IT’S NOT DIFFICULT to imagine the tiny community of Forks, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula, kindling the kind of small-town restlessness that prompts its sons and daughters to move elsewhere. But Gray Struznik, born into this land of tall trees and deep puddles, was never struck by that desire to bounce. Instead, he stayed and fished and sourced inspiration from the backyard grandeur that’s often lost on those who can’t see past the three stoplights on main street.
Sitting inside the guide’s one-story home on an unseasonably rainless winter evening, the 33 year old folds all of his 6′ 5″ frame into a seated position at a kitchen table littered with spools of thread and bottles of varnish; foundational ingredients for a half-built bamboo spey rod he threatens to one day finish. One day when, perhaps, the door stops swinging open.
Around the table, nearing midnight, Struznik is joined by his father, Scott, who left Seattle’s King County for Forks in 1968. The town surrounded by woods was welcoming, and its steelhead and salmon were big. The combination provided more than enough incentive to stay. “I had to log to make ends meet,” says a spectacled senior Struznik from under a black-brimmed ballcap. “But I came for the fishing.” That hunger led to a side-gig chasing chrome and placing it in the hands of ecstatic anglers. And it’s a similar story for the other boat rowers, gear chuckers, plug pullers, and spey casters who stream into the Struznik compound on a nightly basis, spilling out of the kitchen onto well-worn couches to swill beers, while babbling about who’s catching what, where, when, and how.
Empty cans pile into a formidable mountain of recyclables. Gray pours a round of scotch from a beat-to-shit flask. And with a yawn and a toast, the reality of tomorrow’s 5 a.m. wake-up convinces everyone to shut ‘er down.
GIVEN AMPLE SPACE and plenty of time, Ma Nature grew wild and unfettered across the Olympic Peninsula long before man surveyed its shaggy hinterlands. Early on, the jagged Olympic Range, with Mount Olympus climbing to nearly 8,000 feet, stymied the inland flow of interlopers onto traditional Native American lands. Pushing an eyeball against the glass of a brass telescope, Juan de Fuca was one of the first Euros to spot the peninsula. Juan went on to claim his namesake straight—the arm of water separating British Columbia’s Vancouver Island from western Washington—in 1592.
But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the first foot patrols through the interior took place. In 1889, Washington became the 42nd state, and shortly afterward the Seattle Press called on its stalwart citizens “to acquire fame by unveiling the mystery which wraps the land encircled by the snowcapped Olympic range.” James Christie volunteered and organized a party that inched its way through the Elwha Valley, eventually reaching the Pacific, ragged and near starvation, on May 20, 1890—six months after he left Seattle.
By the ’70s, the Olympic Peninsula had become the stuff of hyperbolic brochures and postcards. According to tourism propaganda from the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce, it was here where, “the fisherman lures the steelhead, salmon and trout or perhaps takes a charter boat out for the professional touch. [While] mom and the kids try their luck for bottom fish.” This despite an already decades-long legacy of mostly unchecked logging and rapidly declining wild steelhead populations on rivers such as the Sol Duc, where beginning in 1967 an influx of Chambers Creek hatchery plants jeopardized its native steelhead.
Scott Struznik pounded the West End Kool-Aid and, with his wife Kathy by his side, was happy to discover that much of what he’d read about the Olympic Peninsula had been understated. With Renton in the rearview and Forks as a new home base, he explored forest stands thick with Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and Douglas fir, lining river corridors along the Queets and Hoh. He wandered glacial waters that were seasonally redrawn by high-water mechanics. And he found steelhead and salmon that, regardless of factors attributing to their decline, cemented his decision to stay. His son was born in Port Angeles soon after. And by the time Gray entered his mid-teens, he was following dad’s rutted path to local rivers, trying to solve the winter steelheading puzzle.
THE POCKET: CHEW CAN OR SPOOL OF LEADER?
“Dad wasn’t a real hands-on instructor,” Gray says. “He gave me small nuggets of knowledge and expected me to figure it out from there.” That education involved eight-hour days for weeks on end, catching nothing, until finally, “it just happened. The wind was blowing right and it carried out the cast, my line bellied, and a steelhead sprung out of the water.”
Gray was fishing alone that day, and when the 15 year old glanced up from the steelhead at his feet, he saw his father and a friend watching from the opposite bank. “He gave me this nod of approval and, typical for my dad, he hollered something like, ‘Well… the fishing must be really fucking good if you got one.'”
AT THE TAKEOUT on the lower Queets, a gauntlet of tribal gillnets knifing into the grey-green flow lends insight into our day of unanswered casts. The steelhead corralled in the indiscriminate nets—up to seventy percent of the entire seasonal run on certain OP rivers— may make it onto restaurant menus or, more likely, wind up as processed kibbles in your dog’s dinner bowl. Shortsightedness, fuelled by delusions of inexhaustible natural resources, has led to the mess. But some long-term positives are gaining traction when it comes to preserving the Olympic Peninsula’s native steelhead.
Earlier this year, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission ruled that all wild steelhead must be released on select OP rivers, including the Bogachiel, Hoh, and Sol Duc, where in the past, anglers had been able to annually bonk one. Treble hook, barbed hook, and baitfishing bans have been implemented. And a “boats for transportation only” rule will soon apply to a stretch of the upper Hoh outside Olympic National Park, in order to protect holding and spawning steelhead and salmon.
It’s a good start, Struznik tells me. “But it still doesn’t address the problems we have with unrealistic escapement goals [“escapement” is a fisheries term for the number of steelhead that swim past the nets to spawn and sustain the population]. That could take many more years of research and politicking to make happen.”
If it ever happens. “For the past 20 years we’ve seen a steady decline on the Hoh,” Struznik says. “If it keeps on that trend, it’s going to collapse in the next 20. Obviously, something needs to be done.”
Back inside Struznik’s kitchen, during another steelheader after-hours session, rod-builder and itinerant flyfisher Mark Shamburg is helping the guide turn his bamboo shoot into something akin to castable art. But between beers being polished and random people stumbling in, the project goes mostly untouched.
Shamburg first met Struznik during winter 2013 and was floored to learn that the guide was a peninsula native. “Having a lifetime of experience on these rivers, he has a completely different outlook,” Shamburg says. “He’s still working hard to ensure his clients catch fish, but he’s equally concerned with limiting his footprint.”
I ask Shamburg if that notion of stewardship is catching on inside the Forks bubble, where steelheading’s massive popularity continues to lure new guides from all over the region. He’s not so sure. “There’s this unlimited demand here and, really, he’s only able to affect so many people.” But the guides and anglers at the table generally agree that change is important. It doesn’t matter if they’re hardcore flyfishers, or gear fishermen, there’s a camaraderie sparked by these special fish.
“For the most part, the regulars around here are trusted like brothers,” Struznik says. “This shit’s sacred. And everyone in the room knows it.”
[Gray Struznik owns and operates Olympic Peninsula Fly Fishing, based in Forks, WA. He spends his summers guiding in Bristol Bay, AK, and winters steelheading with clients in the OP.]