CHUM BABIES & RAINY MARCH SEA RUN CUTTHROAT FISHING

Rainy SRC Fly Fishing at Hood Canal

Spotted the first out-migrating salmon smolts of the season off our beach on Hood Canal this weekend.

Couldn’t find any Sea Run Cutthroat feeding on them today, but I’m looking forward to some great fly fishing action on the saltwater this spring as the trout feast on chum babies at creek mouths, oyster beds and beaches around the Salish Sea.

WINTER STEELHEAD CAMP IN THE RAINFOREST

After weeks of staring at work calendars, steelhead reports, river flows and weather forecasts for one of the wettest places in the country, some friends and I finally pulled the trigger and headed out for a long weekend on the Olympic Peninsula.

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

With early season conditions and temperatures well below freezing on the coast, we were content to treat this as an exploratory mission with a low bar for success.

Fly fish remote glacial water. Camp in an ancient rainforest. Drink beers by the fire. Anything else was extra.

But those modest expectations went out the window pretty quickly when a nice Bull Trout came to hand and we lost a bright steelhead in the first hour of fishing Friday morning.

OP Steelhead Camp - Bull Trout Updated

As is so often the case with winter steelheading, those were the only chances we had with decent fish on the first two days. A few yearling steelhead and surprisingly hefty coastal cutthroat took our swung flies, but overall it was slow fishing in bitterly cold temps.

But with tree’s reminiscent of Tolkien’s Ents ringing our camp, and perfect glacial runs only a short cast from the tent, there was nothing but the cold temps (as in 14 degrees once the sun went down) to complain about.

At least until Saturday morning when the effects of too much Rainier, Fireball and Evan Williams took their toll, and I woke up with minor frostbite numbing the tip of my pointer finger.

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

After fishing hard for two full days with only the briefest hint of steelhead to stoke our hopes, the temptation was strong to sleep in on Sunday, lounge around camp, and then drive the four hours back to civilization.

But I didn’t. At first light I forced myself out of a warm sleeping bag and into frozen wading boots.

After pounding some Starbucks VIA , I tied a fresh six foot flourocarbon leader on my Spey rod, pocketed my steelhead box, and hiked past moss covered giants to the best run I’d seen the day before.

While debating whether to start the day with a black Intruder or a purple Fish Taco, I took in the perfect turquoise color of the river and the deep green of the old growth around it. And thought about the wondrous places these anadromous trout call home.

And then I casted, mended and swung my fly low and slow across the run.

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

My fish didn’t come on that first cast. Or even the fiftieth.

But over an hour later and a few hundred yards down, standing on a midstream gravel bar and doggedly swinging towards a tailout, a sharp tug brought my line tight.

And then it quickly went slack again.

Shaken, I angled my fly out of the holding water and waited. Desperately wanting to cast again, but knowing the best chance of another take would come after giving the run a rest. I stood still as heron, staring at the roiling blue-green water.

And then I swung a tight Snap-T and popped my sink tip and fly well above the spot the fish had struck. Nothing.

Taking two steps down, I casted again just high enough to allow the fly to sink before swinging through the spot I imagined the fish to be.

And suddenly, just as the water begin to carry the fly broadside through the riffle, a very angry wild steelhead jerked the line tight.

After a few frantic headshakes, the buck took a searing run downstream, making my reel scream and ripping line towards the leader-snapping rapids below us.

Holding ground and slowing his run with a careful hand on the drag, I angled the fish back into the deeper part of the pool. Instead of dogging me in the slower water, he turned and ran straight back upstream, for a second making me think he had come unhooked.

But the fish rolled and thrashed again on the surface and my rod tip bounced as I picked up the slack. Stepping backwards in a slow game of give and take, I kept the long Spey rod low to the water and eased the chrome fish, fresh from the Pacific just over twenty miles away, into the shallows directly above me.

Stripping some line loose from the reel with my free hand, I released tension and quickly moved in to grasp the roughly twelve-pound buck just below its impressive adipose fin.

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

This is why fishermen endure long drives. Days of uneventful casting until even the most beautiful places get old. Pouring rain and blown out rivers. 14 degree nights in a tent and perpetually numb finger tips. Too much cheap whiskey, Clif Bars and freeze dried meals.

When a perfect native steelhead comes to hand, none of that matters.

You smile and laugh like a maniac. Snap a few hurried pictures, rest the fish in the river’s gentle flow, and slowly loosen your grips as it darts off to complete it’s upstream journey to the spawning beds and back to the ocean again.

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

When the fish was gone, I stood on the riverbank and stared for a moment. Utterly unsure if what had just happened was real.

Then I cranked in my slack line, pinned the purple Fish Taco to the reel, and walked back to camp past elk tracks, thousand year-old evergreens and sword ferns that reached above my waist.

Once there, I cracked a cold breakfast beer from the cooler, sat down on a mossy log, and smiled a contented smile.

I have yet to sight-fish the salt flats for bonefish, battle a hundred pound tarpon or witness a Green Drake hatch on a classic spring creek.

But I have a hard time imagining that any fishing, anywhere, can be more satisfying that the feeling a steelhead angler experiences when that swung line comes tight in a perfect rainforest run.

Olympic National Park Steelhead Camp

THE DISCOVERY OF A CUTTY STASH

In a sheltered bay on Hood Canal lies a Cutthroat Stash.

Where fallen trees point across oyster beds towards crumbling pilings, the resident sea run trout of the Salish Sea feed undisturbed.

That undisturbed part is all my fault, and it’s starting to change.

Hood Canal Sea Run Cutthroat

You see, my family has had a cabin on this beach for three generations. I’ve crabbed, sailed and fished Washington’s fjord all my life. The education I received from the Canal, and from the family I spent time with there, is an integral part of who I am.

Learning how to bait a crab ring and haul shrimp pots, without stinging Sea Nettle jellyfish covering your arms. How to dig clams and shuck oysters, or when to pull one spitting from the grill. How to troll downriggers for Chinook and drift fish the estuary for chum. How to start (and restart) an outboard, and right a small sailboat in rough seas.

And how to clear brush, pull weeds and split a cabin’s worth of firewood.

Sunrise on Hood Canal

Despite my salt-soaked upbringing, it wasn’t until I fell hard into fly fishing after college that I grasped what might lurk above our oyster beds when the tide came in.

I knew the Sea Run Cutthroat fishing on Hood Canal could be good. And we had occasionally trolled with spinning rods and Dick Nite spoons for the twelve- to twenty-inch anadromous trout.

But I had never casted flies for them.

Never stripped in a streamer until a wake appeared behind it. Never watched the surface shatter in a splash of silver as the line comes tight to a frantic little predator.

Hood Canal

Armed with a six weight rod and the cabin kayak on my first exploratory SRC fly fishing trips, I found I could cover the entire bay and come up with just a fish. Or none.

But when I walked down the beach at the proper tide, fishing towards that pocket of water that swirled between white oysters, black mussels and the skeletons of tarred and salt-worn timber, they came on nearly every cast.

Then the tide went slack and they were gone again.

Big for coastal trout, aggressive and confident. Sea Run Cutthroat feed with a frenzy on the sculpins, worms and baitfish that call the beaches of Puget Sound and Hood Canal home. And they will take flies with reckless abandon.

But they’re not easy to find. And as a catch-and-release, barbless-hooks-only fishery, you lose as many as you land. But they fight with the vigor and frenzy of the salt, enough to forgive a few long-line releases.

And when a thick Sea Run comes sliding into the net they are toothy and green-backed, adorned with spots, limpets and barnacles. A perfect specimen of the wild world that swims beneath tidal waters so close to the places we call home. And home away from home.

Hood Canal Sea Run Cutthroat

Sea Run Cutthroat are typically open for catch-and-release fishing year round in Washington. In the saltwater, nine foot five and six weight fly rods with light, clear sinking tips, seven foot leaders and salmon fry, baitfish and sculpin fly patterns work well.

The best fishing often occurs in late-fall, winter and early-spring.

Any gently sloping beach in the Salish Sea can hold Sea Runs. As most tidelands are private and restricted access, a small boat or kayak is a great way to cover water. Look for moving tides and geography or structure that alters the water’s flow, including points, pilings, creeks and oyster beds.

Fish will hang in water anywhere between one foot and ten feet deep. As they are almost always on the move, keep working up and down the beach until you locate a pod.

Or a Cutty Stash.

Hood Canal Sea Run Cutthroat

ANOTHER SEASON ON THE DELTA, LAKE AND MARSH

I was a boy when my grandfather first took me duck hunting.

Despite two pairs of thick socks and a wool hat pulled tight over my ears, the November cold stung as we sat in our plywood blind. I remember staring out at the decoys, floating quietly while tendrils of white fog drifted low over calm gray waters.

From time to time, the old Yellow Lab at my side would look up and whine softly, her eyes shining with anticipation for birds that would not come.

Mostly, I remember drinking a whole Stanley thermos of hot chocolate, listening to my grandpa’s hunting stories, and not firing a shot.

Snohomish County Duck Hunting

Well over a decade passed before I got back in a duck blind last fall.

I had a 12 gauge, neoprene waders and friends who hunted the Snohomish floodlands. When they invited me to come along it seemed worth the cost of a bit of camo to give it another try.

For my grandfather and that old Lab. And for my own hunting stories.

In the predawn darkness we walked over a mile to a small public-access pond, spent hours crouching in shin-deep mud, and called in just one flock. But one was enough.

Though I’m still not sure I was the one who actually hit the Wigeon I brought home that day, a swell of excitement, camaraderie and heritage splashed down along with that first duck.

Snohomish County Duck Hunting

With limited local hunting options, no duck boats, no feed-field access, no dogs and certainly no private duck club blinds with built-in propane heaters, this was no gentleman’s waterfowling.

But I loved it all the same.

For me, duck hunting fits squarely with the same philosophy I put towards swinging flies for steelhead or earning splitboard turns: learn to take joy in the process and anything more becomes icing on the cake.

The journey is the reward.

Hood Canal

I love hiking in with the weight of a dozen decoys burning in my back, my grandfathers shotgun on my shoulder and coffee in my hand. The path ahead lit only by headlamp and glittering reflections on the silver sheetwater. 

Owls glide towards the roost and songbirds flit through brambles as we gauge the wind, set the decoys and construct forts out of grass, reeds and sticks. 

Excitement and anticipation rise with the sun as eyes turn skyward, watching for the morning’s first residents to leave their hideaways and wheel above our spread. Ears are keen for the rush of beating wings blown in off the salt, or the splash of divers landing beyond our range.

Finally someone whispers “shooting hours” and dirty hands reach for cold shotguns.

The rest of the day is spent kneeling in the marsh, smoking Black & Milds, scanning the sky, half-whispering friendly conversation, and usually not shooting much of anything.

Duck Hunting

I’ve spent two seasons now on the marsh, lake and delta.

I’ve still got much and more to learn, but the bags of Mallard pinfeathers in my garage and the smoked Shoveler in my fridge are testaments that claim improvement.

But I still hunt public land. I’m still learning to call. I’m too cheap for a hunting guide. I don’t have a well-trained retriever, a hundred decoys or a boat blind. And I don’t fill tailgates with dozens of dead birds. I’ve never even come home with a full limit.

But then again, that’s not what I go hunting for.

Hood Canal

SPEY CASTING FOR WINTER STEELHEAD ON THE SKYKOMISH

Skykomish Steelhead Drift

Skykomish Steelhead Drift

Skykomish Steelhead Drift

Skykomish Steelhead Drift

Yours truly launching a two-handed Snap-T cast into my favorite run on the upper Skykomish River over the holiday weekend.

Still searching for that first winter run steelhead of the season, but with some sustained precipitation finally in the forecast and trips to the Olympic Peninsula on the calendar, hope is flowing high.

*In case you’re wondering: Yes, I forgot my waders in the garage.

ROCKY FORD CREEK WINTER FLY FISHING GUIDE

This post originally appeared on RipTideFish.com

When winter steelhead season deals blown-out rivers, biting cold or skunked trips, sometimes anglers just need to feel the pull of a big trout on a nice day to be reminded why fishing can be so much fun.

And for fly fishermen (and women), there are few places in Washington that offer better chances at hooking a big, beautiful trout in winter than Rocky Ford Creek.

Rocky Ford Creek Fly Fishing

One of Washington’s few public access Spring Creeks, Rocky Ford flows east of the town of Ephrata and into Moses Lake. The site of a major Troutlodge Inc. hatchery, the creek features consistent water temperatures and is irregularly stocked with rainbow trout, many of which have grown to enormous size due to the creek’s catch and release restrictions and abundance of insect life.

Directions to Main Rocky Ford Creek Access Site

  • From I-90 East: Near the town of George take Highway 283 NE to Ephrata. Take Highway 283 S from downtown Ephrata and continue for 4.5 miles before turning left onto Highway 17 N. Drive 3.9 miles and take the Hatchery Road/Trout Lodge Road turnoff on the right. Follow the gravel road until you see the creek.
  • From I-90 West: Turn right on Highway 17 N in Moses Lake. Continue for 16 miles and then turn right to stay on Highway 17 N. Follow directions above.

Rocky Ford flows south from the first hatchery complex through a “miracle mile” of road access with WDFW parking on the western bank. Bridges at each end of the public section connect to the creek’s eastern bank. A dock at the north end of the creek provides disabled fishing access.

The main Rocky Ford Creek access area is just under three hours driving time from Seattle and two hours from Spokane.

Rocky Ford Creek Fly Fishing

Additional Creek Access Sites

The majority of Rocky Ford Creek below the second hatchery complex runs through private lands. With ‘No Trespassing’ signs and a no wading restriction, public fishing is largely unavailable.

However, there are two areas downstream that offer anglers willing to do some hiking access to the lower creek. The fish are smaller and less numerous here, but they see fewer flies as well.

  • Rocky Ford Highway Access: A few miles to the south Highway 17 crosses Rocky Ford Creek. A small parking area on the right (if driving south) offers water access and a path downstream, however thick cattails can limit fishing opportunities.
  • Rocky Ford Overlook Access: Roughly two miles past the Highway 17 crossing, turn right (if driving south) on Old Moses Lake Highway, then a quick right again on Road 10.2 NE. Continue straight on 10.2 NE until you hit a WDFW parking area with restrooms. The creek is a moderate walk to the west, with access upstream from the dam at the head of Moses Lake.

Fly Fishing at Rocky Ford Creek

For the Northwest angler accustomed to turbid green water and towering green trees, sight fishing for 30″ rainbows in a genuine desert oasis can be a dream. At least until the crowds show up.

Unfortunately, this is no secret spot. Numerous reports, articles and blog posts have been written about Rocky Ford. Due to the popularity, weekdays from November to February can be the best time to make a trip over to the crisp central Washington desert.

With so much bug-slinging pressure comes wary fish. These trout, particularly the creek’s twenty and thirty inch monsters, have seen all manner of flies. To be successful at Rocky Ford often requires a stealthy approach, light 5X to 7X leader and tippet, well matched flies and quality presentations.

Anglers Should be Aware of Special Fishing Regulations:

  • Fly fishing only year-round
  • No wading allowed
  • Catch and release only
  • No lead or splitshot-style weight allowed on the line
  • Single point, barbless hooks only

*Upon my last trip (December 2o13) the south bridge was closed by chains and at risk of collapse. Cross at your own risk.

Rocky Ford Creek Fly Fishing

Fishing Streamers at Rocky Ford

It’s hard to beat the tug of a trout aggressively taking a streamer fly, or the wake they produce when chasing one down. Not only are streamers fun to fish, but stripping or swinging a dark Woolly Bugger, Bunny Leech or Sculpzilla can be one of the most effective methods for Rocky Ford.

Streamers on a 10 ft or longer tapered leader or a seven foot leader with a light, clear sink tip both work well and allow you to cover lots of water. Dead drifting a leech in front of a resting trout and then twitching it away from their nose can also get attention. 

Dry Fly Fishing at Rocky Ford

Rocky Ford sees insect hatches throughout the year, with midge and mayflys being the most common. If fish are actively feeding on the surface, tiny Blue Wing Olives, Gray Duns, PMDs, or Mahogany Duns can all take fish. Emerger flies that float in the surface film have worked particularly well for me on the creeks’s smaller fish.

It’s important to remember that wary fish like those at Rocky Ford will key in on exactly one insect hatch, and often one stage of that specific hatch. Matching the color, size and stage of the food source perfectly will determine dry fly success for selective trout.

Nymph Fishing at Rocky Ford

If I’m going to bobber fish, I prefer to do it with a spinning rod, float and steelhead jig. Regardless of my biases, everytime I’ve been to Rocky Ford, the biggest fish I see caught are on scud (tiny freshwater shrimp) and nymph patterns dead drifted under a small indicator.

Like dry fly fishing, often it will take a number of flies to key in on what nymph is working. Tiny chironomids can be successful, and the Zebra Midge in red, olive or black is one of my favorite cold weather flies. Brown and tan Pheasant Tails, Brassies and small San Juan Worms are all also worth experimenting with.

With such clear, shallow Spring Creek water here, I tend to shy away from wet flies that have a gold beadhead or other shiny features in favor of more natural patterns. And think small, size 16 nymphs are the biggest I’d tie on.

If you can dial in the size, color and presentation, scuds are arguably the most effective fly for Rocky Ford. I’ve seen small trout race across the pool to hit a pink scud, and big, immovable fish turn and inhale one after a dozen flies have drifted past their nose. Scuds are generally fished two to four feet under an indicator, or by casting ahead of a moving trout, letting it sink to the bottom, and then gently twitching the fly as the fish comes close.

Pack it Out

Rocky Ford is a great option for Northwest anglers looking to catch some desert sunshine and big trout during the winter. Just bring your patience, extra flies and don’t expect to have the place to yourself.

With litter not uncommon here, I like to pack out a few more beer cans or tangles of line than just what I bring in. And don’t forget these fish see a lot of hooks. Treat them with care and do what you can to protect the resource, Rocky Ford Creek is a fishing hole worth keeping around.

Rocky Ford Creek Fly Fishing

EARLY WINTER SPLITBOARD TOURING NEAR CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN

Headed up to Durkin Lodge at Crystal Mountain for the weekend to catch the first big storm of winter and lend a hand around the cabin as they prep for the rental season.

Quick Saturday afternoon recon tour into Bullion Basin confirms it, winter is here. Six to 14″ of blower powder on top of a few inches of solid crust in most places.

Crystal Opening Weekend

Roughly an hour tour up the skin track and into the basin proper and we found pow.

Snow stability was mixed, with the basin floor showing consistent light, dry pow down to the grassy bed, while south facing slopes were either partially wind scoured or shooting cracks and fracturing into small slabs at the crust layer.

Got the strong feeling that south facing areas with more snow accumulation or wind transfer could yield some slab slide potential. So we ripped quick, conservative lines starting about halfway up the track to the SE ridge saddle. The snow seemed consistent and well anchored by the grass below here, and we triggered no action. Except some new rock shots and lost Ptex on the ride out.

Crystal Opening Weekend

Four inches of fresh, dry pow dropped Saturday night at Gold Hills, seemed like five or more inches of new up top. Did resort laps on Green Valley all morning and still managed to find fresh lines.

Great opening weekend around Crystal, here’s to many more pow days to come this season!

Crystal Opening Weekend

MUSHROOM HUNTING IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

When I think of hunting, the first thoughts that come to mind are hours spent crouched in a soggy duck blind, or walking Eastern Washington wheat fields in search of pheasants.

But there’s another kind of hunting that’s popular among outdoorsmen (and women), foodies and eccentrics in the Pacific Northwest: mushroom hunting.

Chanterelle Mushroom Hunting

Why wander around the damp woods looking for mushrooms? To start, it’s basically hiking with a purpose. And then there’s the taste.

My family has hunted chanterelles for over three generations, creamy orange fungi that are delicious sautéed into everything from omelets and gravy to scallops and steaks. They’re a perfect way to get the satisfaction of finding your own free food, without going off the deep-end of urban foraging.

In stores, chanterelles run anywhere from $6 to $20 dollars a pound. And in case you need another reason to go picking, according to Wikipedia they’re exceptionally high in Vitamins C and D as well as potassium.

Where, When and How to Look

From Highway 20 in the North Cascades, to the Mountain Loop Highway, Highway 2, Snoqualmie Pass and the Southern Cascades, Western Washington is full of places to find these meaty mushrooms. Author and forager Langdon Cook describes the Olympic Peninsula as “one big chanterelle factory. If you can’t find them, you’re not looking very hard”.

For hunting chanterelles in the Pacific Northwest I was taught to seek out the following signs:

  • Second growth evergreen forests, either the result of logging or forest fires
  • Sparse underbrush and a mossy forest floor
  • South facing slopes that get some, but not too much direct sunlight
  • Fallen trees and partially rotten logs, stumps and branches
  • Where you find one mushroom, you’ll undoubtedly find more nearby, connected underground by root-like mycelium

Chanterelle Mushroom Hunting

Chanterelles grow in temperate forests across the globe, and locally the picking season extends from Labor Day to the first weeks of consistently heavy rain around Thanksgiving. If it has been raining hard for several days, my advice would be to wait a bit after the storm to avoid soggy or rotten mushrooms.

Be sure to use a knife to carefully cut each mushroom at the stem, and never rip them out of the ground. If harvested properly, they will grow back and you’ll have a spot to return to year after year.

No license is required to harvest mushrooms for personal use in most areas of Washington, but non-commercial fungi hunters should be observant of No Trespassing and Private Property signs, particularly in timber land and along logging roads. If you are planning to harvest a substantial amount of mushrooms (in some areas five gallons worth is the limit), check local and regional regulations to avoid a possible fine.

Identifying Chanterelles

The forked (or irregularly connected) gills extending from the mushroom cap onto the stem make chanterelles relatively easy for even novice foragers to identify, and their attractive orange-cream color stands out from other forest fungi.

Regardless, pickers should carefully scrutinize every mushroom they find and be absolutely certain before anything goes in the sack. Be especially wary of Jack-O-Lanterns! These poisonous mushrooms look similar to chanterelles, but are a darker orange with free-running parallel gills, round umbrella-like caps, and some black or blue spotting that looks almost like bruises.

Chanterelle Mushroom Hunting Guide

A handy mushroom field guide made by yours truly (images from Google). And yes, I misspelled chanterelle.

While we’re on the subject of safety, it’s worth noting that hiking around off-trail with your eyes fixed on the ground is a very easy way to get lost. Take your bearings regularly by noting a unique tree, boulder or other feature and it’s position in relation to your starting point. Or better yet, don’t stray out of eyesight from your partners or the access road.

If you plan on doing some extended hiking for your mushrooms, pack food, water and the 10 Essentials. Equipping each member of your hunting party with a Walkie Talkie, map and compass isn’t a bad idea either. Not to mention a pocket knife and collecting sack.

Hitting the Woods

It had been a few years since I last went chanterelle hunting, but going off a vague tip from a local butcher shop, some friends and I headed up the backroads off Highway 2 last week hoping to stumble across some ‘shrooms.

Where off Highway 2 you ask? Well somewhere with second growth Douglas Fir, a mossy forest floor, south facing slopes and a network of old logging roads for access!

We weren’t 100 feet from the truck before we found our first chanterelles. It wasn’t all easy pickings, but when we found one there were always more nearby. And in one spot we found at least a dozen big chanterelles within a ten foot radius.

After a few hours we had rounded up three or four pounds of fungi, enough for chanterelles and scallops, chanterelles and salmon, chantrelles and pasta and much more.

Preparing your Harvest

You’ve identified a spot, hiked through the woods, cut your mushrooms at the stem, and brought them home. Now what?

Chanterelles need to be cleaned and dried before eating. Wash them gently under cold, running water to remove as much dirt, pine needles and other debris as possible. Don’t stress if you don’t get it all off, a little forest dirt won’t hurt anyone.

After washing, pat your mushrooms down with a paper towel and set them out to dry in an open space (kitchen table works great) for 6 to 12 hours.

Chanterelle Mushroom Hunting

After drying, chanterelles can be cut into bite sized chunks and cooked immediately, wrapped in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator for up to a week, or cut up and sautéed with butter and frozen in Tupperware. Stored this way, frozen mushrooms will last for months if not years and retain most of their flavor.

Happy Hunting

If you’re looking for some hunting and gathering that doesn’t require a license or guns, or you just want to do some off-trail hiking in the woods for a good reason, foraging for chanterelles in the Pacific Northwest might just be a great new autumn tradition. Good luck out there!

STEELHEAD FISHING ON THE METHOW, WENATCHEE AND UPPER COLUMBIA RIVER TRIBUTARIES

This post originally appeared on RipTideFish.com where I’ll be contributing occasional articles and fishing reports. 

With the announcement from WDFW that steelhead fishing in the Upper Columbia River and its tributaries will open today, Wednesday, October 16th, many Northwest anglers will be looking east to get a jump on their “winter” steelhead season.

This fishery, with so much water tailor-made for swinging flies, is one of my favorites.

It’s partially the scenery. The Methow, Wenatchee and Okanogan flow where high desert meets the Cascades. Flanked by apple orchards, sagebrush and rocky steppe, they’re entirely unlike the green steelhead waters of the coast or Puget Sound.

The desert wildlife is another treat. During my four trips last season I saw herds of bighorn sheep, grouse, uncomfortably fresh bear scat and spooked a mule deer with my backcast.

The five to 15 pound fish are of course a draw too. Though the weather can sure feel like winter this time of year in north-central Washington, I use the term “winter” steelhead loosely because these are truly summer-run fish. With their long journey up the Big C and over our dam obstacles, they don’t arrive at their natal waters until the tail-end of fall. If they survive, they’ll winter-over before spawning in the spring.

This life cycle and smart sport regulations provide ample steelhead fishing in the area, provided the season remains open, or reopens during the winter months as it did last year. And with more than 14,000 adult steelhead expected back to the Upper Columbia this year, a fishing road trip to the region could certainly be worth the drive.

Regulations

The Okanogan, Methow, Wenatchee and Icicle Rivers, as well as the Upper Columbia River from Rock Island Dam to 400 feet below Chief Joseph Dam, open on October 16th to hatchery steelhead retention. The Similkameen River will open November 1st. The following boundary rules are in effect:

  • Mainstem Columbia River: Open from Rock Island Dam to 400 feet below Chief Joseph Dam.
  • Wenatchee River: Open from the mouth to the Icicle River Road Bridge, including the Icicle River from the mouth to 500 feet downstream of the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery Barrier Dam. Motorized vessels are not allowed.
  • Methow River: Open from the mouth to the confluence with the Chewuch River in Winthrop. Fishing from a floating device is prohibited from the second powerline crossing to the first Highway 153 Bridge.
  • Okanogan River: Open from the mouth upstream to the Highway 97 Bridge in Oroville.
  • Similkameen River: Open Nov. 1 from the mouth to 400 below Enloe Dam.

The Columbia tributary fisheries are managed under careful rules to limit impacts on native steelhead, and anglers should be sure to give the regulations a good read before hitting the water.

The daily limit is two hatchery steelhead over 20” in length per angler, and once two fish have been retained; anglers must stop fishing for steelhead. Native steelhead (those with the adipose fin present) should be handled with care and must not be removed from the water. Additionally, “all steelhead fitted with a floy (anchor) tag and those with one or more round quarter-inch holes punched in their caudal (tail) fin must also be released.”

Bonking hatchery steelhead is mandatory in this fishery to help reduce habitat and spawning conflicts with the wild runs.

Selective gear rules are in effect, requiring single-point barbless hooks, although bait is allowed on the Columbia River only. And lastly, all anglers are required to have a valid Columbia River Salmon/Steelhead Endorsement, which helps provide the funding to make these fisheries possible.

Where to Fish During the Early Season

The opener should see solid action in the Columbia from Rock Island up to the mouth of the Methow and Okanogan Rivers near Brewster. With the dry weather in the area, my hunch is most fish haven’t been traveling far up the tributaries as of yet.

The mouth of the Wenatchee River is a popular spot during the opening weeks, with ample access available at Wenatchee Confluence State Park. This area is particularly productive for anglers looking to fish jigs under a float, but don’t expect to be the only one in the lineup.

Other areas of the lower Wenatchee worth investigating include the gravel bar below Sleepy Hollow Bridge, and the stretch from the Monitor Bridge down through Wenatchee River County Park, which provides great access and a sweet run for deep swinging flies or spoons.

The Columbia at the mouth of the Entiat River is another popular spot during October and November. Anglers can find access from Highway 97, and fishing larger jigs or eggs under a float are solid bets.

The Methow River estuary and the water around Pateros might put out more steelhead than anywhere else in this fishery. Boats will be lined up around the Highway 97 Bridge, and anglers will fill the docks off Lakeshore Drive. Many will catch fish, and this might be the best option around for landing some fall steel in the 509.

Don’t discount the lower parts of the Methow River either, particularly if the area gets any rain. This is hands down one of the most stunning steelhead rivers in the country, and the fish have a known tendency to be aggressive to many gear and fly presentations, including jigs, stonefly nymphs, spinners, streamers and even skated dry flies.

I fished all over the lower Methow last year during an unfortunate cold snap, but if I go back the WDFW access at Poirier near the mouth and Bridge Two up the Methow Valley Highway would be where I’d stop first. A number of other access points can be found along the Highway as you drive upriver, both rough pulloffs and state recreation points, but be sure to keep an eye out for the all too common No Trespassing signs.

Gear and Fly Selections for Eastern Washington Steelhead

The most effective steelhead tackle for a day on the Upper Columbia rivers varies by water clarity and light conditions just like anywhere else. These fish could take any lure or fly presented properly, but as the tributaries get less rainfall and often experience colder temperatures than waters west of the Cascades, scaling down your offering is not a bad call. For the Columbia itself, larger jigs, spinners or bait well weighted down are going to attract the most fish in the big water.

For my personal preference, I think it’s hard to beat swinging purple and black Fish Taco flies through the runs with a two-handed rod and a T-11 sink tip (T-14 if the water is up or the run looks deeper than 5 feet) and a six foot 10 lb test fluorocarbon leader.

For gear, I like drifting orange and white or red and black jigs through the boulder gardens and holding water with a small float and a 1/8 or 1/16 oz inline sinker. Brass or black Blue Fox spinners with an orange and silver blade are another known producer, and I’ll certainly be putting them to use.

Tight Lines

Good luck to everyone getting over and experiencing this fantastic fishery. Feel free to file some fishing reports or add your insight in the comments section. This is a huge and popular fishery and there is always more to say when it comes to angling for steelhead.

And if the weather turns on you or the steelhead are dour, a few beers at the Icicle Brewing Company in Leavenworth is a great way to spend any fall day on the eastern side of the Cascades. I ‘d recommend their Dirtyface Amber, it is particularly delicious.

As for myself, I’m headed far east this week for three days of Cast & Blast around the Grande Ronde River and one day fishing with Bonner Daniels’ Fish On! Guide Service on the Snake, and couldn’t be more excited. I just hope these Upper Columbia fisheries stay open long enough for me to get back to the Wenatchee for a shot at some more lively Eastern Washington steelhead.

STORM TOURING ON MOUNT RAINIER IN SEPTEMBER

I went snowboarding last September, but it was a day of trying to stay cool in the heat on Mt. Baker by hiking in a jersey and chilling our beer with glacial ice.

This year winter came early and things were just a little different.

The pow was nearly six inches deep and still dumping when we left Paradise on Mount Rainier Sunday morning September 29th, touring through a winter wonderland that seemed more appropriate for November or December than what is typically Indian Summer in Washington.

September Pow Touring

September Pow Touring

Approaching the ridge below Pebble Creek, conditions quickly deteriorated (as we knew they would), and with the heavy snow now mixed with sleet, fiercely blowing wind and clear signs of avalanche activity, it was easy to see it was time to make our descent.

September Pow Touring

September Pow Touring

September Pow Touring

The ride down was a mix of whooping powder turns in the meadows and careful billy goat-ing through rock gardens and “snow sharks” (jagged rocks, not Avalanche Sharks).

September Pow Touring

September Pow Touring

September Pow Touring

It was a sweet taste of winter in September, and I’m already stoked for the next pow turns of the 2013-2014 season. I just hope the government gets it’s act together in time to open the gates to Mount Rainier for the next storm!