Thanksgiving has come and gone, marking the unofficial “Opening Day” of the 2019 winter steelhead season here in the Pacific Northwest. The first big rain of December will bring with it a flood of hatchery fish like they’re late for a court date! We know that it’s steelhead season, but what river should you set up camp on? And what should you use? Depending on your location and willingness to travel, we’ll outline the top spots with the best chance of hooking up!
Skykomish River, Reiter Ponds - 47.838061, -121.626448
Reiter is probably the best spot in the greater Seattle area to maximize your chance at hooking a winter steelhead. The hatchery supplies the bulk of the fish that return to the Snohomish system, so odds are that if there are fish in the river, they will be waiting for you here. WDFW has stocked 98,533 steelhead smolt that are forecast to return this winter, one of the higher numbers in the area! This area doesn’t open to fishing until 7 a.m., but don’t think that you can sleep in! When it rains, every local steelheader knows that it will be good fishing, so to get to your favorite rock, make sure you’re wadered up and ready to go when they open the gates! Bring a bobber and jig, and a bag of frozen raw prawns, this is perfect float fishing water! Our Aero Jigs from steelhead jigs Hawken Fishing in nightmare and peachy pink patterns are the go-to colors out there. Pick them up in-store or get them online.
Bogachiel River Hatchery – 47.934763, -124.444873
The Bogachiel, or “Bogey” as the locals call it, is probably the most prolific system for early winter-run steelhead. With 113,127 fish released into the Bogey proper, and another 55,000 let loose on the Calawah, the confluence of the two rivers will be a fantastic destination for your Christmas vacation. Like clockwork, the fish show up the first week of December. So confident that the run will be good, the regulations allow for an additional hatchery steelhead on top of your standard two fish limit! Bring cured roe, corkies, and some bobbers, there are a variety of runs below the hatchery that allow for a mixed bag of techniques. You can never go wrong with a size 1 Owner Cutting Point hook and the classic Rocket Red Corky. When you’re working all day for a few bites on tough days, you want a hook that can punch a hole. Owner’s Cutting Point penetrates the bony jaws that are the steelhead’s namesake to get your barb set deep on the first hookset. When you’ve pounded the water on a tough day, you want the peace of mind knowing that you have the sharpest, strongest hook on the market.
Snoqualmie River - 47.550758, -121.845219
If the crowds on the Skykomish have you feeling a little cramped, you may want to check out the hatchery run on the Snoqualmie. The Tokul Creek hatchery stocked 75,635 smolt that will return as adults this year. The Big Eddy below the mouth of Tokul Creek, the outlet to the hatchery, is a favorite spot for the bobber fisherman. Bring your waders, most areas you’ll want to be in the water. A popular spot to “glow ball” with luminous beads, corkies, or jigs, the area is open 24 hours to angling. The first couple of hours before official sunrise are best, as the fish that have moved in overnight have just started to settle into their final destination. They will be active and aggressive through sunrise, after which the bite will slow down a bit. For bobber fishing before sunup, try attaching one of Aero Jig’s Firefly glow sticks to your float with a bit of rubber tubing, allowing you to see your presentation in the dark.
Humptulips Hatchery - 47.230205, -123.987340
The Humptulips is known for its great Coho and Chinook runs, but the same habitat that makes these runs great are also a boon for the 132,000 smolt set to return this year. While a good number of fish were stocked, the draw to the “Hump” is the larger-than-average size of the returning stock. A smaller river system, the Humptulips has miles of river to fish between Grays Harbor and the Steven’s Creek hatchery. Much of the river is accessible by foot if you’re willing to make a hike of it, but by far the most popular spot from shore is going to be at the hatchery proper. Whether you favor running a float, bouncing the bottom with a drift setup, or chucking big flashy spinners and spoons, the ¾-mile stretch around the hatchery has water for it. Plan your trip around a big rain and fish it on the drop, and odds are really good you’ll come home with chrome! The B.C. Steel steelhead spoons from PenTac are the perfect lure for the big deep runs on this coastal stream. Pick up a genuine silver-plated spoon or the 50/50 silver and gold in 2/3rd ounce for higher colored water, run the thinner 2/5th in black or copper plating in low and clear days.
North Fork of the Stilliguamish: 48.275286, -121.729247
The North Fork of the Stilly is a sleeper spot. For most of the year, the Stilly is limited to fly fishing only, but come December 1st the restrictions are lifted. With the 136,270 smolt stocked in the system, all of which are headed to the Fortson Hole, it’s a good bet that they’re going to be there when you are. The best gear to bring are bobbers and beads in clear conditions, but when the rain comes, the slides of the area will start to make the water below them mud, and kill visibility, so bringing some brightly colored boraxed roe sprinkled with some Pro-Cure Slam-Ola seasoning will draw them in from the murky depths. In ideal steelhead green conditions, throwing some heavy spoons in the buckets can be killer, and you’ll also be able to tangle with the healthy population of hard-fighting Dolly Varden. The Fortson Hole will be the best bet when the water jumps. Even with the tragic Oso mudslide plugging up the river with silt for a few years, the system has bounced back well, and I wouldn’t count this river out as a good bet for nice fish close to home. Adding that extra scent to your roe can give you that extra edge over the other guys.
Now that you know where and how to catch a December steelhead, come on in to Sportsman’s to pick up all the gear you’ll need! While you’re at it, ask our fishing associates to give you some hot tips on where the bite is and how to take advantage of it. With any luck you’ll have a fridge full of smoked steelhead in time for the holidays.
Nate Treat is the Fishing Manager over at our Everett, WA store. An expert guide, content creator, and YouTube personality, he does a little bit of everything. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Nate has been fishing since he was old enough to hold a rod. From small coastal cutthroat in backwoods beaver ponds to monster fall chinook on the Olympic Coast, he’s put it in the net. Salmon and steelhead are his expertise, and he likes to joke that the Skykomish River is his office. He’s certainly put more hours on the water than in front of a workstation, so we can’t disagree. His passion is teaching new anglers and promoting the sport to the community. If he’s not at the store, odds are he’s out catching.