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.
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.
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.
A number of other Methow River access points can be found along Highway 20 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 classic spey flies through the runs with a two-handed rod and a T-8 sink tip and a six foot 10 lb test fluorocarbon leader.
For gear, I like drifting small 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.
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.