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Not Glamorous, But Steelhead Still a Catch

by Allen Thomas
The Columbian, June 25, 2006

LONGVIEW -- It was a case of multi-tasking of the highest importance.

Wil Morrison, of Vancouver, snatched the rod from the plastic holder, reeled the line as tight as possible, stuck the rod back in the holder, made the three-step sprint to the front of his boat and released the anchor rope.

Returning to the business end of the boat, he fought the summer steelhead at the mouth of the Cowlitz River with one hand, while the other deftly started the motor and maneuvered the vessel to the middle of the river to avoid floating into the next hogline anchored downstream.

It was a lot of effort for an 8-pound steelhead, but you never know: The strike on the chartreuse spinner could have been a 25-pound summer chinook.

Morrison's steelhead -- one of a two-fish limit that July day -- was among the 2,200 caught at the mouth of the Cowlitz and almost 10,000 taken from the lower Columbia River in 2005.

Summer steelhead lack the glamor of a chinook, but provide a stable fishing opportunity from June into September in the Columbia between Bonneville Dam and the ocean.

The 2006 summer steelhead run to the upper Columbia and Snake rivers is predicted to be a carbon copy of a year ago. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is forecasting a return of 312,600 summer steelhead at Bonneville Dam in 2006. If accurate, that would be 100 fish more than in 2005.

Summer steelhead headed for the middle and upper Columbia River and Snake River are separated into three categories. Skamania stock summer steelhead return early, peaking in May and June. They are planted widely in the lower Columbia, including the Willamette Basin, and in some tributaries upstream of Bonneville Dam.

Most steelhead headed for upstream of Bonneville Dam are categorized as Group A or Group B fish.

Group A steelhead are smaller (less than 10 pounds) and return to streams throughout the mid- and upper Columbia and the Snake River basin. Steelhead passing Bonneville Dam after July 1 that are less than 31.2 inches are classified as Group A fish. They peak in early August.

Group B steelhead are larger (more than 10 pounds) and return primarily to Idaho's upper Clearwater and Salmon basins. Group B steelhead peak in mid-September.

In 2005, 58 percent of the summer steelhead handled in the lower Columbia River were caught from the mouth of the Cowlitz River downstream. Twenty-seven percent came just below Bonneville Dam, and 15 percent in the balance of the lower river. There are reasons for that catch distribution, said Jimmy Watts of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"It's mainly a bank fishery, and those places are where the bank access is,'' Watts said. "Most years more than half the catch is from the bank."

That was true in 2005, with 55 percent coming from bank anglers, he said.

There's a huge boat fishery at the mouth of the Cowlitz River beginning in July, plus good boat fishing near Cathlamet a little earlier.

The Cowlitz River is a summer steelhead "fish factory,'' and the hatchery system on the stream produces a lot of fish that pass through in May and June, Watts said.

By July, the fishery targets on upper Columbia steelhead passing through the lower river.

Fishing at the mouth of the Cowlitz is good for the same reason a lot of summer steelhead are caught in Drano Lake, at the mouth of the White Salmon River, and in the lower Deschutes River -- cooler water temperatures.

During an outgoing tide, cooler water from the Cowlitz River gets drawn into the Columbia at the tip of Cottonwood Island in Carrolls Slough. Anglers have noted as much as a 7-degree temperature difference.

When the Columbia is in the mid-60s, those cool-water pockets are much like a shade tree on a hot day.

Summer steelhead fishing in the lower Columbia is pretty simple, at least from an anchored boat.

On an outgoing tide, anglers often use a U-20, X-4, X-5 or F-7 Flatfish, generally in some permutation of red or orange. Spinners also are effective, once the tide is running hard enough to turn the blade.

Green, red, silver and rainbow blades in about a size No. 4 or 5 work well for steelhead.

Allen Thomas
Not Glamorous, But Steelhead Still a Catch
The Columbian, June 25, 2006

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