There are a number of ways that an outdoorsman in the Pacific Northwest can contribute to the culinary festivities of the holiday season. A Christmas goose is the focus of many waterfowlers, while big-game hunters delight guests with saddle of venison and elk roasts. Crabs and oysters, blackmouth salmon and smoked sturgeon, grouse and quail - they all enhance a holiday feast. And while steelhead may not enjoy nationwide renown as holiday fare, largely because their natural range is limited to Pacific coastal states, they are also a valued component of many sportsmen and women's Christmas feasts.
Steelhead meat is slightly drier than salmon meat, but its succulent pink flesh is much more flavorful than your average insect-eating trout. Best of all, steelhead shine in a variety of preparations.
It is excellent fresh, either served as steaks the traditional way, or as filets that can be baked or saut仔d. Some anglers like to smoke their steelhead, especially at Christmas, and feature it as a sideboard delicacy, and I have hosted more than one party where a 10-plus-pound winter fish was the centerpiece.
Although it is far from traditional, perhaps my most popular steelhead feast occurred when I baked a whole fish, surrounded with olives, mushrooms, canned tomatoes and spinach. When the meal ended, a few tablespoons of sauce and the backbone were the only items at the bottom of the roaster.
The beleaguered status of wild steelhead in the Pacific Northwest is well known, of course, and only a handful of anglers still kill wild fish for the table. However, hatchery runs occur on nearly every Washington and Oregon stream with access to tidewater, and they provide ample opportunity for anglers who want a holiday steelhead. In fact, the original hatchery stocks released into most coastal rivers - the Chamber Creek fish in Washington and Alsea stock in Oregon - were selected because of their tendency to return from the ocean during early winter. As a result, most hatchery winter steelhead runs peak in the weeks right before the holidays. This gives anglers an excellent chance to beach a tasty winter fish just in time for their Christmas dinner.
Of course, the odds of hooking a hatchery steelhead in December vary widely from stream to stream. Most smaller rivers receive only a figurative handful of steelhead smolts. The fish in these rivers tend to be caught by locals, who enjoy intimate knowledge of the stream's holding water, and who can be on the water when rain pulls in a fresh pulse of fish. On the other hand, an angler's odds increase significantly when they focus on large rivers with heavy plants of winter steelhead. The returns to the major rivers tend to be more stable over time than smaller rivers, and the productive areas are also usually more easily identifiable and well known.
2 BASIC WINTER STEELHEAD RIGS
Anglers have dramatically expanded the methods used to pursue winter steelhead over the last dozen years. While all of those methods take fish under certain conditions, drift fishing and casting spoons remain enduringly productive for shore-bound anglers and beginners. Drift gear and spoons are fairly cheap, and an angler who becomes accomplished with both techniques will be able to take steelhead in virtually any situation.
Among bank anglers, drift fishing has accounted for more winter steelhead than all other presentations combined. The basic strategy is that you want your terminal rig to swing downstream slightly slower than the current and just above the bottom. Some anglers favor roe on the end of their leaders, while others like sand shrimp or tufts of yarn. The trick is to adjust your weight (usually lead), which is affixed 12 to 18 inches above the hook. It should be heavy enough to pull your rig down quickly to the fish's eye level but not so heavy that it is constantly snagging bottom. Slinkys and cloth-coated lead weights greatly reduce snagging. Corkies, Cheaters and Spin-n-Glos are popular bobbers for keeping bait off the bottom. The take of a winter steelhead to drift gear can be so subtle that many beginning anglers have a hard time detecting it.
Beginners can usually connect with fish more easily with spoons retrieved across the grain of the current. Spoons seem to appeal to the most aggressive steelhead, especially larger bucks. The problem is not in detecting a strike but in hanging onto the rod. Little Cleo and Wonder Lure type spoons sink quickly in pocket water and slots. Flatter, thinner spoons like the Steeleye are suited for shallow tail-outs and flats.
Over the years, no major river systems have more dependably yielded hatchery steelhead than Oregon's Umpqua, Tillamook Bay and Willamette River tributaries. North of the Columbia River, Puget Sound's Snohomish River system, the Olympic Peninsula's Bogachiel River and the mighty Cowlitz have been the best hatchery destinations.
If you are determined to eat winter steelhead this Christmas, these half-dozen rivers will be your best bets.
UMPQUA SYSTEM WINTER STEELHEAD
Although the southern Oregon Coast's Umpqua River is much better known for its chinook and summer steelhead, it also hosts a strong run of winter steelhead. Indeed, in excess of 440,000 steelhead smolts are released into the north, south and main-stem Umpqua River annually. Unlike the river's celebrated summer steelhead, which are largely targeted in the 31 miles of fly-only, catch-and-release water on the upper North Fork, much of the winter steelhead effort occurs in the lower portions of the system. Umpqua steelhead begin to nose up into the lower river in November, and the peak of the harvest occurs in December and January.
The Big K Guest Ranch, near Elkton on the lower portion of the North Umpqua, is an institution on the river and offers traveling anglers accommodations, a restaurant and guided fishi
ng trips. All trips are conducted in drift boats, and anglers have the option of using spin or fly tackle. The winter steelhead season on the Big K runs from December into April.
TILLAMOOK BAY TRIBUTARIES
The cluster of rivers that drain into Tillamook Bay - the Miami, Kilchis, Wilson, Trask and Tillamook - give steelheaders a range of options within a short distance of one another. The proximity of several steelhead rivers within a short drive of one another greatly increases an angler's opportunities, because the run timing, conditions and access can vary significantly between nearby rivers. In recent years, the Wilson, turning out in excess of 800 steelhead, has been the most productive Tillamook area river, followed by the Trask and Kilchis.
"We fish the Wilson and Trask and Kilchis," says Toy McMahaon of the Guide Shop, a full-service fishing operation on the Wilson River. "The steelhead usually show up in early November on the Wilson, but it depends a lot on the rain." McMahaon says that a dry early winter can keep the fish in the ocean, while heavy storms will knock the rivers out. As with most winter steelhead rivers, the hatchery fish in the Tillamook rivers run in the 5- to 14-pound range, but there is a potential for larger, wild fish. "We've seen 25-pounders in the Wilson," McMahon said.
WILLAMETTE RIVER TRIBUTARIES
The mighty Willamette River gathers dozens of tributaries before flowing through Portland and merging with the lower Columbia. The Clackamas is the largest tributary below Willamette Falls. During the late 1980s, the Clackamas turned out in excess of 4,000 winter fish annually; its numbers have declined recently, but the hatchery fish still support a very intense and popular fishery.
Above the falls, the Molalla, McKenzie and Santiam each receive thousands of hatchery winter steelhead plants, and they are open all year for adipose-clipped steelhead. The hatchery fish arrive later than on the Clackamas, usually in December, and fishing can remain good well into early spring. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Web site contains links where you can see the number of fish that have passed over Willamette Falls, which gives a good indication of the angling potential on the upper tributaries
THE COWLITZ REIGNS IN WASHINGTON
Southwest Washington's Cowlitz River has dominated the early winter steelhead harvest in Washington for several generations. Annual catch rates during the early 1980s reached as many as 20,000 fish. Those numbers have trailed off in recent years, but the Cowlitz is still the state's top winter steelhead river most seasons.
The Cowlitz main stem has averaged around 2,000 winter fish in recent years, and more than half of those fish have been taken in December. Wild fish don't contribute much of the total run on the Cowlitz, which is one of the most heavily planted systems in Washington. Two years ago, the main stem received 218,000 fish, while Blue Creek got 50,000 and the Cispus and Coweeman absorbed an additional 37,000.
Karen Glaser of the Barrier Campground near Salkum has a bird's eye view of winter steelhead on the upper Cowlitz. "Usually, the first winter steelhead show up in late October," she said. "But we figure it really gets started around Thanksgiving and the peak is in December." According to Glaser, the average size of the steelhead varies from year to year. "But the average range is probably between 8 and 15 pounds," she said. Everything from plunking to spinner fishing to back-bouncing is productive, but Glaser says that jig and bobber rigs, corkies and yarn, and shrimp are the most popular. "Some people use plain shrimp but others like it with a piece of yarn," she said.
PUGET SOUND'S SNOHOMISH
Although the Skagit River, Puget Sound's largest river, was historically also its winter steelhead powerhouse, the Snohomish River system has emerged as its most dependably productive winter river. Indeed, the Snohomish's two largest tributaries, the Skykomish and Snoqualmie, have exceeded 3,000 fish in recent years. When you add in the harvest from the Skykomish's Pilchuck, Wallace, Sultan and Raging rivers, and the Snoqualmie's Tolt, Canyon, Tokul and Pilchuck, the Snohomish system has accounted for upwards of 5,000 fish. Those numbers have propelled the Snohomish system into the state's top slot in several recent years.
With a system-wide ban on wild harvest, the catch is based on hatchery fish, supported by upwards of 400,000 annual steelhead smolt plants. The Chambers Creek hatchery stock, which is the foundation of the hatchery program on the Snohomish, are early-timed, like most winter hatchery fish, and the bulk of the harvest occurs before Christmas.
THE OLYMPIC PENINSULA'S BOGACHIEL
The Quillayute River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean at LaPush between the Quillayute Reservation and Olympic National Park's Rialto Beach, is the end of the Olympic Peninsula's largest system. Wild fish account for the bulk of the steelhead on the Quillayute's Bogachiel, Calawah and Sol Duc rivers. However, the Bogachiel Rearing Pond's hatchery fish draw hundreds of anglers to the far reaches of the Olympic Peninsula each December.
Indeed, the Bogachiel main stem and Quillayute have yielded nearly 2,000 fish in recent winters, while the Bogey's principle tributary, the Calawah, accounted for an additional 1,200 steelhead.
About 150,000 steelhead smolts have been released into the Bogachiel and Calawah in recent years, and as with most hatchery winter fish, they return in Decembe
r and early January. The water downstream of the rearing pond is best during the early season, and much of it is best fished from boats. Launches are located at the Bogachiel Rearing Ponds (crowded even on weekdays), at Wilson's ramp off Mora Road; anglers can take out at Lyendecker County Park, near the Three Rivers Resort. Bank access to the lower Calawah can be obtained at the rearing ponds, and plunkers work the Lyendecker Area and the Quillayute River's Richwine Bar, near the Olympic National Park boundary.