Cowlitz Steelheading From a Boat


Transported Fish :  Since the dams on this river have no fish ladders, some excess fish that return to the hatchery are loaded into a tanker truck and transported back into the river above the Cowlitz falls dam.   These are mostly "natural" fish, meaning that they are fish that the adipose fin was not clipped when they were fry before being released. 


Other excess (hatchery fish) could be recycled downstream one time, to allow the sportsmen a chance to catch these surplus fish before they are donated to the food banks.  When this is done, a hole in one of the gill covers will be punched with a paper hole punch to designate it is a recycled fish.  Doing this only once, (sometimes even twice if a lot of fish are present) provides more fishing opportunity while still providing quality fish for the food bank.


Here the tanker truck is dumping some Steelhead at the Mission Bar boat launch  
5-19-2011 to be recycled back upstream.


Where? : In the water obviously, but you need to remember that Steelhead are different than salmon and tend to favor shallower water, usually nearer the banks.  Even right in the brush and  like most fish favor the slower/edges or seams of the current.


A larger fish will usually also be smarter, and will try to get into shallower water or near logs / outcroppings and snag the sinker, thereby breaking off your line if they get hooked.


In using a boat, position it to the side of the desired drift away from the shore enough to still be able to cast right near shore, cast out and upstream at about a 45 degree angle toward the shore (to allow for any slack and therefore avoid hang ups at the start of the drift), which allows the bait to drift the same speed as the boat. This as described is called "side drifting".  These fish will follow the bait if it is drifting in a natural situation, all the while eating it. Do not set the hook on first nibble, allow them to follow all the while mouthing the eggs.   Let them have the bait until they finally take it.   Wait until the rod tip goes down before you set the hook.  Hook size will vary depending on the time of the year.  Number 2 to # 2/0 are the normal size except for the low clear water of the summer run, where you may have to go down to a #6.  


When these fish are in the river, they will be about anywhere throughout the system. Fishing can be from the barrier dam down to Castle Rock. One good starting spot for beginners would be the I-5 launch. There is some good drifts below there all the way down to Castle Rock.


Spring Run : You may consider March thru May the time to be on the water for these fish.  This type of fishing would be very similar to "Winter run" fishing as the water flow may be anywhere from 12,000 to 9,000 CFPS.  This is when Tacoma Power at Riffe Lake will be dumping water, trying to guess how much snowpack is melting and how much rain is coming down.  Then in about June, the flow will be lower as they are trying to fill Riffe Lake for the summer.

Bait is usually salmon roe.  However sometimes sand or coon shrimp are the ticket.  They normally do not take a large bait as if you were fishing for salmon, so make your eggs  about the size of a 25 cent piece and if using sandshrimp, pinch the head off and use only the tail.

Also from about mid April thru the end of May or early June, you will encounter Spring Chinook salmon here.  So you may consider having rods and gear heavy enough to handle either specie.


Summer Run : Best time to fish the summer run fishery seems to traditionally start the end of June to the middle of July. Fish will usually be there mid-spring, but the for a high enough concentration of numbers to make the trip worthwhile this is about the timing.  Some years there may be enough in the river to start fishing the middle of June.  This fishery will continue on into the time that fall Chinook start showing, (October). Taking a Chinook on this lighter steelhead gear can be exciting. However watch the fishing regulations as some years Chinook season is closed.

Rods should be long and light, some custom made ones are made on a 9-10 fly rod blank with spinning reel handles. However any 8'6" or 9' rod in the 6 to 12# or 8 to 17# class have caught a goodly number of these fish.  Standard size trout spinning reels are used, as you are in a boat and can chase a large one if need be.


Line used is normally the hi visibility monofilament. This helps to tell where your line enters the water, especially helpful for older fishermen with somewhat failing eyesight. Many guides choose this Hi Visibility line which helps them watch their clients lines, which he usually will detect your bite before you do.    Line weight will be 8#, with leader size to be 6#, or if used when Spring Chinook could be present, up to 12# or 15#.  Leader length usually will be between 36 and 48.  Hooks can be #2 or #4.


Later when the water is low and gin clear, the lures may get smaller, could be puff balls which add a slight floatation and imitate bugs.   Scent can be a beneficial attractant also.

Hooks in this clear water can be #6 Vision, bait will be salmon roe cluster with a size no larger than your thumb nail.


Tie a small black swivel between line and the leader, above this put a plastic sinker slider on the mainline. Sliders are made from the plastic tubing used for greenhouse watering.  The sinker should slide on the mainline, and not be tied to the swivel.  Sinkers will be lead about 1 1/8 long. The sinkers press lightly into the plastic slider. This allows you to change weights quickly if needed.    


Steelhead when hooked probably will head for faster water and you may have to drift downriver a mile before you land a nice one.  Chinook, if they are hooked using this gear will usually stay close and head for the hole near there.



A nice 9# Cowlitz summer run Steelhead


Summer Run Recycled fish: In recent years after a lot of hassling with WDFW and Tacoma Power, the Advisory Committee has managed to get a small percentage of the surplus (returning Steelhead to the separator at the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery) to be recycled downstream so the recreational fishers can get a second and sometimes a third shot at catching these fish before they deteriorate and are then sold for cat food.  To identify these fish, the LH gill-plate is punched with a paper punch.


This recycled fish data are then used for hatchery management purposes by having the fisher leave a card in a box at the boat ramps that are close to the dumping area, and clear back up the the Barrier Dam.  You can either fill out the card at the drop box, e-mail or call a furnished number on the card.  It is important that if you do catch one of these marked fish to report it as the data is important since they know how many they recycled and how many were recovered, if your fish is not reported it will be counted in the 49% of unaccounted for fish.  That % number is rather high and with no way to really account for if there was a trucking or hooking mortality, or they decided to go downstream to another river.  OR there are very fat Eagles on the river.  So PLEASE report your caught marked fish.  Do not be belligerent and say am I in any way going to report my fish as it just may be one more that WDFW/TP uses for data to take more away from us.  Exactly the opposite, a reported gill cover marked Steelhead here on the Cowlitz will actually let them know the program is working and you may just help keep it going.


This program usually starts about June 1 and runs thru August 15th.


Initially the concern was how much do they stray into the lower rivers/creeks.  This concern was answered by installing floating weirs in 5 creeks in the lower Cowlitz.  The data collected proved that  there was very little straying.


Winter Run :   Winter Steelhead  will use basically the same set-up but usually with a small corky added to the eggs.   The water covered may be different as the visibility will be less and the flow usually is more, which shifts the fish into a different pattern.  They will usually be at the edge of a seam, or behind a rock or log which affords them some protection of from the full force of the river.


This limit of winter Steelhead was taken on a Very COLD January day in 2005 How's this for a first time Steelheader  January 2010
I think he is now addicted.


Method : The two most common methods of catching these will be "Side Drifting" and "Back Trolling".   Side drifting will normally be using Roe, cured salmon eggs or sand shrimp.   It will usually be done using spinning gear.  


Another thing that may not be common knowledge, is that those fishermen, (usually trout or steelhead) that use the small colored puff balls for added floatation to their lures, if after some exposure to water, they tend to soak up a small amount of water.  This changes their floatation.  If you simply spray WD-40 or dip them in a light inert oil like mineral oil, this puts a light protective coating on the balls, preserving their floatation, at least until you catch a fish or need to change baits.  


Back Trolling is a method of setting your rods in holders and holding position with a small trolling motor, but controlling it so the boat slowly slips downstream.  This allows (if you are in the seam) the bait to be presented in the fish's face until they decide to grab it.  It will be using casting rods and line counter reels are a blessing.  Depending on the water depth and flow the distance out could be from 40' to 70'.   This method could use small plugs or sand shrimp behind a small Luhr Jensen jet diver.


You can also find a likely area and anchor the boat, and use a similar set-up as back trolling, but instead of a diver, use a lead weight of from 3 to 8 oz.  The length of the leader will be determined by the water turbidity.  A 3' leader could be used in winter murky water, where a 6' leader when the water clears up.  


You will not be fishing deep water for these fish, usually less than 5 or 6 feet deep and at the edge of a seam, or near shore.



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Originated 06-08-01, Last updated 02-26-2017 *
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