The rain is a welcome sight for steelhead anglers after the extended stretch of cold and dry weather left fish migration to a trickle in westside rivers and creeks.
“There are signs that winter steelhead are around, but we just haven’t had any rainfall to push the fish up the rivers,” said Brett Barkdull, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist. “At the end of last month, there was some fish caught, and lately it has been tough with the low, clear and cold water conditions.”
Usually the northern coast is where early fish first arrive, and many refer to this region as a winter steelhead mecca with some of the last free-flowing stretches in the state fed by glacial water spilling from the hilltops of the Olympic mountains.
“We could certainly stand to get more rain to push fish up into the rivers,” said Bob Gooding, owner of Olympic Sporting Goods in Forks on the northern Olympic Peninsula. “They’ve been hitting a few fish in the Bogachiel and Calawah, but nothing that says ‘wow.’ ”
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Just judging by the 160,485 smolts released in 2012, the Quillayute river system this winter should expect an uptick from last season that relied on a small plant of 80,293 in 2011.
Smolts are defined as hatchery-reared steelhead released at a minimum size of 10 fish per pound, and those lucky enough to beat the odds of survival are expected to migrate back this winter.
The Hoh River had a smolt plant of 148,765; the Salmon, 165,791; Lower Quinault/Cook Creek, 453,000; Humptulips, 130,808; Chehalis, 342,200; Wynoochee, 170,500; Satsop East Fork, 57,700; and Skookumchuck, 85,000.
Locally, early-winter steelhead started showing up late last month in the Puget Sound region.
“The Marblemount Hatchery (on the Cascade River) had about 16 steelhead return soon after the high water earlier this month, and there was some fish caught,” Barkdull said. “But since then it has been on the slow side. Only one steelhead has been accounted for at the Kendall Creek Hatchery on the Nooksack River.
“Smolt plants are up (in most northern Puget Sound rivers). We met our goal for smolt releases at Marblemount, and we’re not expecting a lot, maybe around the same number as last year.”
The Skagit river system received 195,050 smolts in 2012 (down from 210,000 in 2011) in the Cascade River; and 31,000 (up from 30,000 in 2011) in the Baker. The Nooksack received 116,360 in 2012, up from 99,999 in 2011.
“Last year, fishing was really good (in the Cascade), and was concentrated mostly around the hatchery,” Barkdull said. “They also had a little better season on the Nooksack than we’d seen in the past.”
Elsewhere, the Stillaguamish North Fork got a plant of 152,599 in 2012, up from 128,066 in 2011.
In the Snohomish River system, the Skykomish received 142,500 in 2012 (down from 145,955 in 2011); Snoqualmie had 163,400 (152,000); and Wallace got 17,500 (20,000). The Green River had 96,957 in 2012, down from 126,053 in 2011.
In the Strait of Juan de Fuca, rivers like the Hoko, Dungeness and Sekiu also get modest smolt plants that produce fair fishing.
Another place where winter-run fish tend to show up earlier is the southwest Washington river systems.
“Thanksgiving is the benchmark for when steelhead arrive, and it remains to be seen how good it will be,” said Joe Hymer, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist. “We’ll see how things shape up this month and in the New Year.”
Places like the Washougal, Cowlitz and Lewis were starting to see more winter steelhead in the catches. Last week, Tacoma Power recovered 107 winter-run steelhead at the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery separator.
The Cowlitz system got a smolt plant of 682,395 (down slightly from 696,816 in 2011); Kalama, 109,647 (112,082); Lewis, 141,823 (216,918); and Washougal North Fork, 63,030 (59,993).