September 29, 2010
Fresh fish are always good for a headline or two, and this year's winter steelhead season should garner its share of them. Here are the hotspots you'll want to try.
Nick Amato brought this nice winter-run steelhead to the boat using side-drifting tactics. His hard work paid off with four steelhead for two anglers on the morning run.
Photo by Gary Lewis
You have to earn winter steelhead.
Success is in relationship to the work you put in: Penetrating the quiet fog over the river, sliding your drift boat down a muddy bank, navigating through a patch of ice-covered boulders. When you find the school, you may just get one cast to drift your bait or run your jig through the slot. But it's all worth it when the fish grabs the steel and tail-walks in a crash of surface spray and foam.
It has never been easy. You find the fish and then they're gone and the search starts all over again. Information is often the difference between success and failure.
Water or the lack thereof, was the topic of conversation all over the Pacific Northwest last winter. Many rivers did not get enough rain to bring in the fish. Instead, steelhead trickled in, often unnoticed and unheralded. While some rivers fell so low that steelheaders hung up their waders, other rivers produced extraordinary fishing.
This year again we'll watch our calendars and the sky. And like every other year, nature will have her way with us. But winter steelheaders are optimists, and we're ready for the challenge.
Here is our forecast for the Northwest's best winter steelhead fishing. We've talked to many of the premier fishermen in both states to help you plot your course to steelhead success. We'll tell you which rivers offer the most fish and where you've got your best chance at hooking a 20-pounder.
Local anglers call the Olympic Peninsula the steelhead capital of the world. And why not? These waters offer legendary fishing from late November through April for strong runs of hatchery and wild fish. Olympic Peninsula rivers are short and steep, averaging 30 to 40 miles in length, and run straight into the ocean.
Thanks to catch-and-release regulations, management that keeps nets out of the water for a few days each week, and the fact that steelhead don't have to run a gauntlet of sea lions, many fish make it back to peninsula spawning grounds each year.
Hatchery steelheading peaks in December. These fish average 6 to 8 pounds. In February and March drift the Sol Duc, Calawah, Hoh, Bogachiel or Queets for your crack at fish that average 10 to 13 pounds and may weigh close to 30. In 2003, guide Jim Mansfield (360-374-9018) caught his best ever steelhead while fishing the upper Hoh. Taking quick measurements of length and girth he let it go and then ran the numbers. That fish would have weighed about 33.8 pounds, bigger than the current Washington state record!
Anglers are looking forward to another good season. Mansfield recommends watching the river flows before heading out. He won't fish the Hoh, one of his favorite rivers, when the water is rising. This glacially fed river heads in the rainforest and can gather 200 inches of rain a year. For up-to-date river flows, go online to
You'll have the best fishing when the water is emerald green with 3 to 5 feet of visibility. Some anglers cast flies or spinners or drift a jig and float. From a drift boat, try side-drifting with cured roe.
Last season saw one of the best runs of big native steelhead in many seasons on the Snoqualmie, Skykomish and Snohomish rivers. A lot of big fish were landed in the 17- to 20-pound range.
Wild fish began showing up, mixed in with the hatchery fish, about the middle of December. Rumor has it that a 36-pounder came out of the Skagit. Eli Rico of HotShot Guide Service (206-469-0567) landed a 30.4-pounder on the Skykomish and a 22-pounder on the Snoqualmie. "Because the water was so clear, I used lighter gear and summertime tactics," he said. "We boated four to five hatchery fish a day and two to three wild native fish each time out." He predicts a similar bonanza of fresh chrome this winter.
Many jet sledders and drift boaters are turning to free-drifting or side-drifting to cover more water. Pulling Hot Shots and other diving plugs still works. Bank anglers score with plugs, spoons, spinners, floats and jigs, roe, or sand shrimp. A jig pattern that is especially productive is called the Nightmare. It has a pearl white head, blood red body and black marabou tail.
On the Snoqualmie, the fish are headed back to the Tokul Creek hatchery and can be ambushed along the way. The most popular stretch is from the mouth of Tokul Creek to Carnation/Fall City. The area near the mouth of the Tolt and several hundred feet up the Raging River are also good bets. If the Snoqualmie is blown out, the nearby Skykomish and Green River are good options less than an hour's drive away.
For river information, visit
Plan to start fishing the Cowlitz River for winter steelhead in December. According to river guide Mike "Bear" Pallas of Bear's Fishing (360-740-0583), the river's winter run hasn't been as good in recent years. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is trying to sort out a strategy for stocking the river with hatchery smolts that will survive and produce better returns.
Still, the Cowlitz remains one of the best steelhead rivers in the state. You'll find the hatchery fish in good numbers by December and spread throughout the river by January, with the big native fish showing up in February and March. Cowlitz steelhead average 7 to 17 pounds. Try the stretch below Blue Creek, and upstream at the Barrier Dam. Prospect for steelhead in rippled water that runs 3 to 9 feet deep at about the speed of a brisk walk.
For information on stream flows on the Cowlitz, Nisqually, Wynoochee and Green rivers, call Tacoma Power's Fishing and Recreation Line, (888) 502-8690.
Since the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens the Toutle River's winter runs haven't returned to their former glory, but thanks to the work of WDFW biologists, returns have been consistent. A 125-foot earthen dam was constructed a few miles upstream from Kid Valley to control flooding. Biologists truck steelhead around this migration barrier to keep fish using the spawning habitat. Returns fluctuate b
etween 175 and 410 winter steelhead each year.
You'll want to consider fishing the Chehalis and the Satsop for big fish in February and March. The Satsop has turned out a fair number of 20-pounders and at least one in the 30-pound range in recent years.
The Kalama is one of those rivers that can produce a lot of fish but is often spotty during the winter run. Keep an eye on this one as the season progresses. For local information, call Pritchard's Western Angler at (360) 673-4690.
The North Fork Lewis River's hatchery steelhead will show up in force in December and January. By February, fish should be spread throughout the Lewis River system.
In eastern Washington, winter steelheaders target summer fish. To predict the fishing in December, anglers look to the July and August fish passage reports over Bonneville Dam
When summer runs are good, you can find steelhead on the Snake River and the Grande Ronde in December. These are active fish that will take a fly. Patterns to try include green and Red Butt Skunks, Woolly Buggers, Muddler Minnows, leeches and bead flies. To fish on the surface, try skating Bomber patterns.
Spinners and diving plugs are effective methods for taking fish in these waters. Or try cured roe or whole bay shrimp under a float. Tim Johnson, of FishHawk Guides (888-548-8896) prefers this method. "Use a levelwind reel, park the boat in the hole above the fish. Let the line run and drift down through the hole. When the bobber goes under, put your thumb on the spool and set the hook."
Last year was a low water year for most Oregon rivers. Steelheaders waited for the rains that didn't show up until mid-March. When the native fish arrived, they came in fast and as huge pods of fish moving through the river after many anglers had given up. With steelhead, timing is everything.
One of the smallest of the rivers on the Oregon coast on which you can run a drift boat, the Necanicum is also the first to clear after a pounding rain. Early in the season, this one's a good choice for hatchery steelhead. Expect natives to start showing up on the high water we hope to get in February.
When you plan your trip to the Oregon coast in December and January you must consider the Wilson River. Go prepared to fish high and muddy, or low and clear. In high water, look for softer currents and fish along the edges of the stream or downstream from small tributaries. In lower water, fish the faster, deeper chutes.
The lower river is best fished from a boat. Lob fresh eggs or sand shrimp to target the early-returning hatchery fish. In higher water, anchor mid-stream and cast to shore, bouncing baits in deeper slots along the bank. When the native fish and hatchery brood stock show up later in the month, switch to Hot Shots or Wiggle Warts.
Steelhead can be found in the Nehalem from December through April, but since this is primarily a wild fish river, your best bet would be between February and March. Time your drift for a day when the water is dropping after a rain.
Because of the low water conditions, steelheaders had fewer choices last season. In southwest Oregon, the mainstem Umpqua was the logical option.
According to Gary Lewis of Gary's Guide Service (541-672-2460), the mainstem Umpqua was the place to be. "We had good water conditions for the mainstem Umpqua because the water was so low. This just happened to be the year when (the ODFW) decided to let people keep native fish in the main Umpqua and the steelhead just got clobbered because all the guides in southern Oregon were fishing the main, because it was the only water that was worth fishing. I think a lot of native stock disappeared because of that."
This season, like every other, we'll be watching the skies for the rain to fill our rivers with water and steelhead. In late November the first winter steelhead will begin showing up in the main Umpqua. By late December, there'll be hatchery fish in the South Umpqua. Because there's no hatchery run in the North Fork, wait until mid-January to hit that river for native steelhead.
Lewis recommends checking
http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt online to find out what shape the river is in. "You've got to catch the mainstem at the right height to catch fish," Lewis recommends. "I don't like to fish the main unless it's about 5.6 or lower at Elkton. Anything higher than that and you won't do quite as well because there's so much water."
Head to the Coquille in December. A hatch box program there sustains a bountiful harvest on this river despite low water conditions in some years.
You'll want to hit the Sixes sometime between mid-January and the end of the season to tie into a big native. The Elk River's hatchery program keeps things interesting from December on.
Last year, steelheaders who switched to summer-run tactics on the Rogue caught more fish in the low flows than anglers using traditional winter-run gear. This year, look for winter-run steelhead to show up around Agness in December. By January, there'll be plenty of fish in the Shady Cove area.
WILLAMETTE VALLEY & COLUMBIA RIVER DRAINAGE
Last year's low water didn't do much for the fishing on the Clackamas, where the action didn't really heat up until mid-March.
Given a normal winter of rain this season, start watching the Clackamas and the Sandy in early December for the first hatchery fish to show. By March, the Clackamas River should be chock full of winter steelhead. You may find fish anywhere from the mouth all the way up to McIver Park. These are big, brash hatchery and native winter-runs.
Side-drifting eggs or sand shrimp is popular on the Clack. From the bank, you can drift bait or cast spinners. If you head upstream to fish Eagle Creek or in the McIver run, bring your fly rod or jig and float setups.
Bank fishermen can find good access at Clackamette Park, Riverside Park, Coffey's Drift, the Carver Boat Ramp, Barton Park, Bonnie Lure at the mouth of Eagle Creek, and at McIver Park. For up-to-date stream flows, call the PG&E Fish Line at (503) 464-7474.
The Sandy River's winter steelhead fishing begins in earnest in December and peaks in January. Much of the best fishing can be found in the middle section. Some good bets are Butler's Eddy, the Blue Hole, the Gauge Hole, Dodge Park, Soapstone and the mouth of Cedar Creek.
Drift gear and hardware are the favored methods. When fishing spinners or spoons, reel as slow as you can, bumping your lure on the bottom; the heavier your lure, the better. When the water is low and clear, use smaller baits or lures to avoid spooking fish.
For information on loc
al water conditions, call Fisherman's Marine and Outdoor at (503) 557-3313.
If you want to catch steelhead on a fly then head to the Deschutes or the John Day in November. These are summer-run steelhead and by November, they'll be spread throughout the lower Deschutes from the mouth up to Warm Springs. Deschutes fish average 5 to 10 pounds but the opportunity to hook larger steelhead is good. Plenty of fish, long runs and lots of water make the lower Deschutes a prime destination for anglers from all over the country. Consider bringing a shotgun for some cast-and-blast action.
Often there isn't enough water to run the John Day in November, but early rain showers kept the river level up last season and a bunch of fish made it to Service Creek in a hurry. If there's enough water to drift, and if temperatures stay reasonable, you can also catch bigger smallmouth bass and channel cats this time of year.
Early in the season, the best choice is low in the river near the Rock Creek confluence. Or try the float from Service Creek to Twickenham or Twickenham down to Burnt Ranch or Clarno. A raft or pontoon boat is the best choice on the John Day. For river conditions, call Service Creek Stage Stop at (541) 468-3331.
Wherever you prospect for steelhead in Oregon or Washington, stay on the move and in the know until you find them. Whether you're chasing your first one or your next one, you have to earn your fish.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Oregon waters are home to both hatchery-raised steelhead and natives. It's easy to tell them apart. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife removes the adipose fin (the small fatty fin located between dorsal fin and tail) to help fishermen differentiate between wild and hatchery fish. See the 2005 Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations for more information.
(Editor's note: Order a signed copy of Lewis's book, "Freshwater Fishing Oregon and Washington," by sending $22.95, includes shipping and handling, to Gary Lewis Outdoors, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709 or visit