Your Guide To Urban Steelheading
September 29, 2010
Want to fish after work? Only have a few minutes to wet a line? Fortunately, the greater Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area is loaded with quality steelhead fishing.
Washington winter steelheaders are a dedicated bunch -- some would venture to use the word fanatic. Many routinely go to great lengths to connect with a bright winter fish. They don't blink an eye at getting up in the middle of the night, and it isn't uncommon for them willingly spend an entire day standing in heavy rain or freezing cold. It is also considered standard practice for Seattle and Tacoma-area steelheaders to travel to distant winter rivers. They drive to the Skagit in the north and to the Cowlitz, Lewis and Kalama in southwest Washington. They also increasingly visit the large rain forest rivers that drain the Olympic Peninsula's West End. In addition to three or more hours in a car, this trip involves a ride on a Washington state ferry and crossing two major bridges. As a result, many anglers who want to be fresh and rested in the morning drive out the day before and spend the night in a motel. However, that raises the ante for a fishing trip considerably, not to mention taking up even more time.
There is a solution for Seattle/Tacoma-area steelheaders, of course: They can fish close to home. Indeed, the rivers that drain the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains and that flow into eastern Puget Sound were historically some of the most productive winter steelhead rivers in the Pacific Northwest. In Trey Combs' Steelhead Fly Fishing and Flies (1976), he put it this way: "Within Puget Sound, from Tacoma to Mount Vernon, a distance of slightly more than 100 miles, can be found the finest concentration of winter steelhead rivers in North America." Many of the traditions and lore of winter steelheading also have their roots on Puget Sound rivers.
It hasn't exactly been a secret that the wild winter steelhead populations on the rivers closest to Seattle and Tacoma -- the Snohomish System's Skykomish and Snoqualmie, the Green River and the Puyallup -- have declined alarmingly in recent years. Indeed, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) was forced to impose permanent wild release regulations on all of these rivers after wild returns declined to record low levels in the late 1990s. But anglers can still take hatchery fish on all of these systems, and hatchery runs have increased significantly since ocean conditions became more productive several years ago. As many as 5,000 winter fish have been taken from the Snohomish System in recent years, numbers that occasionally supplant even the Cowlitz as the No. one winter steelhead system in the state. The Snoqualmie and Skykomish, of course, are the crown jewels of Puget Sound rivers, but metropolitan anglers who take the time to learn them can also reasonably expect to connect with a winter steelhead on the Green and Puyallup rivers, as well.
While rivers that meander behind shopping malls, subdivisions and freeways might not have the grandeur of the Skagit or the wilderness feel of Olympic Peninsula rivers, Seattle-Tacoma-area rivers nonetheless provide productive and nearby winter steelhead fishing. Your odds of connecting with a bright 2-salt hatchery fish are, in fact, probably as good on these rivers as they are on more distant systems. Even better, their proximity lets you fish for a few hours in the morning and still have part of the day left for other activities. That gives you time to watch a Seahawks game, to eat a late lunch with your wife or maybe even put up the storm windows that you have been ignoring since Thanksgiving.
SNOHOMISH MAIN-STEM STEELHEAD
The northernmost of the easily accessible Seattle/Tacoma-area rivers, the Snohomish System is far and away Puget Sound's most productive. The Snohomish main stem is created by the confluence of the Skykomish and Snoqualmie west of Monroe, and it sidles through bottomlands downstream to Everett, then drains into Possession Sound. The system has earned top honors as the most productive winter steelhead system in Washington several times in recent years. During 2001-02 it yielded more than 5,000 winter steelhead, with the Skykomish producing 3,383 fish and the Snoqualmie kicking in an additional 2,067. A half-dozen smaller tributaries -- Sultan, Wallace, Raging, Tolt, Tokul -- also produce a few hundred fish each winter.
Although main-stem anglers have the first shot at fish, the Snohomish proper usually turns out far fewer steelhead than its tributaries. This is largely because of the relative lack of access and difficulty of fishing its slow, deep waters. However, the Snohomish usually gives up between 500 and 1,000 steelhead, and during 2001-02, the last year for which the WDFW has released harvest figures, it accounted for 848 fish. The Pilchuck River, the main stem's major north bank tributary, yielded an additional 325 fish. Three-fourths of the Snohomish's steelhead are taken in December, although fresh fish continue drifting up from saltwater until the season closes in February. The early season steelhead are almost entirely hatchery fish. Before wild release was implemented, there was a spike in February when larger wild fish appeared, but they are no longer pursued by as many anglers.
The main stem is a large, bottomland river, and plunkers and drift-boat anglers favor it. Plunkers employ the traditional large Spin 'n' Glo or other winged bobber rigs along with hunks of shrimp or roe. Nearly all boat anglers troll, usually either bottom-bouncing or back-trolling with bait divers. The Snohomish is open from the Burlington Northern Bridge in Everett upstream to the confluence of the Skykomish and Snoqualmie through February. It has a standard daily bag of two hatchery fish, and all wild steelhead must be released immediately. The Pilchuck River receives around 25,000 steelhead smolts each year.
THE SKYKOMISH IS NUMBER ONE
The Skykomish, which is basically the north fork of the Snohomish, drains the largest watershed in the system, and it nearly always accounts for more steelhead than any other tributary. As many as 3,000 winter fish have been taken from the Sky, as it is popularly known, in recent years. January is usually the most dependable month for hatchery fish, with as many as 1,500 fish taken, but as many as 1,000 are regularly recorded in February. Winter steelheaders also catch 100 or more fish from the river's North Fork and South Fork, and in the Sultan and Wallace rivers. The Skykomish main stem absorbs around 130,000 winter steelhead smolts each spring, and its major tributaries, the Sultan, Wallace, and North Fork, receive, respectively, 30,000, 20,000, and 15,000 smolts. This widespread geographic distribution of hatchery releases -- especially the large number planted at WDFW's Reiter Ponds rearing ponds on the upper river -- ensures that steelhead are available throughout the system and provide good winter angling into February.
Reiter Ponds, which is located a few miles upstream of Gold Bar, is far and away the most productive, but also the most overcrowded, steelhead water on the river. Fish aren't as concentrated in the water above Reiter Ponds, but neither are anglers, and the scenery at the Confluence Hole and
runs downstream is magnificent. The gravel bars and flats around Sultan are also popular, especially among fly and light tackle anglers who flock the middle Skykomish during its catch-and-release selective fishery in March and April. The most famous of all winter steelhead flies, the Skykomish Sunrise, was created for this river, and larger, wild fish are often taken during the spring season. The Lewis Street Bridge in Monroe is extremely popular with bank anglers.
The section from the mouth to the Lewis Street Bridge in Monroe is open to all types of angling through February, with a daily bag of two hatchery fish. The same regulations are in effect between Monroe and the Wallace River, except the water downstream of the Sultan River is the area open during the March and April catch-and-release selective fishery. From the Wallace River mouth upstream to the confluence of the north and south forks, the February 28 closure is in effect, as it is in the lower reaches of the forks. In addition to the main stem, some fishing can be obtained on the Sultan and Wallace rivers, both of which flow into the north bank. Various special regulations and short closures are in effect, and all anglers should consult the regulations pamphlet.
THE SNOQUALMIE IS CLOSE
The course of the Snoqualmie River carries it through the rapidly expanding suburbs east and north of Seattle. It is a close-in river for thousands of urban anglers, and access is good throughout much of the river, especially around communities like Snoqualmie, Fall City and Carnation. Migratory fish are confined to the portion of the Snoqualmie River downstream of Snoqualmie Falls. In 2001-02, the Snoqualmie gave up 2,067 fish, 1,500 of which were taken in December, but only 63 in February. The Snoqualmie's major tributaries -- the Tolt River, Tokul Creek and Raging River -- also give up winter steelhead, and Tokul Creek is by far the most productive. The Snoqualmie main stem receives between 150,000 and 180,000 steelhead smolts annually, and the Tolt gets another 20,000 or 30,000.
Snohomish: Plunking access is available from highways along the lower river upstream to Snohomish and at 115th Avenue SE, where there is also a boat launch. Additional launches are located in Everett, Snohomish, Monroe and Sultan. John's Sporting Goods (425-259-3056) in Everett has tackle and information.
Skykomish: Highway 2 tracks the river from Monroe to the forks near Index; the Ben Howard Road parallels the south bank from Monroe to Sultan. Sky Valley Trader (360-794-8818) has tackle and information on conditions and guides. Drifting Fly Guide Service (888-204-5327) offers fly and gear trips.
Snoqualmie: The mouth of the Tolt is near Carnation and is accessible by Hwy. 203 and NE 32nd Street, while Hwy. 202 connects to the Tokul Creek Hatchery area and the Preston-Fall City Road parallels the lower Raging River. Gear and advice is available at Sky Valley Traders (360-794-8818).
Green: Highway 18 crosses the river near the mouth of Soos Creek, while the SE Green Valley Road follows the north bank of the river from southeast of Auburn upstream to Flaming Geyser State Park; Highway 169 connects with the Green River Gorge. Auburn Sports and Marine (253-833-1440)
Puyallup: Plunkers reach the lower river from the North Levee Road in Puyallup. Boat ramps are located between McMinn and Meridian Street in Puyallup, and bank anglers find access off the McCutcheon Road E. Sportco and The Ultimate Fisherman (253-845-1202) have tackle and information.
Most fishing on the Snoqualmie occurs upstream of Duvall. The river is open through February, and there is a standard two-hatchery-fish bag. Selective gear regulations are in effect year-round, except motor-powered boats are legal between June 1 and Nov. 30. The Tokul and Tolt are also open through Feb. 28, and Tokul Creek has a non-buoyant lure restriction during the winter steelhead season. The most productive reach extends from a short distance downstream of Fall City up to Snoqualmie Falls. The water around the Tokul River mouth (Tokul Creek Hatchery site) is especially popular, as is the mouth of the Raging River. Farther downstream, some good drift-fishing water is clustered around Carnation, near the mouth of the Tolt River. The Raging River remains open from its mouth upstream to the Highway 18 Bridge three miles above Preston. Plunking is more effective below Carnation, where the water becomes slower, deeper and more snag-filled.
THE GREEN RIVER
The Green River loses its name as it approaches the Seattle waterfront's cranes and container ships, becoming the Duwamish River. Whatever you call it, the river was once one of the Evergreen State's most productive steelhead systems. During the 1970s, it gave up 17,000 winter steelhead one winter, and it routinely landed among the top five winter rivers in the state. Today, those numbers are but a faint memory, but the river still puts out between 500 and 1,000 fish most winters. Nearly all of the steelhead in the Green today are hatchery fish, and the WDFW releases in excess of 100,000 winter steelhead smolts most years. This makes this metropolitan stream one of the most heavily-planted rivers in Puget Sound. The Green is also the only river left outside the Olympic Peninsula where anglers can still retain a wild steelhead, but wild harvest is restricted to summer runs, which is not a naturally occurring population.
The Green is best early in the season, and in 2001-02 anglers took 456 fish in December, 233 in January 233, 118 in February, and 63 in March. Although the lower Green flows through Seattle, it is most avidly fished by anglers who live in the suburbs south of Seattle, such as Tukwila, Kent and Auburn. The best steelhead water begins near Kent and extends up through Porters Bridge to a short distance above Neely Bridge. During February, winter steelhead drift into the upper reaches and intrepid anglers target small numbers of fish in Flaming Geyser State Park and the Green River Gorge.
The Green is scheduled to be open from its mouth upstream to the South 277th Street Bridge through February 15, although the dates could change as a result of negotiations with the tribes. This reach of the river is also closed to fishing from boats throughout the winter steelhead season. The section from the 277th Street Bridge upstream to the Auburn-Black Diamond Road Bridge remains open through February, subject to tribal negotiations, and this area is also closed to fishing in boats. The portion of the river from the Auburn-Black Diamond Bridge up to the Tacoma Headworks Dam is open through February.
PUYALLUP RIVER STEELHEAD
Heading up on the flanks of Mount Rainier, the Puyallup flows through miles of bottomland before flowing into Commencement Bay at Tacoma. In recent years, the Puyallup has given u
p between 400 and 600 steelhead each winter. Those numbers are far below the 10,000 fish it produced in 1985-86, when it earned second-place honors behind the Cowlitz. For Tacoma area anglers and those of its eastern suburbs, however, the Puyallup remains a familiar and convenient destination. During the most recent year where statistics were available, the main stem accounted for 115 fish, the Carbon gave up 143 and South Prairie yielded 143 fish. Access is good at the numerous bridges and bars along the river, and boat launches are conveniently located. Approximately 180,000 to 190,000 winter steelhead smolts are released into the Carbon River each year, which concentrates the hatchery run downstream of the Carbon. An additional 20,000 are planted in the Stuck (White).
Boat fishermen and drift-anglers focus on the reach between the Meridian Street Bridge in Puyallup and the mouth of the Carbon River, while plunking is popular downstream. The Puyallup is open through February from the 11th Street Bridge in Puyallup upstream to the Soldier's Home Bridge in Orting. The Puyallup between the Soldier's Home Bridge and the electron power plant outlet closes in at the end of January. The Carbon River is open through February, and the White is open upstream to the R-Street Bridge in Auburn through February 28.