The Pacific Coast: tents and trails from Katmai to California

Some of the fishing and hunting highlights in the Pacific Coast states are described, along with various public land areas in the region. The Pacific Coast, extending from southern California to Alaska, offers a wide variety of terrain as well as game and fish.


GEOLOGISTS CALL IT A YOUNG REGION, FROM the smoldering Katmai volcanos of southwestern Alaska to the sharp, angular landscape of California’s Sierra and the earthquake-prone rock near Los Angeles in the south. Throughout the Pacific coastal states, landscape changes are both abrupt and diverse; as if our adolescent mountain country wasn’t content with a single image but eager to try everything from temperate rain forest to desert in the shortest possible span.

It’s the sort of diversity that brings us both old-growth elk and high-desert antelope, sometimes separated by less than 50 miles. Golden trout cruise quietly in alpine lakes cold with snowmelt that eventually gathers in trickles and streams to rush down and westward, enabling both valley rivers and steelhead that return big-shouldered and silver-bright from the North Pacific. What permanence there is in this varied, changing landscape is found in federal lands; an incredible string of national forests, parks, refuges, and other federal holdings extending in a nearly continuous line from California’s Eldorado National Forest near the Mexican border north to Olympic National Park in northwestern Washington, as well as across much of Alaska.

ONE WAY TO MEASURE THIS COUNTRY IS BY THE VIEW it offers. When you hike down and out of the dense ponderosa-pine belt on the east slope of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, for example, you leave views constricted to 100 yards by the forest all around you. Within a mile, you tumble out onto high desert where your view includes mountains 100 miles and more away. These views, near and far, are vastly different. But one can be just as pleasing as the other, each in its separate way.

Rick Hafele had parked our truck at the edge of a rain-forest preserve, on the Oregon coast, loaded camping and fishing gear onto mountain bikes, and then pedaled furiously to struggle up the first hill of an abandoned logging road. When the road finally leveled, we rolled swiftly and silently over smooth-packed dirt toward a stream we knew to seethe with wild cutthroat trout, all eager for dry fries.

The road ran deep into the heart of a hemlock forest. It was early summer, and the way was fill of puddles left from recent rains. We lifted our feet off the pedals and went splashing through like little kids, starting frogs and water striders and newts. Yellow mimulus nodded near tiny springheads along the way, and foxglove grew to handlebar height where we stopped to rest. Bees bumbled and buzzed in and out of the columns of flowers, gathering honey to hide from the black bears that we knew were around because they left prints in the soft mud next to the puddles.

Shy blacktail deer had left prints there, too, although we didn’t see any deer. But we did glide silently past a herd of elk feeding in a meadow next to the dirt road. Tan cows browsed while rust-colored calves, so new they still had spots, held feeding at their flanks. Two parchment-colored bulls fed not far away. Their racks that would become massive September weapons were now mere clubs softened with velvet.

We finally leaned our bikes against a huge hemlock where the road kissed the canyon’s edge high above the stream. We stood still enough to hear the stream, muted by the forest, rushing in its eagerness to reach the Pacific Ocean just a few miles to the west. Then our own puddle-jumping eagerness took charge, and we rushed down through the tall hen-docks and the dense understory of salmonberry and devil’s club. We staked our tent on a sandbar and fumbled to rig our light fly rods.

Rick and I leapfrogged up the stream, taking turns to flatten ourselves against boulders capped with thick mats of moss to conceal our approach to each tiny pool. Forests of bracken, sword, and deer ferns crowded around, capturing our backcasts, defending the fish from our flies.

It was a landscape of many wonders, but best of all was the careful stalk up to a pool, the cast no more than a rod-length long, and then the sight of a cutthroat trout leaving its cover and rising swiftly up through water as clear as air to pounce on a dry fly, then leaping and, in an instant, held and released, its wildness given back to the wildness of its setting.

THE SEACOAST ITSELF OFFERS FISHING AND HUNTING THAT in places have been little explored. A string of national and state parks from Alaska to California attracts millions of tourists every summer, but it’s surprising how few of these folks leave their vehicles far enough behind to take advantage of anything more than sightseeing opportunities. With a little hiking along beaches or trails, you’ll often find yourself alone, surrounded by nothing but nature.

A step inland from the coast, the redwood forests of California give way as you go north to the primeval rain forest country that defines the wet Northwest. Olympic National Park on Washington’s isolated Olympic Peninsula is typical. Its ancient and uncut forests are home to Roosevelt elk and blacktail deer, black bears and cougars, plus a tracery of salmon and steelhead and cutthroat trout streams that offer some of their best fishing, to which you can hike, in the wetness of fall and winter.

Still farther inland, a set of rivers flowing generally north and south–the Sacramento in California, Oregon’s Willamette, the Chehalis River and Puget Sound in Washington–form a long section of fairly flat and alluvial land. Farms and folks get condensed here, and it’s far from a lonely landscape. But it also owns a pastoral beauty that is restful to the roving eye. Those valley rivers offer easy floats through a mix of public and private lands, giving access to trout fishing and waterfowling that is sometimes surprising. This landscape also offers excellent fishing for bass and pan-fish, species that are often considered minor out here.

As you head eastward, this populated belt gives way–in places gently to rolling foothills, in others abruptly to lifting cliffs–to the main mountains that define outdoor opportunity in the Pacific west: the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, the South Cascades of Oregon, and Washington’s North Cascades. In these mountains volcanoes still shatter their tops at times, spewing mushroom clouds of ashes and dust high and to the east, as far as Montana and beyond. Federal lands are abundant in the high country from south to north, giving access for hunting and fishing to nearly all of it. You’ve usually got to earn your success, however, and th means a hike. It’s great backpacking country, where want to set up base camp near a high-country lake or stream. The 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail and its myriad offshoots run the length of these linked mountain chains.

The vast country on the east side of these mountains makes up a huge and largely unconsidered part of the far western landscape. Much is high desert, but it’s also sprinkled with uplifted chains such as Steens Mountain and the Blues and Wallowas. Many of these mountains are in wilderness, perfect for remote backpack fishing trips in summer and horsecamp hunts in fall. These semi-arid areas can offer exceptional hunting, with an open view in dramatic contrast to the closeness of the rain forests to the west.

Antelope hunting here is a good example. My brother, the colonel, is a natural leader, but I doubt he ever thought he’d lead the limping charge of a single antelope hunter over 2 miles of sagebrush flat. We were looking for a road junction marked on a Bureau of Land Management map of far eastern Oregon, on the northern rim of the Great Basin. The road, on the map at least, aimed at the heart of many square miles of blank white space; if not uncharted, it was at least mysterious to those who had never been there.

Something finally caught Gene’s eye. He stopped, then backed up the pickup, pointing and asking, “That it?” There was a faint set of wheelruts threading through the sage toward an upwelling of distant mountains. We bumped our heads over the map.

“That’s just wagon tracks,” I told him. “The Oregon Trail went through here somewhere.” Gene ignored me and eased the rig onto the slight road. It never did improve, but it delivered us over several bouncing miles into the center of a vast and magical landscape of grass hills and sage flats with basaltic lava flows fingering this way and that. We set up camp, intending to spend a few days just prowling around.

On our second afternoon, Gene left me in a lawn chair and biked off to glass the far side of the basin. I was grounded by a foot swollen far too large to fit my boot, a problem caused by some microbial souvenir I’d gathered in Southeast Asia. But I was able to sit and glass, and that’s what antelope hunting is all about.

Glassing can bring two things. The first is the burst of excitement when your binocular scan lands on a distant band of the beautiful beasts ignited by the setting sun. The second is an explosion of panic when you realize they’re 2 miles away and darkness is nearer than the brother whose guidance you suddenly need.

I took a chance and reached over to tap the horn, hoping Gene would hear it and the antelope would not. They skittered a bit but went back to browsing. I stepped into the center of a sweatshirt, wrapped it around my foot, binding it tightly with parachute cord. I was about to hoist my rifle and hobble off after the antelope when Gene trotted over.

It took just 2 seconds to plot a stalk; there was nothing to do but go straight at them. They browsed just beyond a finger of lava. The colonel led my charge; I followed step-and-hop through the gray sage, not daring to lift my eyes for fear of landing in a prickly pear or surprising one of those wag-tail snakes that are an elemental part of this landscape.

We crawled into a notch in the lava, and it gave us a window on the antelope. A buck browsed apart from the rest; Gene called it 250 yards. I folded my hat over a lava rock, held right on, and the buck dropped out of the bottom of the scope. Its horns were the same polished black as the rock off which I’d fired; they measured more than 14 inches long.

Gene spent the entire next day stalking a buck across a golden grassland tangled with black lava rims as I watched both hunter and hunted through the glasses. When he finally came packing his trophy toward the truck at evening, it made mine look small.

SIERRA NATIONAL FOREST

* The Sierra National Forest offers both wilderness trout and mule deer on 1.3 million acres along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in central California. It varies from gently rolling, oak-covered foothills above the San Joaquin Valley to snow-capped peaks on the High Sierra crest.

This forest holds more than 480 lakes and 1,800 miles of rivers and streams, in addition to wildlife such as black bears, mountain and valley quail, peregrine falcons and bald eagles. You can fish for rainbow, golden, brown, and brook trout, plus Lahontan and Paiute cutts. Lakes at lower elevations hold largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappies, and bluegills.

Nearly half of the Sierra National Forest is in wilderness areas, which include more than 1,100 miles of trails for hiking, backpacking, and horse travel, and where fishing is excellent in numerous small lakes. Hiking into most wilderness areas requires a visitor permit; reservations may be needed between July 1 and Labor Day when recreational backpacking is most popular. Contact: Sierra National Forest, Dept. FS, 1600 Tollhouse Rd., Clovis, CA 93611-0532.

DESCHUTES NATIONAL FOREST

* Deschutes National Forest, at 1,852,497 acres, blankets the spine of the volcanic Cascade Mountain Range in central Oregon. It contains both alpine and evergreen forests, many chains of mountain lakes, and some desert country east of the mountain peaks. It’s most famous for its that fishing, but it also offers excellent hike and horseback hunting for mule deer and elk.

Among the most pleasant and productive opportunities are the hundreds of miles of wilderness trails thread through the forest, connecting trailhead to alpine lakes and lake chains. Ice goes out about the time that snowpack melts off the trails, generally late May to early June. Good fishing lasts through summer and well into fall. Big-game hunting begins with High Cascade deer hunts in September and continues through November. Many hunts are by draw. Applications are due in April, so you have to get regulations and study them early.

The Deschutes Forest holds the upper Deschutes River, including its famous impoundments, Wickiup and Crane Prairie Reservoirs, and many other large and excellent trout lakes. All of these can be reached from the Cascades Lakes Highway Loop, a beautiful drive itself, with lots of open campgrounds. The road is open–and the fishing good–anytime from June through September. Contact: Deschutes National Forest, Dept. FS, 1645 Highway 20 East, Bend, OR 97701.

KATMAI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE

* Katmai National Park and Preserve is trophy rainbow-trout country, arguably the best such fishing on public lands anywhere worldwide. It spans 3,716,000 acres of lakes, forests, mountains, and marshlands on the Alaska Peninsula, about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage. Park waters contain five species of salmon, plus char, grayling, lake trout, Dolly Varden, and northern pike. The best months for monster rainbows are generally June and September.

Highlights include the well-known Brooks River, just a mile long, which connects Brooks and Naknek Lakes. Its resident rainbows run 2 to 4 pounds; much larger trout run in fall following schools of spawning sockeye salmon. The salmon run brings out brown bears and photographers, both of which are numerous at the Brooks’ famous falls.

The Naknek River flows from Naknek Lake for 3 miles inside the park. Rainbows are common in the 3- to 5-pound range, while 8- to 15-pound (and bigger) rainbows run in late May, early June, and in September. Naknek Lake, at 240 square miles, is known for its pike, lake trout, and rainbows. The Bay of Islands area consistently produces rainbows over 10 pounds.

Brown bears are common throughout the park and require extreme caution. This remote region is commonly served by a variety of fly-out lodges that provide fishing on a day-trip basis. Individual camping is unrestricted, but backcountry permits are required. For backcountry trips, you’ll need detailed maps and careful planning. Contact: Katmai National Park and Preserve, Dept. FS, Box 7, King Salmon, AK 99611.

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