Leaves fall, rain starts, wind blows, and hope springs anew in the heart of a winter steelhead fisherman.
Arguably the most difficult of Washington’s major gamefish species to conquer consistently (not necessarily because of any innate superiority, but because of river, water and weather conditions), steelhead command an almost mystical charisma. Dedicated followers should perhaps be clothed in orange robes, rather than neoprene waders, so religious is the experience to some.
But despite entreaties to a higher power, more expensive rods, better boats and lures, and development of superior techniques, many winter steelheaders are lucky to see a single fish over any given season.
And this winter’s prospects sound much like those for the past several years, maybe a little better and hopefully much better than the 1999-2000 season, a slow one made worse by weather conditions.
Locally, biologist Curt Kraemer at the Mill Creek office of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife says smolt plants returning this winter were somewhat above average. He also says the word circulating among West Coast fish managers is that ocean survival conditions seem to be improving, demonstrably for other species and probably for steelhead as well.
If survival is indeed improving, Kraemer says, this year’s hatchery run should begin to show it, followed by wild stocks next year. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed for a lot of hatchery fish this winter,” he says.
Those are the good omens. As usual, there are some not so good.
“We didn’t see many jacks returning last winter,” Kraemer says. “That’s not always an indicator, but there seems to be at least some correlation.”
Another worrisome factor is that the Cowlitz should be hot as a pistol right now, with its large plants and large return of hatchery stocks. It’s not, but then neither is it exactly in the doldrums. Catch rates have been running about a half-fish per rod, which isn’t smokin’, but not bad, either.
Local water conditions have been too low and too clear for weeks now, which hasn’t allowed a clear indication of whether fish are coming or not. A good batch came in around Thanksgiving, but there has been little local action since then.
Joe Hymer, biologist at the Vancouver office, warns anglers interested in southwest Washington rivers to get ‘em this year, because the planting schedule has changed substantially.
“This winter will see the last returns from normal smolt plants,” Hymer says. “The feds cut Mitchell Act funding (federal mitigation money for Columbia and Snake River dams) and our hatchery production has dropped by one-third.”
Luckily, he says, that does not include the Cowlitz or the Lewis, where hatchery steelhead production is paid for by local electric utilities. It does include the Kalama, Elochoman, and other popular southwest streams.
A sleeper this winter in that area? Hymer taps the Grays River, particularly for those who like to explore small streams. Steelhead will return from plants out of the hatchery on the West Fork, which previously raised only salmon.
Catch figures last winter were below those of the last couple of seasons on many streams, but there were exceptions. Perhaps one of the most dramatic was the North Fork Stillaguamish, with a recorded catch of 1,178 fish. That puts it in the top five or six westside rivers last season, on a take well above its usual 500 or 600 fish. Particularly impressive, biologist Kraemer says, considering that the two major slide areas allow only about 10 miles of fishable water much of the usual winter.
“There’s some pretty good evidence that North Fork anglers are learning how to effectively fish dirty water,” Kraemer says.
Top producers last winter include the following:
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