It is winter in the Northwest, meaning no one should be surprised we have had rain (at least sometimes), wind, cold and even snow.
It also means we’ve had a fairly dismal winter of fishing.
Because of our infrequent rains, river fishing for steelhead has been difficult because of low flows and water clear enough to be mistaken as a freshly distilled vat of vodka. Consistent nighttime temperatures below freezing have made trout in local lakes sluggish in the cold water. Wind and cold – and a lot of attention paid to the end of the NFL playoffs – have kept many people indoors.
But anglers should not despair, too much, for more opportunities are on the way. With some cooperation from the weather, the coming weeks will provide a good chance to hook a variety of fish. Here are some of the options:
COLUMBIA RIVER SPRINGERS
Possibly the most anticipated spring salmon is the return of chinook to the Columbia River. This year’s preseason forecast of 308,000 adult spring chinook includes 227,000 fish bound for rivers and streams above Bonneville Dam. That compares to a return of just 123,100 upriver fish in 2013.
With a good return expected, fishery managers from Washington and Oregon have set the initial 2014 fishing season to run through April 7 on the lower Columbia.
“The stage is set for a great fishery this year,” said Ron Roler, the state’s Columbia River policy manager. “Not only is the run forecast well above average, but the light snow pack makes it unlikely that anglers will have to contend with high, turbid water as they have in some years.”
Starting March 1, anglers fishing downriver from Bonneville Dam may retain one marked, hatchery-reared adult spring chinook per day. The sport fishery in that area will close on two Tuesdays – March 25 and April 1 – to accommodate possible commercial fisheries.
Above the dam, anglers also will have a one hatchery fish daily limit during a season scheduled March 16-May 9. The fishing area above Bonneville Dam extends upriver to the Washington/Oregon state line, 17 miles above McNary Dam.
Barbless hooks are required in both areas, and anglers must release any salmon or steelhead not visibly marked as a hatchery fish by a clipped adipose fin.
Under this year’s initial guidelines, people fishing below the dam will be allowed to catch up to 12,400 spring chinook before an updated run forecast is released in late April or early May.
To guard against overestimating this year’s run, the states are using a 30 percent buffer until the forecast is updated with information about actual returns.
“We’ve agreed to take a conservative approach until May, when we typically know how many fish are actually returning,” Roler said. “If the fish return at or above expectations, we will look toward providing additional days of fishing on the river later in the spring.”
COWLITZ RIVER SMELT
There are only two more days to try your luck dipping for smelt in the river. It’s just hard to say if there will be any fish available. Dipping will be allowed from 6 a.m.-noon Saturday and March 1.
The state has allowed the fishery to gather biological data on smelt, which were listed as threatened from northern California into British Columbia under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2010.
But reports from the first day of dipping were discouraging. There were no reported catches. There also have been no signs of smelt in the river since mid-January.
“In the three years since the fishery closed, we’ve lacked basic data to monitor the smelt population returning to the lower Columbia River,” Roler said. “The limited fishing opportunities approved this year will allow us to monitor this resource without affecting its recovery.”
After declining for more than a decade, smelt returns began to increase in 2011, reaching 110 million spawners in 2013, Roler said. Another large run is expected this year, he said.
Some trout anglers can’t fight the urge to head east early each spring. If the weather allows them to make it over Snoqualmie Pass, there are a number of eastside trout lakes that open March 1.
Among the more popular are Lenore (catch and release from March 1-May 31), Lenice, Nunnally and the waters in the Quincy Wildlife Area.
• Lenice and Nunnally are in the Crab Creek Wildlife Area just east of Beverly, and can produce rainbow and brown trout topping 20 inches long. Selective rules apply at the lakes, and nearby Merry Lake.
• Lenore, north of Soap Lake, is best known for its Lahontan cutthroat trout. Some fish weigh more than 10 pounds. When it opens March 1, only catch-and-release fishing is allowed. Beginning June 1, anglers can keep one trout. Selective rules apply on the lake.
• The Quincy Wildlife Area, northwest of George, contains a mix of large and small lakes. Among some the options are Quincy and Burke, offering trout, bass and sunfish.
The lakes are popular each spring because the selective gear and limited kill regulations allow the trout to grow larger than a put-and-take lake. It’s typical for people to catch rainbows that measure 18-20 inches, said Darce Knobel at the Desert Fly Angler in Ephrata.
“In the put-and-take lakes, they take those fish out so they don’t have a chance to grow,” he said.
For fishermen who prefer larger waters, Lake Roosevelt, the huge Columbia River reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam, is a good bet.
District fish biologist Randy Osborne said Roosevelt has been fishing really well for both boat and shore anglers. Creel checks show that daily catch limits of five trout are common.
Like other South Sound lakes, the action at this year-round lake near Tumwater has been slowed by the cold winter.
Because it is fairly shallow – just 15 feet at its deepest – the 40-acre lake will warm quickly as the days get longer and warmer. That also means the fishing should pick up sooner than some of the nearby larger lakes.
Not only will anglers have a chance at improved fishing, they can hook a variety of fish at Munn Lake. It holds rainbow and brown trout, largemouth bass, black crappie and bluegill.
People who prefer lures, can try trolling a 1/16-ounce Dick Nite spoon in gold or silver. Fly anglers can start by casting a size 14 or 16 hare’s ear nymph or damsel fly nymph toward the weeds beds and slowly retrieving the fly. A small plastic grub fished under an indicator will attract trout, bass and bluegill. Poppers cast amid the weeds will attract bass and bluegill.
Anglers are reminded that Munn is catch and release only, and selective gear rules apply. Also, fishing from boats with internal combustion motors is prohibited.
Other options in the area include Spencer Lake, Lake Sylvia and American Lake.
While it has been a disappointing winter for steelhead anglers, there are still opportunities.
Some of the best spots are on the Olympic Peninsula, assuming there is enough water in the systems.
This winter’s pattern of a storm, followed by weeks of no rain before the next storm, has made for a difficult year of fishing, said Bob Gooding of Olympic Sporting Goods in Forks. Rain that was in the forecast for last week should help bring more fish into the rivers and improve fishing conditions.
Of course, too much rain would bring water levels up too high and discolor the rivers to the point where they are unfishable.
This is the time of year when the larger wild steelhead are returning to Peninsula rivers. Starting Sunday, anglers can retain one wild steelhead per license year from the Quillayute, Dickey, Bogachiel, Calawah, Sol Duc, Hoh, Clearwater or Quinault rivers. Those eight rivers are the only waters in Washington where wild steelhead may be retained.
“The abundant wild steelhead populations returning to those rivers also provide great catch-and-release fishing opportunities,” said Mike Gross, state fish biologist.
The Sol Duc and lower Hoh rivers have been producing the most catches of wild steelhead, according to state creel sampling.
A number of rivers closer to the South Sound offer a chance to hook a steelhead. Anglers can find hatchery steelhead in the Skookumchuck, Satsop, Wynoochee and mainstem Chehalis rivers, where late-run steelhead are still being caught, said Mike Scharpf, a fish biologist.
“Fishing was pretty slow on those rivers through most of January due to the lack of rain,” Scharpf said. “But, if the weather cooperates, fishing should improve this month as more hatchery steelhead move into the system.”
Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640