and ran into the setting sun. It just kept running and jumping and after battling the steelhead for nearly 30 minutes, the cheap Wal-Mart fishing reel broke! Kristy didn’t know what to do and I was in disbelief. Surprisingly, the huge steelhead was still on the line! She passed me the busted rod and I crawled up on shore. With no handle, I had to walk it in.
While moving backward I slowly started to reel the spool by hand and made some progress using a combination of the two methods. Finally, I brought it up to Kristy in the packraft and she netted the huge buck steelhead.
We were both elated and exhausted. It was a total team Valentines day catch! We made sure it was a keeper and measured it on the Packraft Fishing Table at 34 inches. I loaded it in the floor of the packraft and launched us back into the river. Now the sun was pretty much set but we conveniently found a nice gravel bar just around the bend to camp on.
As we ate freshly prepared ocean-run trout, over a bed of spiced rice, we laughed as we recounted each step of our unique and exciting first ever steelhead catch. The Alpacka Gnu handled perfectly and made the trip so much more fun than if Kristy and I had brought our own separate packrafts. The 2 person Gnu let us fish better, store our gear more efficiently, and have a better overall team experience.
The sun broke on the final day of our adventure and we continued our float towards the wider lower section of the river. We fished sparingly in order to cover some ground and get to our take out on time.
As we floated the now slow-moving river, past other boats, around a diversion dam, and back into civilization; we reflected on our exciting and unusual packraft fishing adventure and discussed recipes for smoking the remaining steelhead to enjoy over fresh salads and more all summer long.