Predicting winter steelhead returns is like forecasting the weather. But target these top rivers in Washington and Oregon this year, and you can't go wrong. (November 2008).
Across the Northwest, steelheaders are busy readying their drift boats and pulling out the wool fishing gloves.
The Siletz River hatchery run is one of Oregon's most successful. And in a good year, anglers see about 10,000 winter wilds, too.
Photo by Garth Wyatt.
Winter-run steelhead are on their way! For the next four months, this incredible game fish will tantalize anglers while fishermen see the worst weather conditions of the year.
Also, steelhead are some of the hardest fish to predict. Ask any steelhead biologists what kind of winter run they expect for the coming season, and you'll find that they'd rather answer any other question.
Biologists know very little about where steelhead go once they leave the fresh water. Nor do they have any ocean catch to judge, nor jack counts to calculate. So when anglers ask them, "What can we expect?" their answers are necessarily vague. No matter how the runs fall out, certain Washington and Oregon streams out-produce others, year after year.
The following rivers have done just that, based on the five-year averages of steelhead catches in both states.
Some of these rivers and systems are legendary for their great runs, while some others may surprise you. Either way, if you target these waters this year, your chances of having a great season for winter steelies will increase exponentially -- the nasty weather notwithstanding.
Alsea River The Alsea River is the absolute top producer of harvested winter steelhead along the Oregon Coast.
Consistently at the top of the five-year average, this stream out-produces both the Rogue and the Umpqua for winter hatchery steelhead. It pours into the Pacific Ocean near Waldport, and its headwaters roll down from the Coast Range.
The two separate hatchery programs on the river allow for an extended hatchery fishery. When the first run arrives, about the last week of December, the fishing starts in earnest. The runs peaks in January, and it still fishes well into February.
Bob Buckman, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, expects a good return of steelhead to the Alsea this year.
"Everything is in place," he said. "This return is from a good hatchery release, so it should be a good run."
Buckman explained that two different strains of hatchery steelhead are released into the Alsea. One is an early-returning traditional Alsea stock. The other is a native brood-stock strain that arrives a little later.
As for the wild run, he reports that it's not very strong: "There isn't a lot of good steelhead habitat in the stream," he said. "Our wild run isn't that substantial."
Fish biologist Garth Wyatt of Sandy, Ore., learned to fish for winter steelhead on the Alsea.
He still spends as much time as he can chasing the chrome steelhead that prowl its waters.
According to Wyatt, the river fishes the best when it's running high. "At about 2,800 cubic feet per second, it's great," he said. "If it drops to 1,500 cfs, the fishing is still good. Once it drops below 1,000, though, things get tough. About the only tactic that will work is a jig and bobber." Siletz RiverThe Siletz is another mid-coast river that almost matches the Alsea for harvest. But this river also gets a great run of wild steelhead.
In good years, the river will see a return of about 10,000 wild winter steelhead. The hatchery run is a native broodstock strain, and arrives at the same time as the wild run.
The hatchery run is one of the most successful in the state, and the harvest is always among the highest along coastal rivers.
The fishery starts in mid January and peaks in February. There's still good fishing into March. Good drifts include Moonshine Park to Twin Bridges, and from Twin Bridges to the town of Siletz.
The Rogue is one of Oregon's most storied rivers, and its reputation is deserved. Its winter steelhead run is as productive as the other runs the river is famous for. The big river is stocked with an in-basin hatchery stock, and gets an impressive run of wild winters.
"Last year, we had a wild run of about 9,000 fish," said Steve Mazur of the Oregon Division of Fish and Wildlife. "In really good years, we can see as many as 20,000 wild fish."
Mazur expects this year's run to be about the same as last year's, or a little better.
"They are all good years here," said Mazur. "But some are better than others."
Two Rogue River tributaries that receive good runs of wild fish deserve attention: the Applegate and Illinois.
Guide Ron Smith of Sportfishing Oregon likes to target the lower river for winters. He mostly fishes the 28 river miles from Agnes down, but also drifts from Foster Bar to Agnes.
The fishing starts in November, but gets more consistent in December. The run peaks in January, with good fishing into March. Before January, anglers can keep two fin-clipped fish a day. After Jan. 1, that two-fish limit can include one wild fish. Anglers can keep five wild fish a year.
The Umpqua River system is one of the most prolific winter steelhead fisheries in southern Oregon, even though it's best known for its summer run. The river offers lots of water to fish, with winters returning to the north and south forks, as well as Smith River and Cow Creek.
The fishing is best from January through March. About 9,300 winter steelhead crossed Winchester Dam in 2007. Although that number is robust, the ODFW has restricted harvest on the river to hatchery fish. That's a departure from past years, when anglers could keep a few wild fish.
The South Umpqua drives of the winter steelhead hatchery program. The fish are of a native broodstock, and return with the same timing as the wild fish. The goal of the hatchery program is to acclimate and release between 80,000 and 120,000 winter steelhead smolts per year.
Bank-anglers and boat fishermen have a lot of areas to target in the Umpqua system. But if they want hatchery fish to take home, they should head for the main stem and the South Umpqua.
The Clackamas is home to the most productive winter steelhead fishery among Oregon's Columbia River tributaries. The fishery is driven by two winter steelhead hatchery programs, and a very strong run of trophy-sized wild fish.
The early fishery, which starts in late December, comes from the national fish hatchery on Eagle Creek -- a tributary of the Clackamas, and an excellent walk-in fishery on its own account. This strain comes from a number of different sources. The stock is from out of the basin, so it's scheduled to eventually be replaced with a native broodstock, such as the main hatchery run on the Clackamas.
Those fish, released at the Clackamas Fish Hatchery near Milo McGiver Park near Estacada, are more of a spring run. The fish don't arrive in strong numbers until the middle of February. The peak of the run arrives in late March.
In the most recent years, this river has seen average returns, though last year's run was a little better. Most biologists expect about the same kind of return this year. Sandy River
This popular Portland-area river is well known for its hatchery winter steelhead program, from a native broodstock. The steelhead run was excellent last year and is expected to be good again this year.
Chehalis River System
The Chehalis River is one of Washington's best coastal steelhead rivers, and its reputation is richly deserved, according to salmon and steelhead guide Bill Swann, of Swanny's Guided Fishing.
He grew up learning to fish on the Chehalis, and he still prefers it to many of the rivers he has learned to fish since.
"It's a big system," said Swanny, as he is known on the river. "I liken it to the Columbia, with all its many tributaries. It's just smaller."
The many tributaries that feed into the Chehalis are legendary names in their own right.
"You've got the well-known rivers," said Swanny, "steelhead tribs like the Wynoochee, Skookumchuck, Satsop, and the Humptulips.
"And then there are all the smaller rivers and creeks that are worth a try themselves."
From big-sled water to small walk-in creeks, there is something for everyone to fish. The hardest part can be deciding where in the system to go. Skookumchuck River
Of all the Chehalis tributaries, the Skookumchuck is the best winter steelhead producer, both in terms of smolts stocked out and in returning adults. It also produces some of the biggest trophy-class winter steelhead in the system. It's one of the latest to turn on, too, with the best fishing coming in early February, and continuing through March.
In the lower end, the guides will side-drift their way to limits, while farther up, anglers will fish with jig and bobber. In high-water years, back-trolling with diver and bait can also be effective.
The Wynoochee is another strong producer of winter steelhead, and the steelheading gets going in earnest about Dec. 20. The peak comes near the end of January, and a few good fish can be taken even into February.
This river is bank-friendly, with plenty of access from Black Creek to the White bridge, which is also one of the most popular drifts.
The Monty Square reach also offers good bank access. The Wynoochee gets a late run of wild steelhead that starts in early February and peaks in March. This is one of the easier rivers to drift. With a little research about the reach, most drift-boaters can handle the.
The Satsop is the easiest of all the tributaries to drift, and one of the most popular for that reason. Its runs pick up in late January, peaking in late February. It fishes best from the middle sections up.
Other good Chehalis tributaries include the Humptulips and the Newaukum rivers.
In low water years Swann suggests dropping out of the tribs and fishing in the main stem Chehalis.
"That way you target the fish while they concentrate before they start pulling up into the different tribs," he said. Quillayute River System
According to Mike Gross of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Quillayute River system's wild run of winters exceeds escapement goals each year.
Last year, an estimated 11,000 wild winters came back. "That's a little low," said Gross. "The average is about 14,000 to 16,000 adults returning."
With any kind of good ocean conditions, he expects about 13,000 wilds to come back this winter.
In addition, there are two other rivers with substantial hatchery runs: the Calawah and the Bogachiel. "The Bogey," as it's called, is the most popular by far, with most anglers targeting the hatchery drift. Bogachiel River
Washington guide Eli Rico often targets the Bogey for the hatchery run, and he likes the hatchery drift.
"It's a short drift, only about four miles, but it's so productive," he said.
The hatchery run starts in November and peaks in early January. When I told him this story is for the November issue of Washington-Oregon Game & Fish, he said, "If you're reading this right now, you need to be getting out here!"
Once the hatchery run slows, Rico targets the wild run by drifting from Highway 101 down to the hatchery.
He cautions that the Calawah is a very technical river. If you're a first-timer, you should go with a guide to learn the water.
Sol Duc River
Once the wild fish start to arrive in late January, one of the best places to find them is in the Sol Duc. While the Sol Duc River gets an early return of hatchery fish, it's better known as a wild steelhead river. Starting in January, the often-giant wild winter fish start entering the river. The fishing peaks in February.
Twenty-pound steelhead are pretty common on the Sol Duc. Anglers can keep one wild fish per year. That gives you a good shot at keeping a real trophy fish. Every year or two, a 30-pounder will even show up.
The Sol Duc is a technical river, and should be floated with a guide the first time out. Cowlitz River
Among the many Washington tributaries of the Columbia, the Cowlitz is the most productive winter steelhead fishery. The river gets two runs of hatchery
steelhead -- an early Chambers Creek stock and an in-basin native broodstock strain.
Though not as productive as it used to be, the Cowlitz still provides excellent fishing for winter steelhead.
Like most Columbia runs, the Cowlitz will probably get back only an average run this year.
Anglers catch winters from late November through March. Skagit River
This river to Puget Sound is a big, brawling popular river, but its runs have been on the drop.
Steve Foley of the WDFW notes that final numbers for the river have yet to be crunched, but he does expect a run similar to 2007-08.
In 2008, the Sauk and other popular tribs of the Skagit, may face closures for the catch-and-release wild fishery.
This very popular Puget Sound river saw its return drop from the previous year, but this year it should rebound and is expected to receive a stronger return in 2008-09 than last year.€‚€‚€‚
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Freelance writer Terry Otto is a U.S. Forest Service fisheries biologist who pursues steelhead near his home in Sandy, Ore.