Check out these 11 winter-run steelhead hotspots, all within an hour or so of the big city. (February 2008).
Photo by Terry W. Sheely.
It was a chilly, misty afternoon in early February. I was parked in a roadside pullover above a slow curl of Snoqualmie River water, after a meeting in Fall City and before dinner in Black Diamond — with two rare hours to kill.
A two-piece steelhead rod, bulging tackle vest and hip boots had been in my car trunk day and night since November, rigged and ready.
Fifteen minutes later, flopping in the rocks at my feet was 12 pounds of winter-run steelhead — a buck with a rosy cheek patch, chrome flanks and a missing adipose fin, chewing hard on a mat of pearl-pink colored corkie and cerise yarn stuck to its hooked jaw. I skidded the buck across the rocks and looked for a river hammer to adjust its attitude. This fish was coming home for dinner.
STEELHEAD IN PUGETROPOLIS
Stealing time for steelheading is a challenge anywhere in the state. But it's actually a little easier in the Seattle area because of the tributary fingers of a major river system that deliver a whispered promise of close-to-home steelhead.
Within an hour or so, steelheaders can be knee-deep somewhere in the Snohomish River Basin, casting into water that produces more than half of the Puget Sound region's entire winter steelhead catch.
According to reported catches, nearly 5,000 winter-run steelhead were hooked in the Snohomish River system. That's roughly 54 percent of all the winter-run steelhead caught in the Puget Sound region.
Into the sweeping system feed at least 11 Snohomish River tributaries with fishable runs of winter steelhead. They include the beautiful Skykomish River, easily the hottest and most productive winter-run river in the Puget Sound region.
And this region, as described by WDFW, is geographically huge, encompassing dozens of steelhead rivers from Sekiu on Juan de Fuca Strait east to the Cascade Mountains, and from Olympia north to British Columbia, including all of Hood Canal and a bunch of good saltwater-beach fisheries.
In that vast reach of steelhead country, no other river system comes close to producing the number of hatchery steelhead that winter anglers pull from the Snohomish system. And that includes the Skagit River — once an international celebrity, but which produced only 500 catch-and-eat winter steelhead during last year's 2005-06 season.
Two other backyard rivers, the Green and Puyallup, are convenient to Seattle anglers. But both have major problems. Both rivers lie south of Seattle, fishing pressure is intense and they are commercially gill-netted by treaty tribes. Annual steelhead returns are skidding downhill despite huge plants of young smolts.
Even while WDFW, tribal biologists and sport-fishing groups stand a puzzled death watch over the Green and Puyallup, savvy Seattle steelheaders steal off for quick-hit adventures with more promise on the Snohomish Steelhead 11 — steelhead-hiding tributaries within 30 miles of Seattle.
The biggest, Skykomish and Snoqualmie, are regionally famous and deliver the biggest catch counts. They also attract the heaviest fishing pressure. Prospecting on the smaller flows, like the Tolt, Raging, Pilchuck and Sultan rivers, can also uncover dime-bright surprises for pocket-picking steelheaders who learn the water. And there's never a crowd.
Next time you plan a steelheading caper to steal away from Seattle, check out the Snohomish 11.
1. MAIN STEM SNOHOMISH
The Snohomish is a large, flood-prone, pastoral lowland river formed by two of Puget Sound's most popular steelhead and salmon rivers: the Skykomish and Snoqualmie.
Their confluence is three miles southwest of Monroe. The Snohomish is a wide, slow, tidal-influenced, mud-bottomed conduit for winter steelhead. It produces about 360 winter-runs, most of them in December and January.
Steelhead tend to move upstream rapidly through the slow, lower river, especially on flood tides. Most anglers set up plunking or back-trolling rods on steelhead migration corridors, especially in the water below the town of Snohomish, and wait for a run of fish.
Traditional hotspots are the WDFG access at Thomas Eddy, both above and below the Highway 9 Bridge and at the mouth of the Pilchuck River, and the Skykomish and Snoqualmie confluences.
A boat launch in downtown Snohomish upstream from the Highway 9 Bridge provides trailered-boat access to the middle river. The town stretch is popular with jet boats, and can be navigated by prop boats.
Ramps are also located in Everett, Marysville Park at First and State streets and in Ebey Slough. In most areas, the lower Snohomish's placid, snaggy flow is deep enough to be fished by both prop and jet boats.
Bank-fishermen park and walk from the paralleling river roads that link Everett and Snohomish.
2. PILCHUCK RIVER
The Pilchuck is a quick, narrow, rocky 30-mile long steelhead river that spills into the Snohomish River at the east edge of Snohomish. Open only during the winter, it produces about 100 winter-run steelhead a year, more than half during February.
Boat-fishing is not allowed, but the river is wadeable and between Snohomish and Machias is paralleled by Machias Road. The Robe-Menzel Road leads south from Granite Falls along the river for four miles.
This is rumbling pocket-picking water, good for spinners, spoons and yarn-corkie combinations.
3. SKYKOMISH RIVER
By far the best of the 11, the Sky is the most popular winter steelhead river in the region, and with good reason.
Fed by two steelhead hatchery rearing-pond facilities, dozens of spawning tributaries with a long run from the crest of the Cascades to the dairy farms in Snoqualmie Valley, the main-stem Sky attracts more winter steelhead than any river for 100 miles in any direction. It's red-hot in December and January, but catches fall off after Ground Hog Day.
The Sky is a broad, deep, boulder-pool, riffle-and-rapid freestone river paralleled for most of its length by roads along both banks, with plenty of excellent walk-in and boat-fishing opportunities. The lower river from Monroe to the confluence is a favorite with jet boats.
The Sky almost always ranks in the state's top five steelhead rivers, but unfortunately, it's caught in the same downward spiral of all Puget Sound drainages. Fortunately, it's spiraling slower than the others.
In 1999, for comparison, the Sky produced almost 2,000 winter steelhead and 3,000 summer steelhead. Just 10 years earlier, anglers routinely caught about 5,000 winter-runs and 3,000 summer-runs. WDFW's latest report is that only 1,840 winter runs were caught.
Steelhead action extends upriver beyond U.S. 2-High Bridge to WDFW's Reiter Ponds and on into the North and South Forks. Most fishing pressure is from Gold Bar downstream, and is centered on the stretch between Monroe and Sultan.
Highway 2 follows the north bank at a distance, for the
river's entire length. The south bank is closely tracked between Monroe and Sultan by Ben Howard Road, which has walk-in access. The WDFW Ben Howard access is on the south side of river two miles east of the Monroe Bridge. It's a favorite take-out for drift-boats fishing down from Sultan and a launch point for jet boats working the Monroe area. Bank-anglers will also find good access here. Another WDFW ramp is on the north side of the river at the Highway 203 Bridge in Monroe. Other popular bank-fishing and boat-access points include the mouth of the Sultan River, Highway 2-High Bridge and WDFW's Reiter Ponds steelhead rearing facility. Bank access is limited between Sultan and High Bridge, which is a prime drift-boat float.
5. WALLACE RIVER
Wading steelheaders keep about 150 winter steelhead a year from this brushy little river, most from the lower stretches below Wallace Falls in December and January.
This is small, quick pocket water. It gets very limited fishing pressure, and if you take the time to find the holding areas, it can develop into a fine pocket to pick. Brings lots of tackle, since the donation rate is high.
The Wallace flows into the Skykomish 1 1/2 miles east of Sultan on the outskirts of Startup. Trails lead upstream along both banks for a short distance, and Wallace Lake Road crosses the river just below lake. A road from Gold Bar follows the east side of the river to Wallace Falls.
5. SULTAN RIVER
The Sultan is a major tributary of the Skykomish River. It dumps in at the Highway 2 town of Sultan where there is an incredibly popular boat launch into the Sky. The City of Everett has dammed the Sultan about 12 miles above its mouth. Steelheaders take about 20 winter-runs, most in December, in the lower stretch, which flows through a steep canyon. This little river is a good steelheading alternative if the Skykomish is high and dirty. Reiner and Pipeline roads follow the west side, Sultan Basin Road leads up the east side for 14 miles.
6. NORTH FORK
Around 50 steelhead a year are punched on the North Fork, almost all by the same handful of experienced fishermen. The North Fork is a long way from salt water, and most of its fish are caught in February. It merges with the South Fork at Index, and steelhead go upstream as far as Deer Falls, just above Goblin Creek a couple of miles from the end of Forest Service Road 63.
From Highway 2 at Index, turn northwest onto North Fork Road-FS 63, which parallels the North Fork.
7. SOUTH FORK
Followed by Highway 2, this branch of the Sky flows about 13 miles between its confluence with the North Fork at Index and its beginning at the confluences of the Beckler and Tye rivers near Skykomish.
It gives up two to three dozen steelhead a year, and catches are spread out evenly from December through February. It's a very small river and is wadeable.
8. SNOQUALMIE RIVER
The Snoqualmie is now a shadow of what it offered steelheaders in the 1980s, but it's still one of Puget Sound's most productive and popular steelhead rivers. It delivers between 800 and 1,000 winter steelhead a year, most in January, but with good catches in December and February.
Main-stem Snoqualmie steelheading water starts in a plunge 268 feet over Snoqualmie Falls, a natural barrier to anadromous fish.
Below the falls, the river runs north through good winter steelhead structure into the Snoqualmie Valley to join the Skykomish River west of Monroe. Roadside and WDFW accesses lead to a lot of bank-fishing. Jet- and drift-boats fish from Plum's Landing below the mouth of Tokul Creek all the way to the confluence.
Below Carnation, though, the current slows and it can be a long float without a motor. There is prime water in the Fall City, Carnation area, and the big deep pools immediately below Tokul Creek are very popular with jig-and-bobber steelheaders.
Ramps are at the mouth of the Raging River in Fall City, below Fall City at Nielsen's along Highway 203 at Neal Road, at the mouth of the Tolt River, Carnation Farms Bridge and in Duvall. Winter steelhead are planted in the Raging and the Tolt, and steelheading is promising at the mouths of those tributaries.
9. TOLT RIVER
Winter steelhead are tough to land in the fast, snaggy Tolt from the mouth at McDonald Park on the Snoqualmie River upstream beyond the road end. By far the best steelheading is in lower six miles. From the center of Carnation, a road runs east along the river, touching several roadside access points and a WDFW access.
A path runs along the river near the bridge in Carnation and provides access to several decent stretches of holding water.
10. RAGING RIVER
The Raging is a small, fast-flowing winter steelhead stream that heads near Highway 18, and rumbles west under Intestate 90 through the community of Preston. Then it turns north for four miles along the winding Preston-Fall City Road to enter Snoqualmie River at a large WDFW fishing- and boat-access site in Fall City.
When it rains, this small stream is an ace in the hole because it clears quickly and is often fishable when larger rivers flood. But it's snaggy, so bring lots of tackle. The best steelheading is between Preston and Fall City. And for next year, remember that December is the hot month.
11. TOKUL CREEK
If you've ever wondered what it's like to fish in a steelhead hatchery, this is where you find out. The creek — narrow, fast and rocky — is the outlet between the Snoqualmie River and the WDFW steelhead hatchery feeding the Snoqualmie River. The stream is off Highway 202 between Fall City and Snoqualmie Falls.
January is always the hot month, but there are plenty of steelhead available in December and February.
Anglers yank up to 500 steelhead a year from this little water. When the run is in, bring elbow pads and a rock to stand on.