Vision of Steelhead dancing in some heads

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 13, 2013 

Steelhead fishing season has begun in earnest here with the first of the hatchery winter-runs arriving at a number of Northwest Washington hatcheries.

With blanket state and federal protections now covering all wild winter- and summer-run steelhead stocks in Washington, the focus for angling bouts here is strictly on these cultured-origin fish.

As of Wednesday, Dec. 4, area fish production facilities were reporting a smattering of fin-clipped winter-run rainbows in their traps.

Also, about 15 winter runs were reported in at Marblemount Hatchery on the Cascade River (Skagit), at least three are back at Whitehorse Hatchery (North Fork Stillaguamish) and six adults have come home to Tokul Creek Hatchery in the Snohomish River system.

The venues for these contests narrow as winter's official start approaches with a much shorter list of reaches - mostly main stems - remaining available through closing dates either 23 days away (the end of December) or 54 days out (the end of January).

This is an even smaller trove of angling alternatives derived from the regulations paradigm shift of 2010 that closed all Puget Sound basin streams to the taking of gamefish unless they are specifically opened for recreational fishing.

What is now the summer recreational stream angling season sees the closure at the end of October of most surviving stream fisheries in flowing waters in the Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca watershed.

For Western Washington still waters, there's much more liberal offerings available year-round, but a number of them that are either stocked with hatchery-raise a trout or that have sensitive naturally reproducing populations also closed Oct. 31.

NOOKSACK STEELHEADING

Its tendency to regularly take on the color/clarity of a cold latte makes the Nooksack River problematic to fish this time of year. It goes without saying that it's better most of the time to fish higher up in the system's open steelhead water.

But when the Nooksack's not lapping at levee brush, there's a reasonable combination of publicly accessible high bank and bar platforms available on its run between Marine Drive to the confluence of the North and South forks.

Starting on the downstream end, there is complete access via a system of trails to the left bank from Marine Drive up to Ferndale on either WDFW or Whatcom County Parks (Hovander Park) lands.

Around Ferndale there are plunking spots under the Main Street and Interstate 5 bridges as well as a stretch of high bank south of Main Street along Front Avenue and Ferndale Road downstream to the water treatment/intake plants. There's a public boat ramp at Ferndale on the east bank accessed off Nielsen Road.

Possessed of some excellent steelhead water, the Everson-Nugent's reach is mostly unattainable by bank-bound fishers, but with a jet sled, drift boat or personal pontoon craft it's easily fishable in a day's or afternoon's voyage.

The river changes (less braiding) above the Mount Baker Highway at Nugents Corner crossing though it's still somewhat confined by hardened levees along from the north side of the floodway. The centrally located, frequently used Nugents boat ramp is located north of the State Route 542 bridge at Cedarville.

SKAGIT RIVER STEELHEAD

As with the Nooksack, the Skagit is prone to high volume, low visibility flows during the early or hatchery steelhead run.

Plunkers and a few plug pullers, drifters and boon-doggers do ply lower river reaches in December and January but as with the Nooksack, given the muddy water and the hatchery fish tendency to bolt quickly up-river, the best waters for hooking into these fish are often highest up in the system (above Rockport).

The best publicly accessible lower Skagit venues that stand out for steelheaders 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, the latter south of the Memorial Bridge, the former just above. The city park has a boat ramp as well as 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 now this stretch offers good high and sloping bank access along the outside of a broad bend and straight section of the 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.

GENE BANKS FOR STEELHEAD

A fish and wildlife department proposal, sanctioned under the statewide steelhead management plan, if adopted by the nine-member fish and wildlife commission, would designate the East Fork Lewis, North Fork Toutle/Green and Wind rivers as wild fish gene banks to preserve native stocks.

Hatchery releases in the Samish River also were stopped several years ago with the intention of protecting its native winter-run steelhead population from cross-breeding and juvenile competition.

Comments on the Lewis-Green-Toutle plan will also be accepted through Friday, Dec. 13 at http://wdfw.wa.gov/publications/01559/, where the advisory groups' recommendations are posted for review.

Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald's outdoors correspondent, since 1983 has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that now appears Sundays. Read his outdoors blogs and contact him at http://bellinghamherald.com/outdoors.

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