The Skagit River is the crown jewel of Washington’s Puget Sound region. Some 276 glaciers feed the Skagit River system and ninety percent of the fresh water that enters the Puget Sound comes from the Skagit River. Only two rivers on the west coast of the continental United States exceed it in discharge, the Columbia and the Sacramento. It’s no wonder the Skagit and its main tributary, the Sauk, have gained such a reputation for their steelhead.
The Skagit is world renowned for its steelhead and is the birthplace of many of the techniques we still use today. For decades the Skagit was the heavyweight champion of steelhead rivers and would routinely kick out as many as 30,000 steelhead per winter. While the days of huge steelhead harvests are long gone, the Skagit to this day is perhaps one of Washington’s finest steelhead rivers and provides northwest anglers with a golden opportunity at a trophy steelhead over 20 pounds.
Two hatcheries, one at Barnoughly Slough just above Rockport, and the other on the Cascade River in Marblemount, produce the bulk of the winter hatchery steelhead released into the Skagit. With no summer run steelhead plants and very few steelhead in the system in the summer, the Skagits best steelhead fishing occurs between December and April when hatchery and wild steelhead enter the river.
With two hatcheries located on the upper stretch of the Skagit the best fishing usually occurs in the Rockport area and it isn’t uncommon for the parking lot at the Howard Miller Steelhead Park to be full of rigs on any given day in December and January. Jet boats dominate the hatchery run and the majority of the hatchery fish are taken “boon-dogging” or side-drifting egg clusters or sand shrimp.
While a jet boat has its advantages on the large waters of the Skagit, drift boaters can also score hatchery steelhead and the stretch of river from Marblemount to Rockport can be extremely productive for driftboaters. Backtrolling plugs and bait divers and driftfishing the soft edges of the large runs on the upper river can produce well as fish make their way back to the Cascade River and Barnoughby Slough hatcheries.
With Highway 20 running alongside the river between Rockport and Marblemount there are several great places for bank anglers to test their wits against the Skagit’s finest. In addition to access along the main river, both the Cascade River and the mouth of Barnoughby Slough near Rockport provide a great opportunity for bank anglers to catch hatchery winter steelhead at the end of their journey.
Steelheaders fishing these locations draw strikes with a variety of presentations, but floatfishing jigs and driftfishing small egg clusters are usually the top producers. When the Cascade becomes low and clear and the fish get skittish a small corky, puff ball, or yarn ball fished on a light leader can draw strikes from weary hatchery fish.
The Skagit sees the first of its wild steelhead around January 20th, as it seems like every year about this time rumors begin to fly from the plunking communities on the lower river of huge steelhead having their way with wing-bobbers, hoochies, and other plunking fare. By the first week of February wild fish make their way into the upper reaches of the river from Hamilton all the way to Rockport and good fishing can be had until the river closes at the end of April.
During the month of February the Skagit fishes well from Hamilton all the way to it’s confluence with the Sauk. With both the Sauk River and the Baker River entering the Skagit between Hamilton and Rockport, however, flows and clarity can fluctuate wildly. Regular releases from the Baker River can raise flows considerably below Concrete and rains in the upper valley can quickly cloud the waters of the Sauk, rapidly dropping visibility in the Skagit. Steelheaders who fish the Skagit on a regular basis know to watch the USGS streamflow site and time their trips accordingly.
February is just a primer for the Skagit, however, as its wild run continues to build in both March and April. Bait is prohibited on the Skagit after March 15 when the river goes to selective fishery regulations, meaning no bait and single, barbless hooks. Though the rules toughen, this is by far the best time to be here for a shot at one of the Skagit’s magnificent steelhead.
Plugs, drift gear, pink worms, jigs, spoons, flyfishing, and just about any other steelhead technique imaginable produce during the spring months. With its broad, sweeping runs the Skagit lends itself well to “sweeping” presentations like spoons, drift gear, and flyfishing. On the large runs of the Skagit steelhead can hold anywhere from the middle of the run to within feet of the gravel bar, so techniques that swing across the run tend to more adequately cover the holding water and improve an anglers chances of hooking up.
Pulling plugs in the deep, boulder filled runs and in current seams over the deeper bars also produces strikes in the spring. One thing that can be said about Skagit steelhead is that they are aggressive and take-downs while plugging can be about as viscous as they get. Remembering that the Skagit kicks out 30-plus pound steelhead on a yearly basis is enough to melt the nerves of most steelheaders as they grab that heaving plug rod from the grip of the holder.
Fishing from a boat under power is illegal on the Skagit after March 15 and from there out the driftboat typically becomes the main mode of transportation on the river. The river is open from the Dalles Bridge at Concrete clear up to it’s confluence at Bacon Creek, giving steelheaders roughly 25 miles of prime steelhead water during the spring catch and release season.
With its sheer size and volume the Skagit can be nothing less than intimidating to someone visiting it for the first time. Learn the many nuances of the Skagit, however, and you can be greatly rewarded with a hook up on one of the Northwest’s finest strains of steelhead.
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