Fog hung over the Cowlitz River in the predawn darkness. Dreary mists rose from the river and crawled across the surface. It was bitter cold.
Hunkered deep into my heavy layers, I was surprised when the local angler across the boat from me, Scott Stulgis, sat down in shorts. Stulgis was definitely a Northwest native.
The fog was no deterrent for Dave Mallahan, who had no trouble navigating the Cowlitz in these conditions. He soon had all of us set up and we began back-trolling with plugs, searching for late run coho. It did not take long for my rod to dip and plunge, and the first salmon of the day was on.
After a good battle Mallahan was able to net the fish, a nickel-bright hatchery coho.
We were happy and surprised. Mallahan had warned us that there were plenty of salmon in the river, but most of them were unclipped wild coho that could not be kept. We defied the odds that day, and six of the seven coho landed were keepable hatchery fish.
Local rivers have been full of fall salmon over the last three months, and we are now in the last weeks of the action. Late run coho are still to be found in most southwest Washington rivers right now, and if anglers hurry, they can put a few more quality fish in the freezer before last call.
These late run fish, often referred to as B-run coho, tend to run larger than early coho, since they spend an extra month in the salt feeding. They also tend to bite better, mostly because the rivers are running colder. In addition to the Cowlitz, there are late coho runs in the Lewis River, the Kalama River, and the Washougal River.
Anglers often find fresh coho through December, but the fishing will begin to taper off soon. In fact, Mallahan has watched the coho returns slow after the big rains in mid-November. Some 10,000 coho returned to the hatchery trap that rainy week, but this last week saw only 2,500 returning adult coho.
“You may be able to catch them through December,” said Mallahan, “but it will start to peter out. They are going to keep trickling in, but the B-run is not coming in as strong as the early run did.”
Anglers have been getting fresh fish at the Barrier Dam, where bank angling dominates, and coho have been recently taken by boat anglers in the Blue Creek area.
And, there are those pesky wild coho to deal with. Mallahan figured that only about 20 to 30 percent of the fish being caught were hatchery produced.
According to Josua Holowatz, a fisheries biologist for the WDFW’s Region 5, those wild fish are the progeny of adult coho planted into the upper Cowlitz basin to spawn over the last few years. The smolts produced by the transplanted adults get collected in Riffe Lake, and are passed downstream.
“In most of those programs they are improving their (processes),” said Holowatz. “They are getting better and that means more fish returning.”
There is a similar program in place on the Lewis River, and those efforts are beginning to show results, too.
The smolts that do not get collected at Riffe Lake stay in that lake and contribute to the coho fishery there.
Mallahan loves to back-troll for Cowlitz coho with plugs, and the Maglip is his go-to offering. He often fishes the lower Cowlitz, but he said the best bets right now are from the Blue Creek area up to the Barrier Dam.
Mallahan said bank anglers at the dam do well with most coho methods.
“They throw spinners and twitch jigs and fish bobber and eggs,” he said. “They kind of do it all.”
Some boat anglers work the reach just below the boating deadline, and they do well at times, too.
Returns have been strong enough that anglers have been allowed to keep four adults a day in the Cowlitz this year.
The Lewis River fished very well through the month of November, with boat anglers out-fishing the bank anglers. The best bites have come from throwing spinners, while bank anglers have done well by tossing spinners and drifting.
The best bite in the Lewis has been centered around the hatchery, with anglers fishing from Colvin Creek down to the first few holes below the hatchery. Bank anglers have done well when the water is high just below the hatchery deadline. Some winter steelhead are already showing up in the catch, too.
The river is closed to fishing from Colvin Creek to Merwin Dam.
In the Washougal River the last push of coho may now be in the upper river, where there is little to no public access. While there may still be some fresh fish in the lower river, The best time to fish the Washougal is past.
Anglers have better access in the Kalama River, so the fish holding in the upper reaches can be fished through the rivers plentiful public access along the Kalama River Road. The schools often gather in the canyon area, where anglers get them by fishing spinners, jigs, and eggs.
There are still bright coho to be found locally, but anglers need to get out after them right now. The glut of fall salmon is almost over.
It’s last call for fall salmon. Get them now while you can.
Always check the regulations before you fish any water.
Guided trips: Dave Mallahan of Fishing with Dave: 360-201-9313, www.washingtonsfishingguide.com