STEELHEADERS: BEAT THE CHRISTMAS
(Early-run hatchery fish provide the best steelhead action of the winter)
I'm so old that I can remember when the Puyallup River was one of the
best winter steelhead producers in the Pacific Northwest, and as far
back as I can recall, my favorite time to fish the Puyallup was that
glorious month between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. A lot has changed
in the nearly five decades since I caught my first winter-run-including
the near-demise of the Puyallup as a worthwhile steelhead stream-but
I still think December steelheading is the best steelheading.
winter steelie season here in much of western Washington is open three
to four months, depending on the river systems you like to fish, but
the hatchery steelhead that are stocked by the hundreds of thousands
in our rivers and creeks tend to return home earlier in the winter than
their wild-stock cousins, and it's these abundant hatchery returns that
provide the bulk of our hot steelheading action during these first few
weeks of the winter season.
I know, wild fish are the holy grail of our recreational steelhead fisheries,
and decades of hatchery plants have been part of the reason why some
wild runs have all but disappeared, but the fact remains that if you
like catching winter steelhead, early-season fishing for hatchery brats
is the best game in town. And if you wait too long, you'll miss it!
Reports of fair to pretty-darn-decent steelhead catches were coming
in from rivers like the Bogachiel, Calawah, Wynoochee, Humptulips, Skykomish,
Snoqualmie and Skagit rivers before Thanksgiving weekend, and if the
weather doesn't go nuts one way or the other, things should just get
better now that we're into December.
state, the feds and the tribes plant between 4.5 million and 5 million
winter steelhead smolts in about 60 western Washington rivers and creeks
annually, and during a "normal" weather and water year a majority of
the adult fish from those plants will return between late-November and
mid-January. Depending on survival rates, that means as many as 100,000
adult steelhead showing up in about five-dozen streams over a six- or
seven-week period. That's why early-winter steelheading can be so good.
more, these hatchery runs are consistent and predictable; they tend
to show up in similar numbers in the same streams at about the same
time year after year. If you're willing to do a little homework you
can quickly figure out where you stand your best chance of finding early-winter
success. Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife has been compiling
catch and stocking data on the state's winter (and summer) steelhead
for well over half a century, and over all that time some very obvious
patterns have developed. Although the specific numbers change some from
year to year, I've found that streams known for their good December
fishing for hatchery steelhead 20 years ago are pretty much the same
streams that are good for December steelheading these days.
can find much of the information you need on WDFW's website. The address
Click on Fishing/Shellfishing, then on Fishing Reports, Stocking Reports
and Fish Counts. There you'll find both steelhead harvest reports and
steelhead smolt plant reports, and with a little cross-referencing you'll
start to notice a direct correlation between the numbers of hatchery
smolts stocked in a particular river and the numbers of two-salt hatchery
steelhead caught from that river the following year (what a surprise).
information you'll find on the agency website isn't up-to-date, but
like I said, plant/catch patterns from three or four years ago are likely
to be valid now. For the sake of those who don't think history repeats
itself, though, I've hounded WDFW's steelhead folks for the most current
(though not-net-official) stats, and they should be helpful as you plan
your early-season steelhead assault.
you really like to play the odds, half a dozen west-side steelhead streams
stood head and shoulders over the rest the past two years when it comes
to producing early-season hatchery fish.
Washington's Cowlitz River led the way (big surprise), giving up 860
December steelies in 2006 (plus 716 more that were being caught from
Blue Creek) and a whopping 2,263 last year. Twenty-two-hundred fish
would be a good season-long total on many steelhead streams, but that's
how many came from the might "Cow" in only one month!
out the top six December steelhead producers over the past two seasons
were the Skykomish River with catches of 876 in 2006 and 1,081 in 2007,
the Bogachiel with 1,315 in 2006 and 319 in 2007, the Snoqualmie with
368 in 2006 and 647 last year, the North Lewis with 452 in 2006 and
379 in 2007, and the North Fork Stillaguamish with 379 in 2006 and 279
west-side streams that have lived up to their reputation and produced
good December steelhead catches over the past couple seasons are the
Wynoochee, Humptulips, Queets/Salmon, Calawah, Elochoman, Grays, East
Lewis, Hoko, Lyre, Mainstem Skagit, Cascade and Wallace rivers.
stocking reports also provide some valuable insights into where you
might find good fishing for early-season winter-runs, since larger hatchery
plants may (but not always) mean larger returns of adult fish in subsequent
years. Hatchery steelhead smolts released in 2007 are returning as two-salt
fish this year, as are the larger three-salt adults from the 2006 plants.
probably comes as no surprise that Southwest Washington's Cowlitz River
is the most heavily stocked winter steelhead stream in the state. It
was salted with nearly 561,000 smolts in 2007 and 656,000 in 2006 for
a two-year total of 1,216,900 fish. With plants like that, it's easy
to see why the Cowlitz produces so many December steelhead. The state's
second-most heavily planted winter steelhead river is the Quinault,
which received nearly 943,000 hatchery smolts in 2006 and 2007, but
the vast majority of returning adults from those plants wind up in tribal
gill nets and anglers catch relatively few of them.
winter steelhead rivers expecting returns from large hatchery plants
in 2006 and 2007 (with their two-year totals in parentheses) include
the Cascade (513,500), Green/Soos Creek (497,900), Mainstem Skagit (395,000),
Skykomish (365,800), Wynoochee (348,500), Puyallup/Carbon (340,000),
Snoqualmie (338,100), Queets/Salmon (332,800), Nooksack (325,000), North
Fork Stillaguamish (288,700), North Fork Lewis (194,300), Sol Duc (193,000),
Elwha (183,800), Bogachiel (180,000) and Kalama (178,200).
Like catch statistics from previous years, however, the stocking-report
information isn't necessarily the entire key to where and when you can
expect good early steelheading. In fact, when you compare hatchery plants
to the sport catch on some streams, you may wonder what the heck is
going on. For example, although King County's Green River is one of
the most heavily stocked with hatchery smolts, anglers caught only 80
steelhead there in December of 2006 and 114 in December of 2007. Even
worse, my old home stream the Puyallup was stocked with 340,000 smolts
in 2006-2007, but it produced only 24 steelhead for anglers last December
and only 56 during the entire winter season! Similarly, the Nooksack
receives about 160,000 winter steelhead smolts annually but gave up
only 68 fish to anglers in December, 2006 and a mere 50 in December,
2007. Whether it's tribal gill-netting or something else that's causing
the problem, anglers shouldn't expect great early-winter steelheading
on these three heavily-stocked river systems.
I'm convinced that hatchery steelhead are easier to catch than their
wild brethren, no matter what your favorite fishing technique. Maybe
it's because there's a good chance you'll find more than one stacked
up in the same place, or maybe it's because early life in a hatchery
pond made them more eager to pounce on a bait or lure before one of
their half-million pond mates beat them to it, or maybe it's simply
because there are more of them around.
also think that hatchery-stock steelhead are more active than wild fish
once they return to fresh water, and therefore more likely to chase
down a faster-moving bait or lure. That willingness to move farther
and faster to strike gives anglers an advantage, in that they can cover
more water more quickly as they search for fish. Although all the usual
egg clusters, drift bobbers and leadhead jigs will certainly catch hatchery
winter-runs, bank anglers can fish more water more effectively with
spoons or spinners and probably increase their chances of hooking up.
Likewise, boat anglers can cover more water and increase their chance
of encountering fish along the way if they keep moving, so side-drifting
might be a better approach than, say, pulling plugs or anchoring and
most everyone else, I like the idea of hooking a big, thick-bodied,
wild winter steelhead every once in a while, but let's face it, there
aren't that many wild fish around anymore, and catching a 5- or 6-pound,
two-salt hatchery steelhead is a whale of a lot more fun than catching
nothing…or not even having the opportunity to fish at all.
best thing about hatchery steelies, though, is that you can go after
them right now, so shut down the computer and get out there, before
the holiday rush!