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Lewis River Winter Steelhead

Lewis River Winter Steelhead

Things are getting back to normal in southwest Washington. How so? Lewis River steelhead are once again garnering headlines and major-league attention from anglers.

By Doug Rose

My brother's house is across the road from some of the best winter steelhead water on the East Fork of the Lewis River. This gives Scott a view of the comings and goings of anglers, and it provides a nearly foolproof strategy for determining when to go fishing.

When several rigs are parked across the road, it is an indication there are at least fish around. When vehicles have been parked there several days in a row, it is a good sign someone is catching fish. And when Scott sees anglers lugging winter-run steelhead to their trucks, it's time to go fishing.

Not everyone has as cozy a situation as my brother for predicting the best times for intercepting Lewis River's steelhead. Most of us have to depend upon contacts along the rivers, or on tackle store proprietors, newspapers, magazines and the Internet for information. Veteran anglers also rely on their personal knowledge of the run timing of hatchery fish and wild steelhead. Word of mouth is important, especially when anglers want to travel outside of their area of experience. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's sport-catch records also provide a quantitative analysis of harvest on the state's rivers, and it compares and ranks the more productive rivers.

Whichever way you measure it, southwest Washington's Lewis River System, which includes its North Fork, East Fork and Lewis mainstem, has been one of the Evergreen State's most productive and dependable winter steelhead destinations.

Until lower Columbia River tributaries fell on hard times during the early 1990s, the East Fork and North Fork both typically ranked among the Top 10 winter steelhead rivers in the state. In addition to impressive numbers, the Lewis System is also well known for the size of its fish. Indeed, the Washington record winter steelhead is a 32-pound 12-ounce East Fork behemoth taken in 1980.

The Lewis is one of only a handful of systems in the region that historically hosted roughly equal numbers of both wild summer and winter steelhead. It also supported strong returns of the "springer," which are among the most celebrated in the region.


Photo by Richard Grost

Like most Northwest steelhead rivers, the Lewis System has had its ups and downs in recent year. Its wild steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. As hatchery returns fell off and restrictive regulations were implemented to protect wild fish, harvest numbers fell significantly. Twenty years ago, the East Fork turned out more than 2,500 winter steelhead, and the North Fork kicked in another 1,500 fish. Those numbers had fallen to 1,400 total by the 1999/2000 season, and the annual harvest has hovered around 1,500 since then. However, that has more than kept pace with other western Washington rivers, and returns of hatchery fish have increased since ocean conditions became more favorable a few years ago. During that 1999/2000 season, the Lewis System was the fifth most productive in Washington. In recent years, about 100,000 winter steelhead smolts have been released into the East Fork, and the North Fork has received between 100,000 and 125,000 smolts.

Perhaps the Lewis River System's most appealing feature is its ability to satisfy virtually every type of angler and type of gear. Plunkers are drawn to the tidally influenced lower mainstem Lewis and adjacent beaches on the Columbia River. The North Fork is popular with boat anglers, who fish bait or plugs, and it also turns out good numbers of fish for wading steelheaders. The East Fork offers even more diversity, with an abundance of water that is ideal for conventional steelheading techniques, but it also contains areas that are perfect for swinging flies or throwing spinners or spoons.

The confluence of the two forks of the Lewis River is south of Woodland, within sight of Interstate 5 and not far from the river's junction with the Columbia River. Although the mainstem is only about 3 miles long and receives considerably less angling effort than the forks, it is open to fishing all year. It typically turns out 50 or so fish per month during early winter, with numbers waning later in the run.

Anglers who learn how to fish the lower river, however, have a shot at some of the freshest and brightest steelhead around. The mainstem is affected by the tides on the Columbia and is largely the realm of plunkers and anglers in powerboats.

The broad sand bars at the mouth of the Lewis and on the Columbia River to the north are ideal plunking waters. They are accessible from Woodland via Whalen Road and Dike Road, while Kunnis Road crosses the river a short distance upstream. As in other areas, plunkers tend to favor fairly strong and stiff rods, typically 8 1/2 feet and rated for 12- to 25-pound line; Ambassadeur 5000 and 6000 are popular reels. Plunkers usually fish two lines off the main line, with eggs or sand shrimp on one dropper and a Spin-n-Glo or Hot Shot on the other. The droppers are usually 18 to 36 inches long and are attached to the mainline with a three-way swivel. Pyramid sinkers up to 8 ounces or more are employed to hold the offering securely on the bottom. Plunking is a convivial style of fishing, with anglers tending to gather in groups around fires, while they listen to Seahawks or Trailblazer games on boom boxes.

The Lewis River mainstem is also popular with fishermen in motorized boats, who fish the tidally influenced water downstream of I-5. Launches are available at Paradise Point State Park, near the mouth of the East Fork, and there is also a state ramp off Pekin Road, which is accessible from Woodland. There are also launches at the mouth of the Lewis off Dike Road that provide access to the entire length of the mainstem. Back-bouncing and bait divers are popular on the mainstem.

An angler willing to prospect can find everything from fly-fishing drifts to plunking flats on the North Fork of the Lewis. However, the North Fork's reputation has always been as one of Washington's best drift-fishing and back-bouncing rivers. "It's still pretty much a bait show on the North Fork," said Gary Schaefer, public information officer with G. Loomis Rods, whose headquarters are situated within a long cast of the river. "It's mostly eggs and corkies with both bank and boat guys." In recent years, the North Fork has been open year-round from its mouth upstream to Colvin Creek, and from Dec. 16 to Apr. 30 from Colvin Creek up to Merwin Dam.

"It typically comes on around Thanksgiving and runs into February," Schaefer said. In addition to winter steelhead, he says late-returning coho have provided a bonus fishery in recent years. "You can now get bright co

ho into December."

Wild runs of steelhead on the North Fork have declined dramatically since the construction of Merwin Dam in 1929, which blocks access to 80 percent of the spawning and nursery habitat in the river. Hatchery plants have sustained its fishery, and over the years the North Fork has been one of the most heavily planted rivers in the state. Around 100,000 hatchery smolts have been released annually, and most of them return as 5- and 8-pound steelhead after two years at sea.

The stretch from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Cedar Creek Hatchery near Etna down to the bridge in Woodland is the most popular water on the river. "It's real productive from the Hatchery Hole downstream," Schaefer said. "There is a lot of water for people to fish. It is all steelhead holding water. Most of the North Fork of the Lewis is pocket water."

The Cedar Creek Hole is usually the most crowded hole on the river, because steelhead stack up there. Bank and boat anglers can fish it effectively, and there is a boat ramp on the south side of the river.

The Johnson Creek Flats is the next good area downstream. "It is between half- and three-quarters of a mile long," Schaefer said. "It is one of the few productive areas that is not pocket water." Highway 503 out of Woodland provides access to 4WD launches on the upstream end of Island and at the golf course. Anglers also regularly take fish at the horseshoe bend between the Haapa Crusher and Golf Course Hole.

The tackle employed on the North Fork is similar to that used by winter steelheaders all along the West Coast - with a few wrinkles. You will see lots of the 8 1/2- to 9 1/2-foot rods rated for 8- to 12-pound line with sensitive tips and strong butts. But many North Fork experts favor somewhat lighter rods and line because they are more responsive and allow you to fish smaller baits. Schaefer said rods rated for 6- to 10-pound line will handle big fish and big water really well.

Among drift fishermen, Corkies, Cheaters or Okie Drifters ahead of a three-foot leader and an egg cluster or sand shrimp are the most popular terminal rigs. Switching to winged bobbers such as Spin-n-Glos, Birdy Drifters or flashing-spinning Cheaters can be a good strategy when the river is high. During high and off-colored water, size 8 or 10 bobbers in hot and fluorescent shades tend to be most productive, while smaller and more subdued colors such as pink pearl, cream and purple bobbers are often effective when the river is low or cold. Although they constitute a small minority of anglers, a handful of steelheaders pull plugs like Hot Shots and Wiggle Warts. "They do really well," Schaefer said.

The East Fork of the Lewis River presents an entirely different aspect than its sister to the north. It tends to run clearer and is easier to read than the North Fork. It also tends to stay in shape longer and clean up more quickly after a storm. This makes it more dependable over the course of the winter.

In addition, the East Fork has a wide variety of water types. There is a wealth of drift boat and Corkie water - some of it the best in the region. It also contains excellent wading water for hardware and flyfishers, and in recent years both types of anglers have embraced the river.

The East Fork was historically the most productive winter steelhead river of the two Lewis forks. Although harvest figures have fluctuated between them in recent years, the East Fork has received the heaviest plants of winter-run fish, while the focus on the North Fork has historically been more on summer steelhead plants.

Some of the sweetest drift boat water in the state is the reach from Lewisville Park downstream to Daybreak County Park. About 4 miles long, this drift probably turns out more than half of the steelhead in the river each winter. It is accessible from State Route 503 north of Battleground. Shore-bound anglers have a good chance at fish upstream and downstream of the Daybreak Bridge, which is southeast of La Center on Northeast 259th Street. There is also walk-in access from Bennett Road at the County Sheds and Daybreak Feeders downstream of Daybreak Park. Plunkers and boat anglers also routinely take steelhead in the tidewater near Paradise Point State Park, which is just upstream of its confluence with the North Fork and has a developed boat ramp.

Corkie/yarn/bait rigs are just as effective on the East Fork, although smaller gear such as size 12 and 14 bobbers and pearl, pink, white and light green are popular when the river runs clear. However, the abundance of shallow runs, slots and shelves are tailor-made for spoons and spinners. They are also an excellent choice during the April 16-May 31 "selective fishery" that is in effect from the mouth upstream to Lewisville Park. Spoons with a small volume to weight ratio such as Wobble Rites and Little Cleos cut through the water quickly and are productive in areas where you need to get down quickly, such as above and below boulders or cut banks. Flatter, thinner spoons, such as Steeleys, perform better in water of uniform depth or over broad tail-outs. Spinners in sizes 3 or 4 are usually more than adequate for the East Fork's winter flows. During the lower and clearer water of late winter and spring, softer colors such as brass, green and even black are often more productive than fluorescents or silver.

Fly-fishing is probably the fastest growing method on the East Fork today, especially the upper river. "It is usually pretty clear, but a lot of where and how people fish depends on the flows," said Bob Faust, of Vancouver's Greased Line Fly Shop (360-573-9383). Faust says that there are deep holes upstream of Daybreak Park, and they are best fished with sink-tip lines. "It's probably best a couple of days after a storm, when it's dropping and clearing."

The river is shallower below Daybreak Bridge, with many slots and shelves and pocket water. It can be fished effectively with either sink-tips or floating lines with long leaders. "Type III sink-tips are probably the most popular on the East Fork," Faust said. "Basically, the most common flies are Egg Sucking Leeches and Bunny Leeches in purple or black. Some guys also use Muddler Minnows."

The East Fork is open from its mouth up to Lewisville Park through March 15, with wild release and a daily bag of two hatchery fish. The entire river is closed March 16 to April 15, and then the section downstream of Lewisville Park reopens on April 16 as a selective fishery, with a 20-inch minimum size and a limit of two hatchery fish.

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