The Walla Walla and Methow rivers -- clearwater tribs of the mighty Columbia -- give December anglers lots of shots at strong, colored-up game fish.
Being stuck on the east side of the Cascades is not such a bad dealafter all. I had to cancel an Olympic Peninsula steelhead trip because of deep snow on the passes. But the Walla Walla and Methow rivers both provided just what the doctor ordered to cure those got-to-catch-a-steelhead blues.
Rod Griffin of Griff's Fly Fishing Adventures hefts a Methow River trophy steelhead, which sports the distinctive red stripe of a well-traveled fish.
Photo by Sue Morrison.
WALLA WALLA RIVER
After the irrigation season and the fall rains arrive, the Walla Walla River changes character. The water temperature drops and clarity increases just in time for the steelhead to arrive.
Glen Mendel, a fish biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the fish begin to nose into the Walla Walla from the Columbia as early as September.
Rain for the last 10 years has been on the sparse side, so some of the Walla Walla fish have shown up in the Snake River system, according to Mendel. Still, the numbers for this relatively small stream make it a worthwhile destination.
There are two fish populations entering the Walla Walla. Those that veer off into the Touchet River are genetically different than those that stay in the main river and the Mill and Dry creek tributaries.
Over the last decade, the catch rate for the river system has varied, but anglers average 100 fish per month.
The retained fish are all A-run hatchery steelhead that range from 5 to 7 pounds, much like the typical Grande Ronde fish. Occasionally, a larger fish running more than 10 pounds shows up, but those trophy fish are rare.
When the fish first show in the river, the angling attention focuses on the area around Madame Dorian Memorial Park, a 46-acre Army Corps of Engineers area. It offers free campsites and a boat ramp. Boats can easily access the mouth, less than a mile downstream, to get the fish as they first enter the river.
The park and the south side of the river offer a number of bank-angling spots. Bank-anglers also work the shoreline near the grain elevators.
As the season progresses, the fish move upstream with each pulse of rain. Much of the river runs through private property, so it pays to either get to know local landowners or pay attention to the public access sites.
The first upstream access site is at 9 Mile Road. Brian Burns, project manager of the Tri-State Steelheaders, said there is no defined parking area, but you can park in what looks like a big cow pasture. Look for the trash barrels bearing the Tri-State Steelheaders logo. The barrels are provided in exchange for access, so make sure to use them or risk losing access. Cross the fence line using the step-overs.
Next is the WDFW access site at McDonald Road east of Lowden. Park your rig, hang the water access tag on the rearview mirror, then head upstream or downstream roughly a quarter mile in either direction.
Just a few miles upriver lies the WDFW Swegle Road Unit, part of the Sunnyside-Snake River Wildlife Area. Three miles west of College Place, Swegle Road consists of three parcels, some of which are access easements. In sum though, they provide public access to both Mill Creek and the Walla Walla. Take the road for the Whitman Mission, cross the river and park in the parking lot. The access tag is required here as well.
Boat anglers have options, too.
The WDFW site at McDonald Road down to Touchet is a popular float of about nine miles. It's important for boaters to remember that the Walla Walla is an irrigation river. Mendel said there are two potential river hazards early in the steelhead season. The first is an inflatable irrigation diversion dam that spans the entire river between McDonald and Swegle roads. The dam diverts water for irrigation so when the growing season is over, the dam is deflated and the hazard eliminated.