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May 9, 2021

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Projections for winter steelhead prove elusive

But some prospects can improve if you know where, when to fish

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Local anglers are gearing up for winter steelhead right now, and hoping for better returns than then the last few years. Indicators are mixed this year, but there are signs that salmon and steelhead runs are doing better overall.
Local anglers are gearing up for winter steelhead right now, and hoping for better returns than then the last few years. Indicators are mixed this year, but there are signs that salmon and steelhead runs are doing better overall. (Terry Otto/For The Columbian Photo Gallery

Winter steelhead are beginning to move into local rivers, but it is difficult to say with any certainty what kind of winter run the local rivers will receive this year. Fisheries managers are hesitant to go out on a limb with projections.

“We do not do predictions on winter steelhead runs,” said Josua Holowatz, a fisheries biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Region 5. “We manage based on hatchery returns.”

He explained that, unlike salmon, the steelhead lifecycle does not leave fisheries managers many indicators that can be used to make accurate projections. Steelhead migrate way out to sea, are not caught in any commercial fisheries, produce few jacks, and are rarely intercepted during ocean surveys.

The few indicators scientists have with steelhead have produced mixed messages for this year. One-salt summer steelhead, which went out to the ocean at the same time as the winter steelhead that will return this year, came back poorly this summer. However, ocean conditions have improved.

Also, returns of early run steelhead have been good to tributaries on both sides of the Columbia, prompting many anglers to believe there may be some decent steelheading this winter.

Steelhead returns to local rivers have been knocked back by a series of poor years of ocean conditions, and changes to hatchery programs. A number of fishing guides have given up on the rivers of Southwest Washington.

Cameron Black, one of the well-known local “Addicted” fishing guides, is one of those. When asked recently he bemoaned what has happened to steelhead fishing in Region 5, and said he rarely fishes the Cowlitz, Kalama, or any other local streams for winter steelhead.

‘There’s no reason to,” he said. “there’s no fishery there now.”

He pointed to the loss of early season opportunity as the WDFW has switched the rivers over to late-returning local stocks, and a fairly large overall reduction of the number of hatchery steelhead smolts stocked into local rivers.

Also, the strategy of stocking fewer rivers with hatchery fish has resulted in severe crowding on the rivers that are stocked.

“We only get two weeks of early fishing now, with hatchery runs on the Naselle, North Fork Lewis, and the Elochomon,” said Black. “You go and you float one of these rivers and you just run into bank anglers everywhere.”

Local steelhead stocks are more of a spring run, with fishing starting in late January, and peaking in February and March, when most anglers are switching over to the highly-prized spring Chinook.

Crowding on local streams is also likely to worsen this season, since the WDFW recently announced that in all Washington coastal rivers and streams anglers may not fish from a floating device. Most guides will opt instead to fish the Columbia Tributaries, where they can stay in the boat to fish.

“(Coastal) guides are already calling me about the Kalama, the Washougal, and I warn them; it’s already crowded, but there are fish,” said Black. “It’s just not enjoyable for anybody. Everybody shows up, and nobody has a good time.”

Although there will be challenges this season, here is what each local tributary has to offer.

Cowlitz River

The early return of winter steelhead has been discontinued, but the late run is very strong, and the river does get a good wild run as well. Though they are a late returning fish, a few have already been taken by anglers, and a few have returned to the hatchery. Still, the real action will not come until later, according to Dave Mallahan of Dave’s Guide Service.

“It won’t get going until late January,” said Mallahan, “and I probably won’t fish it until then.”

Mallahan likes to bobber-dog for the fish in the first few miles of the river below Blue Creek, but he is also anxious about the extra competition that may move over from the coastal rivers this year.

Kalama River

The Kalama River gets a strong return of late-run hatchery fish, and a very good wild run. Managers have been working on developing an early run in the Kalama, by spawning the earliest returning steelhead, and anglers are already getting some of those fish. The late hatchery return, along with the wild run, will provide anglers with steelhead fishing through March.

North Fork Lewis River

This is one of the only rivers that is still planted with early-returning Chambers Creek stock, and a few of those fish are showing up in catches at the hatchery right now. Anglers can expect the fishing here to peak during the Christmas holidays, but by mid-January the run will start to slack off. There is no late hatchery run on the Lewis, but there is a surprisingly strong wild run of steelhead that will provide anglers with action into the spring.

East Fork Lewis River

All hatchery plants have been ended, and the river is now a wild-fish sanctuary. The wild run peaks in March.

Washougal River

This river’s hatchery return has already started to show, even though it is mostly a late-returning stock. Anglers can expect fish to show on every freshet into March.

Southwest Washington Fishing Report: Terry Otto’s fishing update and forecast can be found as part of Bob Rees’ “The Guides Forecast” at: https://www.theguidesforecast.com/

Guides list:

Dave Mallahan: Dave’s Guide Service (360-201-9313).

Cameron Black: http://columbiaguidedfishing.com/ (360-921-5079)

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