Dec. 1 is considered the start of the winter-run steelhead fishing season in Western Washington streams.
Four decades ago there was a one-month hiatus in November between the close of summer trout fishing and the start of winter river fishing for these sea-run trout.
Now, however, anglers may catch and keep steelhead in many main river channels from mid-November to the end of February.
Wild winter-run and summer-run steelhead are protected by a state ban on their retention as well as a federal listing of populations in Puget Sound stream systems. And fishing at any time of the year is closed or restricted in many streams housing juvenile steelhead (aka rainbow trout).
The sport-fishing focus now is on returns of hatchery-origin steelhead, including modest runs in the Nooksack and Skagit, identified by their missing adipose fins. These fish are bred to come back early in the winter-run steelhead cycle, with native or wild fish making up runs entering and spawning in Puget Sound streams from March to June.
The Lower Samish River also is open to hatchery steelhead taking, but just to Dec. 31, and under more restrictions.
FOR THE NOOKSACK
Muddy much of November through January, when hatchery adult steelhead are returning, the lower mainstem Nooksack River can be problematic to fish. Therefore the best strategy is to fish the highest reaches of open steelhead water.
The Nooksack from Marine Drive upstream to the forks has an excellent combination of high bank and bar sites accessible to the public.
Starting on the downstream end, there is virtually complete access via trails to the left bank from Marine Drive to Ferndale on either WDFW lands or Whatcom County's Hovander Park.
From Ferndale up there are plunking spots under the Main Street and Interstate 5 bridges, plus a stretch of high bank south of Main Street along Front Avenue downstream to the water treatment/intake plants.
Possessed of some excellent steelhead drift water, the Everson-Nugent's reach is mostly unattainable by bankies, but with a jet sled or drift boat is easily fishable in a day's or afternoon's voyage.
The river has less braiding above the Mount Baker Highway crossing and although somewhat confined by hardened levees encroaching from the north side, still has more than a dozen good long drifts with head pools, starting at the Dahl's and Sande's sites and stretching up to three big bedrock-forced fish-holding pools - the first of which is just below the mouth of Lindberry Creek south of Deming. The other two, further upstream, are the Maggie's Rock and Cooper's Rock holes.
The Nooksack's North Fork has the longest reaches likely to be the clearest for November-January fishers. Reasonable numbers of foot access routes - at Kinney Creek (east side), Racehorse Creek (east side) and Deming Homestead County Park, truck Road, Old 542 Rest Area, Milepost 19 and Kendall Hatchery - spread out the anglers. You can't launch drift boats at the hatchery grounds any more.
The best drift-boat stretch is from Mosquito Lake Road down to the forks. More adventuresome anglers also will boat the Middle Fork (fast, narrow waters from the single lane Mosquito Lake Road county bridge) and the South Fork (Acme area down to the forks). The upstream put-in of this section is an old country road bridge pad. The downstream take-out is a bar between the railroad and highway bridges with a dirt track approach that requires some wrestling with watercraft.
ON THE SKAGIT
As with the Nooksack, the Skagit River is prone to low visibility and high volume flows during the early steelhead return period.
Plunkers and plug pullers do ply lower river reaches from December to January, but given the muddy water and the hatchery fish tendency to bolt quickly upriver, the best waters to fish are highest up in the system, above Rockport.
Four lower river venues stand out. They are:
The Spudhouse Hole and Launch. On Penn Road south of McLean Road, this location has some high bank plunker positions along a slot that is relatively free of snags. This site has a good winter boat ramp as well.
Edgewater Park and Young's Bar are two right bank publicly accessible locales in west Mount Vernon -Young's Bar is south of the Memorial Bridge, Edgewater Park just above. The city park has a boat ramp and good bank space. High water can limit the bank fishing to a short section at Young's.
Roger Tjeerdsma Launch and Riverside Park reach. Lying mostly within the city limits of Burlington, this stretch offers good high- and slope-bank access along the outside of a broad bend and straight section of river. There is a private boat dock in this reach that's off limits.
The South Skagit Highway east of Highway 9 offers some great plunking holes and drift water for bank anglers east and west of the PUD intake, again at Loretta and Cumberland Creeks, west of O'Toole Creek on Seattle City Light property opposite Lucas Slough and at Pressentin Creek.
Above the Sauk River, two launches, at Marblemount (Cascade Road bridge) and Rockport (at Howard Miller Steelhead Park) serve boat anglers well.
While eastbank accesses are limited to the old Barnaby Slough access, walk-in options off State Route 20 at Washington Eddy, Barr Creek, Milepost 101, Clark's Cabins and Pressentin County Park, do afford reasonable opportunities.
Bank and wading anglers also have the lower seven-tenths of a mile of the Cascade River where Marblemount Hatchery is located. Walk-in sites include the Wild and Scenic Boat Access on the east approach of the Cascade Road bridge and the old Raspberry Hole across from the mouth of Clark Creek (the fish entry into the hatchery). Anglers also may fish from hatchery grounds at the Rockport-Cascade Road bridge as well as the Big Eddy access further west on that county road.
STEELHEADERS TO HOLD BANQUET
The Northwest Washington Steelheaders, an independent Whatcom County sportsmen's group, has tentatively set Saturday, March 9, for their 2013 fundraiser banquet and auction.
With 50,000 mouths to feed through the winter for release this spring, the club is seeking to bolster its coffers so it can make additional steelhead rearing commitments next year.
Some proceeds of their annual fundraising efforts also go to providing prizes and refreshments for the Bellingham children's fishing derby, a tradition dating back to the 1950s that takes place in early May each year at Whatcom Falls Park.
Organizing a banquet and auction is a volunteer effort for this group and its board, some of whom are long-standing members, took a break from it this past year.
The club's underwriting of some 50,000 hatchery winter-run juveniles each year constitutes about 45 percent of the total number of marked steelhead smolts released into the Nooksack by the fish and wildlife department. The group also has sought to further increase its annual commitment.
At the club's McKinnon Pond facility, the young steelhead are fed and the pond is maintained by students from Mount Baker High School's natural resources classes, under the supervision of instructor Todd Rightmire.
Club members also participate in rearing the fish and the annual upkeep of the pond and its water supply.
TRAIL RIDERS STOCK LAKES
Stocking of trout in several lower elevation forest lakes here was recently done by members of the Whatcom Chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen of Washington.
Under the direction of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, club members and their pack animals carried coastal cutthroat fingerlings into Cedar, Pine and Lost lakes, all in the Chuckanuts, this fall.
Lands surrounding Cedar and Pine lakes are owned by the fish and wildlife department and those waters are managed by the agency to provide hike-in fisheries for area anglers. Open for fishing year-round, they are accessed by a trail maintained by the Whatcom Parks and Recreation Department.
Lost Lake, located on state parks and recreation commission land inside Larrabee State Park, is stocked periodically with the consent of state parks officials, also to provide lowland forest fishing accessed on foot.
Larrabee Manager Paul McEvers said anglers are welcome year-round to hike in and fish Lost Lake, as well as Fragrance Lake which is also on park grounds.
The lakes can be accessed by trails. The Fragrance Lake route, just over 2.5 miles long, starts at a parking area on Chuckanut Drive across from the north main park entrance to the campground.
The Lost Lake combined route, about 3.5 miles long, takes off from a service road, the old Hiline-Cleator loop road now called Fragrance Lake Road, that starts at the south main park entrance opposite Clayton Beach Trail.
There are several alternate approach paths to these lakes that are detailed on maps as well as the state parks department web page for Larrabee at http://www.parks.wa.gov/parks/?selectedpark=Larrabee&subject=all.
OKANOGAN STEELHEAD SHUTS DOWN
Four steelhead fisheries and three whitefish openings in North Central Washington waters closed Saturday, Dec. 1, by WDFW emergency order as limits protecting the 2012 wild summer-run steelhead run were reached.
The closures for special steelhead fisheries cover:
? Main Columbia River: From Wells Dam upstream to the Highway 173 bridge (at Brewster),
? Wenatchee and Icicle rivers: Mouth to the Icicle River and the Icicle up to the terminus line below the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery,
? Entiat River: From Alternate Highway 97 Bridge to the terminus line below Entiat National Fish Hatchery,
? Methow River: From its mouth at Pateros up to the Chewuck River at Winthrop.
Also ordered closed as of Dec. 1 were whitefish openings, noted in permanent regulations on the Fish Washington sport-fishing pamphlet, in the Entiat, Methow and Wenatchee rivers.
Analysis of creel census data from these fisheries found that anglers had come in contact with enough wild steelhead to cause the maximum allowable kill on runs in each of the affected waters.
Several special steelhead fisheries targeting marked hatchery (adipose fin-clipped) origin summer steelhead have not reached their wild steelhead landing thresholds and will stay open for now.
? Main Columbia River from the vicinity of Rock Island to just below Wells Dam and from the 4 Highway 173 bridge upstream to Chief Joseph Dam,
? Okanogan River from its mouth upstream to the Highway 97 bridge at Oroville,
? and the Similkameen River from its mouth up to the terminus line below Enloe Dam.
Anglers must keep the first two hatchery-origin steelhead they catch and then stop fishing.
Night fishing bans and selective gear rules apply to all Central Washington waters where special steelhead openings are in play except that bait may be used in the mainstem Columbia reaches.
Columbia River Salmon/Steelhead Endorsements also must be purchased to fish these and other streams and reservoirs in the greater Columbia Basin.
Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald's outdoors correspondent, since 1983 has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that now appears Sundays. Read his blog and contact him at http//pblogs.bellinghamherald.com/outdoor.