Rudnick: Christmas Steelhead

(Early-run hatchery fish provide the best steelhead action of the winter)

By Terry Rudnick

I’m so old that I can remember when the Puyallup River was one of the best winter steelhead producers in the Pacific Northwest, and as far back as I can recall, my favorite time to fish the Puyallup was that glorious month between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. A lot has changed in the nearly five decades since I caught my first winter-run-including the near-demise of the Puyallup as a worthwhile steelhead stream-but I still think December steelheading is the best steelheading.

Our winter steelie season here in much of western Washington is open three to four months, depending on the river systems you like to fish, but the hatchery steelhead that are stocked by the hundreds of thousands in our rivers and creeks tend to return home earlier in the winter than their wild-stock cousins, and it’s these abundant hatchery returns that provide the bulk of our hot steelheading action during these first few weeks of the winter season.

Yeah, I know, wild fish are the holy grail of our recreational steelhead fisheries, and decades of hatchery plants have been part of the reason why some wild runs have all but disappeared, but the fact remains that if you like catching winter steelhead, early-season fishing for hatchery brats is the best game in town. And if you wait too long, you’ll miss it! Reports of fair to pretty-darn-decent steelhead catches were coming in from rivers like the Bogachiel, Calawah, Wynoochee, Humptulips, Skykomish, Snoqualmie and Skagit rivers before Thanksgiving weekend, and if the weather doesn’t go nuts one way or the other, things should just get better now that we’re into December.

The state, the feds and the tribes plant between 4.5 million and 5 million winter steelhead smolts in about 60 western Washington rivers and creeks annually, and during a “normal” weather and water year a majority of the adult fish from those plants will return between late-November and mid-January. Depending on survival rates, that means as many as 100,000 adult steelhead showing up in about five-dozen streams over a six- or seven-week period. That’s why early-winter steelheading can be so good.

What’s more, these hatchery runs are consistent and predictable; they tend to show up in similar numbers in the same streams at about the same time year after year. If you’re willing to do a little homework you can quickly figure out where you stand your best chance of finding early-winter success. Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has been compiling catch and stocking data on the state’s winter (and summer) steelhead for well over half a century, and over all that time some very obvious patterns have developed. Although the specific numbers change some from year to year, I’ve found that streams known for their good December fishing for hatchery steelhead 20 years ago are pretty much the same streams that are good for December steelheading these days.

You can find much of the information you need on WDFW’s website. The address is Click on Fishing/Shellfishing, then on Fishing Reports, Stocking Reports and Fish Counts. There you’ll find both steelhead harvest reports and steelhead smolt plant reports, and with a little cross-referencing you’ll start to notice a direct correlation between the numbers of hatchery smolts stocked in a particular river and the numbers of two-salt hatchery steelhead caught from that river the following year (what a surprise).

The information you’ll find on the agency website isn’t up-to-date, but like I said, plant/catch patterns from three or four years ago are likely to be valid now. For the sake of those who don’t think history repeats itself, though, I’ve hounded WDFW’s steelhead folks for the most current (though not-net-official) stats, and they should be helpful as you plan your early-season steelhead assault.

If you really like to play the odds, half a dozen west-side steelhead streams stood head and shoulders over the rest the past two years when it comes to producing early-season hatchery fish.

Southwest Washington’s Cowlitz River led the way (big surprise), giving up 860 December steelies in 2006 (plus 716 more that were being caught from Blue Creek) and a whopping 2,263 last year. Twenty-two-hundred fish would be a good season-long total on many steelhead streams, but that’s how many came from the might “Cow” in only one month!

Rounding out the top six December steelhead producers over the past two seasons were the Skykomish River with catches of 876 in 2006 and 1,081 in 2007, the Bogachiel with 1,315 in 2006 and 319 in 2007, the Snoqualmie with 368 in 2006 and 647 last year, the North Lewis with 452 in 2006 and 379 in 2007, and the North Fork Stillaguamish with 379 in 2006 and 279 in 2007.

Other west-side streams that have lived up to their reputation and produced good December steelhead catches over the past couple seasons are the Wynoochee, Humptulips, Queets/Salmon, Calawah, Elochoman, Grays, East Lewis, Hoko, Lyre, Mainstem Skagit, Cascade and Wallace rivers.

WDFW’s stocking reports also provide some valuable insights into where you might find good fishing for early-season winter-runs, since larger hatchery plants may (but not always) mean larger returns of adult fish in subsequent years. Hatchery steelhead smolts released in 2007 are returning as two-salt fish this year, as are the larger three-salt adults from the 2006 plants.

It probably comes as no surprise that Southwest Washington’s Cowlitz River is the most heavily stocked winter steelhead stream in the state. It was salted with nearly 561,000 smolts in 2007 and 656,000 in 2006 for a two-year total of 1,216,900 fish. With plants like that, it’s easy to see why the Cowlitz produces so many December steelhead. The state’s second-most heavily planted winter steelhead river is the Quinault, which received nearly 943,000 hatchery smolts in 2006 and 2007, but the vast majority of returning adults from those plants wind up in tribal gill nets and anglers catch relatively few of them.

Other winter steelhead rivers expecting returns from large hatchery plants in 2006 and 2007 (with their two-year totals in parentheses) include the Cascade (513,500), Green/Soos Creek (497,900), Mainstem Skagit (395,000), Skykomish (365,800), Wynoochee (348,500), Puyallup/Carbon (340,000), Snoqualmie (338,100), Queets/Salmon (332,800), Nooksack (325,000), North Fork Stillaguamish (288,700), North Fork Lewis (194,300), Sol Duc (193,000), Elwha (183,800), Bogachiel (180,000) and Kalama (178,200).

Like catch statistics from previous years, however, the stocking-report information isn’t necessarily the entire key to where and when you can expect good early steelheading. In fact, when you compare hatchery plants to the sport catch on some streams, you may wonder what the heck is going on. For example, although King County’s Green River is one of the most heavily stocked with hatchery smolts, anglers caught only 80 steelhead there in December of 2006 and 114 in December of 2007. Even worse, my old home stream the Puyallup was stocked with 340,000 smolts in 2006-2007, but it produced only 24 steelhead for anglers last December and only 56 during the entire winter season! Similarly, the Nooksack receives about 160,000 winter steelhead smolts annually but gave up only 68 fish to anglers in December, 2006 and a mere 50 in December, 2007. Whether it’s tribal gill-netting or something else that’s causing the problem, anglers shouldn’t expect great early-winter steelheading on these three heavily-stocked river systems.

I’m convinced that hatchery steelhead are easier to catch than their wild brethren, no matter what your favorite fishing technique. Maybe it’s because there’s a good chance you’ll find more than one stacked up in the same place, or maybe it’s because early life in a hatchery pond made them more eager to pounce on a bait or lure before one of their half-million pond mates beat them to it, or maybe it’s simply because there are more of them around.

I also think that hatchery-stock steelhead are more active than wild fish once they return to fresh water, and therefore more likely to chase down a faster-moving bait or lure. That willingness to move farther and faster to strike gives anglers an advantage, in that they can cover more water more quickly as they search for fish. Although all the usual egg clusters, drift bobbers and leadhead jigs will certainly catch hatchery winter-runs, bank anglers can fish more water more effectively with spoons or spinners and probably increase their chances of hooking up. Likewise, boat anglers can cover more water and increase their chance of encountering fish along the way if they keep moving, so side-drifting might be a better approach than, say, pulling plugs or anchoring and drift-fishing.

Like most everyone else, I like the idea of hooking a big, thick-bodied, wild winter steelhead every once in a while, but let’s face it, there aren’t that many wild fish around anymore, and catching a 5- or 6-pound, two-salt hatchery steelhead is a whale of a lot more fun than catching nothing…or not even having the opportunity to fish at all.

The best thing about hatchery steelies, though, is that you can go after them right now, so shut down the computer and get out there, before the holiday rush!