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Early-Season Skagit Steelhead

Early-Season Skagit Steelhead

Don't let it intimidate you! Break down this big river to find pulsing pushes of hatchery steelhead now! (December 2007)

Ignore any part of the river more than 10 feet deep. These aren't salmon. Target the shoreline seams and areas of reduced-water flows to catch your limit.
Photo courtesy of Rob Endsley.

A few anglers will be targeting other species this time of year, but the bulk of Washington's hardcore anglers will have nothing on their minds except steelhead. Right now, dozens of waters throughout the state are yielding excellent steelhead action to bank anglers and boaters.

The Cowlitz will likely generate the most publicity. But the Skagit River is eager to impress anglers who take the time to approach this large system north of Seattle. From Thanksgiving through New Year's, anglers on the Skagit could find themselves in the peak of hatchery steelhead season -- a time when anglers in the know can often generate limits.

If you live in Seattle, you could hit the Skagit in a day trip. Surprisingly, few anglers take advantage of the system, possibly because the Cowlitz is a closer option that's more easily approachable.

Longtime guide Tom Nelson of Skagit River Outfitters didn't have kind words for fishing on the Cowlitz.

"It's like a bunch of fat kids trying to tear up a hot dog stand," he said.

You probably guessed it, but he prefers the Skagit.


"If you get out on the Skagit on a clear day, you can see the Northern Cascades. That's like the U.S. Alps," he said. "In the same day, I've caught steelhead and seen elk and eagles. It's beautiful! You want to come to the Skagit because there's eye candy everywhere you look."

The Skagit cannot claim to be the premier hatchery run in Washington. Nevertheless, it has several qualities that keep it near the top: possibly some of the largest returns in the state, quality angling and excellent access.

As far as sheer numbers pumped into a system, the Cowlitz is still top dog. Unfortunately, the survival rate of some of these fish on the Skagit has not been tremendous. You won't see the harvest numbers on the Skagit that you do on the Cowlitz. But you won't see the fishing pressure either.

"Despite the fact that it isn't top dog, there are still times when you can light it up on the Skagit," said Nelson.

Veteran guide Rob Endsley of Pacific Northwest Sportfishing cautions anglers to come prepared to the Skagit.

Those who don't take the time to learn the river often leave humbled.

"I would say the Skagit is out of range for most anglers looking for an easy drive from Seattle," he said. "Yet it's close enough that if you want to put the time in, you can do it.

"On weekends you'll see a good pull of the Seattle crowd, especially from Everett. The main thing that keeps people away is huge, big water. It's intimidating."

The Skagit is often called intimidating. However, for the number of hatchery fish that blast through the system, it's worth targeting, especially during the seasonal winter hatchery run when large numbers of steelhead clog the system.

"The Skagit gets one of the best plants in the state, and last year the run was awesome," said Endsley. "Limits were pretty normal for guys who know the river and know what they are doing."

Why was it so good?

Endsley had no idea.

"All the sudden the fish showed," he said. "Everything lined up, and we had a run. It's usually decent, but last year was spectacular."

Several factors contribute to the success of the Skagit's hatchery reproduction, most of them being controlled by Mother Nature. This year, with water conditions looking favorable and the hatchery kicking out allotted numbers, there's no reason why the Skagit shouldn't produce at least an average run.

There's a good chance a better-than-average run will take place.

"I've seen some signs from the Skagit to make me believe we are on an upswing," said Tom Nelson of Skagit River Outfitters.

"No matter what's happening in the river system, if you have favorable ocean conditions we'll be in business. The ocean conditions have been good in the last few years."

Endsley agrees: "We haven't had any big floods the last few years, so we should be good. And they've been stocking more fish."

He said that for the past eight to 10 years, the state has been trying to build up the hatchery run on the Skagit. More than 550,000 steelhead entered the system, said the guide. Prior to that, the numbers were closer to 225,000 and 250,000.

"There are a lot of people pushing for hatchery fish, something they can bonk and take home," he said.

"That's one of the main reasons why they fish the Skagit -- so they can keep fish."

Historically, anglers expect the first push of hatchery fish to swim into the system around Thanksgiving. The bulk of the run shows up between early December and mid-January. Steelhead can be caught through January. In spring, a run of wild fish takes place in addition to the standard hatchery blast.

"I'd say the best part of the run is right around Christmas," said Endsley. "It's pretty much when it always peaks. It will usually go through the second week in January, and then it starts petering out pretty good."

The Skagit has a few year-classes of fish. Most run 5 to 8 pounds. Some years, however, bring a strong showing of so-called three-salt fish -- steelhead that have spent three years in the ocean. Last year, three-salt fish up to 18 pounds were fairly common, but keep in mind that they aren't the norm.

These larger fish have a tendency to show around Thanksgiving, but can arrive at any time throughout the season. The three-salt fish account for a small number of the hatchery run.

Like any Washington river, anglers contend with rain and wintry conditions throughout the season. The Skagit Drainage has been heavily logged, and some of the hillsides pump a lot of mud into the system, turning the river gray. After a strong storm, most of the Ska

git could be out of shape for three or four days. This duration can change depending on the amount and strength of precipitation.

"Sometimes around here, it doesn't stop raining," said Nelson. "It might just not rain as hard some days. We'll go through stretches sometimes where it rains for 50 days straight."

Despite a few blowouts a year, the Skagit has a few factors that lend to its productivity. It's dam-regulated, so isn't as prone to flooding as many of Washington's other systems. Rain can blow the system out, but it clears quicker than most others.

"When everything else is out," said Endsley, "the Skagit is generally fishable." However, there are days when the Skagit will be a challenge to fish.

Successful steelhead anglers find methods to overcome muddy water in the winter -- as well as low and clear water, after periods where it hasn't rained in a few weeks.

Adjusting to water conditions on the Skagit is the difference between success and failure.

"You have to adapt," said Nelson. "The Upper Skagit is protected by the dams. They act as a settling pond. Unless it's blowing hard and they're letting water out of the dams, you can normally find the fishable water."

When water conditions aren't ideal, there are still plenty of go-to spots to target -- namely, creeks and rivers that pump clear water into the river. Finding these spots will increase angler success. When mud is an issue, bank anglers have plenty of options when it comes to finding shorelines. The vicinity of the hatchery is closed, but anglers can position themselves in the legal fishing area, just below and above the hatchery.

Targeting the first area of legal fishing, around hatchery pipes and especially the soft water on the edges, is the most productive.

"Think about it," said Nelsen. "What's going to clear first? The smaller little creeks are going to clear faster than the main stream." He recommends that bank anglers use floats and jigs.

"You'll get a clear water plume that extends into the main river," he said. The "bankies" should stand below these streams and fish the clear water

The Skagit is a fairly large system, and that means there's a lot of water to cover. Although the big water can be intimidating, targeting steelhead on the Skagit is similar to doing so on most Pacific Northwest rivers. No one specific technique works here that doesn't work in other Washington rivers.

You can approach the Skagit from the bank, in a sled or a drift boat. Plenty of access is available.


"It's just hard to fish," said Endsley. "The runs you are targeting are huge. You have to use a sweeping technique."

He said the best way to fish is to side-drift. Cover a lot of water to find the next push of fish.

"Groups of fish are constantly moving through the system. Sometimes you have to cover a lot of water to find them, but once you do, you can normally pull a few fish right away," he said.

During the hatchery run, there are no specific bait regulations. However, as the wild fish move in later in the season, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife imposes special regulations on the fishery. (To check for the updated regulations, log on to Specific regulations are implemented in mid-March or early April.)

Early in the season, an array of techniques can be effective. Running plugs and bait is a big part of most anglers' arsenals. Pulling plugs and drifting fresh eggs are always effective. As to which will outfish the other -- bait or lure? -- that's something that changes day-to-day. Your best bet is to come prepared with both and adjust to water levels, clarity and the amount of current in the river.

"A lot of guys, and the more successful guys, are going to be free-drifting eggs," Nelsen said. "It's tough to beat eggs."

He also uses sand shrimp and tiger prawns, too. "Later in the day, if the fish go off the bite and won't take the eggs anymore, you can use some red Fire Cured tiger prawns or the sand shrimp."

Free-drifting eggs, whether from the bank or in a boat, enables you to cover a lot of water. Plugs keep you confined to a small portion of the river. However, there are times when running plugs can generate strikes.

Unlike wild fish, hatchery fish don't tend to mill around as much on their spawning journey. Their goal is to get upriver as quickly as possible.

Nelsen recommends using plugs specifically when clarity and visibility are reduced. For instance, early in the season when the Sauk River pumps mud into the Skagit, many anglers opt to run plugs. Normally, this occurs in November after the season's first major storms pound the Pacific Northwest.

"Think about what's going on when you have 18 inches of visibility. The fish don't have a chance to see that bait. That's when I go to plugs," explains Nelson. "You are packing the plugs down at a reduced speed and you give the steelhead more time to bash it, especially when you run four plugs out of a sled at once."

As with any steelhead river in Washington, one of the most important concepts to master is homing in on portions of the water column where the steelhead are holding.

These aren't salmon. Don't expect to find them in deep holes.

"If you look at 95 percent of the streams around, you're talking stream flows that are a fraction of what the Skagit is," said Nelson. "Guys fail to mentally break down the big body of water. If you want to catch fish, you have to break it down."

Forget about the middle of the river, he said -- and anything more than 10 feet deep.

Nelson said that boat anglers should look at the shore and find areas of reduced flows and current breaks. Forget about the fastest and deepest section of the river.

Unlike wild fish, hatchery fish don't tend to mill around as much on their spawning journey. Their goal is to get upriver as quickly as possible. That's why so many anglers experience their highest levels of success close to hatchery operations.

Hatchery fish don't use structure the way wild fish do because they are in a hurry to get back to the hatchery.

"They are rockin' up that creek," said Nelson. "Where you'll find hatchery fish is most likely near the spot they were planted."

The wise hatchery fishermen will go to the state Web site and find out where the fish were released, Nelson said. They'll rear the fish in one area, and drop the fish in another area. Those steelhead will come back

to those spots, he said.

The best steelhead spots on the Skagit are no secret. Grandy Creek, the vicinity of Marble Mountain Hatchery, Rockport and the Sauk and Baker River are some of the better hotspots. Endsley advises anglers to focus most of their time in the roughly 10-mile stretch from Marble Mountain to Rockport.

One spot that's always a given is the Marble Mountain Hatchery. Common sense proves that this area will be clogged with steelies simply because the majority will attempt to return here to spawn.

The fish start slowing down near the hatcheries at Barnaby Slough and Marble Mountain.

"You have to find places with high concentrations of steelhead if you want to do well," said Endsley.

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