Targeting Hatchery Steelhead

Targeting Hatchery Steelhead

By Terry Wiest

Originally Published in the November 2009 issue of Northwest Sportman Magazine

Northwest Sportsman Magazine

Get ready for two months of sizzling steelhead action as the hatchery fish move through the local rivers and streams like a silver bullet zeroed in on it’s target. The target? The hatcheries of course and that will be key for fisherman when seeking to hook up with some of these chrome beauties.

Actually beginning in November steelhead will begin showing up in most the Coastal streams, but the main focus will be December and January.

We are fortunate in Washington to have so many choices of rivers to fish, but how one determines where to fish on any given day can complicated, or simple. We can use “knowns” such as smolt counts, past years harvest reports, river flows and current reports as a scientific approach to our best chance at fish, or we can simply go off intuition or which river is closest. Some of the best reports are those you make yourself since once you hear someone else’s report it’s often too late.

I like to use a combination of scientific data and intuition, but often unless I’ve planned very far ahead, my mind isn’t made up until the day before I leave mostly based on river flows and first hand reports from a list of fishing buddies that share the info via cell phone (most reports from guides are shared on

Just for reference, the smolt counts used in determining this years run is from two years ago, so 2008 smolts return in Winter 2009/2010. Although the 2008 smolt counts have not been made public as of this article, I was fortunate enough to have some assistance from Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife who were very helpful in providing me with the numbers I needed.

With almost all the rivers the obvious area to target is going to be near the hatchery. Fish will stage themselves below the hatchery and move up when appropriate. You’ll also see the majority of fishermen near the hatcheries for this very reason. Fish will be throughout the rivers and there will be several holding holes in each system. To get away from the crowds you may want to fish downstream a bit. While there may not be the numbers that there are generally in front of the hatcheries, the chances of getting fresher hotter fish are greater.

So with all that being said, here’s some good news and some bad news for our rivers for the Winter 2009 / 2010 Hatchery Steelhead Season.

First some bad news:

The Green River – If this river hasn’t already sunk to new lows, I’m afraid it’s even going to be worse. Howard Hansen Dam has a serious problem and they are warning us of a potential for severe flooding this year throughout the Green River Valley. What this means is that as soon as the rains start and the river rises, it’s going to stay high much longer than normal, and maybe the entire steelhead season! High flows are not good for this river as we found out last year when the river was high for a month straight. To top it off, almost all of a 40,000 count smolt drop died off from the 250,000 total. This used to be a perennial top 10 river in the State (unless your over 40 you would never believe it). Of the 253,750 smolts released in 2008, I’d only count 213,750 due to the high mortality of the one 40k drop.

From just below Soos Creek Hatchery all the way up to Palmer will hold fish as they are released at various points in the River. The only drift available in this section is from Whitney Bridge down to just above Soos Creek. DO NOT float below the Soos Creek parking lot as lower than this contains a non passable log jam. (There will be warning signs).

The Cowlitz River: What? Seriously? Yep, I think the Cowlitz is in for a down year even though it will still probably be the top producing steelhead river in the State? Confused? I would be too, but, the Cowlitz has been on a roll and had massive plants of 560,900 in 2007 and 656,000 in 2006. For whatever reason in 2008 the Cowlitz only received 352,848 smolts. Still a large number and the most of any other river, but that’s a huge hit in my book. So you’ll still catch steelhead in the Cowlitz and many will have banner days, I just don’t think it’s going to be the banner years of the past two.

For bankies you can’t miss below the boat launch at Blue Creek as far down as you can walk. This is also side drifting at its finest right in front of the boat launch to the first bend. Down below is also good water if you want to get away from the crowds, which there’s guaranteed to be.

Here is the one river that is great for those that are handicapped. They’ve put in a handicap only fishing area right where the fish enter the stream going to the hatchery! For those that can’t get out normally, or have a tough time doing so, this is a really great access point with exceptional fishing!

The Wynoochee River: Ouch, this ones going to hurt. The Wynoochee has been a favorite of many for the past several years and for good reason – lots of access for bankies, sleds and driftboats, and, lots of fish! From 2005 to 2007 the Nooch has received a minimum of 170,000 smolts each year. 2008 for this years return… 104,540. That’s gotta hurt. From White Bridge down to Black Creek would be my choice of floats for these hatchery fish.

The Sol Duc River: Two years in a row the Sol Duc received bonus smolts, but not this year. Dropping from 101,000 to 55,650 it’s not going to be pretty. Still a great hatchery river and will definitely produce some fish, but not near the number of fish that have been taken the last two years. The Hatchery Drift is your best bet, but you better be good on the sticks and hopefully you’ve floated it with someone before attempting it yourself. This is a nasty river to navigate. Like most rivers, bankies concentrate just below the hatchery for these hatchery fish.

How bout some good news:

The Humptulips River – this river took a major hit with smolt kill last year and it was pitiful, only 45,400 smolts made it into the river in 2007 (return as adults in 2008). The Hump should rebound this year with a 2008 smolt count in the normal range of 127,000. The area right below Steven’s Creek would be your best bet from the bank. Steven’s Creek down to Rynvan’s should be a great drift this year.

The Grays River – Suffering from the same smolt loss as the Humptulips, the Grays should rebound nicely for a smaller stream. Only 14,900 smolts in 2007 with all indications the normal allotment of 40,000 was planted in 2008. This is a small stream with limited bank access but just down from the hatchery provides ample access and great fishing. A pontoon boat would be a good option, but be careful and don’t mis calculate where to take out and how long it will take to get there as this gets some good s curves and floats longer than it appears.

The Carbon River – While those near Seattle that don’t want to drive far are going to be disappointed with the Green this year, the Carbon should be a very pleasant surprise. Bank access only but plenty of it and easy access at that, the Carbon received about 40k more plants in 2008 than in 2007. While this is a nice bonus compared to last year, it’s still below what used to be a normal allotment of almost 210k.

Top Rate Hatchery Steelhead Rivers to consider:

The Skykomish River: A hatchery steelhead fisherman’s dream and a layout that couldn’t have been designed any better for a float fisherman. Reiter Ponds makes this dream a reality and during the months of December and January many a fish will be pulled from around the boulders below. Smolt counts are in line with the last several years.

The Cascade River: This small stream that flows into the massive Skagit River can be spectacular. The Cascade received a smolt plant of around 250,000 which is incredible for this small stream. But consider the distance they have to travel up the Skagit and all the obstacles, unfortunately they don’t get a high return as one would hope. From right at the mouth up to the hatchery, which isn’t very far, will be smoking when they arrive, but it normally doesn’t last long. I’d hit this one when you have a hunch because after you hear it’s hot it’s probably too late.

The Snoqualmie River: From Tokul Creek downstream for ¼ mile is some of the finest hatchery steelhead fishing around… it’s not secret so expect lots of company. The Tokul is very small so the fish will stage in this stretch longer than usual until they’re ready to go up. Assuming the Snoqualmie recived it’s normal allotment of around 175,000 smolts, December should be tremendous with January not too far behind. This is known to be a early December fishery with the peak around the second or third week. For the drift boats, the short run from just below Tokul to Fall City should be very productive for these hatchery fish.

The Bogachiel and Calawah Rivers: I generally lump these two rivers together since when I fish one I usually fish the other, this year will be no exception. For bank fishing I like from the rearing ponds down to the confluence for the Calawah, then continue downstream on the Bogachiel. One of the best hatchery floats is from the Confluence down to Wilson’s. Both rivers received their normal allotment of smolts in 2008.

The Elochoman River: A small river with limited bank access, I like to fish this from the Hatchery down to Rent’s Bridge, then walk it back up. The Elochoman had a bonus smolt plant in 2006, but returned to normal of 89,900 in 2007 and should be about the same for 2008. This is a pretty good smolt count for this size river and generally has a pretty good return rate. Most fish will be taken within ¼ mile of the hatchery.

East Fork Lewis River: A really nice small river that I really enjoy to fish either at Lewisville County Park or at Daybreak Park. They both provide excellent bank access and is ideally suited for float fishing. From the County Park down to Daybreak Park is also a very productive float for those with a drift boat. The EF should be back to normal in smolt plants and be a good year. The North Fork Lewis River should also be productive with a healthy smolt count of around 97,000. From the Hatchery down to the golf course is a good bet for hatchery fish.

Other Hatchery Steelhead Rivers to consider that should be “normal” years:

The Hoh River – Bonus in 2006 smolt counts, back to normal in 2007 and 2008. 50,000 seems kinda weak for this size river.

East Fork Satsop – Bonus in 2006 as well. Back to normal in 2007 and 2008 but normal is only 38,800. Not many fish for this stream I’m afraid.

The Skookumchuck: A solid 75,000 smolt count, but this is a late river. I’d concentrate on some of the other choices, then when the other runs peter off you can target the Skook. Good bank access just below the hatchery, of course just look for the crowd.

Some Smaller rivers to try, but also receive minimal smolt counts are the Willapa, the Naselle and the Hoko.

Hopefully when the season arrives we get some pleasant surprises in the form of large runs of chrome. We all seen how the pinks this year blew away the forecasts! And while I put the Green as the biggest disappointment this coming year, rest assured I’ll still fish it. The Green after all is my “home” river and almost in my back yard. While the numbers may not be there, who cares, it’s fishing and I’ll enjoy just being out there with good friends.

For more information on how to catch steelhead, Steelhead University will hold their annual 1-Day seminar on December 5, 2009. Please visit

Terry Wiest
Steelhead University