Thanksgiving is the traditional start of the winter fishing season, but steelhead are already trickling into local rivers.
Hatchery steelhead in local Puget Sound streams might be on the slim side this winter, but there are better options on the coast and in the southwest region.
The unofficial start of the winter-run season begins next month as early-arriving steelhead start trickling into rivers. In fact, three fish already returned to the Bogachiel Hatchery and two to the Kalama Falls Hatchery last week.
“The traditional starting point for winter steelhead is Thanksgiving,” said Joe Hymer, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist. “That is when you’ll usually start to see a substantial catch of fish.”
The Cowlitz got a substantial plant in 2015 of 531,558 steelhead smolt — they’re defined as hatchery-reared steelhead released at a minimum size of 10 fish per pound — and those that survived their migration after spending two years in the ocean are expected back this winter.
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“That is pretty close to a full plant for the Cowlitz, and those fish are now a late-timed (plant) so you wouldn’t really see them in big numbers until late January through March, and even well into April,” Hymer said.
Other southwest streams receiving smolt plants were: West Fork Grays, 23,500; Elochoman, 65,993; Abernathy Creek, 14,470; Coweeman, 10,000; Kalama, 114,476; North Fork Lewis, 181,702; Salmon Creek (Clark County), 37,394; North Fork Washougal, 96,405; and Rock Creek (Skamania), 20,824.
On northern coast, the Bogachiel saw a plant of 124,324; and Calawah, 54,919.
The Lower Quinault/Cook Creek received a liberal plant of 395,612; Hoh/Chalaat Creek, 100,000; Salmon, 169,072; and Sooes, 203,124.
On southern coast, the Humptulips was planted with 134,426; Wynoochee, 88,740; East Fork Satsop, 61,100; Skookumchuck, 97,000; Newaukum Middle and South Forks, 34,500; and Upper Chehalis, 29,160. In Willapa Bay, the North got 9,800; Willapa, 87,583; North Nemah, 19,675; and Naselle, 129,775.
Locally, the Skykomish got a plant of 144,781; and Wallace, 34,031. The Green had a meager 16,636, which is dramatically less than it had been in recent years.
“Most of the steelhead we’re seeing in catches right now are summer-run fish, but we call them ‘swinters’ because they aren’t true summer fish and what could be called a fall run,” said Mike Chamberlain, owner of Ted’s Sports Center in Lynnwood.
“I haven’t heard of any confirmed winter fish,” said Chamberlain, who noted the hot-and-heavy fishing time will happen in December and January. “I have a customer who fishes Reiter Ponds a lot, and (Tuesday) he caught some pretty brightly colored fish. That might indicate these were new arrivals.”
In northern Puget Sound, places that didn’t see plants in 2015 were Nooksack, Stillaguamish, Cascade, Baker and Skagit.
Anglers will likely be faced with some lean times in the future after state fisheries was forced the past two years to release steelhead from five hatcheries into area lakes. This ensured they wouldn’t interfere with wild steelhead protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
The good news is that, back in late April, state fisheries received approval from NOAA-Fisheries to begin re-establishing hatchery steelhead into Puget Sound rivers after the facilities met federal environmental standards.
That action occurred from a legal agreement with the Wild Fish Conservancy, which stipulated that state Fish and Wildlife wouldn’t release steelhead smolt until it was determined hatcheries complied with federal law.
These early timed fish are the bread-and-butter for winter sport fisheries.
The Tengu Blackmouth Derby — established in 1937 — gets under way Sunday in Elliott Bay, after a one-season hiatus related to the 2015 salmon-fishing closure of central Puget Sound. The derby will be held every Sunday at daybreak until 11 a.m. from Sunday through Dec. 18 at the Seacrest Boathouse in West Seattle.
What makes it even more difficult is the fact that only blackmouth (a term used for a chinook’s dark gumline) are eligible for the grand prize, and fishing is limited to a certain area where legal-sized fish (more than 22 inches long) are often scarce.
The derby is named after Tengu, a fabled Japanese character who stretched the truth, and just like Pinocchio, Tengu’s nose grew with every lie.
In 2014, the last time the derby was held, it produced a paltry seven winter chinook. The record-low catch was four fish in 2010, and the record high was 234 in 1979.
In good years, it is not uncommon to have 50 to 100 fish weighed, but success has dropped off since 2009.
You’ll have to go back to 1958 to find the largest blackmouth, which was caught by Tom Osaki and weighed 25 pounds, 3 ounces. In the past decade, the largest was 15-5 caught by Marcus Nitta.
In the derby, only mooching (fishing using a banana-style lead weight to a leader with a herring) is allowed. No artificial lures, flashers, hoochies (plastic squids) or other gear like downriggers are permitted. This winter the boundary has been extended to West Point off the Magnolia Bluff’s west side south of Shilshole Bay.
The boathouse opens at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday, and then 6 a.m. every Sunday after that. Rental boats are available from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Cost is $65 for boat or $85 for a boat and motor. Entry fee is $15 and $5 for children ages 12 and under.
Tickets are available at Seacrest Boathouse, Linc’s Tackle and Outdoor Emporium in Seattle. Details: 206-324-7600.