Outdoors For The Holidays
August 31, 2011
Detailed here are a dozen Pacific Northwest activities that are sure to please any sportsman.
If there was ever a place for a sportsman to get into the holiday spirit, the Pacific Northwest is it, because here Mother Nature is generous in her gifts.
What follows are twelve equally delightful ways to spend the holidays enjoying the outdoors.
Olympic Peninsula Steelhead
If you haven't sacrificed tackle to Washington's last great winter steelhead rivers rolling down the west side of the Olympic Peninsula, buy new rain gear and ink this trip onto your holiday gift list.
Every steelheader needs to be here at least once. The place is magical,. The rivers are wild, dam-free and gorgeous, and the steelhead are strong, plentiful and offer the best hope in the state for cracking the 20-pound trophy ceiling. Sol Duc, Hoh, Clearwater, Bogachiel, Calawah, Quinault, Queets -- river names from steelheading legend and each is accessible by road, boat or guide service. I would not recommend putting a drift boat or raft on any of the rivers until you scout them, and the Sol Duc is not an intermediate-level boulder garden under the best of conditions.
The little town of Forks on Highway 101 is steelhead central and all the information, guide referrals, shuttles and tackle you need is behind the counter at Bob Gooding's Olympic Sporting Goods, (360) 374-6330, www.anglersguideservice.com. A top guiding outfitter is Bob Kratzer's Angler's Guide Service, www.anglersguideservice.com.
There's a downside to everything and with Forks' steelhead rivers it's muddy blow-outs. The west side of the Olympic Peninsula gets hit with 107 inches of rain a year and 46 of those inches fall in November, December and January when winter storms roar in from the Pacific. Fortunately, some of the smaller rivers are quick to drop and clear after a blow and there's rarely a time when you can't scout out a reasonable prospect somewhere.
Geese In the Green
By the tens of thousands, Canada geese are piling into the Columbia Basin looking for fields green with alfalfa, winter wheat or sprinkled with leftover corn and, if you've got a layout or pit blind where they're dropping in, you'll enjoy the best shooting of your life. Some geese will be decoyed on public hunting land, but by far the best shooting is on private farm fields and finding un-leased goose fields is rare. For this hunt, I recommend signing on with a good Columbia Basin goose outfitter who keeps track of where the geese will be feeding tomorrow, has cemented the connections needed to hunt and can provide decoy spreads and guides who talk goose. You'll find a mix of greater and lesser Canadas. White geese are rare. Late in the season, sometimes smaller spreads of a dozen or so full bodies will pull in birds that are shot-shy of big spreads.
The farming community of Othello has a corner on some of the best shooting fields. Grant County Tourism, www.tourgrantcounty.com, can steer new hunters in a productive direction, and by far my favorite goosefitters are Mike and Levi Meseberg at MarDon Resort, www.mardonresort.com. A second option is the public hunting areas further south near Paterson on the Columbia River at the edge of the Umatilla Wildlife Refuge, which loads up with huge flocks of late-season geese trading between the refuge and fields.
Hot Ice Fishing
Learn to ice fish -- it's a great gift and one of the least appreciated fisheries in the state. Several lakes in Okanogan County offer dedicated ice fishing programs that are just flat fun. A few of my trout favorites in the Winthrop area are Davis, Cougar, Little Twin, and Big and Little Green. Patterson Lake is a good bet for rainbows and a great spot for skillet-sizzling yellow perch. In Spokane County, Eloika Lake offers a mixed bag of panfish and trout and Hog Canyon Lake is a favorite for foot-long rainbows. Two other ice fishing hotspots in Stevens County are Waitts Lake for browns, rainbows and panfish, and Williams Lake north of Colville, which has been rehabbed, restocked and is expected to deliver 10- to 15-inch rainbows.
Ice fishing, like Olympic curling and bouldering, is one of those sports that if not tried, can't be appreciated. Most of the lakes will have a good cover of ice a week or so before Christmas and be locked solid by New Years. Bring warm boots, the fixins for a fire, short but flexible rods, bait (Power Bait, maggots, salmon eggs), hot chocolate, buckets to sit on, a spud bar or ice auger and a sled to carry it all. For Okanogan County ice info, contact WDFW's Region 2 office at (509) 754-4624 and for Spokane and Steven's county fishing, Region 1 at (509) 892-1001.
From steelhead to grouse, the Oregon and Washington holiday season offers a variety of sporting opportunities. Photo by Terry W. Sheely.
Ruffs Are Ready
When the leaves come down and big game general seasons wrap up, it's time for some of the finest ruffed grouse hunting of the year in western Washington. Starting last year the daily bag was boosted to four grouse which, when combined with the increase in visibility after leaf-fall in brush-covered western Washington, produces the best wing-shooting for grouse of the year. In 180-degree contrast to the celebrated status of grouse hunting in the eastern states, Northwest ruffed grouse are too-often regarded as secondary bonus birds to a deer or elk hunt. But with the four-month season running through December, the drastically improved visibility and lack of competition, a lot of wing shooters are discovering that late-season ruffs are first-rate fun. Lewis County has the greatest harvest of any western Washington region, followed by Grays Harbor, Clallam and Pierce counties -- in that order. There's also good localized shooting on the east side of Clark County and in the river drainages and low hills of Skamania and Klickitat counties.
I drive the foothill logging roads and walk alder creek bottoms where there are lots of leftover berries and worms. In unfamiliar areas I prefer to drive mountain roads watching for birds working roadside gravel, then release the retriever and let the chase begin. Where I find one grouse, typically, I'll find more nearby. A quick-pointing open-bored shotgun with No. 7 1/2 shot does the job. And the dog loves it.
Rainbow Big As Steelhead
Rufus Woods Reservoir is 7,800 acres and 51 miles of premium cold-weather rainbow trout action where holiday anglers have a reall
y decent shot at setting a new state record. Ignore the cold; the last three state record rainbows came from here, including Norm Butler's 29.6 pound current state record. That massive triploid trout was caught just two weeks before Thanksgiving, a holiday that marks the start of hot trout fishing at Rufus Woods. The not-so-secret explanation is that this massive reservoir has big numbers of triploid rainbow that either escaped from a commercial net pen rearing project or were released by the adjoining Colville tribe. These rainbows grow big fast, and in the holiday season they cruise within a few feet of the surface where they are targeted by trollers with Rapala-style plugs or bank fishermen floating big baits (nightcrawlers, salmon egg clusters, shrimp, herring) below bobbers. For guided action, check with Darrell and Dad's Guide Service, www.darrellanddads.com.
Sound Of Blackmouth
Blackmouth are a gift any salmon fisherman would be happy to unwrap. Puget Sound's unique winter salmon fishery offers resident Chinook, commonly called blackmouth, from the San Juan Islands in the north to Olympia in the south. Blackmouth are aggressively feeding winter salmon that range from the 22-inch minimum to 15 pounds, are found throughout Puget Sound, almost always near schools of herring baitfish and usually near bottom in 90 to 150 feet of water. The holiday season is the peak of the winter action. It's a fishery accessible from trailerable boats and several charter operators are available, including venerable Puget Sound salmon expert Gary Krein's All Star Charters, (800) 214-1595, www.Allstarfishing.com.
In the San Juan Islands, Marine Area 7, the blackmouth season opens December 1 and runs through April. Along the east side of Whidbey Island and the Skagit, the six-month season starts Nov. 1.
The shortest holiday blackmouth season is in hugely popular and productive Marine Area 9, north of Seattle, which includes Possession Bar, Point No Point, Double Bluff and the Port Townsend waters. Blackmouth are fair game all of November. The season is closed for December and the first two weeks of January, re-opening January 16.
Off the Seattle shoreline, holiday salmon are targeted through January in Marine Area 10 and, in the productive Tacoma waters, the holiday bite runs into New Year's Eve. The season closes for January and re-opens Feb. 1. South Puget Sound waters in Marine Area 13 are open year-round.
West Side Steelhead
From the suburbs of Portland to the saltwater estuaries at the edge of the ocean, Oregon holidays mean winter steelhead fishing. Thanksgiving is the unofficial kick-off for winter-run fishing that just gets better and better into the New Year. The biggest runs of hatchery-produced winter steelhead hit western Oregon rivers in huge numbers in December. Near Portland, give the Sandy, Clackamas, Willamette, Santiam attention over Thanksgiving and Christmas, or cut over to the coast to try the Siletz, Nestucca, Nehalem, Elk and Coquille rivers. For statewide guide info, check www.oregonfishingguides.net. Around Tillamook, the Wilson is the dominate river, but the smaller Trask and Kilches rivers get good shares of early December steelhead, too. For Tillamook info, contact Ted Teufel at www.ProFishGuide.com. While in Tillamook, remember that the bay gets a late run of fall chinook that produces big kings into December along with tasty Dungeness crabs.
Terry Rudnick displays the last of the valley quail from a holiday hunt. The season extends to the end of January. Photo by Terry W. Sheely.
Summers In The Snow
In a strange twist, two of the most productive summer-run steelhead packages are waiting to be unwrapped in winter snow. The Deschutes River, along the east side of the Cascades, and the Grande Ronde River, in the far northeast corner of the state, support two of the biggest runs of summer-steelhead in Oregon. However, these fish don't arrive inland to their rivers from the ocean until fall and are just hitting their home rivers in large numbers during the winter holidays. Thanksgiving on either river is a good time to give thanks and nothing warms up Christmas cold like a hot summer run.
By the holidays, heavy snows in the higher mountains will have pushed elk and deer herds down onto winter range, bringing with them some of the best mountain lion hunting of the year. Expect to find cougars wherever big game herds are wintering. November-December snow offers excellent tracking and spotting conditions. Here are some of the top areas to find yourself a cougar skin wall hanging for Christmas, according to ODFW: South Willamette Watershed District, including east Alsea, north Indigo, McKenzie, south Santiam, south Willamette and northeast Siuslaw
In the Baker District, try Sumpter, Keating, Pine Creek and Lookout Mountain -- wildlife management units where cougars, according to ODFW, are "just about anywhere." In the high desert of the Grant and Heppner Districts, good areas are Fossil, Northside, Desolation, southeast Heppner, and northwest Beulah wildlife management units. Populations are increasing in the Murderers Creek unit.
Seventy-eight of the cats have been killed over the last three years in the Heppner region and it doesn't appear to have hurt the population. Another good area is Union District around Starkey, Catherine Creek, East Mt. Emily, portions of Sled Springs and Wenaha wildlife management units. Cougar can be hunted year-round. Looking for a cat guide? Check out www.worldclassoutdoors.com/oregonhunting.htm.
Coastal bays and estuaries are great places to nail fresh Dungeness crabs for holiday feasts. Small boats offer the best access, but most bays have public piers and docks suitable for potting or dropping baited ring traps. If you're looking for a reason to get out of the house for a day or two, nothing beats a crab getaway and the promise of a holiday crab dinner. Tillamook and nearby Nehalem bays are solid bets. Other good crab spots are Yaquina Bay at Newport, Siuslaw estuary at Florence, Winchester Bay below Reedsport, Coos Bay and the Coquille River estuary at Bandon. The daily limit is a generous 12 male Dungeness, 5 3/4 inches across the back shell, and 24 red rock with no closed season (excluding the ocean) for a $7 annual license.
Ducks By The Dozen
Duck hunting is flat-out great in Oregon over the holidays. That's due largely to moderate marine winter weather and above-freezing temperatures that produce a lot of open fresh water, saltwater estuary shelters from ocean storms, and green fields that attract northern waterfowl like magnets. When most other duck areas are frozen and done for the year, the Willamette Valley, lower Columbia River and ocean bays are collecting those displaced birds and hunters are just hitting their stride. In most areas, duck season go
es to the end of January and special goose permit zones allow shooting into March.
On the north coast, ODFW District Biologist Herman Biederbeck says success is tied to ocean storms that move birds off the bays and into sheltered waters. When it's too nasty to go steelheading, it's a perfect day to head for the duck blind.
Duck and goose hunting on Sauvies Island Wildlife Area is almost always good when the weather is bad, and the population estimates for most species are up, especially for pintails. Wetlands and sloughs are flooded for good decoying.
Pacific Northwest Outfitters (www.outdoorsman.com/outfitters/Oregon_Waterfowl_Hunting) offers guided Duck and Goose hunts in the Willamette Valley and Columbia River Basin, a short drive from Portland. Naturally, the best shoots are found on private leases, but many clubs and lease-holders offer day rates. But there's plenty of public water to hunt on the sand bars of the Columbia and other rivers, open water lakes, and salt water bays -- especially Tillamook Bay, which gets big numbers of both divers, sea ducks and puddle ducks. Ducks will concentrate in coastal bays, including Coos Bay, which is open to hunting even though it is within the city limits. As winter comes on and the rainy season starts, waterfowl move inland to flooded river valleys.
Chukar And Quail
It's challenging and tough, and the dog will love you for it: It's chukar and quail hunting after the crowds. You can fire shotshells at both of these speedy gamebirds until Jan. 31, and in most eastern counties the limit is eight chuckar and 10 California (Valley) quail. The basalt and coulee country of central and eastern Oregon that held birds in the heat of September will still hold them over the holidays, except now they're more visible (sitting a bit tighter since they're not being pounded), and the dog doesn't pass out from heat stroke. And, unless you have terribly bad luck, you'll be hunting alone. Very few chuckar or quail hunters venture out after the weather turns, but the birds love it, the dogs love it and you'll love it after you catch your breath.