Check here to find out how your favorite Washington and Oregon streams will do this winter.
Washington guide Rob Endsley (left) helped author John Kruse find this bright Sauk River steelhead. Photo courtesy of John Kruse
By John Kruse
Pessimistic people don't make good steelhead anglers. You've got to have a lot of faith and patience for this sport. They go a long ways.
Combine those with a high tolerance for cold, wet weather and a working knowledge of steelhead, add a love for fishing and a little luck, and there is little room left for pessimism. You see, even the most moribund steelhead angler always believes the next fish is one cast away. It's what gets us on the river early in the morning and keeps us out until dusk from autumn to early spring. It's why we smile as we approach the river to begin a day of fishing an untouched hole.
It's what sustains us between those too infrequent bursts of electric adrenaline that course through us when a hooked chrome-bright metalhead takes to the air. We know it all too well as gospel: Once you've hooked a steelhead, there's no going back. What inevitably lies ahead is a long series of trips, slips and casts, and then carefully watched retrieves spent remembering the last fish and waiting for the next one.
Fortunately, the season is upon us.
While steelhead fishing across the region was generally good last season, some rivers in northern Washington were disappointing. What can anglers look forward to this year? Biologists and guides are cautious in their assessments, but if environmental conditions remain the same as they have over the last two years, it appears that a great deal of opportunity will greet anglers this season. In rivers that suffered last year, however, experts and anglers alike are merely hoping for the best.
OLYMPIC PENINSULA A lot of good news - and good catches - came out of the Olympic Peninsula last year. The Upper Quinault River had the winter season extended into mid-April due to a stronger than expected run. The Chehalis River system, which includes the Chehalis, Wynoochee and Satsop rivers at the base of the Peninsula, also had extended seasons in the spring of 2003. Another good news story involved a great hatchery run of winter steelhead on the lower Humptulips River last winter.
Bob Leland, the steelhead program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, was asked what all of this means for the upcoming season on these rivers. He was also asked about prime steelhead streams like the Hoh, Sol Duc, Bogachiel and Quillayute rivers. His reply? Cautious. Forecasting steelhead returns is a little like reading the future from a muddied crystal ball. Despite that, he ventured that the season for the Peninsula's rivers looks good. Leland did caution that the counts for hatchery fish on several of the rivers were down for 2002, but he expects business as usual, with good fishing on river systems like the Queets, Quillayute and Hoh.
Rob Endsley is a personable, knowledgeable and hard-working guide who specializes in winter steelhead fishing on North Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula rivers. He says that Thanksgiving is a good time to think about heading to the Peninsula, starting with the Bogachiel River where fishermen drifting sand shrimp or eggs can score early.
In succession, the Sol Duc, Calawah and Hoh start getting hot. These rivers are excellent for drift boaters, but they can all be tricky to safely navigate, so going with a local guide the first time out might save you and your boat some serious damage.
Endsley says that from January until mid-April is the prime time for big wild steelhead, many of which top 20 pounds. Checking with his sources, Endsley relayed forecasts for "outstanding fishing" this season on the Quillayute and Hoh rivers due to excellent juvenile escapement three years ago and optimal ocean conditions since then.
NORTHERN WASHINGTON Things were not rosy last year for those looking to hook into a steelhead in many Puget Sound rivers. Popular and reliable waters like the Snoqualmie, Skykomish, Stillaguamish and Puyallup rivers all closed early due to returns of wild steelhead well below the spawning goals set for these waters. The overall situation was depressing for Puget Sound anglers, especially since the Snohomish River system was the second top river system for steelhead harvested in 1999 to 2000.
The WDFW's Leland was bearish about the coming season for this system, which includes the Snohomish, Skykomish and Snoqualmie rivers. Leland prognostication for a poor season is based on the fact that only half the number of wild fish needed for spawning returned to the system this year. In these rivers, fish returns have been under minimum escapement levels for the last three years. Leland is not the only one to feel this way. When asked about the Snohomish and Skykomish rivers, one steelhead guide simply replied, "Real bad."
The Skagit River, another sound producer of wild steelhead, also had a partial closure last year for the same reason. However, the catch-and-release season on this river system remained open since the forecast returns of wild steelhead was slightly above the spawning requirement of 6,000 fish.
Leland is hopeful the Skagit and Sauk River fisheries will not decline. He did not have all the data in at the time this article was written but felt that we were "looking at something fairly close to last year" in terms of how many fish will return this season.
Guide Endsley is a little more optimistic. A biologist he spoke to believes an average run is in the works for hatchery fish on the Skagit system and that there will be some improvement in wild steelhead escapement from 2003 to 2004. Endsley also suspects that the Stillaguamish and Snohomish river systems will do better than last year.
Rob knows the Skagit and Sauk rivers extremely well. He says that three-salt fish generally make up the first part of the run into the Skagit and enter the system in good numbers shortly after Thanksgiving. The bulk of the run will be in the river around Rockport and Marblemount in December and January. By mid-January the wild steelhead begin showing up in the lower reaches of the Skagit. The numbers of wild steelhead continue to build in the Skagit and Sauk through April. Some of these fish are true monsters. Endsley's biggest fish last season taped out at just over 25 pounds, and he heard of four fish being caught that measured over 44 inches long.
In fishing the Skagit, Endsley suggests that jet boaters side-drift egg clusters or sand shrimp early in the season, while their counterparts in drift boats work the edges of the big stream with plugs. Come February flyfisher
men will start working the gravel bars along the Sauk and Skagit, hoping to do battle with a hard-hitting wild steelie. Other anglers will use plugs; spoons or pink rubber worms suspended under floats to take fish through April
SOUTHWEST WASHINGTON The Cowlitz and Lewis River systems of southwest Washington are generally in the state's top 10 rivers in terms of winter steelhead harvest. In fact, during the 2001 to 2002 season, 16,000 steelhead were caught below Mayfield Dam, making the Cowlitz Washington's No. 1 steelhead river once again.
Another body of water that has been doing well recently has been the Kalama River. This river, more intimate than the Cowlitz and Lewis, has been pumping out good numbers of summer and winter steelhead to the point that it's recently broken into the top 10 in both categories for harvested fish.
Leland says the Cowlitz, Kalama and Lewis river steelhead fisheries should be good this year, "though not as good as last year or the year before."
Another voice weighing in on the subject belongs to guide Ken Schleicher of KD Guide Service. Schleicher said that the winter run on the Cowlitz started out good last year but fishing dropped off at the end of January due to too much water. "I expect another good run," Schleicher said. "We've had good runs the last two to three years and ocean conditions have been good."
Schleicher likes to fish the Cowlitz from October through January, and says December and January are the prime times to hit the water.
He recommends side-drifting corkies with yarn or eggs from a boat. He goes on to suggest using a smaller presentation (about the size of a quarter) for best results. Other effective methods for boaters on the Cowlitz are to back-troll plugs or use jet divers and eggs. Bank fishermen also do well on the river drifting corkies. Schleicher said that plunkers have success using Spin-n-Glos with eggs or sand shrimp.
NORTHERN OREGON The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is forecasting good to extremely good steelhead fishing for many rivers in the northwestern part of the state.
The best returns this season are expected to be on the Siletz, Siuslaw and the North Fork of the Nehalem rivers. Good runs are also expected on the Wilson, Trask, Nestucca, Clatskanine, Necanicum and Alsea rivers. Of these rivers, the Siletz, Wilson and Nehalem have provided Oregon anglers with high numbers of fish over the last 15 years.
One person in the know is Len Self, a guide who fishes the Trask, Wilson, Nehalem, Nestucca and Siletz rivers in Oregon. He said last year was a good one for steelheading, but timing was often a deciding factor. Self believes that the upcoming season will be similar, as long as ocean conditions stay the same as they have the past few years.
Other rivers to fish in northern Oregon include the Willamette, Clackamas, Sandy and Hood, as well as Eagle Creek. The Willamette had 9,000 winter steelhead return past the Willamette Falls fishway last year, and the forecast for this season is upbeat. The Sandy and Clackamas are expected to have solid returns this year. Eagle Creek is also expected to have a very good number of steelhead this year, with the peak of the run coming in December and January.
CENTRAL & SOUTHERN OREGON According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, steelhead fishing was red hot on the Rogue and Applegate rivers this past March. The Rogue is world famous but the Applegate is also becoming a popular piece of water. Fly fishermen in particular flock to this river when the water drops. Anglers are hoping for a repeat of last year's fishing scenario. They may be in luck on the Rogue. Forecasts are in for another solid season there. The Applegate River, while not looking at excellent numbers, is still forecast to have a good run this winter.
Over the years the Umpqua River has been a high producer of winter steelhead. The ODFW is predicting that trend will continue this season, and very good runs are also predicted for Elk and Chetco rivers. All of these rivers are expected to have the highest number of steelhead in their systems between January and March.
Another solid producer for steelhead is the Coquille River where a strong run is expected this winter. The run peaks a little earlier here, starting around Christmas with good opportunities continuing through February.
Travis Price is a well-respected guide who fishes the Umpqua, Rogue and Coquille rivers of southern Oregon for winter steelhead. "Last year's fishing was decent," he said. Price explained that there were a lot of high water days, but when the rivers dropped, his clients did very well.
Price believes the fishing will be good this year with strong runs, a trend that has been holding steady the last few years. When asked about how to catch winter steelhead in the rivers he spends time on, he replied "Side-drifting, especially with eggs." It was the most consistent method anglers used to hook up with fish.
EAST OF THE CASCADES They may be summer steelhead, but fishing for them often holds up from September to April on many rivers east of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington. The last two years have been outstanding for anglers wading the waters on the dry side of the Northwest.
Huge runs of hatchery steelhead on the Snake River have enabled anglers to retain three fish a day. Fishermen took advantage of this situation, harvesting an incredible 22,000 fish in the 2001-2002 season. In north-central Washington, anglers were able to enjoy an excellent catch-and-release fishery on the Methow River for the first time in several years. This was due to two years of record returns of summer steelhead over Columbia River dams.
Fishing on the Columbia River near Ringold in southeastern Washington was also superior and the season was extended into April due to the high numbers of fish there. The WDFW's Leland anticipates another "very good" run of steelhead into the Snake River system this season.
Fishing trips to northeastern Oregon will be worthwhile from late October to mid-April. According to the ODFW, the Grande Ronde, John Day, Imnaha, Umatilla and Wallowa rivers are all expected to host very good runs of summer steelies this season, though in numbers somewhat lower than forecast for last year.
Bill Bail is the guy to contact at Boggan's Oasis in southeastern Washington. The Oasis provides fishing guides, and a restaurant and cabins for anglers to retreat to after a full day of fishing on the Grande Ronde River. Bail said the last two seasons of fishing on the Grande Ronde was fantastic, with three-fish limits for anglers.
During the 2001-2002 season the WDFW estimated that more than 7,200 fish were caught in this system. Bail goes on to predict, "I think that this year we are going to have a great run." He bases this on spectacular runs of the last two years. Bail believ
es the hatchery program in place on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the river is a contributing factor, as well as stable ocean conditions. Together, they add up to an optimistic forecast steelheading in this corner of the Pacific Northwest.
FIND A GUIDE
Want to tangle with some steelhead this winter? Try contacting the following guides for more information or a great trip:
Northern Washington & the Olympic Peninsula: Rob Endsley -- Kulshan Excursions, (360) 676-1321, www.kulshanexcursions.com.
Southwest Washington: Ken Schleicher -- KD Guide Service, www.kdguide.com, (509) 493-3167.
Southern Oregon: Travis Price -- Price's Guide Service, www.southernoregonfishing.net, (541) 863-7300.
Northern Oregon: Len Self, www.profishingguide.com, (503) 631-8161.
East of the Cascades: Bill Bail -- Boggan's Oasis, (509) 256-3372, www.worldwidefishing.com/washington/b1934.
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