Category Archives: Fishing

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Tucannon Rising From The Dead

The Tucannon River, once a productive Blue Mountains foothills steelhead fishery that dropped way off, is poised for recovery.

By Andy Walgamott

Perhaps it’s the Okanogan mule deer hunter in me – the part that screams to be afield, rifle in hand, as sun sets on October’s season in hopes of bagging a moss-horned Pasayten migrator – that makes it easy to grasp Chris Donley’s advice for when to fish the Tucannon River for steelhead these days:

“Fish as late as the season allows,” tips the veteran Southeast Washington steelheader and regional Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries manager. “Most of the fish will enter on the next warm-up/freshet, so sometime between now and late February.”

Once upon a time, steelheaders knew the Tucannon as a fine fall fishery – in 2011, the river’s second best season since at least the Nixon Administration if not well beyond, it yielded 563 in October, and more than 300 in the months on either side of that. But the seasons that followed would see a sharp drop as the broodstock changed and three consecutive years saw no releases of hatchery fish. “We used to love fishing that river, but for some reason, didn’t think it fished well anymore,” recalled fly fishing guide David Child of Yakima. “My fishing buddies [that’s Jason McCormick with a pair] and I haven’t been back for years.” State managers hope to change that by getting out the word that the Tuc’s a late winter river now. (DAVID CHILD)

ONCE UPON A TIME, STEELHEADERS KNEW THE TUCANNON AS A FINE FALL FISHERY – IN 2011, THE RIVER’S SECOND BEST SEASON SINCE AT LEAST THE NIXON ADMINISTRATION IF NOT WELL BEYOND, IT YIELDED 563 IN OCTOBER, AND MORE THAN 300 IN THE MONTHS ON EITHER SIDE OF THAT. BUT THE SEASONS THAT FOLLOWED WOULD SEE A SHARP DROP AS THE BROODSTOCK CHANGED AND THREE CONSECUTIVE YEARS SAW NO RELEASES OF HATCHERY FISH. “WE USED TO LOVE FISHING THAT RIVER, BUT FOR SOME REASON, DIDN’T THINK IT FISHED WELL ANYMORE,” RECALLED FLY FISHING GUIDE DAVID CHILD OF YAKIMA. “MY FISHING BUDDIES [THAT’S JASON MCCORMICK WITH A PAIR] AND I HAVEN’T BEEN BACK FOR YEARS.” STATE MANAGERS HOPE TO CHANGE THAT BY GETTING OUT THE WORD THAT THE TUC’S A LATE WINTER RIVER NOW. (DAVID CHILD)

Now, if that doesn’t gel with your understanding of this northern Columbia County fishery, you would not be alone. Recent years have seen some changes with the Tuc.

Big changes.

Washington steelheading is in a state of serious flux and perhaps no river exemplifies that better than the Tucannon.

• Where once this Snake River tributary was stocked with out-of-basin summer-run smolts, the progeny of native fish from the valley now fire the hatchery program.

• Where for three straight years no harvestable fish were released, they are once again.

• What once was a fall fishery now is a late winter stream.

• Where all those changes led to the impression that the Tuc wasn’t worth fishing anymore, there actually are fish to be caught and kept.

Now, this is not to say the Tucannon’s going to be en fuego this month – it’s not, this season’s A-run is low and the smolt release for return this year was just 50,000 – but going forward, late winter is going to be when to start hitting this small river.

REINTRODUCING THE TUC

In case you are unfamiliar with the Tucannon, it rises on the north slope of Washington’s Blue Mountains, that great heap of basalt, and cuts northwesterly across the northern edge of the rugged Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness Area. Not far beyond that it takes a hard right-hand turn and flows past the chain lakes in the W.T. Wooten Wildlife Area, one of WDFW’s oldest properties, then makes a gradual leroy and exits its canyon into an open valley. Where its cousin on the other side of Washington’s Blues, the Grande Ronde, carves a serpentine course, the Tucannon has dug itself a fairly quick path to reach the Snake at Lyons Ferry. (Tucannon is a Nez Perce word for “digging.”)

THERE'S A LOT OF WORK GOING INTO RESTORING THE TUCANNON RIVER AT VARIOUS LEVELS, AND THIS PARTICULAR CARCASS DUMP IS MEANT TO HELP OUT ITS FOOD WEB BY ADDING MARINE NUTRIENTS TO THE MIX. (SNAKE RIVER RECOVERY BOARD, VIA NMFS)

THE TUCANNON AS IT EXITS THE BLUE MOUNTAINS. (SNAKE RIVER RECOVERY BOARD, VIA NMFS)

Along this journey, the river is paralleled high up by Forest Service roads, then Tucannon Road, briefly by U.S. 12, and finally Highway 261 in its lower reach on either side of Starbuck. Note we said Starbuck, singular. This town is not named for the ubiquitous coffee chain, nor the first mate on the Pequod, but a long-forgotten railroad official.

There used to be a tackle shop in Starbuck that dispensed with fine advice, but Darcy Linklater tells me they closed Darver Tackle last May. With the Lyons Ferry KOA also shuttered till March, that means you should bring all the fishing gear you need because local supplies are tight.

Speaking of tight, so is access to the Tucannon, but there are a couple nice long stretches to get on the river. The lowest is at the mouth, the Army Corps of Engineers’ 390-acre Tucannon Habitat Management Unit. It encompasses about a mile of water, mostly below 261, but a bit above. Parking is near where slackwater begins, depending on height of the Lower Monumental Pool, and there’s an outhouse there as well.

The second stretch to check out is at Smith Hollow Road, where a kind farmer allows access to the river. Linklater says to watch for the 2-by-2 mini fridge sitting on the fence along 261; register there to fish upstream of the bridge, on the other side of the Tucannon RV Park.

Local game warden Brendan Vance says there are a few local landowners who will give permission, either verbal or written, to access the river as well.

The upstream deadline of the steelhead fishery is Turner Road,
at Marengo.

TIMING THE TUCANNON

At the top of this piece, you’ll have noticed that Donley said that “most of the fish” will be entering the river this month, as conditions moderate. That advice is based on passive integrated transponder, or PIT, tag data that shows how switching from the old Lyons Ferry broodstock – which originated from Wells Hatchery in North-central Washington – several years ago to a localized broodstock also radically altered when returning adults enter the river.

According to sonar arrays near the mouth, Lyons Ferry fish stormed in in late summer and by December 1, 70 percent were in the river.

“That big blue hump is why the Tucannon fished so well in October, November, December,” says Donley, referring to a graph put together by WDFW research scientist Joe Bumgarner in Dayton that shows the arrival of the old stock as a blue line.

A CHART PUT TOGETHER BY STATE FISHERIES BIOLOGISTS BASED ON PIT-TAGGED STEELHEAD PINGING A SONAR ARRAY AT THE MOUTH OF THE TUCANNON SHOWS THE SHARP DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHEN THE OLD LYONS FERRY HATCHERY STOCK FISH –BLUE LINE – RETURNED TO THE RIVER AND WHEN THE NEW IN-BASIN HATCHERY STEELHEAD – ORANGE LINE – ARRIVE. THE RIVER CLOSES TO FISHING MARCH 1 TO PROTECT WILD STEELHEAD, BUT THIS DATA WILL HELP SHOW FEDERAL FISHERY OVERSEERS THE BENEFITS OF REOPENING THE TUCANNON TO HARVEST CLIPPED FISH, BOTH LOCALS AND STRAYS. (WDFW)

A CHART PUT TOGETHER BY STATE FISHERIES BIOLOGISTS BASED ON PIT-TAGGED STEELHEAD PINGING A SONAR ARRAY AT THE MOUTH OF THE TUCANNON SHOWS THE SHARP DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHEN THE OLD LYONS FERRY HATCHERY STOCK FISH –BLUE LINE – RETURNED TO THE RIVER AND WHEN THE NEW IN-BASIN HATCHERY STEELHEAD – ORANGE LINE – ARRIVE. THE RIVER CLOSES TO FISHING MARCH 1 TO PROTECT WILD STEELHEAD, BUT THIS DATA WILL HELP SHOW FEDERAL FISHERY OVERSEERS THE BENEFITS OF REOPENING THE TUCANNON TO HARVEST CLIPPED FISH, BOTH LOCALS AND STRAYS. (WDFW)

But the times, they have a-changed.

“If you’re fishing like you used to in October, November and December, there aren’t any fish in the system,” he notes.

The same graph shows that the new in-basin stock more closely echoes the wild run, with just 20 percent of the overall return in the river by Jan. 1, 30 percent by Feb. 1, and somewhere around 45 percent by March 1.

March 1, however, is when the Tucannon closes, meaning more than half of the hatchery steelhead won’t have been available for harvest this season.

This has not gone unnoticed by WDFW.

“We are working with NOAA to get the necessary permit coverage to open it longer,” Donley says. “Having said that, the wheels of government turn slowly and we don’t expect to have that extension before next year.”

THE BIG CHANGE

NOAA is, of course, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and its National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, is the reason the Tucannon’s hatchery program has seen a big transition through the years.

Into the 1970s, sportfishing here was dependent solely on wild steelhead, with 2,000 or more believed to have been annually harvested as late as the ’50s, according to WDFW. As you can imagine, dams, habitat and harvest all led to the run tanking, and so hatchery production began. In the late ’90s, however, steelhead throughout the Snake system were listed under the Endangered Species Act, and with that came scrutiny from NMFS about WDFW’s use of Lyons Ferry fish as hatchery broodstock. To make a long story short, while production with those steelhead continued, unclipped smolts from a wild-based broodstock began to be released in 2000 as part of a five-year test. However, after half a decade “there wasn’t enough information to determine” if that strain could replace the Lyons Ferry stock, according to WDFW. So, another five-year test was ordered, and then four years into it NMFS asked for a new hatchery genetic management plan, then said it wouldn’t authorize any more releases of Lyons Ferry fish.

“Luckily, by 2010, we had enough information to determine that the ‘test’ program was successful in returning adults to support not only the sport fishery, but also to maintain a conservation component of the program to help support the depressed wild origin population,” three WDFW biologists write in a paper entitled “Where Have All The Tucannon Steelhead Gone? And What Is WDFW Doing To Fix It?” It can be found in the Tri-State Steelheader’s spring 2016 newsletter (tristatesteelheaders.com).

Thus began the phase-out of one stock and phasing in of another, but there was a hiccup. Promises of additional space at Lyons Ferry hatchery didn’t come to fruition, according to WDFW, and so no fin-clipped steelhead were released into the Tucannon in 2011, 2012 or 2013.

The result of all that is that harvest went from more than 1,600 in 2011 – the second highest take back through at least 1968, state stats show – to just 132 in the 2014-15 season, the fewest in 30 years.

(WDFW)

(WDFW)

With such a miserable season, it’s no wonder why anglers have given up on the little river.

“Because of no harvestable releases from 2011-2013, and that word spread that ‘no’ hatchery fish were being released anymore, the angling pressure was almost non-existent this past fall/winter – something we would like to see changed,” write the state biologists, Todd Miller, Joe Bumgarner and Jeremy Trump.

Here’s where things stand now: WDFW’s goal is to raise 100,000 smolts a year for release, with half of those being fin-clipped for harvest. It’s possible the agency could in the future rear more, but that depends on a lot of moving parts. (Millions of dollars are being spent on habitat work in and along the Tucannon for spring Chinook restoration.) In the meanwhile, this month should see a push of one- and two-salt steelies into the river. The biologists acknowledge that this season might not be that great, but they’ve got their eye on the future.

“All of these changes to the steelhead fishery on the Tucannon were unexpected and we realize it may take some time before our efforts are successful,” the trio write, “but ultimately we would like to see the steelhead fishery on the Tucannon return to previous levels, with lots of angler effort and harvest. But we can’t do that without your help.”

They’re asking anglers to return to the river, keep all hatchery fish (retention is mandatory), and tell fellow fishermen that once again harvestable steelhead are returning to the Tucannon.

In late winter.

TUCANNON RIVER STEELHEAD. (DAVID CHILD)

TUCANNON RIVER STEELHEAD. (DAVID CHILD)

TUCANNON TIPS

As for how to fish the river, it’s really no different than other steelhead streams. Where there’s deeper, slower water, like at the mouth, try a shrimp-tipped jig under a bobber. Where there’s current across a flat, swing a spoon. Find drift fishing water, run a Corky and eggs through it.  Bait’s legal, though you’ll need to crimp your barbs.

Trump, the biologist, says that it won’t take much to spur the steelies into biting, just an increase in air temps and flow. 

“As we move into late January and February the fishing should pick up, and those fish that are currently holding will begin to move upstream with increases in flow,” he says.

One thing to watch will be flows out of Pataha Creek, below Highway 12, which can make things muddy as these wheatlands begin to thaw, Trump tips. Gauges for both the Tucannon and Pataha can be found at waterdata.usgs.gov/wa/nwis/rt and through ecy.wa.gov/index.html, respectively.

Daily limit is two hatchery steelhead, as well as 15 whitefish. NS

Stumptown Part I of II

The Esteemed Mr. Whiskers Of Portland

By Terry Otto

Catfish are the Rodney Dangerfield  of Stumptown’s fishing scene: they never get any respect.
Salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and other species get all the  glamour, all the press, all the covers, but catfish are a worthy target themselves. They grow big, they fight hard, bite easily, and their fillets are light and tasty. And while they get little respect from some, they are getting attention from an increasing number of anglers in Portland and Vancouver who have figured out how much fun Mr. Whiskers can be.
In fact, there are so many good local spots that I couldn’t fit them all in one article. So, this issue we’ll look at Portland-area catfisheries, and next month, discover the plentiful opportunities on the north side of the Columbia River.
Get your drawl on, grab some stinkbait and let’s look at PDX waters.

GILBERT RIVER BULLHEADS AND CHANNEL CATFISH
Every single source for this story pointed to the Gilbert River first, and it may well be the best catfishery in the Portland area. This Sauvie Island stream flows from Sturgeon Lake to the Multnomah Channel and is home to big channel cats, a few blue cats and plenty of bullheads. But despite giving the D River a run for its money as the state’s shortest, it’s long been well known for whiskerfish, says Mark Nebeker, the manager of the state wildlife refuge on the island.
“The Gilbert River is very popular for catfish,” he says. “The fishing platform at the mouth is open all year, and they catch a lot of bullheads there, but there are more and bigger catfish further up the river.”
Nebeker says that not all the bullheads are small, and some reach very respectable sizes. Channel cats can run as big as 18 to 20 pounds, and he once checked a blue catfish in the 30-pound range.
Eric Tonsager of the Oregon Bass and Panfish Club is a bona fide catfisherman who spends most of his time on Eastern Oregon rivers, but he wets a line for cats near home once in a while. He likes to fish the Multnomah Channel and the Gilbert River, an area he confirms is no secret.
“There is lots of effort there,” says Tonsager. “There are people at the fishing platform all the time when the weather is warm.”
He says bank access is very good along the Gilbert, and he points to the Big Eddy as being one of the best spots.
“It’s a sharp, 90-degree turn in the river, and lots of big catfish are taken there,” he says.
Worms and other insects are good choices for bait, but Tonsager says anglers need to “gob that worm on the hook. If you leave tips trailing off, the perch and other small fish will nibble them off.”
From time to time, he also uses cutbaits such as northern pikeminnow cut into 1-inch cubes. He leaves them at room temperature for a bit; just to get some smell going.
“But don’t let it rot!” he warns.

THE WILLAMETTE’S MIGRATORY CATS
There is a good population of channel catfish throughout the Willamette, and they migrate out of the big river into the tributaries in the spring to spawn.
“When the temperature hits about 60 degrees, the channel catfish move up into all the rivers that dump into the Willamette,” says Tonsager. “They move into the Tualatin, the Yamhill, and Oswego Creek – all of the tributaries.”
When the heat arrives, the fish head back down to the Willamette to spend the summer in the deep holes, and they become very nocturnal. The bite is best from dusk to dawn.

CATS PROWL ST. LOUIS PONDS
You might expect a set of waters with a name that hearkens to the country’s catfishing heartland to feature whiskerfish, and you would be correct.
“All of the St. Louis ponds have catfish,” confirms Gary Galovich, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife warmwater biologist. “They are in Ponds 1 through 7.”
He reports that there is no stocking schedule, but he puts channels into the small lakes along I-5 just south of Woodburn when his budget allows. Cats to 20 pounds  are sometimes caught here.
The species are also planted in Wilsonville Lake, Woodburn Lake and Hartman Pond on a semi-regular basis.
Henry Hagg Lake is popular for bullheads, which grow well and reach sizes of 12 to 15 inches. Of course, all warmwater habitats around Portland have bullheads, but they are predominately in the 5- to 7-inch range.

THE MYSTERY OF THE TUALATIN TITAN
One of the enduring mysteries of whiskerfish in the Northwest is the story of the 15-pound white catfish caught in the Tualatin River in 1989. Deemed the Oregon record for the species, however, it is the only verified white catfish ever taken in the entire state. How did it get there?
That’s a good question, says Galovich. His research turned up records of 300 white catfish brought up from California in 1951, and placed in a defective holding pond.  “When they drained the pond they only found 12 left,” says Galovich.
While the rest escaped into the Willamette system, Galovich says the chances of them surviving, spawning, and continuing the line, and eventually producing the record fish is unlikely.
“It could have come from somebody’s private pond,” says Galovich. “Or it could have been released in the river, but we  don’t know.”
The Tualatin fishes well for channel cats in the spring, but a boat with a shallow draft is needed. There are few good bank access spots on the river. NS

Stumptown anglers have a lot of choices for local catfish. This leviathan was caught at the St Louis Ponds. (RICK SWART, ODFW)

Stumptown anglers have a lot of choices for local catfish. This leviathan was caught at the St Louis Ponds. (RICK SWART, ODFW)

 

Man holding large steelhead

Plan B For B-runs

Tucked back in the hills and featuring great access, the Clearwater’s South Fork produces good fishing for nice steelies.

By Mike Wright

For a number of years my high school had a tradition of starting out the softball and baseball season with a two-day tournament in Orofino. The tournament was always scheduled for mid-March, when snow covered the fields of North Idaho and far Eastern Washington. It also coincided with the latter part of the steelhead run on the Clearwater River and its tributaries. Since I helped with the coaching duties I would always make the trip, but unfortunately I never had the opportunity to do any steelheading.

Man holding large steelhead

The lure of large steelhead in small water attracts gear and fly anglers to Idaho’s South Fork Clearwater River. (MIKE WRIGHT)

Then one year I decided to take a fly rod along and try my luck between games. The schedule would give me enough time for a couple hours of fishing between contests. Someone suggested the nearby North Fork of the Clearwater, which had a lot of fish in the river at the time. So between games I made my way down to the North Fork, walked to the water’s edge and started to cast into a very clear, slow-moving section of the stream. To my delight, very quickly a nice 24- or 25-inch fish followed my fly – until he got close enough to inspect the offering and abruptly turned and swam away. As I continued to work this section the same thing happened three more times. Even though I changed flies, tried different retrieves and speeds, the results were the same: no takes. I even switched to a sink-tip line, but all that did for me was a couple hook-ups on rocks and the loss of two flies.
That evening I went into a grocery store to buy some snacks and drinks for the next day. While in the store I ran into one of my former students, who was working for the U.S. Forest Service out of Orofino. I told him my tale of woe and he said I was really fishing in the wrong spot. He went on to tell me that the Clearwater’s South Fork was the preferred destination for most fly fishermen. He stated that it was a smaller river with well-defined holes and generally much easier to wade.
The next morning I left just after dawn to make the relatively long drive to Kooskia and the South Fork. Although we had a game at 11, I felt there was enough time for a couple hours of fishing. Unfortunately, just after I arrived at the river the heavens opened up. After only a few casts it was very apparent these were not the ideal conditions for steelhead fishing. Nor was it ideal for softball or baseball either. The rest of the tournament was cancelled and I went home with nothing to show for my efforts.

SINCE THAT ILL-FATED journey to the South Fork I have fished it several times, learning a great deal more about it and gaining much more respect for this outstanding fishery. The river forms at around 4,000 feet, just outside the old mining town of Elk City. Its upper reaches flow through a narrow, heavily timbered canyon on Forest Service land. Steep and full of rapids and pocket water, you might catch cutthroat, rainbow, brook trout, mountain whitefish and possibly bull trout here.

Clearwater river

The South Fork features great access, thanks to Highways 13 and 14, which parallel it all the way from Kooskia to Elk City. (MIKE WRIGHT)

The water in this section is cold and very clear, even though a number of mining operations have worked the area in the past. The swift current, higher elevation and shade trees help keep water temperatures cooler through the warmer summer months. Further downstream, the gradient becomes more level and the river bed widens. Water temps rise in this section with a consequent negative impact on the fish, particularly cutthroat and bull trout. There is considerably less streamside vegetation and shade in this lower section. The river flows through more private land the closer it gets to where it empties into the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River.
The main attraction in this part of the river is steelhead, which start showing up en masse this month and in April. For the most part, these are B-run fish, meaning they have spent an additional year in ocean and thus are older and bigger than their A-run counterparts.
“Big fish in small water is the major allure for the South Fork,” says Mike Beard of Northwest Outfitters (nwoutfitters.com). in Coeur d’Alene, these steelies often run in the 12- to 20-pound range, with the As coming in at 6 to 10 pounds. Shallower, wadeable water punctuated with deeper help make this stream a destination fishery for flyrodders from all over the Northwest. But even though it can provide excellent steelhead fishing, the South Fork can also be rather fickle, requiring knowledge of the river and fish habits. Often the steelhead remain downstream in the Middle Fork until conditions are just right. The best time to fish is after a rain or melt-off has created a push of colder water, then stabilizing at around 350 to 500 cubic feet per second.
In addition, nymphing is a more effective method than the usual swing fishing approach. An egg pattern or beads are probably the most productive approach during March and April. One of the most popular set-ups is to tie a pinkish color bead on the line an inch or two up from the eye of the hook and another on the hook itself. Since larger hook sizes are required (size 10 or perhaps larger), heating the bead may be required to slip it past the bend of the hook. Although other egg and nymph patterns are effective, this particular set up has been effective for me. Beard uses this same bead arrangement, but ties on a Kilowatt fly with the beads as a dropper. He feels the Kilowatt can be an attractor for the beads, but sometimes the steelhead will be more active and take the lead fly.
The South Fork is excellent fly water, but other methods are effective on the river too. Bait is very popular and productive, and probably the most effective technique is a jig baited with a shrimp below a bobber. While bait fishing with a treble is popular in many spots, it should be pointed out that only single-point barbless hooks are allowed when fishing for steelhead or salmon in the South Fork.
This time of year it may be advisable to linger longer in a particular hole, as the fish are often rather lethargic. Considering the popularity of the South Fork in March and April, if you fortunate enough to be fishing a suitable hole and move, chances are someone will take your spot and you may not be able to find an empty hole.

STATE STEELHEAD MANAGERS recently instituted a new program to help improve the number of fish returning to the South Fork for spawning. Enlisting the river’s anglers, each are given a long plastic tube of sufficient size to safely hold very sizable steelhead. Starting in February, a tanker truck cruises the highway along the river, collecting the tubes and steelhead. The fish are then transported to the national fish hatchery in Orofino, where the eggs are fertilized and the hatchlings can be reared for release. Releases back into the South Fork are staggered in order the better equalize the run.
According to Joe Dupont, Idaho Fish & Game fisheries biologist for the Clearwater Region, four years of work and study have gone into the program and at this time it seems to be working fairly well. Last year, all 225 needed pairs had been collected by March 7. It is probably too soon to tell what affect this will have on the overall number of steelhead in the drainage, but indications are encouraging.

Man holding a fish just out of the water

In addition to steelhead, the river also holds cutthroat, rainbow, brookies and mountain whitefish, as well as bull trout. (MIKE WRIGHT)

Another program that has many anglers excited involves Chinook. In 1927, the former Lewiston Dam was constructed, effectively ending the migration of king salmon into the Clearwater River and its tributaries. The dam was removed in the 1970s, but the recovery of the fish has been exceeding slow. To help out, IDFG has expanded its stocking program and are planting during the summer as well as the spring and fall. The number of Chinook has been increasing throughout the drainage, including the South Fork. If this trend continues it would be a great addition to the fishery.
Although the South Fork is best known for steelhead fishing, and justifiably so, the river provides excellent fishing for a number of species. It might be considered a river for all seasons.
To reach the South Fork, simply follow the Clearwater River out of Lewiston and turn onto Highway 13 south out of Kooskia. The highway follows the river all the way to Hapston Grade. There, stay to the left on Highway 14, which goes all the way to Elk City. Daily limit is three fin-clipped steelhead, and the season runs through April 30.

fish-cleaning station

How To Troll For Potholes Walleye

By Don Talbot

fish-cleaning station

Potholes State Park’s excellent fish-cleaning station is now closed for the winter, but not before author Don Talbot (right) and a client gave it a good workout. Good walleye and perch fishing should continue into this month. (DONSFISHINGGUIDESERVICE.COM)

The water temp is 58 degrees and the winds are light. Nearby on this Tuesday are 25 other boats on the water – five times the amount of traffic I’d see if I was fishing the mouth of the Methow River in Pateros for steelhead. Don’t get me wrong – my first love is fall and winter steelheading, but walleye fishing may just take half my recreational time this winter, as long as the weather holds out!

Why? The fishing is excellent and super easy to understand – the only problem we have is that the rookies try to set the hook on almost every bite. This isn’t trout or salmon fishing, where you set the hook and hold on. The idea is to feed a walleye when one grabs your bait. I learned this technique while fishing with a Professional Walleye Trail pro in 1999 and 2000. Give the walleye line for about three seconds so that the fish can start to turn the bait in their mouth. Then I sweep the hook with one steady motion until the weight of the fish is solid, and reel slowly up.

In 1999 Royce Dry and I won the Potholes Classic walleye tournament by nearly 15 pounds. Held in the fall that year, we won the event using a 1-ounce slinky weight and No. 2 octopus glo hook rigged with a leech. It wasn’t long after that leeches were banned in Washington state for use in our waterways. That didn’t slow down the fishing and here is why:

We have something more productive than an octopus glo hook to offer the walleye. The Slow Death hook is the biggest improvement in walleye fishing in the last 10 years. This hook allows you to troll all the way through winter, and it uses the worm to create a rotating action while trolling .7 mph and up. Winter trolling needs to be kept at under 1 mph and this is the rig to do it.

I enhance my rig with a Shaker Wing that I developed for MoneyMaker Products. I was the first person to use a Mack’s Lure Smile Blade and packaged and named this award-winning product while I worked as the marketing director for Mack’s from 1996 to 2002. I have been using the blades for the past 19 years until lately. If you know anything about me and the development world, then you can count on improvements to be made that challenge the status quo. I designed the patent-pending MoneyMaker Shaker Wing over 16 months ago to spin faster and shake more at slower speeds. The lopsided design is proving to be extremely effective while fishing side by side against other blade patterns and designs. The Shaker Wing is helping me look better than I am, and that is one reason why I am going to take up walleye guiding and maybe fish a few more tournaments in the near future.
THE GREAT THING about Potholes Reservoir is that the state park ramp is right next to the most popular fishing hole on the lake for walleye. The launch has two lanes and a nice dock in the middle.

With the lake full of walleye, bullheads, perch, bluegill, crappie, bass and rainbow trout, you will likely catch three or four kinds of fish while you are going after the walleye. It is a ton of fun to troll along the 30- to 40-foot shelf straight out from the launch. You can also try to find the secret humps on Fish-n-Map’s Potholes map, available at local tackle dealers, a good buy if you don’t have a depth finder with the chip for Potholes on it already. The info on the map will help you mark spots that are productive.

Shaker Wings

Trolling as slowly as possible is one of the keys to catching fall and winter walleye at Potholes Reservoir, a task made easier with Slow Death hooks and specialty blades, like these Shaker Wings, which follow on Smile Blades and turn at very low speeds. (DONSFISHINGGUIDESERVICE.COM)

Fat perch the size of your shoe are a bonus catch at the reservoir, and there’s a daily limit of 25 with no minimum size. The combined bluegill and crappie limit is 25, and the latter species must be at least 9 inches. Daily limit on walleye is eight, with only one over 22 inches allowed. In season, the state park boasts a world-class cleaning station with electricity and a fish grinder, but it closed as of Nov. 2.

MarDon Resort (mardonresort.com) also has a boat ramp, as well as a tackle store; for the latest fishing info, be sure to check with the Mesebergs (509-346-2651).

I can see why Potholes Reservoir has a boatload of midweek traffic during the fall and winter until it ices up, and I will see you there in December, trolling very slowly. I might even take up blade baiting as the water cools off further. I will not be alone if the weather is nice.

Enjoy your fishing journeys as we discover productive and new products and techniques to try together. The next article will be on dressing up your favorite casting spinner to catch more trout and steelhead year-round.

If you have any additional questions about this subject, contact me at Don Talbot’s Fishing (509-679 8641; donsfishingguideservice. com). NS

The Gurus: Bob Rees

Guide, conservationist, fisheries advocate – there are many pieces to the subject of this month’s feature in our continuing series on all-around Northwest anglers.
By Andy Schneider

God, no, I’ve never looked back!”
So exclaims Bob Rees, the executive director of the  Association of Northwest Steelheaders, Northwest Oregon and Columbia River guide, and fish and fisheries advocate.
“Besides my gray hair, I’ve got no regrets,” he says. “I owe my entire life to salmon. The best lesson my dad ever taught me was to get a job you love. It’s been a wonderful journey, meeting some incredible people and having some incredible opportunities.”

IT’S THE LAUGHTER coming from Bob Rees’s boat that usually gets your attention. Rees has a way of trolling right up behind you without attracting much attention – that is, until the laughter breaks out. You glance back and see Rees standing at the tiller making minor adjustments to the motor, while leaning in and telling his clients something that sets them off laughing again. As you think to yourself that it’s good his clients are having so much fun but they must not be taking the fishing too seriously, someone hooks one almost on cue to a punchline of a joke just out of earshot and the entire boat erupts in uncontrollable laughter again.
Fish around Rees enough and you begin to see the pattern: This guy is having a good time, and it’s infectious to his clients.  At first encounter with Rees, you wonder if it’s just a show that he puts on to be a good businessman; no one could be that easygoing, quick-witted and fun all the time, could they? Well, I hate to break it to you, but yes, Rees is the real deal. He truly loves  what he’s doing and is glad to share his good fortune with pretty much everyone.
“People come out fishing to have a good time,” explains Rees. “And I can easily accommodate a group of folks looking to have an enjoyable time on the water. It actually makes my job pretty easy. Sure, I’ve been stuck on a sandbar or two – or three – but those are usually the highlights of the trip!”

GROWING UP, REES was lucky that a friend of his father’s was a good fisherman and willing to share his knowledge.
“No one in my family really fished, so when my dad’s friend Gerry Lake took me salmon fishing for the first time, I was pretty ecstatic. It was early September and I had just started eighth grade when Gerry took my dad and I fishing out of Astoria. It was one of those flat-calm days on the ocean and when the rod started bouncing up and down, Gerry told me to just keep my hands off it. It didn’t take long before that rod started bucking and I thought for sure it was going to break in half. But with Gerry’s advice I was able to land my very first salmon. We only caught three that day, but I couldn’t keep the lid on the fish box – I just wanted to look at them all day.”
With the flame kindled, Lake fanned Rees’s fishing passion by taking him down to Diamond Lake fishing many times.
“He was my hero. Gerry was my gateway to sport fishing in Oregon, there’s no doubt about that. I now take his four daughters fishing on a regular basis; they participate in the Buoy 10 Challenge every year. Even though Gerry has passed away, it’s evident that he made a strong connection to fishing with his daughters and me.”
Rees believes that it’s extremely important to pass on your knowledge and passion for fishing to the next generation, whether you have children or not.

Rees credits Gerry Lake, a friend of his father’s, for getting him into fishing when he was in eighth grade and fueling his passion for the sport (BOB REES)

Rees credits Gerry Lake, a friend of his father’s, for getting him into fishing when he was in eighth grade and fueling his passion for the sport (BOB REES)

“If parents don’t support that passion, that energy is going to go somewhere else, and not necessarily good,” he says.
When we talked in late February, Rees had just wrapped up a  new two-day event put on by the Steelheaders. Called Family Fish Camp, it was held near Rockaway Beach for families wanting to find out more about the sport, or if they’re already anglers, how to refine their skills.
“We had over 100 anglers and 30 volunteers in attendance –  not too bad for our first year,” says Rees. “Saturday was some classes and then fishing for trout. Sunday was trout fishing, breakfast and then more trout fishing. Everyone really liked being able to go out and catch some fish.”
“One of the great moments of the camp for me was watching a 12-year-old, who incidentally has caught way more steelhead than me this season – way more. Anyway, he really wanted to help other kids catch fish. It was pretty neat watching this young angler in action and already passing on his knowledge.”
By building the next generation of anglers, Rees believes you also recruit the advocates who are going to fight for the future of our fish.
“We didn’t know where to start, so Family Fish Camp was a start,” he says. “And it turned out great – the thirst is definitely there. Sometimes parents just don’t have the time to invest in learning  a new hobby. We hope we can jumpstart everyone’s passion and create future foot solders for salmon advocacy.”

REES’S INTEREST IN fish increased in high school, when he contemplated running a guide business from shore. But he really got serious when he entered college and got his fisheries degree.
Shortly after graduating he got a job as an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish checker in Astoria.
“I started meeting guides and talking with them and realized that was the direction I wanted to go. I never thought I was going to be rich enough to be able to buy a boat – thank goodness for credit!”
“I’ve since graduated towards fish advocacy and it’s been the exclamation point on my career. Working for the Northwest Steelheaders  has been great and I’ve got a very understanding board of directors that still allows me to guide (northwestguides.com). I wake up pretty excited everyday to go to work and get a chance to work on some challenging issues. Northwest Steelheaders is 56 years old and stronger than ever before. I’m really excited about the direction we are heading.”
His career so far has provided some very rewarding moments.
“The most memorable fishing trip was when I took Governor Kitzhaber fishing in Tillamook Bay, October 23rd, 2002. The governor was considering closing salmon hatcheries due to budget cuts and deferred maintenance costs. That day the governor got his limit of salmon, one even being a hatchery fish. The day perfectly demonstrated how much local communities depend on commerce that comes from having salmon to catch in our oceans, bays and rivers.”
“Oh, and it was my very first freshwater double on salmon – that made it pretty memorable too.”

Rees is very active in fish and conservation issues, not only as the executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders and holding a Family Fish Camp this past winter, but helping out at the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association’s annual Buoy 10 derby, which raises funds to advocate for fish and fisheries. (BRIAN LULL)

Rees is very active in fish and conservation issues, not only as the executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders and holding a Family Fish Camp this past winter, but helping out at the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association’s annual Buoy 10 derby, which raises funds to advocate for fish and fisheries. (BRIAN LULL)

But even more important than standout days is the graduation of fishermen Rees has seen over the years.
“Anglers who I took out fishing for the first time caught the bug, then started buying their own boats and now show up at meetings fighting for salmon restoration. Looking back, you see this change in folks from not just being a consumer of the resource, but a steward. That is one of the most rewarding things to have seen in my career.”
Still, there’s work to do, and Rees is willing to do it.
“As humans, we truly don’t know what is possible. We thought  that a human couldn’t run a 4-minute mile, but we are doing it. We never thought we would see salmon runs top 1 million fish, but  we’re doing it. How many fish is our ecosystem currently capable  of holding? Can we have 2 million fish this next fall? I think our next big step will be seeing a 12-month consumptive Chinook fishery on the Columbia – is it possible? I landed my first triple just this last fall. With good fishing like we’ve had, it feels like we are making progress. Oh, and let me tell ya’, a triple sure helps get a six-fish limit in a hurry!”
As much as he enjoys battling for the resource for all of us, fighting fish is just as important to Rees.
“I’m heading to the Wilson tomorrow to see if I can enjoy some of the great run we’ve been having. Work has been busy this winter and I haven’t been too disappointed missing the steelhead season so far, but I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”
We all should be with angler-conservationists like Bob Rees  working for the fish and fishing opportunities. NS

Bob Rees, here with “Salmon” Sue Cody of The Daily Astorian and a Buoy 10 Chinook, says fish advocacy has been “the exclamation point on my career.” (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Bob Rees, here with “Salmon” Sue Cody of The Daily Astorian and a Buoy 10 Chinook, says fish advocacy has been “the exclamation point on my career.” (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Now Serving Fish ’N Chips

Washington state’s bountiful ocean coast offers a mix of tasty bottomfish in spring.
By Jeff Holmes

Fine fixin’s for fish and chips – saltwater anglers and Capt. Kerry Allen heft a mix of black rockfish and lingcod hooked off the Evergreen State’s rockier northern coast. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

Fine fixin’s for fish and chips – saltwater anglers and Capt. Kerry Allen heft a mix of black rockfish and lingcod hooked off the Evergreen State’s rockier northern coast. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

Next week when a good friend and his lovely, player-hater wife co-celebrate their birthdays with a big dance party in their new shop, I’m frying, grilling and baking 30 pounds of  halibut, lingcod and rockfish left over from an especially productive 2015 season. Without trying, I’ll probably make a lot of friends at the party while clearing freezer room for 2016’s ocean bounty. Like most of you, I love eating white-fleshed ocean fish, and I could make you a long Bubba-Gump list of dishes. For modest prices often cheaper than sled or drift boat seats, bottomfish charters offer safe and fun fishing yielding big bags of snow-white fillets. For us Northwesterners, the Pacific can be a U-pick fish market where the freshest fish and greatest thrills and memories can be had. Charter prices are often eclipsed by the value of fish taken home when considering retail prices. Pike Place Market brings up the distant rear for quality of Northwest seafood experiences, and charter fishing with fish and chips on the brain is easily on the list of quintessential, must-do Northwest outdoor experiences.
April marks the beginning of bottomfishing opportunities in Washington with the opening of deep-water lingcod fishing for the month’s last two weeks. Typically the only limiting factor to catching big lings out of Washington ports during April is weather, and not too many operators bother. But some do, and private boats also get in on the action closer to shore by fishing jetties and nearshore reefs that have repopulated with bottomfish through the winter months. A friend of mine and his buddies and family make an annual trek to Neah Bay in April to fish the protected waters all the way out to Tatoosh Island, and they do very well fishing over reefs that have seen no pressure in six months. April may not be prime-time ocean fishing season yet, but it is a clear wake-up call with some advantages and excellent payoffs in fillets.

The eagerly awaited halibut season won’t open off the coast until next month, but it should yield good catches, as this nice haul from an All Rivers and Saltwater Charters’ express boat exemplifies.(ALLRIVERSGUIDESERVICE.COM)

The eagerly awaited halibut season won’t open off the coast until next month, but it should yield good catches, as this nice haul from an All Rivers and Saltwater Charters’ express boat exemplifies.(ALLRIVERSGUIDESERVICE.COM)

FROM ILWACO AT the mouth of the Columbia River, north to Neah Bay and beautiful Tatoosh Island, Washington’s coastline offers four ocean ports from which to pursue bottomfish. Early-season ocean angling often goes overlooked, what with spring Chinook mania, trout season, and the reawakening of warmwater fish. A sometimes cantankerous ocean also limits popularity, but getting ahead of the game for early bottomfish means scores of clean, firm fillets. Much of my annual bounty every year comes from British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, but a significant portion comes off the coasts of Washington, sometimes Oregon. One could easily collect all the fish he or she might ever want or need without visiting our friends to the north, and this is especially true of black rockfish and lingcod. Stocks of both tasty species are robust in both Northwest states, especially so in Washington. There, fishery managers allow a daily limit of 10 black rockfish and two lingcod. The poundage adds up fast after a few trips, and whacking limits of these tasty fish on light gear is a lot of fun and sometimes results in incidental catches of salmon and halibut, retention opportunities for which typically commence in May.
I make a point to fish the early season every year, even if it means the loss of a spring Chinook or morel mushroom weekend. Ilwaco, Westport, La Push and Neah Bay offer excellent fishing, and I have fished them all and I  recommend them all. My usual choice is Westport because of the ease of getting there and because I really like All Rivers and Saltwater Charters’ guiding program. But when I fish in April, it’s usually for big lingcod, and always with one of the skippers who licks his chops for a chance at big deepwater lings: Mike Jamboretz of Jambo’s Sportfishing. His immaculate 37-foot boat, the Malia Kai, is good in big water, making him a great bet for early in the year when the ocean is still sometimes sporty. The Washington  Department of Fish and Wildlife allows Jamboretz and other early-season enthusiasts the last two weekends of April and a little over a week in May to chase lings in waters deeper than 20 fathoms (120 feet). He is an extremely good lingcod skipper, with high-end specialized tackle and the most advanced bank of electronics I’ve seen in a sport boat. He’s a bottomfishing specialist with a two-year-plus wait to fish halibut during Washington’s short season. Similarly, his deepwater lingcod trips fill quickly, but it’s definitely worth calling him. After almost three years of waiting, I got out for halibut last year with him, followed by a stop at the deepwater ling reefs, which are fair game later in May on halibut days. I went home with a nice halibut and two lings over 20. Every time I’ve booked with him in April for lings, we’ve laid out a very nice class of fish on the deck by day’s end, along  with limits of extra-tasty yellowtail  rockfish, a species that suspends in deep water near the ling haunts. Neah Bay is worth the trip, and  services are available at Big Salmon Resort.

Capt. Mark Coleman calls new sonar that shows bottom composition “a real game changer, because when locating good bottomfishing zones offshore from Westport, your spot is as much about what the bottom is made of as it is finding a significant rocky feature.” For more on that, see Randy Well’s South Coast column elsewhere this issue. (ALLRIVERSGUIDESERCapt. Mark Coleman calls new sonar that shows bottom composition “a real game changer, because when locating good bottomfishing zones offshore from Westport, your spot is as much about what the bottom is made of as it is finding a significant rocky feature.” For more on that, see Randy Well’s South Coast column elsewhere this issue. (ALLRIVERSGUIDESERVICE.COM)ICE.COM)

Capt. Mark Coleman calls new sonar that shows bottom composition “a real game changer, because when locating good bottomfishing zones offshore from Westport, your spot is as much about what the bottom is made of as it is finding a significant rocky feature.” (ALLRIVERSGUIDESERVICE.COM)

Westport, which is the most popular port on Washington coast, has the most operators and the  widest range of services. Westport’s boat basin is home to several excellent operations such as Deep Sea Charters, which has been running trips here for nearly six and a half decades, Westport Charters, which operates a fleet of eight boats from 40 to 55 feet in length, Ocean Sportfishing Charters, home of the Ranger and Capt. Don Davenport, and Capt. Dave McGowan of the Ms. Magoo. Offshore Northwest and Capt. Kerry Allen, and Tailwalker Charters  and Capt. Patrick Walker are here as well for part of the season, and there are many other options, so see charterwestport.com for more. And while you’re there, check out the annual fishing derbies, which began with lingcod in mid-March and pay out thousands of dollars in prizes for big salmon, halibut and tuna.

MY FAVORITE WAY to fish on the ocean is in fast boats with sporty gear. Lots of awesome Westport skippers will take you to the action and show you an amazing day of fishing and service in some badass boats. My personal choice for speed, versatility, kindness and dry sense of humor is All Rivers and Saltwater Charters’ Mark Coleman and his four express tuna boats.
“Our bottomfishing trip is especially cool because of our custom-built Defiance boats and the fact that we handle just six anglers,” says Coleman. “Once aboard we  travel very quickly to the best fishing zones and get right to fishing.”
Coleman and his skippers are able to rocket around, seeking out the best bite possible on the best class of fish, which often results in an extra-large class of black rockfish and very nice lings.
“We keep an eye on the inshore halibut season too,” says Coleman. “It’s open seven days a week until the quota is met, and we do catch a few each spring while targeting lings and rockfish.”
Although contrary to tradition, Coleman takes an ultralight approach with his gear. Because of the versatility of only fishing six anglers and being able to move fast from spot to spot, his clients can take the extra time to land the occasional nearshore halibut or very large lingcod or salmon on sporty gear.
“We recommend using the lightest tackle you can get away with to feel every bite and have the most fun at the rail,” says Coleman. “For us that usually means 7-foot Okuma spinning rods with Okuma RTX reels loaded with 50-pound TUF-Line braid. From the mainline we attach a 5-foot double-dropper-loop leader, loop on a couple shrimp flies, and a little lead. We have clients let out slowly to convince the rockfish to suspend higher and higher off the bottom and eventually under the boat for wide-open action. Clients tend to love this, and so do I.”
I’m a big fan of top-rated Raymarine electronics and learned about them by fishing with Coleman. Sitting in his pilothouse and reading the displays is almost like watching video of the bottom, even running at 30 knots.
“We rely exclusively on FLIR’s Raymarine electronics to guide us below the water line each day. Our team found that the new CHIRP sonar with DownVision by Raymarine not only improved our vision below the water, but now shows us bottom composition as well. That’s been a real game changer, because when locating good bottomfishing zones offshore from Westport, your spot is as much about what the bottom is made of as it is finding a significant rocky feature.”
All of the operators in Westport have excellent electronics and will get you on bottomfish, and there are lots of cool boats of varying designs. No matter what reputable operator you fish with, I highly recommend a trip to Westport – and Neah Bay, La Push and Ilwaco. All ports offer their own charm and advantages. Look to local chambers of commerce (westportgrayland-chamber.orgilwacowashington.com; forkswa.com; neahbaywa.com) for lodging, dining and tourist activities. If you’re an Oregonian reading this and don’t already know, your coastline is also an excellent place to catch bottomfish and take home a fat sack of fillets. Look to Astoria/Warrenton, Garibaldi, Depoe Bay, Newport, and more, and see the pages of this issue for charter choices to include Yaquina Bay Charters, Captain’s Reel Deep Sea Fishing, and Dockside ChartersNS

By midmonth, lingcod will be fair game up and down Washington’s coast. Some pretty big specimens are out there, with a 48-pounder the largest weighed during 2015’s seasonlong derby in Westport. Wyatt Lundquist slammed his hook home on this nice one while fishing aboard the Slammer, skippered by Rhett Webber, last year. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

By midmonth, lingcod will be fair game up and down Washington’s coast. Some pretty big specimens are out there, with a 48-pounder the largest weighed during 2015’s seasonlong derby in Westport. Wyatt Lundquist slammed his hook home on this nice one while fishing aboard the Slammer, skippered by Rhett Webber, last year. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

Cowlitz Will Shine This Spring

Huge Chinook forecast, plus great steelheading makes the river an April must-fish.
By Jason Brooks 

The Cowlitz is known for putting out good numbers of winter and summer steelhead, and it can be an outstanding fall coho river as well. But come April most Northwest sportsmen are fixated on the spring Chinook making their way up the Columbia to terminal fisheries. Before venturing too far up the big river in pursuit of the year’s first salmon, though, remember that the Cowlitz too has a good run of springers. And this year’s forecast of 25,100 not only follows on a stellar season in 2015, it is one of the largest predicted returns over the last 30 years.
But wait, there’s more! One thing the famed Southwest Washington river offers that most other springer fisheries don’t is the chance to double up on winter steelhead that arrive in February and are caught all the way into June, when the summer steelies show up. The Cowlitz also offers a variety of water conditions and access for all anglers.

WHILE 2016’S FIRST Cowlitz springer was caught out of the lower river in early February, the fishery really doesn’t get going strong until mid-April as the salmon make their way up to the Barrier Dam and Tacoma Power’s salmon hatchery. Thanks to 2010’s rebuild and changing release strategies at that facility, the numbers of smolts being released there has increased 70 percent, rising from around a million to 1.7 million.
Early this month boat anglers have the advantage because they can best fish the bigger water from Toledo down. The I-5 launch (which is underneath the interstate off Mandy Road, which peels off the Jackson Highway) is a starting point. Keep in mind that salmon and steelhead in this section probably won’t be too close to each other, so targeting springers will yield very few steelhead. Plus the techniques in the bigger water are more geared to salmon anyway – back-trolling plugs, such as the Brad’s Killer Fish, Yakima Bait’s Mag Lip 4.5 or even the newer 5.0, and Luhr Jensen’s Kwikfish, all wrapped with either a fillet of herring, sardine or a piece of tuna belly. As the regulations don’t allow the use of a barbed hook until June from Lexington Bridge up, switch out the trebles to a single barbless siwash on a barrel swivel or bead chain  and pinch the barb down. Another  favorite is a plug-cut herring with a Brad’s Diver 48 inches in front, with a four-bead chain swivel halfway down the 25-pound leader.
One of the more popular areas is the mouth of the Toutle River. Here, bank anglers who find their way to the large gravel bar find a place to plunk Spin-N-Glos with a chunk of sardine or a gob of eggs, and some even put both on the hook. A 5- to 8-ounce pyramid weight is needed this time of year as river flows can vary, even with the river being controlled by a series of dams. The Toutle is not controlled and has a lot of sediment, making the water below the confluence very dirty, but plunking is an intercepting technique, so don’t let the offcolored water discourage you too much. Boat anglers will often fish here as well, again pulling big plugs and fishing the off-color and clearwater separation line.

The Cowlitz’s 50 miles below Mayfield Dam are best fished from a boat, but many stretches are productive from the bank too, notably the mouth of the Toutle, Blue Creek and Barrier Dam. (JASON BROOKS)

The Cowlitz’s 50 miles below Mayfield Dam are best fished from a boat, but many stretches are productive from the bank too, notably the mouth of the Toutle, Blue Creek and Barrier Dam. (JASON BROOKS)

UPRIVER IN TOLEDO is a two-lane boat ramp that provides access to slightly  smaller water. Boaters will again back down the deep slots, which are easier to find in this section of the Cowlitz, back-trolling wrapped plugs or diverand-herring combos.
I’ve fished this stretch with guide Bruce Warren of Fishing For Fun Guide Service (253-208-7433) and he knows this part of the river is your real first chance to double up on steelhead and Chinook. He will have a few side-drifting rods rigged up to target current seams or large boulders. He likes to throw the standard boon-dogging rig for steelhead that are holding or traveling upriver but still trying to stay out of the springers’ way. The salmon tend to hold in the deep holes and runs, with the steelhead hugging the bank and seams or resting behind those boulders. By targeting the different waters, you have a good chance of hooking either species.
Next up is the Mission or Massey Bar launch, a bit upriver from Toledo on the north bank off Buckley Road. As the river starts to tighten, this is where you can start to find good numbers of steelhead and springers holding in the same types of water. Though the fish won’t be bunched together, the way you fish for them here on upriver means there is no way to predict what is on the end of your line until you get that first glimpse of the fish. The deep slots are much narrower and the soft edges are travel lanes for both species. With boulders sticking out of the water and the points off of the end of midriver gravel bars holding fish, it can be a guessing game which one you’re fighting to the net.
Side-drifting and boon-dogging (side-drifting while continually floating downriver) are the top-producing tactics for all anglers. However, a technique that is quickly catching on is a variation of boondogging called bobber-dogging. Basically it’s dragging your weight, preferably a slinky as they tend to not grab onto rocks like pencil lead does, while using an adjustable float to help it along as well as watch for the bite instead of feeling for it. Use a leader of 12-or 15-pound clear Izorline Platinum and two size 1 or 1/0 barbless hooks with a Cheater or Corky between them, and a larger cluster of eggs for bait. This time of year I switch up my cured eggs from the standard steelhead orange or natural to the deep-red-stained eggs and add Pro-Cure’s Bloody Tuna bait oil right into the jar to soak. Sand shrimp are still a favorite but to really double up on springers, adding a few other traditional salmon scents like Pro-Cure’s herring or sardine oils can lead to more salmon in the box. Then switch back over to krill or anise for steelhead.

Steelhead add to the allure of the Cowlitz in spring – Bruce Warren holds a nice winter-run. While the lower river is more of a spring Chinook fishery, doubling up on steelhead is most likely from I-5 to Blue Creek (JASON BROOKS)

Steelhead add to the allure of the Cowlitz in spring – Bruce Warren holds a nice winter-run. While the lower river is more of a spring Chinook fishery, doubling up on steelhead is most likely from I-5 to Blue Creek (JASON BROOKS)

BLUE CREEK, THE famed state access and steelhead hatchery, is both a bank angler and boat fisherman’s choke point for doubling up on steelhead and spring Chinook. With plenty of bank access from just below the hatchery outlet at the boat ramp all the way down to the Clay Banks area, shore fishermen can wade out as far as they can, depending on river flows, and drift fish the edge of the main current seam. You will also find anglers fishing eggs under a float here. Above the boat ramp there are a few spots to wade out, but be very aware of the ledges and runs that are right at the bank edge. However, there is ample bank access, and this water is primarily a bobber-and-egg fishery. If you do find a stretch where you won’t interfere with other fishermen, try throwing Blue Fox Vibrax spinners in size 3 and 4 and let them swing across the wide flats.
Boat anglers in this stretch work the opposite side of the river, right along the rock retaining wall across from the launch. There is about a mile of water where you can motor up to the first set of rapids and then slowly  back your way to the tailout just above the natural chute that leads down to the corner below. If you decide to run downriver, be aware that this chute can become a hazard. Boaters coming up can’t see around the corner, and once committed to coming upriver, they need to stay on plane or else risk hitting a boulder that is right in the middle of the rapids.
Four big bends upstream of Blue Creek is Barrier Dam and its boat launch. Those who fish it do well out in the middle of the river, but be aware of the fishing deadline – don’t cross it or you will get a ticket. Bank anglers here do even better and this is your best spot to catch a springer from shore. Steelhead do venture up this way, but this is really a salmon show, and the favorite technique is float fishing eggs. Even with good access, it’s very competitive to get a spot. Standing on rocks and casting out in sequence with other anglers that are within a rod length of you is the name of the game, so don’t expect solitude or try other techniques that will interrupt the flow of bobbers drifting by.
The Cowlitz is one fishy river, producing summer steelhead, fall kings and coho and winter steelies, but don’t overlook the opportunity to double up in spring on Chinook and metalheads. Loads of returning fish and a river basically designed for sport anglers make it a top choice this April. NS

Thanks to a big jump in smolt releases, spring Chinook fishing on the Cowlitz looks bright. Last year saw a return of 23,000, and this year’s is forecast to top that. George Schroeder caught this nice one on the lower river in mid April a few seasons ago, fishing herring behind a diver in soft water near shore due to higher flows. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

Thanks to a big jump in smolt releases, spring Chinook fishing on the Cowlitz looks bright. Last year saw a return of 23,000, and this year’s is forecast to top that. George Schroeder caught this nice one on the lower river in mid April a few seasons ago, fishing herring behind a diver in soft water near shore due to higher flows. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

Smallie Ops Follow Springers

May sees the hungry bass move onto spawning grounds in the Columbia Gorge.

By Jason Brooks

The following story was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.
THE DALLES—Later this month, the prized spring Chinook run will dwindle in the Columbia River Gorge. But don’t put away the rods just yet: The warming water temperatures that speed the kings upstream spark other fishing opportunities.
Smallmouth bass get ready to spawn in early May, and later this month and into June the fish move into the shallows looking for food and places to make their beds. The prespawn also sees them become increasingly aggressive and hungry. This timeframe will see the sloughs, coves, bays and current points found in the backwaters of The Dalles Dam to the base of John Day Dam warm up and bass go on the bite.

WHEN NOT WORKING in the fishing department at Sportco in Fife, Wash., Curtis Blunck can be found bass fishing various American Bass Association and Northwest Bass Circuit tournaments throughout the Northwest, including the Lower Columbia region. Blunck has two top 10 finishes in recent years, and is always willing to talk bass fishing and give some tips on how to find and catch smallmouth.
“A great way to locate fish is to throw out a crankbait and drop the trolling motor, slowly cruising likely areas until you catch a fish,” he says.
Blunck’s favorite crank is a Rat-L-Trap in shad pattern, as it looks like a typical baitfish or smolt that the bass in the Columbia feed on. Another great lure is a crawfish Wiggle Wart.
“Keep in mind this is a river with  current, so you need to think a little like a steelhead fisherman,” Blunck points out. “Look for seams and boulders or points that create a break in the flows, where the fish can sit and rest while food comes at them.”
As water temperatures rise, smallies move up and into the shallow waters in preparation to spawn once the river hits 55 to 60 degrees. But during this period, the fish have more on their mind than nesting.
“They really put on the feedbag once the prespawn starts,” Blunck says.
He switches to tube baits with a ?-ounce jig head, and says he likes white or chartreuse, depending on water clarity.
A pro-staffer for Trokar, Blunck stresses that sharp hooks are a must, as well as changing up to a weedless hook in shallow water, where weeds can become a problem. He also runs braided mainline on his Okuma reels so he can fight the aggressive fish to the boat as quickly as possible, take a quick photo and then send them back to feeding.

If the Columbia Gorge’s notoriously strong spring winds blow you off the water, its banks still provide a good platform to cast for bass, as Chris Spencer of Longview found a few Mays ago. His smallie bit a gold 3/8-ounce spinnerbait at Horsethief Lake. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

If the Columbia Gorge’s notoriously strong spring winds blow you off the water, its banks still provide a good platform to cast for bass, as Chris Spencer of Longview found a few Mays ago. His smallie bit a gold 3/8-ounce spinnerbait at Horsethief Lake. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

I USED BLUNCK’S advice last year while out fishing for bass with my son, Ryan, and my stepfather, Willie Ross, better known as Walleye Willie, a fulltime guide out of The Dalles. We trolled along the edge of an island and a weedbed where smallmouth were waiting for smolts and other small fish. After only going about a hundred yards, the rod bent over and a big bass was jumping and thrashing around. These fish fight hard and are really fun to catch. We lost that one, but a few minutes later it was fish-on again.
We continued to fish until the sun was too hot and we called it a day. This is probably one of the best things about bass angling on this part of the Columbia: the mornings are brisk and calm and the scenery is incredible. By midday, the famed winds kick up and it’s time to motor back to the launch and enjoy other parts of the gorge.
A great base camp for bass is Maryhill State Park, on the Washington side of the river. It offers camping, a small swim area for those hot days and an excellent boat launch. You can even fish from the park’s shores and catch smallmouth. It is also just down the hill from Maryhill Museum and Washington’s Stonehenge, a replica of the one in the United Kingdom.
There are several small rock islands within a few miles upriver of the state park. They create current breaks and often have shallow coves on one side or the other that hold fish. Smallmouth like waters in 5 to 20 feet this time of year.
Just downstream of Maryhill is the large Miller Island, a former cattle ranch that is now a wildlife sanctuary. It has a shallow shelf on the Oregon side and a large cove on the Washington side with weedbeds. It is also large enough to create a wind break so you can avoid being blown around. But keep an eye on the main part of the river, as you will need to navigate it safely to get back to local boat ramps. If the waters get rough, it is time to head in.

JUST BELOW MILLER Island is the mouth of the Deschutes River, on the Oregon side. The calm waters at the mouth are great for bass fishing, but if you’re a Washington-licensed angler and enter the river’s mouth, under the I-84 bridge, be aware that you are now in Oregon waters and need an Oregon fishing license. Also be sure to check the regulations, as the Deschutes is heavily regulated.
When fishing the main Columbia, a fishing license from either state is valid, but you must follow the state laws that you hold the license for and make sure to check the regulations for size and slot limits if you want to keep any. Most of those who fish for smallmouth like the challenge and fight of these aggressive fish and release them to catch another day.
In addition to another camping option, Deschutes State Park, there is also a rough launch just inside the river’s mouth for smaller boats.
Another option is to stay downstream at Columbia Hills State Park, which has a rough launch with no dock on the Columbia. It also contains Horsethief Lake, a great place to swim and relax or do a little bass fishing. NS

Crankbaits in salmon-smolt-imitating shad patterns or crawfish are great options for spring smallies in the Columbia Gorge, where the author landed this one. (JASON BROOKS)

Crankbaits in salmon-smolt-imitating shad patterns or crawfish are great options for spring smallies in the Columbia Gorge, where the author landed this one. (JASON BROOKS)

Stumptown Part II of II

Catfish Lurks, Vancouver Edition

By Terry Otto

This story was featured in the May 2015 edition of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.

Editor’s note: Last issue Terry wrote about catfish and bullhead opportunities on the Portland side of the Columbia; this issue he takes up whiskerfish ops on its north bank.

While catfish may not be a major player on the local fishing scene, the species continues to grow more popular all the time. The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife has responded to that interest by increasing the stockings of whiskerfish in local lakes, and promoting the simple and fun activity that is catfishing.
Stacie Kelsey of the agency’s Inland Fish Program at the Vancouver office says that when channel catfish are stocked, people take notice.
“Oh, yeah, it’s huge,” she says of the reaction. “There’s a lot of effort for catfish.”
It’s easy to see why. Catfish are eager biters, terrific fighters and they taste very good. In addition, channels grow quickly, reaching a size of 3 to 5 pounds in just three to four years. And they keep growing throughout their life. Catfish from 20 to 30 pounds are present in the state of Washington, and near Vancouver too.

BEST WATERS
While cats can be found in many lakes and sloughs around Vancouver, the best fishing takes place in three lakes. A bona fide catfishery has been established at Kress Lake, and Kelsey reports that WDFW regularly stocks the 24-acre water just north of Kalama off I-5’s exit 32. Lots of anglers flock there to catch them.
“There is a lot of easy access there, and there is a really big hole in back of the lake,” she says. “Three years ago I saw a 15-pound channel catfish that was caught there.”
Swofford Pond is another stocked catfishery, and Kelsey says the 216-acre lake produces less catfish than Kress, but it has some sizable ones.
“Swofford kicks out a lot of big, big catfish,” she says.
While camping is not allowed at the wildlife area surrounding most of the lake, which itself lies right alongside Green Mountain Road outside Mossyrock, Kelsey says it is legal to night fish there.
However, as good as these two fisheries are, there is another lesser known catfish hotspot much closer to Southwest Washington’s main city.
“Vancouver Lake is kind of our secret catfish lake,” Kelsey says.
She and the rest of her team are hoping to get the word out on this shallow, but excellent water.
It has a self-sustaining population, and since it is open to the Columbia, migrations into the lake from the river happen naturally. The fish must like what they find, for the numbers and size of catfish in the tidally affected 2,300-acre lake are impressive.
Actually, it’s not that secret. Kelsey  reports that anglers fish regularly for  channels here.
“People fish for them at the boat ramp, the flushing channel and off the beach at (Vancouver Lake Regional) Park,” she says.
And with a warm winter, those catfish should be friskier earlier.
“They get more active as the water temp rises to about 60 degrees,” says Kelsey.
The lake’s boat launch is at the south end, at the end of La Frambois Road, which is off Fruit Valley Road. The park is off Highway 501. Access to the flushing channel, or Lake River as it is also known, is via two public ramps in Ridgefield, off Division and Mill Streets.
Then there’s the Lacamas Lake system, on the east side of Vancouver. The prehistoric channel of the Columbia is known for having produced some extraordinarily large channel cats – a 28-pounder in 2011 and a 33 in 2005 –  but according to local outdoor reporter Allen Thomas, it may have been as much as two decades since the last release. Lacamas also suffers from water-quality issues and these days is said to be “OK” for bullheads, but that’s about all.

NIGHT TIME THE RIGHT TIME
As the days warm into summer, channel cats turn nocturnal. This is especially true of the larger ones. They hole up in the day, and then go on the prowl for food once the sun disappears.
This often means that they move shallow to feed on small fish and crawdads, or anything they can scavenge.
Savvy catfish anglers know this, and local lakes can get pretty busy on warm summer nights. Fishermen line up along the banks with lanterns, throw out cutbaits and wait for Mr. Whiskers to come along.
Remember that catfish are opportunists, and if they aren’t feeding deep, they can often be found shallow. Don’t be afraid to fish near shoreline cover, and sometimes baits suspended under a float will draw catfish.
They will bite on just about any kind of bait, but favorites at the  aforementioned lakes include stinky  cheeses, cutbaits, shrimp, crawfish and worms. Anything bloody will attract cats too, so give chicken livers or hearts a try. One angler uses dough balls infused with peanut butter. NS

Channel catfish are a long-lived species and can grow large in Southwest Washington’s fertile lakes. This 30-pounder was caught in Round Lake, a part of Lacamas Lake, in 2005, more than 10 years after the last known release of the species there. After a pause in stocking, WDFW has begun putting channels into local lakes, including Kress Lake and Swofford Pond. (WDFW)

Channel catfish are a long-lived species and can grow large in Southwest Washington’s fertile lakes. This 30-pounder was caught in Round Lake, a part of Lacamas Lake, in 2005, more than 10 years after the last known release of the species there. After a pause in stocking, WDFW has begun putting channels into local lakes, including Kress Lake and Swofford Pond. (WDFW)

Basaltland’s Backwater Bonanzas

This story was originally published in the May 2015 edition of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.

The sloughs and drowned river mouths of the mid-Columbia and Lower Snake are great places for small-boat anglers to hit for bass, catfish, more.

By Jeff Holmes 

Kayak angling continues to blow up in popularity across the entire United States, including here in the Northwest. Kayaks are especially prevalent on the Westside, and it’s almost becoming uncommon to not see some being paddled and pedaled around the outskirts of popular salmon and steelhead fisheries on the Lower Columbia and Willamette Rivers, among others. The economy, mobility and stability of kayaks makes them the clear consensus craft amongst the nonmotorized crowd these days, including yours truly. I’ve owned several float tubes, a pontoon, a canoe and a small cartopper over the years, but none of them approach a good fishing kayak for versatility. I watched friends and fellow anglers fish from kayaks with jealousy for a couple years until we bought our NuCanoe Frontiers in Bellingham last late spring. Now even my big bank- and boat-loving butt can be seen regularly paddling around my local Tri-Cities-area fisheries, often with my wife. (FYI, fellas: Most women love to paddle, and love it when men take the initiative to do something new and active with them.) You won’t catch me trying to slip in with the sleds at Drano Lake and other combat fisheries, nor likely anywhere a large boat makes more sense for safety, comfort and good company, but I use my kayak where it makes sense to me and where my wife wants to paddle. There are fish waiting to be caught everywhere in the Northwest, and they’re all susceptible to a kayak.

I’m looking ahead to a season of fishing around the edges, and not the edges of big-boat fisheries like many, but rather on the edges of most of the kayak fishing world’s consciousness. In other words, I’ll seek out the vast opportunities all over the Northwest where you’ll scarcely see someone in a kayak. I like solitude and exploration of all kinds of bodies of water, big and small, and May offers a wide range of possibilities to fish before the season’s jet- and waterskiier hatch occurs. Here are a few Eastern Washington options worthy of mention for kayakers and those with small boats.
SNAKE RIVER BACKWATERS
I opened up kayak season 2015 just downstream from Clarkston on a big Snake River backwater at Chief Timothy Park near the mouth of Alpowa Creek. I towed my Thunder Jet over to Clarkston on a beautiful late March day to have a radar arch welded on my boat and thought to toss my kayak on top of the truck in case the urge struck me to fish on the way home.

Duh, it struck.

I enjoyed 80-degree weather and almost complete solitude as I looked for early smallmouth concentrations moving out of the main Snake into the backwaters to feed and spawn. I was early and visibility was only a foot, and I got blanked, but I had a great time and confirmed that it wasn’t my fault when I talked to two anglers in a bass boat who were also getting blanked. Suntan lotion, warming sunshine, and a little exercise made the skunking more than worth it.
But the potential to catch something here increases rapidly as water temperatures rise throughout April and into May. Smallmouth, largemouth, catfish, crappie and perch are all present in the many backwaters and marinas along the Snake. Check out the marinas in Lewiston and Clarkston, Chief Timothy and Wawawai Parks, and various small backwaters along the river that allow entry under small railroad bridges. The Snake itself here is impounded and kayakable too, and the main river often yields even better fishing than backwaters.

The rocky shores of the Snake provide good habitat for bass. While smolt imitations are a good bet in spring, this one bit a crawdad imitation for Jamison Meeks, who was fishing at Lewiston. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

The rocky shores of the Snake provide good habitat for bass. While smolt imitations are a good bet in spring, this one bit a crawdad imitation for Jamison Meeks, who was fishing at Lewiston. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

Further down the Snake at Central Ferry, Lyons Ferry and backwaters all the way to the Columbia add lots of nice walleye to the potential bag.

Catfish are everywhere in the Snake, but the Palouse River across from Lyons Ferry is the best bet. Lots
of large cats stack up here to spawn, and May is the best time to find them concentrated and snappy.
LOWER YAKIMA RIVER AND DELTA
Many thousands of mature smallmouth enter this Central Washington tributary in spring to spawn, and most of them are still in the river throughout May. As summer moves along, most large fish retreat back to the depths of the Columbia to gorge, so May is a great time for numbers and size.

It’s important to note that moving waters and stillwaters are different beasts for beginner kayakers. There are many places on the lower Yakima that would be irresponsible to send beginners, due to swift currents, sharp corners and some rocks to dodge. That said, the river is a treat to fish from the I-182 bridge in Richland all the way to the mouth at Bateman Island on the Columbia. There are occasional power boats here, but avoiding them is relatively easy since it’s best to fish along the edges anyway.

May will find channel catfish in the heat of the spawn, and the lower ends of tributaries such as the Walla Walla, Yakima and Palouse – where Sam Stuart of Moses Lake landed this nice one a few Mays ago – should provide good action for boat-in anglers. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

May will find channel catfish in the heat of the spawn, and the lower ends of tributaries such as the Walla Walla, Yakima and Palouse – where Sam Stuart of Moses Lake landed this nice one a few Mays ago – should provide good action for boat-in anglers. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

Treat the lower Yak like a trout stream: pull over or anchor up in soft shallow side water and fish seams, eddies and slots like you’re looking for rainbows or cutts. Also make sure to bring a variety of crayfish and minnow imitations in different colors. Crayfish are usually the main meal ticket in May. Along with smallmouth, channel catfish and walleye are also common, and a tight-lipped cadre of walleye anglers won’t like that I mentioned this.
LOWER WALLA WALLA
The first time I floated this western Blue Mountains river, I watched my friend and “guide” dump his kayak 200 yards into our trip, but that was upriver, in the tiny Touchet River a few hundred yards upstream of the Walla Walla. That was 100 percent operator error, but the river does require maneuvering and is best tackled only by intermediate kayakers with a sense for mild adventure. There are some corners and swift, rocky portions that could easily dump a newbie or an inattentive paddler. Take a pontoon or a raft if you don’t have the kayaking chops, or access the river from Wallula Junction and paddle the lower river and the edges of the delta.

Like other Columbia tribs, lots of smallmouth and channel cats move into the river in spring and offer sometimes-spectacular angling. I wrote about floating the Walla Walla last spring in my pontoon, and I’ll be back on it this month in my NuCanoe. The wildlife viewing is right up there with the fishing, which can be frenetically paced. I caught two smallmouth on one cast on my last trip, one of which was over 20 inches.
PATERSON SLOUGH
This large backwater of the midColumbia near the Washington town of the same name houses giant numbers of spawning smallmouth bass in spring. With a warm, lowwater year, much of that spawning probably occurred in April. But those bass – as well as great numbers of walleye – remain in the protected slough until waters get too warm, when they return to the depths of the big river for summer.

Bass and walleye are often concentrated in big numbers around rocky patches of bottom. Use electronics or a long section of 1-inch PVC to probe the bottom in search of rocks, and use marker buoys when you find structure or, better yet, fish. A variety of jigs, cranks, dropshot rigs and other plastic-bait set-ups will take plenty of fish here.

Small numbers of very large largemouth live here, tucked deep into the maze of backwaters. Look for deep pockets in the shallow slough with heavy cover, including beaver lodges. Some large crappie have historically come out of Paterson and other sloughs, but carp, as elsewhere, have degraded habitat for panfish. Still, there are some large perch and crappie, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better place to catch carp, both on rod and reel and with a bow. Erika caught two last time we fished the slough together, one topping 20 pounds!

Access is through the refuge and off Paterson Road. NS