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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Feb. 21, 2024

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Late-run coho salmon a good catch in Columbia River tributaries

Cowlitz, Kalama, Lewis and Washougal rivers are the places to go

By , Columbian freelance outdoors writer
3 Photos
Dave Mallahan holds his personal best, a 22-pound Cowlitz late-run coho that topped 22 pounds. He took the fish in 2010. Cowlitz late run coho often reach into the upper teens.
Dave Mallahan holds his personal best, a 22-pound Cowlitz late-run coho that topped 22 pounds. He took the fish in 2010. Cowlitz late run coho often reach into the upper teens. (Photo courtesy of Dave Mallahan) Photo Gallery

Fall salmon fishing has been very good this year, and now that the mainstem Columbia is finally cooling off for Chinook, many anglers will be looking to the tributaries for late returning coho salmon.

The early run of coho was very good, and while those fish are just about done, local rivers such as the Cowlitz, Kalama, and the Lewis River are set to see strong returns of late run coho beginning right now.

The late coho run is often referred to as the “B” run.

There are a couple reasons anglers like these fish so well.

First, they stay out in the ocean for about a month longer than the early coho, and in that time they pack on three or four more pounds. These late run fish will average 8 to 12 pounds, but can run even higher, into the upper teens.

They are not only larger on average than the earlies, but they bite better, too.

“Those early fish, they bite well in the lower river and then they don’t bite in the mid-river,” said Dave Mallahan of Fishing with Dave Guide Service based in Toledo. “They don’t bite as well as the late fish.”

One of the reasons the late coho do bite better is that the rivers begin to cool down in late October, and that keeps the fish aggressive.

For that reason, Mallahan, who lives along the Cowlitz, generally does not fish for Cowlitz River coho until the late returning fish show up.

The numbers of salmon going over the Barrier Dam are still strong, with somewhere around 5,000 fish a week moving into the hatchery trap.

“They are getting about six or seven hundred back to the trap a day,” said Mallahan, “but they are tough fish to catch.”

Washington is blessed with late returning hatchery coho, or silver salmon as they are sometimes called. The Oregon tributaries of the Columbia River do not have any late hatchery coho runs. They do get decent runs of wild coho, which must be released.

Only hatchery-produced coho with a clipped adipose fin may be kept in most Washington rivers.

Wild coho numbers are way up in the Cowlitz, a result of efforts to establish wild runs in the system Above Mayfield Dam. In recent years anglers have had to turn back quite a few of these unclipped naturally produced fish. At times last year, clipped hatchery coho that could be kept were hard to find.

There typically is a lull in the action between the two runs. The systems that get both early and late runs, such as the Lewis and Kalama Rivers, have started to see slower fishing now that the early fish are finishing up.

Late run coho will begin to enter the tributaries in late October, with the fishing staying good through November. A few will still be around in December, but the fishing slows as the month progresses.

“You can get them in the whole river, if you have the right conditions,” Mallahan said.

He listed several areas that fish well, including lower river sections such as Gearheart Gardens. Other good sections include Castle Rock, the I-5 Bridge, and Blue Creek. The barrier Dam offers good fishing as well, but it gets too crowded for Mallahan.

Bank anglers target this terminal fishery, located at the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery, and a number of boat anglers do as well. However, Mallahan warns there are only a few good areas, and they get taken quickly.

Anglers up here will drift bobber and eggs, or throw spinners such as the Blue Fox Vibrax, or those made by the Wicked Lures company. Twitching jigs is another favorite method.

How Mallahan targets these fish depends on two things. First, what kind of flows are in the river. Second, what are the skill levels of his clients that day. If they are experienced enough, he will have them throw spinners or twitch jigs, but if not, he will often backtroll with plugs. For the latter method he targets sections of the river with strong flows. When fishing jigs or spinners he looks for quieter water.

Anglers may keep six hatchery salmon on the Cowlitz daily, including three hatchery coho adults. The popular hole below the Barrier Dam is sometimes closed to fishing. Anglers should check the WDFW emergency regulation changes website to see if it is open before heading there.

Other local rivers that enjoy late run coho include the Lewis River, the Kalama River, and the Washougal.

Lewis River “lates”

The Lewis River produces good returns of late coho, and the timing is the same as the Cowlitz. The best fishing is from the confluence of the North and East Forks of the river up to the hatchery. Good fishing access can be found in Woodland, at the hatchery itself, and up to Colvin Creek.

However, during the late run these fish can be found all the way up to the deadline at Merwin Dam. Anglers should be advised that this section closes after Oct. 31. It will reopen on Dec. 16.

Popular bank methods include twitching jigs, bobber and eggs, spinners, or drifting corkies in the faster sections. Some anglers throw plugs.

Boat anglers can get the fish on spinners, plugs, jigs, and bait. Popular areas include the Meat Hole at the hatchery, the Lewis River Golf Course, and the mouth of Colvin Creek.

Anglers should be advised that, like the Cowlitz, the Lewis is seeing more wild coho as a result of efforts to establish natural production above the dams on the system.

Anglers may keep six salmon daily, including three adults, one of which may be a Chinook. Release all wild coho.

Kalama River coho

The Kalama gets an excellent run of late coho, although a section of the lower river is reserved for fly anglers.

There is good access through the entire river, but the lower sections fish best when the river has a good rain-driven surge.

Look for the coho to bite well on spinners and plugs when the schools are on the move, and bobber and eggs or twitching jigs once they hold up.

The fish will congregate up in the canyon sections once the river drops.

The daily limit is six salmon, including three adults. Release all wild salmon. Check the regulations carefully, for this river has multiple sections with differing rules.

Washougal coho opportunities

The Washougal does get a good run of late coho, but there is little public access in the upper sections of the river. The best fishing will be in the lower three river miles, and the best bite happens when the fish are on the move. Spinners, eggs, and jigs will all work here.

Look to the Washougal River Greenway for good access. The Camas Slough will hold fish that are staging below the river, and anglers target these fish by trolling plugs.

The daily limit is six hatchery salmon, including three adults, of which two may be Chinook.

Anglers should note that each river has differing rules, so always check the regulations before fishing.

Cowlitz River guided trips: Dave Mallahan of Fishing with Dave: 360-201-9313, http://www.washingtonsfishingguide.com/contacts.html

Columbian freelance outdoors writer