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Steelhead Season Preview

Steelhead Season Preview

Better ocean conditions and a good showing of jack steelhead mean this season could be a banner year for steelheaders in the Pacific Northwest. (November 2009)

A nice winter steelhead hen caught and released on Oregon's Sandy River.
Photo by Dave Kilhefner.

From Washington's Olympic Peninsula to the remote tributaries of the Snake River, winter steelhead anglers have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming season. Improved ocean conditions combined with generous releases of hatchery steelhead smolts three to four years ago have many expecting the 2009-2010 season in the Pacific Northwest to be one to remember.

"I'm excited," said veteran Washington guide Scott Weedman, who owns Three Rivers Marine and Tackle in Woodinville. "The ocean conditions have turned around and we are seeing some good returns, and I think we are going to see some really good returns this winter."

Todd Confir, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Gold Beach, shares Weedman's optimism.

"On the Rogue River, we saw a pretty good bump in half-pounders," Confir said, referring to young steelhead that return early and often help predict abundance of larger two- and three-salt steelhead the following year. "That was a result in better ocean conditions. I would expect to see numbers improve for the 2009-2010 season."

Guides and anglers throughout the Northwest are talking about the prospects for good steelhead fishing this winter. Many point to the huge coho salmon run in the Columbia River. Steelhead, like coho, spend the first year of their life in fresh water before migrating to the ocean. The healthy offshore food supply that is fueling the coho bumper crop is also expected to result in robust steelhead runs in many rivers this winter.

"Three and four years ago, there was good escapement," longtime Oregon guide Val Perry of Seaside said of spawning steelhead on the fabled North Coast rivers, such as the Wilson, Nehalem and Nestucca. "We should see good numbers of hatchery and native steelhead this season."


The heavily stocked rivers that flow into Puget Sound often produce some of Washington's highest steelhead catch rates. Aside from abundant hatchery steelhead, rivers such as the Skykomish, Snoqualmie ad Skagit also produce some of the biggest wild steelhead in the Northwest, with fish topping 20 pounds reported each winter.

"Traditionally, Christmas is going to be peak time for hatchery steelhead on all three rivers," Weedman said.

The Skykomish River is one of Washington's best all-around steelhead rivers. It has plenty of bank access, is a favorite of jet-boaters, and is also a prefect river for drift-boaters.

Reiter Ponds on the Skykomish is perhaps the best bank-fishing spot in all of northern Washington for winter steelhead. Catch rates can be phenomenal, thanks to the 185,000 smolts that are released there each year. Weedman suggests fishing the Sky in December for hatchery fish and if open, in February and March for the trophy native fish.

The Snoqualmie River, often overlooked by Puget Sound steelheaders, gets 160,000 smolts each year, which fuels the excellent hatchery season there.

Other Snohomish system hotspots include the mouths of the Sultan and Wallace rivers, which also receive hatchery steelhead.

The Skagit River, one of Washington's most heavily stocked systems, has been a sleeper the past few years, in part because of its limited bank access.

"The last couple of years that's been a really untapped fishery," Weedman said. "It gets a huge hatchery plant."

In 2006-07, more than 500,000 winter steelhead smolts were released into the Skagit system. Anglers will be targeting those fish this season.

More than 210,000 of those fish were released into the mainstem and upper Skagit, while 247,000 were trucked to the Cascade River.

The river is the birthplace of free-drifting, the hugely popular method of naturally dragging roe clusters behind jet boats.

Like the Skykomish, Christmas is prime time on the Skagit.

The Sauk River, a major tributary of the Skagit, has a small hatchery run, but it's best known for its trophy drift-boat fishing in March and April. No natural baits are allowed, so side-drifting pink worms or pulling plugs is most effective.

Close to Seattle, the Green River also is primed to produce good catches this winter, thanks to the 250,000 steelhead smolts released three and four years ago.

The hope is that there will be a new trend of good steelhead returns in the Puget Sound rivers for the next several years. Weedman said he's noticed good numbers of out-migrating smolts in the state's screw traps the past few years, and also an increase in what he calls "steelhead jacks."

"We saw an incredible number of jack steelhead," Weedman said of last season's fishing on the Skykomish. "I can't remember when I saw so many fish 12 to 20 inches."

Although fishing was good at times and there were some trophies approaching 30 pounds, anglers generally were disappointed the last two seasons on the Olympic Peninsula.

This winter, Weedman is putting the Bogachiel River near the top of his list of streams to fish.

"The Bogachiel gets such a massive push of fish that it's a no-brainer," Weedman said. "I like it from Nov. 20 to Dec. 15, depending on water flows. Thanksgiving is peak."

You won't be alone on the Bogey, but when the fish are in, it doesn't matter. When it gets hot and heavy, all the boats are catching fish.

Many drift-boaters launch at the hatchery. They quickly drift to the mouth of the Calawah River. The Calawah and Bogachiel receive a combined steelhead smolt stocking of nearly 200,000, which is quite sizable for smaller rivers.

Also near Forks is the Sol Duc River, which gets nearly 100,000 hatchery steelhead smolts. More challenging to drift, it's a good choice for expert drift-boaters who want to get away from the crowds.

Aside from healthy numbers of hatchery fish, it may be Washington's best bet for one of those legendary 20- to 30-pound winter steelies.

The Quinault River, meanwhile, received 465,000 winter steelhead smolts three years ago, making it another top-producing system.

The Cowlitz River is ground zero for southwestern Washington steelĀ­headers. The river is so productive it also draws plenty of anglers from nearby Portland who don't mind buying non-resident licenses to get in on the action.

In 2006-07, more than 650,000 smolts were released into the Cowlitz, and half a million at Blue Creek.

Jet-boaters do well from Blue Creek down, but it's the bank-anglers at Blue Creek who really haul in the fish. Quick limits are common during peak season.

Catch the early-returning fish from Thanksgiving to Christmas. The later run is in February and early March.

The Cowlitz has two distinct runs of hatchery winter fish. Unlike other Washington streams, which get a big push of steelhead during a brief period, the hatchery brats on the Cowlitz tend to be spread out, producing good fishing for a considerable length of time.

Don't overlook the Kalama River or Lewis River this winter. The Lewis gets 140,000 winter steelhead smolts each season, while the Kalama receives nearly 75,000.

The Humptulips and Wynoochee are two southwestern Washington sleepers. Each gets a healthy release of steelhead smolts.

The North Coast rivers, particularly the Wilson and Nestucca, yielded excellent steelhead catches in March and early April. With such good catches late in the season, anglers hope for more this season.

The Wilson receives 170,000 steelhead smolt each year, while the Nestucca gets 180,000.

Those two rivers tend to produce the highest catch rates of hatchery steelhead on the North Coast, said guide Val Perry.

But the veteran salmon and steelheader likes to spend most of his time on two of the North Coast's more overlooked systems, the Necanicum and Nehalem.

Late December and early January are peak times for hatchery fish on the Necanicum and North Fork Nehalem. The Necanicum gets 40,000 winter steelhead smolts each year, while the North Nehalem gets 90,000.

Both rivers tend to clear quickly after a storm, but boaters are challenged by technical water. Bank access, however, is good near the North Nehalem's hatchery.

"These rivers get a lot less pressure than the Wilson or Trask," Perry said.

The mainstem Nehalem, meanwhile, is an exceptional trophy fish producer in March.

The Trask River also has a reputation of giving up trophy steelhead, while the Wilson and Nestucca produce some of the biggest hatchery steelhead in the state, with 20-pounders caught each year, usually in February and March.

The Alsea River is one of Oregon's steadiest producers of hatchery steelhead, usually in December, thanks to the release of 120,000 smolts each year.

Confir, the ODFW biologist in charge of the Chetco River, said it has one of Oregon's highest spawning densities for wild steelhead. Nearly 50,000 smolts are released into the Chetco each year.

The Chetco is one of Oregon's best rivers for multiple-fish days, and is popular with drift boaters who side-drift roe. Fishing tends to be best in late December and all of January, although some of the biggest fish are caught in March.

Bank access is good at Social Security Bar, Loeb State Park and the numerous forest service day-use areas.

Aside from the Chetco, the lower Rogue River is known for its high catch rates. The fishing is fueled by 150,000 smolts released from the Applegate River each year, along with another 100,000 winter steelhead smolts from the Rogue's Cole Rivers Hatchery.

Bank-anglers plunk large Spin-N-Glos from the lower Rogue gravel bars, while jet-boaters will pull plugs, such as FlatFish and Hot Shots.

Confir said the record number of half-pounder steelhead last year should translate into healthy returns of adult fish this winter.

One of the best producers last winter on the south coast was the South Fork Coquille, which is expected to make a repeat showing of the fish-after-fish action that made it a hit for southern Oregon steelheaders. The Coquille gets 115,000 steelhead smolts each year, and seldom disappoints anglers looking for multiple-fish days. Bank access is limited, but drift-boaters find plenty of action. Peak season is in February.

With 150,000 smolts released each year, the Applegate River, a large tributary of the Rogue, is one of Oregon's most overlooked steelhead streams. Fishing is best in February and March.

Good bank access is available under the Highway 199 bridge and near the county parks near Ruch.

The middle and upper Rogue, meanwhile, have plenty of room for anglers to escape the crowds. Fishing picks up in the middle section in January and peaks on the upper Rogue in late March or early April.

The best fishing on the Rogue usually takes place downstream from the Applegate River, where anglers can target both hatchery fish from the mainstem Rogue and the Applegate.

"I like the Rogue because fishing peaks late in the season," said guide Randy Wells. "Fishing is pretty much over on the coast in April, but we are still getting them on the Upper Rogue."

Even during smaller returns, catch rates can be high above Gold Ray Dam because fish stack up before spawning. They also are aggressive in the upper section of the river.

For trophy fish, and multiple-fish days, the Umpqua River has gained popularity in recent years as a top producer. Guides expect more big fish this winter, especially with stricter rules on the South Umpqua requiring wild fish to be released.

The Umpqua receives more than 200,000 steelhead smolts each year. Bank access is decent, but drift-boaters catch the bulk. Plunking, however, is effective near Elkton.

The Umpqua tends to peak in February and early March.

On the South Umpqua, drifting from Canyonville to Myrtle Creek is popular. The run around Roseburg is another top producer.

Unfavorable water conditions put a damper on steelhead fishing on the Sandy and Clackamas rivers last winter, but with healthy smolt releases, anglers are hopeful of a rebound this season. February is prime time on both rivers.

Side-drifting from jet boats is effective on the lower section of both rivers, while plunking is hugely popular at the mouth of the Clackamas.

The Snake River receives more hatchery steelhead than any other river in Washington and Oregon. Nearly 800,000 steelhead smolts are released from Wallowa River Hatchery each year. They are technically summer steelhead because they return to the Columbia at Astoria in May, June and July. But they don't get to the Snake until November. They get to the Grande Ronde and Wallowa rivers in December, January, February and March.

Brad Smith, an ODFW biologist in Enterprise, said the Wallowa River steelhead tend to produce some of the highest catch rates in the state since they are a strain of aggressive fish.

Biologists expect a healthy return of fish this winter.

The Inmaha River, another tributary of the Snake, produces good fishing in February and March right under the bridge in Imnaha.

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