Low-Key Steelhead Hotspots

If you've tired of competing with other fishermen, check out these Washington creeks and rivers for a good shot at going it alone when the runs peak.

On an Olympic Peninsula river, pink worms enticed this 22-pound wild steelhead to hit Capt. Mike Baxter's line. Photo courtesy of Steve Carson.

A pod of about half a dozen bright steelhead was holding in a short glide. They hadn't spotted me yet, so the fish were holding in that water, unconcerned. I had coaxed a landowner into letting me fish his stretch of the Naselle River in Washington, and was probably the first angler to approach the fish that day.

Staying in the cover of the bankside brush, I sent a single red unadorned corkie drifting toward them down the glide. On that first drift, as often happens with undisturbed fish, one took the bait gently into his mouth.

I struck quickly. The fish bolted upstream, shaking his head to dislodge the No. 4 hook. Later, after a fine tussle. I admired the nice hatchery hen -- a good one, at about 9 pounds. The fish was chrome-bright and still carried a pair of sea lice near its tail.

Before the rest of them got wise, that school of steelhead would yield another hatchery fish -- this time, a fine buck.

My fishing partner for the day had just landed a bright, 6-pound winter steelhead in a small glide above. He had spotted a pair of fish, and got both of them to take his corkie. He landed the one after a crazy fight on the 6-pound-test we were forced to use on the small, low-running river.

Working undisturbed steelhead is a treat that every steelheader loves. But all too often, we find our favorite river jammed with boats and packed with shore anglers. The best, most productive steelhead rivers are well known. In Internet discussions and bankside talks among the Northwest's steelheaders, the term "combat fishing" often comes to the forefront.

The Cowlitz, Bogachiel and Chehalis, among others, attract the lion's share of interest -- and rightly so.

At one time or another, however, most of us have yearned for a little peace -- and some room for ourselves.

There are plenty of streams in Washington where an angler can find some solitude. Most of them are small compared to the big-name rivers, too small for boats and not attractive to guides. Some offer little public access, and others are just plain difficult to reach.

To get in on this kind of fishing, you're going to have to knock on doors or do some serious hiking and brush-busting. You'll also need some basic knowledge of how to fish smaller steelhead waters, and probably have to give up on the luxury of a boat.

All of these streams get fished some by local anglers, and see some level of competition.

Rick Ereth of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said that anglers are good at rooting out and exploring new spots.

"They go to our Web site and they check the catch rates," he said. "Then they look them up on a map, and go out and try them."

In other words, there's no longer any such thing as a secret steelhead stream.

Keeping that in mind, here is a small sampling of some of Washington's lesser-fished steelhead waters.

WILLAPA BAY RIVERS
This shallow bay along Washington's southern coast is fed by a number of good steelhead streams. Most of them receive good runs of hatchery and wild winter steelhead.

Hatchery fish return in December and January, and the wild runs enter the rivers in February and March.

For the most part, these are slower-moving, low-gradient rivers. While they aren't difficult to drift, there are few public places to launch or take out a boat. Those who want to drift these small rivers may need to knock on a few doors to get permission from private landowners.

Fishing is best in low-water years, said Rob Allen of the WDFW. "When the water is high, the hatchery fish bolt right up to the hatcheries," he said.

That reduces an angler's chance to intercept them. The rivers have had good runs over the last few years, but high water has slowed the catch.

The Willapa Bay rivers get good wild runs, too, said Curt Holt: "Very few people fish for them. They target mostly the hatchery runs."

Holt reports that wild runs into the bay tend to average from 3,000 to 5,000 adults. He has seen poor runs -- as low as 2,000 -- and in the best years, about 11,000 wild winter steelhead were returning to the bay.

The Olympic Peninsula's small creeks are prime spots for action and solitude. But once their flows drop, you're probably better off at the bigger rivers.

North River, Smith Creek
The North River spills into the north end of Willapa Bay, and the smaller Smith Creek feeds into the North River right at tidewater. Both streams get hatchery runs, with 20,000 winter steelhead smolts being split between the streams each year.

You can access the North River at the rough boat launch located on Highway 105 where it crosses Smith Creek. There is limited access elsewhere, except through private timberlands.

The Smith Creek hatchery is the best place to fish the creek, and there's a bit more at the Highway 101 Bridge.

Fishing at the hatchery can be very good at times.

The North River is one of the best wild steelhead rivers within the Willapa Bay. It gets about 19 percent of the bay's wild runs and closes to steelhead angling on March 1.

Naselle River
This picturesque small river dumps into the southern tip of Willapa Bay. The river gets an excellent hatchery run from an annual stocking of 50,000 smolts. The wild run is strong, too, getting about 30 percent of the bay's wild steelhead run.

The stream has limited public access, with most of it below the Highway 4 Bridge. There's a small amount of access at the hatchery. Except during high flows, there is only one good area, big enough for a couple of people at best.

A few local landowners will allow some fishing if you ask.

The winter steelhead hatchery run arrives at the same time as the wild coho run, an

d anglers can keep one bonus wild coho a day through January.

However, there are special gear restrictions to protect the wild coho in the river, so check the synopsis before angling on the river. The Naselle closes for steelheading on April 16.

SOUTHWEST WASHINGTON
Elochoman River
This small river has an excellent run of hatchery winter steelhead from a release of about 90,000 smolts a year.

The wild run is not robust. The river does not contain very good steelhead spawning or rearing habitat.

The hatchery along Elokoman Road is where the fish are headed, and that's where most of the action takes place.

The peak of the run is the holidays, but the fishing continues to be good through January. In addition to the main hatchery and the older Beaver Creek hatchery, there are some other access points along Elokoman Road, which follows along the river from State Highway 4 near the town of Cathlamet.

The floods of November 2007 caused some severe damage to the stream, leaving more large woody debris in the river than there used to be.

Grays River
This small river empties into Grays Bay in the lower Columbia River. The main stem is a slow meandering stream, but the upper reaches are fairly high gradient, as is the West Fork where the hatchery is located.

About 40,000 early-arriving hatchery fish are planted into the West Fork, and there is a lot of public access near the hatchery.

A few locals target the hatchery run, and the hatchery area can sometimes get busy. However, anglers willing to hike down or up from the hatchery can find plenty of holes with no competition. Look for the hatchery run to peter out in late January.

The wild run of winter steelhead returning to the Grays is usually very strong. Unlike the hatchery return, the wild segment of the run rarely gets targeted. Returning adults can number from about 400 to 1,000 each year.

This is a result of the excellent steelhead spawning and rearing habitat in the upper Grays and its tributaries. The last few years have been pretty good, and this winter will likely be another fine season for steelheaders.

The best place to take the bigger wild steelhead is below the Highway 4 Bridge. The river is closed from the State Highway 4 Bridge until Dec. 15, and the river closes to steelheading on March 16.

Coweeman River
This stream is a tributary of the Cowlitz River. Its confluence with the Cowlitz is at Kelso. The Coweeman receives about 15,000 to 20,000 winter steelhead smolts each year.

According to Joe Hymer of the WDFW, the river gets a strong run of wild steelhead as well. "The problem with the Coweeman is that there is very little public access," he said.

A couple of bridges cross the river, and there's a small hatchery at Beaver Creek. But aside from that, it's mostly private lands.

The wild run peaks in March, and the river closes to steelheading on March 16. The river is closed to winter steelhead angling above Mulholland Creek.

OLYMPIC PENINSULA
The Olympic Peninsula offers some of the finest winter steelheading in the Evergreen State. Most anglers target the better-known larger streams, but the area is simply laced with small rivers and creeks with excellent fishing for hatchery as well as native steelhead.

These smaller rivers also produce giant wild steelhead, just as the bigger rivers do.

Salmon and steelhead guide Mike Zavadlov has fished many of these excellent streams, and he explains that timing is important.

"These are the first rivers to come back into condition after heavy rains," said Zavadlov. "They also fish better when they are high. Once they drop to lower flows, it's time to switch to the bigger rivers."

He also notes that most of these rivers are not easy to reach: "You have to be ready to do some bushwhacking to get to some of them," he said.

The rewards are often worth it. The fish are really aggressive because they don't see many fishermen.

These creeks have a tannic color to them, and during winter, they tend to run high and dirty, which can also help keep the fish aggressive.

Like most guides, Zavadlov does not take clients to these small creeks, but seeks them out when he wants a little fun for himself. Besides, the remote nature of many of them means that accessing them may be more work than most of his clients are willing to take on.

The Olympic Peninsula has many with creeks like these, offering amazing opportunities for steelheaders. The few showcased here are just a sampling of what awaits anglers adventurous enough to seek them out.

The timing for all of these creeks is a December and January run for hatchery steelhead, and February and March for the wild run, though many creeks will close for steelhead on March 1.

Some of the creeks are included among the Olympic Peninsula streams, where anglers are allowed to keep one wild winter steelhead a year.

Lyre River
The Lyre River empties into the Strait of Juan de Fuca about four miles west of Agate Bay. There is camping and access at the Lyre River Campground about a mile north of State Highway 112.

"Fishing near the campground at Lyre River is a little less punishing than fishing some of the other creeks," Zavadlov said. "The best way to fish it is to work your way upstream from the campground."

The river is open to steelhead up to the falls near River Mile 3.

In addition to a limited run of wild steelhead, there's a good run of hatchery fish from an annual planting of about 40,000 early-returning winter steelhead smolts.

The Lyre closes for steelhead angling on March 1.

Pysht River
The Pysht River also empties into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near Pillar Point. It is planted with about 20,000 hatchery winter steelhead a year.

There's plenty of access along State Highway 112, but to reach the river anglers should expect to have to bust some brush. The Pillar Point Campground is located near the mouth of the river. This is one of the streams where the retention of one wild fish a year is allowed. The river closes for steelhead on March 1.

GO GET 'EM
Western Washington has no shortage of streams like these, and there are plenty of resources available for the angler willing to do a little homework.

The WDFW Web site is an excellent source of information and includes complete statewide stocking and harvest details. Always be sure to check the regulations for each stream before fishing, and don't be afraid to ask landowners for permission to fish a stream.

The WDFW's Ereth offers one last tip for those that want to escape the crowds.

"Go to the Website. Find one river that is close to you, and make that your home river," he said. "Pick up trash when you get permission to fish. Or better yet, offer to do so when you ask. It will get you on the good side of the landowners. Go out and explore the river, but take care of it!"

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