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Steelhead On The Snake

Steelhead On The Snake

Long involved in discussions over threatened and endangered fish stocks, the Snake is a surprisingly strong producer for sport-caught fish in February. (February 2006)

Photo by Dick Swan

Next time your fishing club holds a meeting, here's a question pretty much guaranteed to win you a bet: "What Washington river gives up the most steelhead in winter?"

"The Cowlitz," many anglers will respond. "Or maybe the Skykomish or Bogachiel or North Fork Lewis?" Well, the correct answer during the winter of 2001/02 -- the last year for which there are statistics -- was, the Snake River!

That's right, the Snake, the same river whose wild steelhead stocks are the subject of Endangered Species Act listings and where a debate has raged for years over the removal of four lower Snake River dams. Several times recently, it's yielded more hatchery steelhead than the most productive Western Washington rivers.

Now let's refine the question further: Which Washington river yields the most hatchery steelhead during February?

Evergreen State anglers know that during the winter steelhead season February is usually something of a soft spot. The big pulse of hatchery fish that pulled the big crowds to the rivers during December and January has ended, but returns of wild fish won't peak until March. In recent years, moreover, steep declines in wild runs on southwest Washington and north Puget Sound streams have dramatically reduced opportunities.

Indeed, several times recently during late winter and spring, former steelhead powerhouses like the Snohomish and Stillaguamish have been closed on an emergency basis because of extremely low returns of wild fish.


In February 2002, the Snake didn't take top honors. Its 2,070 steelhead ranked second, behind western Washington's Chehalis River System, which gave up 2,632. But the Chehalis numbers include 1,500 fish from its major tributary, the Wynoochee. If you also count steelhead from the Snake's major tributary, the Grande Ronde, you'd add another 1,195 fish to its total. Chehalis is easily the Evergreen State's most productive February steelhead system. The Grande Ronde also routinely turns out as many as 2,000 fish every March.

Those February numbers compare to 1,424 on the Cowlitz, 700 on the Quillayute System, 550 from the Snohomish System (which includes the Skykomish and Snoqualmie), and 470 on the Hoh. So anglers looking for steelhead to brighten the grim shank end of winter should consider shifting their sights from the rain-swollen rivers west of the Cascade Mountains to the ice-rimmed desert corridor of the Snake River.

During the winter of 2005/06, the returns of steelhead aren't anticipated to approach those of the first few years of this decade. Record runs were set in 2000/01 and 2002/03. But thousands of Snake River steelhead are waiting for you, and you can fish for them from the Oregon border all the way downstream to the river's confluence with the Columbia. Below, Washington-Oregon Game & Fish details where Snake River steelhead are most abundant and the public areas and boat ramps that provide access to them.


A couple of features set Snake River steelhead apart from the fish that return to coastal rivers. For one thing, the fish that anglers catch on the Snake in December, January and February aren't really winter steelhead at all. Biologists classify all steelhead that swim above Bonneville Dam as summer steelhead. But many of these fish remain in the mainstem Snake through winter. They're responsive and retain good flavor until they enter their spawning tributaries in spring.

Another thing that distinguishes the Snake from the most productive winter steelhead systems west of the Cascades is that nearly all of the fish returning to it are hatchery fish. Wild Snake River steelhead -- fish that historically, spawned in Washington's Touchet and Tucannon, Oregon's Grande Ronde and Imnaha, and Idaho's Clearwater and Salmon rivers -- are all listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A variety of factors contribute to the decline of wild Snake River salmonids, but fish-passage difficulties, predation, and interference with normal flows and run timing associated with the four Snake River dams have been established as the critical ones.

To compensate for the loss of wild, self-sustaining stocks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, various states, and Upper Columbia tribes have released hundreds of millions of hatchery steelhead smolts into the Snake Basin over the last couple of decades. Hatcheries plant two basic types of steelhead in the basin: A-run fish, which return early and range between four and 10 pounds; and the later-returning B-run, which are bound for Idaho's Clearwater River, average 12 to 14 pounds, and can reach 20 pounds and up.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, when ocean conditions were poor, returns of hatchery steelhead were fitful at best. But since the Pacific Decadal Oscillation flipped over into a more productive phase early in the decade, steelhead runs have rebounded dramatically. Indeed, during the record-setting 2001/02 season, sport anglers recorded more than 22,000 steelhead in the Snake River.

Typically, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife plants around 93,000 steelhead in the lower Snake, about 252,000 in the Grande Ronde and an additional 160,000 in the Tucannon. Oregon also releases steelhead into such Grande Ronde tributaries as Lookinglass Creek, Imnaha, Wallowa, Catherine Creek and Wenaha, as well as the Lostine, which flows into Hells Canyon, upstream of the Grande Ronde.

For its part, Idaho contributes several million fish annually, both A-run fish and the Clearwater River's celebrated "Killer Bs." Because the Snake's Washington portion is the river's most downstream reach, Evergreen State anglers have a shot at all of these various stocks of steelhead as they filter upstream.

The bulk of the run enters the Snake River System in autumn. As many as 5,000 steelhead are taken each month during October and November. But recently, Snake River anglers have caught 3,500 fish in December and an additional 2,900 in January. February is usually slower on most reaches of the Snake, but as we have seen, it has still yielded as many as 2,000 fish.


The stretch of the Snake upstream of Clarkston, Wash., is the last free-flowing portion of the river in Washington. It's probably no coincidence that this reach of the river turns out the most steelhead. Above Clarkston, more than 6,700 fish were taken during 2001/02.

As on the rest of the Snake, autumn is the best time to pursue steelhead here, both for your odds of landing a steelhead and for the

weather conditions. But more than 1,000 steelhead are usually caught in the upper river in December, along with 600 or so in January and another 400 in February.

The free-flowing Snake has the riffles, rapids and slicks common to all steelhead rivers, but on a much larger scale than most Western Washington anglers are used to. The most productive way to fish it is from a boat with a motor, not a drift boat. Trolling is effective, with diving plugs such as Wiggle Warts and Hot Shots the most popular. Launches are available at Greenbelt and Swallows parks in Clarkston, Chief Looking Glass Park and Asotin Slough near Asotin, and at Heller Bar, upstream of the mouth of the Grande Ronde River. Bank anglers fish drift gear, plunk and throw gear from points of land. Snake River Road, closely following the west shore, provides excellent access between Clarkston and the Grande Ronde.


Downstream of Clarkston, the Snake is essentially a series of slack-water reservoirs. Lower Granite Lake inundates the 30-odd miles of river between Lower Granite Dam and Interstate Bridge in Clarkston. The first significant number of steelhead appear in the Lower Granite Lake in September, peak in October and November, then drop off gradually as fish seek their spawning tributaries or move upstream into Oregon and Idaho. As many as 500 steelhead are caught in December and January, and around 350 are taken in February. Because of the lack of current, trolling is the only effective way to give action to plugs or other lures.

Along much of this section, highways parallel both the north and south banks of the Snake. Bank anglers find access at a variety of state and county parks, as well as at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' network of Lower Snake River habitat management units (HMU). Chief Timothy State Park is on the south bank of the river, off U.S. 12 about 10 miles downstream of Clarkston. Also on the south bank is Offield Landing, near Lower Granite Dam. Kelly Bar HMU provides additional bank access between Chief Timothy State Park and the dam. State Route 193 follows the north shore and gives access to the Nisqually John and Blyton Landing ramps, about halfway between Clarkston and Lower Granite Dam. Near the dam, Wawawai County Park and Wawawai Landing provide bank and boat access


Lake Bryan sprawls over the Snake between Little Goose and Lower Granite dams. Fewer than 2,000 fish are taken in this reach annually, but mid-winter is the most productive time. During 2,001, 229 steelhead were caught in December, 313 in January and 336 in February.

Access is excellent between Little Goose and Lower Granite. On the north shore, just downstream of Lower Granite, is Boyer Park and Marina, offering bank access, a ramp and moorage. Located on State Route 127, Central Ferry State Park offers camping, bank fishing, and a boat launch; fishing is also available on the nearby Central Ferry HMU.

Boats may also be launched across the river from Central Ferry, at the Port of Garfield. Also on the south bank, Willow Landing Park is upstream of Little Goose Dam, off Hastings Hill Rill, while the Illia Landing access and ramp are accessible from Almota Ferry Road, a short distance below Lower Granite.


The lower Snake River between Lower Monumental Dam and Little Goose, known as Lake Herbert G. West, turns out more steelhead than any other reach of the river except the free-flowing portion above Clarkston. More than 6,500 fish were beached in 2001/02.

As on other stretches of the river, October and November are most productive, but more than 2,000 fish are usually caught between December and the end of February. In January 2002, in fact, 672 steelhead were caught, another 700 in February and 465 in March.

Lyons Ferry State Park is the largest public area on this reach, but it's closed through March each winter. The Port of Columbia County's Lyons Ferry Marina is usually open, however, and boats may be launched on the south side of the river. Closer to Little Goose, the Texas Rapids ramp can be reached from Little Goose Dam Road, which forks off SR 261 at Starbuck. The Ayer Boat Basin also has camping and a boat ramp; you can reach it by driving south on Lyons Ferry Road to Ayer Road. There is also a Corps of Engineers ramp on the north shore, immediately above Lower Monumental Dam.


Unlike the remainder of the Snake in Washington, which turns out the bulk of its steelhead during late autumn, Lake Sacajawea -- the stretch between the lowest Snake River dam, Ice Harbor and Lower Monumental Dam -- is most productive during December and January. In this section, however, only 140 steelhead were recorded in February in 2001/02, and only 33 in March, so late-season anglers may want to pass it up.

The waters just downstream of lower Monumental Dam can be reached from Windust Park and Matthews Park; both offer camping and boat launches. Fishhook and Charbonneau parks, also camping areas with boat ramps, are on the south bank, accessible from SR 124. The Pasco-Kahlotus Road roughly parallels the north bank, and spur roads lead to Levey Landing, but the ramp is closed during winter. Bank access is available at the Corps' Big Flat HMU.


You are going to have to work for a February steelhead on the lowest section of the Snake, the eight-mile reach between Ice Harbor Dam and the mouth of the Columbia.

In recent years, only about 500 steelhead have been taken here throughout the entire season -- the lowest numbers in the Washington portion of the Snake. That doesn't prevent intrepid anglers from venturing out, however, and the best months of January and February typically produce half of the annual total.

In addition, the lower river is convenient for anglers from the Tri-Cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland. Sacajawea State Park, located on the north bank of the confluence of the Snake and Columbia, is a popular bank-fishing destination and has a boat ramp. Hood Park, just upstream of the mouth on the south shore, has both camping and a ramp.


The season runs through March on all Washington reaches of the river. The daily bag limit is three steelhead fish over 20 inches, so fishing with barbless hooks is required.


Lyons Ferry Marina, (509) 399-2001; Boyer Marina, (509) 397-3208; Hells Canyon Marina and Resort, (509) 758-6963; Lyons Ferry State Park, (509) 646-3252; Central Ferry State Park, (509) 549-3551; Chief Timothy State Park, (509) 758-9580; and Sacajawea State Park, (509) 545-2361.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides information on habitat areas, and they will mail you maps. Contact the Walla Walla District, covering Clarkston to Ice Harbor, at (509) 543-3200, or


  • Snake River Guide Service offers guided trips for steelhead, smallmouth bass, sturgeon and salmon: (509) 751-0410, or you can log on at

  • Northwest Fishing Guide S

    ervice, for steelhead and smallmouth trips: (509) 243-9587

  • Heller Bar Lodge offers accommodations and guided trips near the mouth of the Grande Ronde, including a unique two-day Steelhead Mail Tour into Hells Canyon during the winter: (800) 522-6966

  • Hells Canyon Fishing Resort charters trips in winter, with luxurious accommodations: (800) 798-8935

  • Motyka's Bait and Tackle in Richland: (509) 375-6028.

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