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This blog is all about fly fishing for native trout. On it I cover trip reports, fishing tactics, conservation, the latest news about native trout species and much more. This site provides a companion to my web page Nativetroutflyfishing.com.


Wednesday, April 26, 2023

2023 Winter Steelhead Wanderings: Part 1 - Early Season

While winter time is when most native trout anglers hunker down, restock fly boxes and dream of summer, in Washington it marks the return of our state fish, the steelhead. While I had hoped to get out earlier in the season, a mix of bad weather, illness and just being busy meant that me first chance to get out wasn't until early February.  Like many steelhead trips the weather was going to make things challenging, but neighbor Dyllon also able to join me so we decided to go with it, what ever the weather through our way.

Upon checking flows first thing in the morning, we were surprised to see that our first choice for the day was still in shape and with that we loaded up the car and were on the road in short order. While flows were holding, the torrential rain on much of the drive out to the river indicated we were going to be dealing with a rising river. While we had hoped that the conditions would thin out the crowds a bit, when we got to the river, there were already two rigs at the first spot we wanted to fish despite the fact the sun still wasn’t fully up yet so we had to divert to another spot. This time we were in luck and had the spot to ourselves.

The river

After a short walk we made it to the river found that it was still in shape, but starting to show some color so we got straight to prospecting for steelhead. It was on of those days where it didn’t take long for the river to show some signs of life and Dyllon hooked into a powerful fish within the first half hour. One thing that I have noticed with big steelhead, is that their instinct when hooked is often to head upstream. Dyllon’s fish did just that and quickly moved over some rapids into the next run and headed straight for a log jam. While Dyllon and I both thought he was done for, somehow he was able to thread the needle and kept the fish from snagging up on the logjam and got it to come back down into our run. From there it was just a tug of war until I was able to net his fish, which was a beautiful bright wild hen.

Dyllon starting the day off with a beautiful native hen

As it turned out, Dyllon was on a roll, and in the next run upstream he hooked another fish. This time it was a much quicker fight and after a couple minutes he brought a wild jack (small male) steelhead to the net.

Dyllon's second fish a wild steelhead jack

Following Dyllon’s back to back fish, there was a long gap in the action as we covered nearly a mile of great looking but fruitless water. However, the last run before we ran out of bank access on our side of the river was an absolute fish trap (piece of water fish will only move through when flows are up) and although there was some tricky water on the inside to contend with, I was able to wade out and get into casting position. It took a few casts, but as my rig passed through the middle of the run I got a savage grab and hooked into a hefty fish. Initially the fish didn’t want to move out of the hole, but after a couple minutes of back and forth, it decided that it had had enough and rocketed downstream. By the time I navigated the tricky fast water and slick rocks back to shore the fish was already in the next run and well into my backing. Back on shore, I was able to give chase and quickly regained my backing and but I found myself two runs downstream by the time the fish was ready to be netted. It took a couple scoops, but we were finally able to net the fish and I was able to admire the beautiful buck.

My first fish of 2023 a beautiful native steelhead buck

Having caught my first steelhead of the year, we worked the area a little longer, but didn’t find anymore willing fish so we started heading back downstream. At this point the river was noticeably starting to rise, so we decided to try the two runs Dyllon caught his fish in earlier in the morning again to see if any fresh fish had moved in.  Dyllon took the spot that held the jack, while I took the other run. Luck was on my side again, and after make a cast that stretched my ability to its limit I was immediately rewarded with a solid take. Shortly after hooking into it, a beautiful steelhead shot into the air. Luckily I had a good hook set and while the steelhead made a few solid runs, it stayed in the hole and I was able to bring it to hand after a few minutes.

Steelhead number two for me - a native hen

After I got my second fish for the day, worked a little further downstream before deciding to relocate to another run further upstream. The water upstream proved to be more typical of steelheading and while I did get one more solid grab, after covering around a mile of river we didn’t hook up with anymore steelhead . On top of that the morning rain was starting to catch up with us and the river was rapidly rising and losing its clarity, so we decided to recognize our success and move onto another stream.

Our next spot was a small tannic coastal stream that has a robust Coastal Cutthroat population that should hold its flows and color despite the rain. The stream was absolutely gorgeous and meandered through lined alder meadows and stands of Sitka Spruce and Western Red Cedar. However, the air still had the strong scent of decaying salmon, signs of a strong run earlier in the season and hopefully there would still be some Cutthroat interested in eat egg imitations.

The Coastal Cutthroat stream

While it was running a bit high, the stream still had good clarity and we started working our way downstream to prospect for Coastal Cutthroat and some possible steelhead. The first few holes didn't produce anything, but at a log jam about an 1/8 mile downstream I finally hooked up with something and after a short fight I landed an beautiful Coastal Cutthroat (with some possible hybrid characteristics).

A beautiful Coastal Cutthroat

We fished downstream a couple more bends and Dyllon caught a twin of the Cutthroat that I had caught and we also got a few smaller Cutthroat parr as well. Despite the decent clarity about a 1/2 mile downstream we hit a section that looked to be challenging at best to cross and with that and rain starting to fall in earnest again, we decided it was time to hike back out and hit the road after an exceptional day on the water.

After my first success outing, I got in touch with my good friend Chris and I were able to find a day that worked for both of us in mid-February and started planning our trip. Like the last trip the weather was going to prove challenging with a big rain coming in the night before after a long dry stretch. Knowing conditions were less than ideal, we picked a couple streams that we knew would keep in shape despite the rain and were on the road at 5:00AM and hiking into the river in the pre-dawn half light.

Our hike in put us at the first hole just as full dawn hit and we got to fishing. After a fruitless first half hour, Chris decided to switch rigs and two casts later he was hooked into a solid fish. The fish was a nice buck of perhaps 10-12lbs that was starting to show some color and wasn’t afraid to put in a few jumps. When the fish seemed to be tiring, Chris brought it in to be tailed, and just as I grabbed it the hook popped out and the steelhead shot off back into the depths.

Chris working a likely looking seem

That single steelhead ended up being the only fish we would touch as we covered the next mile of river downstream. Despite plenty of beautiful water it just didn’t seem like many fish had pushed in yet so we decided to move on to the next stream. Chris had yet to fish our next stream so I decided to start us out at a spot that has been a consistent producer.  This spot is another of those fish traps, with the river coming over a rapid and dropping off along a cliff face to provide fish with a safe spot to hold in. The run also has a nice tailout well suited to swinging flies and as I had been wanting to dust off my Spey rod, Chris took the top of the run, while took the tailout. I had just finished covering the best part of the tailout, when Chris hooked into a nice fish on the inside seam. With that, I reeled in and ran upstream to help him land it. This time Chris had a good hook set and after a few more runs we are able to tail the beautiful chrome bright hen.

Chris' dime bright native hen

Even the tail was shinny

After taking a few more casts to make certain there wasn’t another willing fish in the hole, we hiked back to the car and head upstream to another spot. This spot didn't show any signs of life and the thought of getting home early and out of the cold, windy and wet weather was enough for us to call it on another good rainy day on the river.