Few anglers know about these two Cowlitz River hotspots, even though they're about as close as you can get to a sure thing. (January 2007)
Check out this great-looking winter steelhead. With green water, steelies can be banked no matter what the temperature. But monitor the weather for stable barometric conditions to make sure fish stay on the bite.
Photo by Timothy Kusherets
Winter steelheading really begins in February, when all the other fishermen call it a year. It makes for very interesting fishing.
There are two amazing locations to fish for winter steelhead. They're hidden along a winding street called Spencer Road where every year, two fish hatcheries provide outstanding fishing for the state of Washington.
In between the Cowlitz Trout Hatchery and the Barrier Dam Salmon Hatchery are two awesome secret honeyholes that I've never shared with anyone -- until now.
To distinguish them, let's call them K-1 and K-2.
Each demands distinctive fishing techniques that work only with specific water levels. The first location is the hardest to access, since the best time to fish it is when anglers call it quits.
The hole doesn't reveal itself until the river rises to 14,000 cubic feet per second, which most hydrologists would call flood stage. But first, let's start with the directions of how to get to this outstanding water.
Getting to the river is pretty easy from Interstate 5. Head east along Highway 12 for six or seven miles to Salkum, Wash. Turn right onto Tucker Road, and eventually you will come to a "Y" in the road connecting with Classe Road.
Turn left onto Classe Road and follow it to the end, where it intersects with Spencer Road. Turn left onto Spencer Road and look for a fish hatchery sign on the right, about one mile down the road.
Look for an open field on the right with the only road on it. Turn right and follow it to the stop sign and make a left following the road to the boat launch and parking lot.
The trailhead is the southwest corner of the lot. The trail meanders through the woods at first and then follows the river towards Blue Creek.
The fishable water of K-1 is almost a mile long, and unless the river actually floods, it cannot be seen -- which is why steelhead love it and fishermen don't know about it.
Check the hydrograph at the USGS.gov website on the Cowlitz River for flows of at least "Fourteen-thousand" CFS.
In all the time I've fished this secret spot, I've never seen another fishermen anywhere along the stretch of water. Logs, grass, snags and branches are everywhere. And because of the lack of anglers, metalheads feel no pressure.
Anglers just need to know how to fish it. But first, you have to find it.
To get to K-1, head down the trail from the parking lot of the hatchery. Near the end of trail, the hold can be found on the left side of the trail where there is a short drop-off.
The water there will not look at all inviting, but the fish will be there. To get to the best spots, find a stout fallen branch about 6 feet long.
Probe the water to find ledges and bars, and follow them to the other side of the turbid water. Look for slots, eddies, pools and tail-outs. Just about any one of the holds will have fish in them any time of the day. And the best part is that they'll always be on the bite, due to a lack of predatory pressure.
The areas to concentrate on are undercuts, slots, pools and tail-outs. These are traditionally good areas that produce. But since the water tends to run turbid during these most fishable times, bobber-jigs, spoons and spinners are the best methods to get fish on the hook.
Bobber-jigs work best close to the banks and in slots below pools. Most of the steelhead in this area seem to have fun moving in and out of holds without ever making any real attempt to move upriver, which makes jig setups perfect for slots.
Since the water of K-1 doesn't get that deep, make the leader of each jig setup no longer than a few feet. Though the water will run turbid, the fish will be put off by brightly colored bobbers. Natural coloration or cork is the best option to consider.
Conversely, when conventional jigs of fur, feather and hackle cease to work, try putting a pair of eyes on the head of the jig. The supposition is that fish will get as close to an offering as possible, even when visibility runs as little as 6 inches -- which brings us to wobbler spoons.
Wobbler spoons and Little Cleos work very well for the deeper sections of pools and slots because the sounds they make and their little flashes of light get the attention of lethargic steelhead.
Jigging them slowly once they're at the bottom can garner strikes from those fish holding in slow water just below fast currents.
Spoons don't require leaders, but the best kind of rotation is done when two swivels work in conjunction with each other. This prevents extra line-twist that is sure to form from using just one.
Whenever you're fishing faster water with spoons, cast directly into the current and drift them exactly the same way you would corkies, eggs, worm and shrimp. After using spoons, go to the smaller profiles that are offered by spinners.
Spinners are excellent for the pools and tail-outs of K-1. With the exceptionally slow currents in the pools, spinners can get down to the fish and still have action that keeps them there.
Whenever the current begins to pick up at the end of the pool, the best technique is to cast upriver and then retrieve the cast the moment the spinner gets somewhere near the bed. This technique will allow for faster retrievals, giving the blade more action and keeping it down.
Steelhead that hold in these tail-outs will do it uniformly. That is, they will literally line up along the perimeter of the tail-out, with their tails enough above the surface to be seen clearly, even on cloudy days. This makes a spinner presentation the perfect offering.
The optimal size spinners for winte
r steelhead are 2s and 3s. They should be tied to a leader about 3 feet long, with swivels at both ends. The first should be a snap-swivel connected directly to spinners, and the other end should have a barrel swivel to counter-twist.
Every fish that strikes at a spinner will slam it hard. That's one of the many things that make this lure so great in K-1.
Remember that this particular hold absolutely depends on the current of the river running higher than 14,000 CFS. Check your hydrograph and the weather. It's possible to anticipate how the river will be lowered or raised, even though it's a system managed by humans rather than nature.
Fishing this river can be done anytime during the winter since there are stands of trees on every side of the river. It's essential to recall that this hold runs through the woods where the main stem does not typically pour into, and that's what makes this hole so secretive and productive.
The next best hold, called K-2, is further down Spencer Road heading east towards the Cowlitz Salmon hatchery located near Mayfield Dam. Starting from the Blue Creek Trout Hatchery, turn right onto Spencer Road and follow it for about 4 miles. The hold can be found on the right, via a small, steeply inclined dirt road that heads right down to the river.
Cars and other low-riding vehicles can park at the bottom of the road. Trucks can reach further reaches on the river, but should do so only with adequate traction whenever the river runs lower than 6,000 CFS.
This section of the river is largely known only to the locals, but stretches for about a half-mile in either direction. K-2 is wide open to just about any kind of fishing technique, including flies, spoons, jigs, corkies and baits.
Most of the Cowlitz River is unforgiving when it comes to fly-fishing winter-run steelhead. But when it runs green (relatively clear conditions), fish are on the bite.
Because the river is controlled, forecasting green water is not tough. Get on the net and watch for stable water hydrograph levels with mild to no precipitation.
The sun doesn't have to be out to get fish on. Just look for relatively clear water and anything on the surface that will make steelhead rise and promise the battle of a lifetime. Fish this particular hold upriver, where the water expands to a bending tail-out.
As the river bends, it becomes very shallow closer to the tail-out, and that means dry flies are a good option. Upriver casts present the best drifts. Throw out a pink shrimp and drift the seams of the current while stripping. Steelhead will let you know how well you've tied up.
This technique gets really hard takes, so be ready. Steelies will actually head upriver into the current, so flyfishermen need to be ready to give each fish some slack without sacrificing tension. The pink shrimp on a 14 hook can be fished right up to the slot directly below it, and that requires a change of technique.
The slot creates an eddy near the head of a pool, making spoons and jigs the perfect gear to fish it. Because of the fluttering characteristics of spoons, steelhead are attracted by noise as well as flashes sure to be made during high-pressure systems.
Rubbing gel scent on the blade gets their attention that much faster. Remember that spoons don't actually require the use of two swivels. But to prevent line-twist, it's best to use them. Jigs, unlike spoons, offer the steelhead a natural profile, and the takes are subtle.
Whenever the bobber goes down, count to three before setting the hook. The old-timers of the river will tell you that on a bobber-jig setup setting the hook any sooner will pull the hook out of their mouths.
Leader length should range from 4 to 6 feet.
Here's a great technique of making the most out of the drift for jigs. As the jig and bobber head out of the eddy and into the pool, rather than reeling in after about 20 feet, walk with the drift for as far as you can. This is what I call "power jig" fishing, and many times it works on the first drift, due to the extended length of the drift.
To fish both spoons and jigs effectively, the best scents for this time of year are shrimp and crayfish, which work very well with corkies.
To drift-fish corkies in K-2, fish in deep, fast water where the biggest fish gravitate. Since this river is riddled with boulders and snags, slinkies are the best weighting system to use when fishing corkies.
Casting is not a problem, but depth can be. Obviously, the deeper you want to fish, the more weight you need to use. To fish near the surface, simply reduce the amount of weight to glide.
Pencil lead is perfect for this technique, since each drift will never come within contact of the bed -- and if any movement of the main line takes place, it will be from a steelie's take.
Tie yarn directly to an egg-loop to apply scent. When shrimp and crayfish scents don't produce, try putting on some "squid" scent. Scents are considered bait, but the true baits are a secret weapon when fish have lockjaw.
Baits vie with corkies for river superiority. When corkies fail, then head straight to bait, which offers the ultimate in natural profile, regardless of how large or small it may be. Real shrimp, crayfish, worms and eggs produce when all others don't.
For fishing K-2, your best option is to take both bait and corkies. Traditionally, the most difficult thing about bait is that it's not hard and therefore, casting is limited. But since this section of the river isn't wide at all, baits stay on longer than on most any other sections of the system.
When the fishing is good, bait can often run low by midday, but you can actually get restocked while out in the field. Not far from the hold, just a few miles from K-2, there's Barrier Campground Store. It has saved me a couple of times when gear broke down or I forgot something at home.
The store is on Fuller Road just off Spencer Road near the Salmon hatchery. The knowledgeable staff has seen it, heard it, and done it all. Stop in and see a 27-pound native steelhead caught less than a mile away.
I know many of the anglers in the area personally, and they know all about how to fish the river. They are kind enough to share information with anyone willing to ask.
These hidden holes of the Cowlitz are part of a system that produces the largest run of winter steelhead in the state. Now you know some secrets. But more than knowing simply the location and fishing techniques, it's imperative to check the hydrograph monitoring system and weather.
K-1 is found along the trail of Blue Creek and produces only w
hen water runs higher than 14,000 CFS. K-2 is further up Spencer Road and can be fished just about any other time of the year, but is particularly productive February to April.
Remember that in order to fish each hold successfully, specific water volume and specific fishing techniques are required.
Diversify the tackle by taking gear, bait, and fly-fishing material, especially when fishing K-2. Don't be surprised if you don't see more than a couple of anglers at any given time.
Fishing these hidden holes to get Cowlitz River metalheads ensures the fishing season will continue without combat fishing situations.