Dick Goin, a lifelong resident of the Olympic Peninsula, shared his experiences of fishing the Elwha River. With a record catch of more than 7,000 steelhead during his lifetime, he started fishing the river in 1938 when he was 6.
The depression that started in 1929 didn’t end until ’42. Many, like Goin’s family – lived off the land. The deer were already eaten by folks who lived down there. So the family subsisted harvested off salmon, which were easy to come by.
Goin befriended a Charles from the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and they would paddle out to the estuary. Goin typically stayed in the estuary, but he watched tribal people head out to the Strait and harvest halibut and lingcod.
“When tide came in the right time of the year, you could watch that bottom (of the estuary) turn grey with salmon.”
The 100 pound kings did exist – We caught kinds up to 70 lbs but lost every big one – never landed a big one. There was one guy did that better than any of us and got bigger ones but he’d jump in and he would go after it – we’d joke that he could do that because he was fortified with alcohol.
The handful of non-tribal fishermen who had been been fishing there a long time had named holes, including big bend hole, bedsprings hole, little hole, salmon hole, hunt’s drift, indian hole.
Then the estuary … it was at least ¾ of a mile because it hadn’t eroded. There were a lot more clams out there because the substrait was better. It was quite calm after a NE’er – tribal people would show up and harvest butter clams and little necks, horse clams, and go out and pick them up. Two Indian lads died there from what we now call red tide.
How we fished in the Elwha – you went into town to Wilson’s Hardware and bought bamboo canes to fish with. We really had some nice little rods there. Made their own rods, made up their own spinners. The Ewlah Kings bit pretty well, incredible strappers – they were jumpers! One of their hallmarks was doing a full summersault.
We got fish up to 60-70 pounds but they were nothing compared to some that just left. But that was then. The river itself and the operation of the dam was always destructive to the fishery until recently when they shut down the turbines.
There was time when in the 40s that they didn’t run the mill on weekends and just shut it down. They would over-generate energy during the week and then shut it down to build up the backwater again. They just didn’t give a damn. They killed so many fish.
Many smaller fish were killed but sometimes it was so abrupt they killed adults. In 1938, they dropped the river, they shut off completel;y and above the bridge there was a beautiful long riffle that was a spawning riffle. And there they were, flopping, big kings. It would have been about early October. But people didn’t really care – there were big pieces of protein and people were sacking them up.
It was a matter of how they operated the gates mostly and there were people who cared and I think there were people there who didn’t care. But it was an atrocity.
This river was alive then – you could really expected to see hundreds of goats. I was there a few days ago and I saw two. Pinks were shoved up against the banks there were so many of them. Bears, otters … you should have heard, it was increidbly noisy – all this going, all these gulls, out the bears came, it was fun to see them fishing. They were feeding on salal berries and would also feed on salmon. The herons, the eagles, even one time on a clay bank, I was on the right bank, salmon carcasses had been piling up around a logjam and there was a cougar.
Steelheads. Oh my, the steelhead. Summer and winter. We had sockeyes. Rainbows… Jacks. Smelts – we had surf smelt, there was a time that part of the estuary where enormous schools would get trapped in there. Every heron, every gull in the world was there until they cleaned them out.
“I think covered at least a respectable amount. – No wait – one more thing. You no longer see the hundreds of salmon throwing themselves at the dam. It’s a quiet river now. No salmon jumping. No birds. No jack kings. No redds by great Elwha females. No quiet pools for the salmon. I guess that’s it. That’s what I have for you.”