September 29, 2010
Western Washington's big steelhead rivers get all the glory. But smaller creeks like the Elochoman, Tokul, Cascade, Salmon and Hoko, are dependable and easier to fish.
The Tokul River has a delayed steelhead winter season until Feb. 28. Photo by Dave McCoy.
When most folks from the East envision winter steelhead fishing, they picture large West Coast rivers.
They see sprawling gray-green torrents, flanked by massive gravel bars and towering spruces and cedars.
They think of drift boats and long rods.
These are the classic images of winter steelheading in the Pacific Northwest. And when these people visit the coast, that's exactly the type of fishing they want to experience.
If they get with the right guide, and if the river is in shape and if there are enough steelhead in the river, then they'll catch fish.
However, most visiting anglers aren't aware that quite a few local fishermen catch just as many steelhead, if not more, in streams hardly any bigger than the ones those visitors fish back home.
After all, Washington State steelhead don't spawn only in massive river systems like the Skagit and Cowlitz and Quinault.
Each winter, they also return to dozens of small rivers and creeks.
Many of these waters remain open through at least part of the winter, and nearly all of them get hatchery steelhead.
There are a lot of reasons why locals would choose the creeks over the big rivers:
€¢ For one, smaller waters get less pressure because they're too small for drift boats and rafts.
€¢ Creeks are usually straightforward sequences of riffle-pool-tail-out that even visiting anglers can read.
The sprawling steelhead waters, especially glacial rivers, are often difficult to read, making it hard to distinguish productive waters from those that will never hold fish.
€¢ Also, creeks and small streams with intact watersheds tend to stay in shape longer and clean up more quickly after storms.
€¢ It's also easier to cover all the productive water on a creek and to fish smaller baits and lures.
€¢ Perhaps best of all, in coastal Washington there are literally dozens of winter steelhead creeks.
Indeed, in most areas of Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula and southwest Washington, you usually have several ones to choose from that lie within a short distance of one another.
That lets anglers jump between several creeks during a short winter day. And that can increase your odds of ending up with fish.
Of all the small rivers and creeks to choose from, the five profiled below are arguably the most productive over time. And they're all located relatively close to a major population center.
Note that this month, the closing date for the Olympic Peninsula's Salmon River, Puget Sound's Tokul Creek and Cascade River is later -- Feb. 28.
The Hoko and southwest Washington's Elochoman remain open two weeks longer, closing on March 15.
A classic Olympic Peninsula "cedar creek" with tea-colored water, an abundance of snags and logjams, a moss-festooned canopy of big-leaf maple and towering Sitka spruce, the Hoko is the largest river draining into the western Strait of Juan de Fuca.
It also receives the largest runs of hatchery and wild winter steelhead, and provides the largest sport harvest.
During typical winters, fishermen punch approximately 700 steelhead.
As with other "creek-sized" winter steelhead rivers, you need to get into the Hoko River and wade in it.
Its good steelhead water is easy to identify. The fish tend to hold above bedrock slots and shelves, near cutbanks and the tail-outs of small pools.
Most locals fish yarn-and-bobber rigs or salmon eggs. But if you're an accurate caster, the Hoko is also a good river for small Little Cleo and Wobble-Rite spoons and spinners.
The Hoko-Ozette Road roughly parallels the river from its junction with Highway 112, a few miles west of the salmon-fishing hamlet of Sekiu, and upstream to the concrete Upper Hoko Bridge. This gives anglers about 10 miles of water to fish.
The access varies, from very easy turnouts within sight of the river, to "Don't-even-think-about-it" at the Blue Canyon. There isn't any sign to identify the canyon, but you'll figure it out when the road climbs steeply above the river.
Beyond the canyon, the road drops back down and eventually crosses the river. After the bridge, the Hoko jogs to the east, away from the road. Then the road soon crosses another creek, Big River. If you aren't paying attention, you can confuse the Big River -- which closes at the end of February and has very few steelhead -- with the Hoko.
The section of the Hoko from the Upper Bridge to Ellis Creek is fly-only, catch-and-release, except for a limit of two hatchery steelhead. It remains open through March.
However, the fly water is on timber-company land, and the roads providing access are nearly always gated.
And when they aren't, they might be at any time. That means you'll have to hike beyond the gates or ride a mountain bike.
In addition, aside from the reach just upstream of the bridge, the logging roads don't connect with the river for some distance -- and then only intermittently. This dissuades nearly all anglers from fishing the more remote areas of the fly water.
Does that give anybody an idea?
THREE FACES OF THE SALMON
The Olympic Peninsula's Salmon River is a major tributary of the lower Queets River. It flows into the Queets a couple miles above the Clearwater Road Bridge.
As with other "creek-sized" winter steelhead rivers, you need to get into the Hoko River and wade in it. Its good steelhead water is easy to identify.
The only road access to it is from the Queets River Road, a gravel road that leaves Highway 101 about 7 miles south of the village of Queets, and the Q1000 road, approximately three miles south of that.
Though the Salmon is a long way from virtually everywhere -- 45 miles south of Forks and 65 miles north of Aberdeen -- it actually draws heavy crowds during the peak of the hatchery run.
That's because the Quinault Tribe plants more than 150,000 steelhead smolts into the upper river annually. During good years, sport anglers intercept upwards of 2,000 fish before they reach the reservation waters.
The bulk of the harvest occurs in December and January, but late-arriving hatchery fish and a handful of wild steelhead (which must be released) provide sport through the close of the season in February.
For the sport angler, there are three basic reaches of the Salmon:
1) The park water,
2) Water managed by the state and
3) The reservation.
Most angling pressure takes place on the section in Olympic National Park. It extends from the mouth upstream past the bridge to the reservation boundary, approximately a mile upstream. The reservation water is inaccessible to non-tribal members unless they hire the services of a Quinault guide.
After meandering through a canyon for several miles, the river briefly leaves the reservation. Non-tribal anglers can once again fish it for a short distance before it flows back into the reservation.
If this all sounds a bit confusing, just fish the Salmon the way nearly everyone else does, by concentrating on the section in the national park.
All you need to do is turn off Highway 101 onto the Queets River Road. (The sign says "Lower Queets Valley.") Drive about a mile to the bridge and park. Although this lies in the absolute heart of the Olympic Peninsula rain forest, one of the most remote places in the state, you often see a dozen or more cars along the road when fresh fish are in the river.
For years, a well-worn fisherman's trail has led anglers downstream along the right bank of the river. Less well-defined "elk-angler" trails have led in other directions.
In December 2007, however, the devastating windstorm and flooding made the path to the mouth impassable in many spots. That requires you to bushwhack around blowdowns and other obstructions.
In addition, during one of last winter's floods, the Queets flooded through an old alder bottom directly into the Salmon, and the nature of the bottom in several areas has also changed. In other words, even if you're a longtime regular, this winter you'll have to find your way and learn the river again.
One of the Snoqualmie River's major tributaries, Tokul Creek has been one of western Washington's most consistently productive "small" steelhead streams for decades.
Ten years ago, during the 1998-99 winter steelhead season, anglers took 530 fish, with 232 of them caught in January and 127 in February.
During 2001-02, 650 steelhead were recorded. The tallies for January and February, respectively, were 249 and 121. Two years ago, the numbers were still good, at 376 for January and 183 in February.
Unlike most steelhead rivers, Tokul Creek has a delayed winter steelhead opener. The section downstream of the Fish Hatchery Road Bridge is open from Dec. 1 through Feb. 28.
According to Andrew Moravec, of Three Rivers Marine and Tackle, the creek's productivity in February depends on how much of the river is open.
"The best water is above the bridge," he said. "Some years it's open, and sometimes it's not. When it is open, they do real well."
One of the most popular spots is the "big eddy" at the confluence of Tokul Creek and the Snoqualmie. As you move up into the creek, the water becomes faster and shallower.
"The main setup there is a 12- to 15-inch leader and yarn," Moravec said. "It's a fast-moving creek. Any pocket that's three feet long can hold a steelhead."
Flowing into the Skagit River at the community of Marblemount, the Cascade River is the only "creek" covered in this article with a glacial component to its flow. Though it's larger than your typical creek, it's still possible to fish from its bank.
Small-water tactics, such as yarn-and-bobbers and spoons, also work well.
It receives a substantial plant of hatchery steelhead, usually more than 100,000. When it's in shape, it can provide good fishing during the early season, often yielding as many as 200 steelhead a month in December and January. By late January, the bulk of the hatchery run is over, and the crowds thin out considerably.
This gives anglers who don't mind bucking the odds a chance to fish in relative solitude.
As in most major Skagit River tributaries, a handful of wild fish also drift into the Cascade, though they are protected from harvest -- and in fact, are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In recent years, the section of the Cascade from the mouth to the Rockport-Cascade Road Bridge has been open through February to any type of legal bait or gear. There's a limit of two hatchery fish.
Through February, the water upstream of the bridge is managed under selective-gear regulations.
During the winter season, the portion of the river below the bridge is -- in addition to steelhead -- also open to bull trout, also known as Dolly Vardens. But the water upstream is catch-and-release.
Actually, most Skagit Basin anglers release those Dolly Vardens that they hook incidentally while fishing for steelhead.
You'd never know it from looking at it, but every few years, southwest Washington's Elochoman River actually cracks the list of the Top 10 winter steelhead rivers in the state.
Located a few miles west of the Columbia River hamlet of Cathlamet, it's a brushy, murky low-gradient river. You can cast across in many places. How can it compete with heavyweights like the Cowlitz and Bogachiel and Skykomish?
Well, you can answer that question with two words: hatchery fish!
Year in, year out, the Elochaman's Beaver Creek Hatchery releases upwards of 80,000 steelhead, and it has some of the best returns of any WDFW hatchery.
As with most rivers that contain hatchery fish primarily, the bulk of the run arrives early.
This is especially true of the Elochoman, because it's one of the first rivers that winter steelhead encounter after leaving the ocean and migrating up the Columbia River.
During 2006-07, for example, it gave up 34 fish in November, another 196 in December, 117 in January, 13 in February and 4 in March.
But don't let those low February and March numbers discourage you. The year before, anglers caught 246 fish in January and 112 fish in February. The numbers jump around from year to year, but there are nearly always some fish available in February.
"It depends on the water," said Bob Sherard, of Bob's Sporting Goods in Longview. "It can be good, or it can be high and muddy and have a lot of logs and debris." For good late-season steelheading, Sherard said to look for lower, clearer water.
The season on the Elochoman runs through March 15, longer than most rivers its size. Bait and all the other standard winter steelhead tackle are legal. Float-fishing with jigs is the favored rig.
"Corkies and yarn and eggs used to be the way everyone fished," Sherard said. "But now, I bet 80 percent of the fishermen use bobber and jigs."
In spring, a jig called the Nightmare is really popular. It has a white head, red body and black tail. Sherard said that purple and bright-pink jigs are also productive in the winter.