Northwest Fly Fishing Magazine
Cowlitz River, WA
An Unlikely Fly Fishing Venue
by Mike Benbow
April? Great for chinook salmon that will tear your arm off. June? Summer steelhead are the main focus. August? It’s sea-run cutthroat and summer steelhead. September and October? Time for a true grand slam fishery featuring cutthroat and rainbow trout, summer steelhead and a massive run of coho salmon that is just getting started. December? Definitely winter steelhead. Lots of winter steelhead. In fact, nearly every year, the Cowlitz River produces more winter steelhead than any other river in Washington.
Truth is, it’s hard to pick a month at any time of year when there isn’t something exciting to fish for in the Cowlitz., which is formed by glacial streams on Mount Rainier and runs 133 miles to meet the Columbia River in southwest Washington.
“It’s consistently one of the best rivers I know of anywhere,” says Steve Buckner, who guides on the Cowlitz, in Alaska, and on the Olympic Peninsula. “Every single month there are fresh fish coming through.”
Yet despite such high praise and a sterling reputation as a fish producer, the Cowlitz remains a bit of a fly-fishing enigma.
Filled with fish and offering some fine fly water, the Cowlitz hosts relatively few fly fishers for most of the year. While an awesome run of sea-run cutthroat draws fly anglers to the Cowlitz in late summer, few remain to cast over this river during the balance of the year. The Cowlitz draws plenty of anglers, but they are mostly gear fishers who jam up at the hatchery stretches where the fish are concentrated.
Dylan Rose of Seattle, who has guided clients on the river as well as fished it a lot for fun, thinks the location may be part of the reason that the Cowlitz hasn’t caught on with fly fishers. “The big thing about the river is that people think it’s too far,” says Rose, talking about the fly-fishing enclaves of Seattle and Portland. yet the Cowlitz is only one and a half hours from Seattle and one from Portland.
Another issue could be access. The banks are largely inaccessible, so boats are essentially required. And the size of the river could be a little daunting.
But gear anglers certainly remain unfazed on all these counts. At times, especially on winter weekends, they flock to the Cowlitz for steelhead, producing sizable crowds. Rose, who guides for Seattle’s Emerald Water Anglers, acknowledges that portions of the river can be a mob scene–especially near the Barrier Dam and at the hatchery near Blue Creek. “But those guys are fishing different water–the plunking and boondoggling water,” he adds.
Those areas account for a grand total of about 1 river mile. That’s it. The rest of the river often remains far more pristine and offers uncrowded conditions where anglers see just a few compatriots during a day on the water. Dave McCoy, owner of Emerald Water, has been guiding on the Cowlitz for several years and chose it because it is so underfished by fly anglers. “I’ve never had a problem with the gear guys,” he says. “They are incredibly friendly most of the time and they will give you space. They’re sort of amused that you’re there because there are so few fly anglers.”
While the Cowlitz is steelhead Mecca for many anglers in Washington, its steelhead fishery may not be the best or even the second-best fish run on the river–at least not for those who love sea-run cutthroat. A liberal stocking program of cutthroat smolts (160,000 annually) has produced thousands of sea-runs returning to the river from late July through early September.
“If you find the cutthroats, the action can be unstoppable,” Rose says. McCoy recalls one of his more memorable days on the river, when he guided a father who was an experienced fly fisher and the man’s son, who who couldn’t cast more than 25 feet. “He didn’t even want to fish, but his dadtold him to go right below him,” McCoy says. “They were both using a steelhead swing, and the son snapped off two steelhead right in front of his dad. The dad didn’t catch any steelhead, but he hooked 40-50 cutthroats.”
Most of the cutthroat trout on the Cowlitz are 12 to 18 inches long, with a high percentage in the 14-16 inch range. “It’s an incredibly successful program, and the fish are beautiful for hatchery fish,” McCoy says.
Buckner, whose guide service is called The Northwest Fly Fisherman, lives near the Cowlitz and guides on it for much of the year. He agrees that the sea-run cutthroat fishery is strong. “When they’re in, they’re both big and plentifu,” he says. “I’ve never seen sea-run cutthroat fishing like it exists on the Cowlitz. You can catch 15 to 20 sea-runs or maybe more in the course of day and maybe even get a couple steelhead. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Mark Johnson, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), manages the hatcheries on the Cowlitz and says the cutthroat program is unique. The hatchery fish originate from wild Cowlitz stock, and all the sea-runs now produced in the hatchery are fin-clipped so they can easily be differentiated from wild fish. The state continues to incorporate wild, unclipped fish into its brood stock and tries to reduce the number of hatchery fish allowed to spawn. “It’s an attempt to get nature to drive the fitness of the population,” Johnson says.
It seems to be working.
The fish with their trademark emerald-green backs and beautiful black spots, return in significant numbers. During the last six years, runs have averaged about 12,000 fish annually returning to the hatchery. The smallest run totaled 5,000 to 6,000 fish; the largest run topped out at some 23,000 cutts.
Coho aren’t a major draw on the Cowlitz, but according to WDFW biologist Wolf Dammers, they could be if anglers could just figure them out. “The numbers have been really strong there lately,” he says. “The problem is the harvest rate is really low.”
Johnson, the hatcheries manager, reports that during the last seven or eight years, an average of 40,000 coho have entered the river annually. The problem, Dammers says, is that not enough people are catching these fish, which arrive in the river from late September through November. So many fish come to the hatchery that many are collected and trucked above the hydroelectric dams on the Cowlitz and dumped above Cowlitz Falls Dam near Randle, in an impoundment called Lake Scanewa. There, boat anglers enjoy a fine fishery for these coho because the fish mill around near the dm before heading up the tributaries to spawn. By late fall, Lake Scanewa, drawn down, is more river than reservoir. “Once they’re released in this area, they’re much more apt to bite,” says Dammers of the coho.
McCoy and Rose have targeted the silver run on the river and say it can produce incredible fishing, but they admit that it can be hit or miss. “We had a dy when we hooked probably 40 bright coho just downstream from the Barrier Dam on red/black marabous and purple Starlight Leeches,” Rose recalls. “They were 6 to 14 pounds and they all came out of one hole.”
But McCoy says it’s often hard to find the coho. “You have to hit the run right on, so you just have to go as often as you can. You can’t pigeonhole it.”
Dammer says the fish tend to group together and move quickly, so find them is the first step. But even then, they can be finicky and refuse just about everything. “Somebody needs to figure out a surefire way to catch them.”
The Cowlitz has runs of chinook salmon during spring and fall, and Dammer says the springers are better fish for anglers to pursue. “The fall chinook fishery is not a big deal,” he says. “Those fish come in pretty ripe.”
The spring run usually starts in mid-March and peaks in late April or May, fading in early June. The fishery follows the fish, starting near the mouth of the Cowlitz in the Columbia if the Columbia is open. It then heads to the gravel bars near Olequa Creek and Hog Island and ends up–with some crowds–near the Barrier Dam and Mill Creek. Three age classes of fish comprise the run: 2 to 4-pound immature three-year fish (jacks), 10 to 15-pound four-year fish, and 15 to 35-pound five-year fish. The average chinook weighs 20 pounds. “They come in prime condition,” Dammers says. “They don’t spawn until September, so they have lots of body fat.”
McCoy says catching a 25-pound fish is not so difficult, and he swings flies for kings in the same way he does for steelhead. “I let the fly hang there for awhile,” he explains. “I’ve stood in the bow of the boat and watched the fish move for those flies.”
Sometimes the takes can be very subtle. McCoy recalls one client who complained he had hooked into a snag and couldn’t get his fly out of it. “I told him he had a large fish and he didn’t believe me,” McCoy says. “So I picked up a rock and lobbed it to where the line went into the water. The fish gunned it across the river for 150 feet. He had him on for 90 minutes. That day I think we hooked four kings and landed two.”
Johnson says the hatchery produced a spring chinook run totaling 11,500 adults returning to the hatchery in 2003 and 7,700 in 2005. The fall run has similar numbers. That’s only a fraction of what the river itself produced in 1948, when the estimate was 63,000 fall chinook and 32,500 springers.
Records indicate that the Cowlitz never had much of a summer-run steelhead fishery. Counts from 1962 through 1966 at Mayfield Dam recorded 54,044 steelhead, but only 75 of them traveled between July and October. In recent years, the river has gotten a lot of help from the Cowlitz Trout Hatchery managed by Johnson. Using summer fish from the Skamania River, the hatchery releases up to 550,000 summer smolts annually, all marked by a clipped adipose fin.
The summer fish typically range from 6 to 8 pounds and generally start arriving in late May, with a good push of fish in the second or third week of June. In recent years the run has averaged about 5,300 fish (returning annually to the hatchery separator). After the fish are processed at the hatchery, they are returned downriver to give anglers another shot at catching them.
“It’s one of the real bread-and-butter fisheries in the river, both in terms of numbers and duration,” Dammers says. “The fish last all the way through September and we get some bright ones running around in October.”
McCoy says the Cowlitz has made him rethink how he fishes for steelhead because he’s caught them there using a wide range of techniques. “Nymphing is good for steelhead,” he reports, “and there is a ton of greased-line water. We also do a lot of swinging of flies, pulling upriver, stripping downriver, I’ve caught them with every method using every fly you can think of.”
Rose truly enjoys this fishery, especially in comparison to the rivers farther north that tmpty into Puget Sound. “I feel more confident about fishing for steelhead in a river that connects to the Columbia than in our Puget Sound fisheries,” he says. “Columbia fish tend to be more aggressive. They bite more. The Columbia tributaries put out more fish.”
Winter-run steelhead return to the Cowlitz beginning in November and continue arriving in good numbers through January. Late November and early December bring the three-salt fish, which range in size from 9 to 16 pounds. Fish that have lived in the saltwater for only two years come next, arriving in late December and January. Mostly of hatchery origin, these fish run from 7 to 10 pounds. The average annual run between 2001 and 2005 was about 6,000 adults.
Buckner says he has fished the river for the past seven years and has enjoyd it so cmopletely that he moved from Portland to a home near the boat ramp three years ago. “It’s a classic steelhead river,” he says. ” I did some exploration and found that for the most part, nobody was fly fishing it. I found myself guiding more and more on the river and then I moved up here.”
While the size of the river may deter some fly fishers, McCoy says there’s lots of fly water. And the river generally remains fishable owing to the measured flows from the hydroelectric dams. “The lakes up above filter the river so there is rarely mud,” he says. “There are a few tributaries that can muddy it up. But when all the Puget Sound rivers are blown out, the Cowlitz will be in shape 99.9 percent of the time. Not to mention it’s going to have fish in it.”
Both McCoy and Rose agree that to fish the Cowlitz, you definitely need either a drift boat or a pontoon boat because walk-in access is virtually non-existent. There are bascially four drifts: Barrier Dam to the ramp at Blue Creek (the most popular run), blue Creek to what’s called Massey or Mission Bar, Mission Bar to a boat ramp under I-5, and i-5 to the mouth of Olequa Creek. While the broad Cowlitz itself is prime water for two-handed rods, its various side channels and feeders are ideal for lighter gear. These places often hold winter steelhead seeking quieter flows than the strong main channel.
The Cowlitz hatcheries–one for trout and one for salmon, located 8 miles apart–were created to help maintain the river’s traditional fish runs affected by Tacoma Power’s hydro dams. The Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery, once the largest in the world, was built by Tacoma Power in 1968 and produces several million salmon smolts a year. The agency pays WDFW to operate the hatcheries. It also has its own workers who transport mature fish collected there to upstream spawning areas or back downstream to be “recycled” for anglers. Adjacent to the hatchery is the Barrier Dam, a low barrier that diverts migrating fish to a fish ladder.
The Cowlitz Trout Hatchery, adjacent to the blue Creek Boat Launch, produces more than 1.5 million fish a year: summer and winter steelhead, and sea-run cutthroat. Again, the hatchery production is intended to make up for the loss of cutthroat and steelhead displaced above and below the hydroelectric dams. During a recent dam relicensing process by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a variety of interest groups hammered out an agreement that will likely lead to reduced production of some fish, such as sea-run cotthroat and summer-run steelhead.
The idea, Dammers says, is to focus on wild fish and to reduce the production of hatchery fish as wild runs become more and more successful. Because cutthroat trout, in theory, can reduce salmon runs by eating eggs and fry, that hatchery program could be cut dramatically, from 160,000 young fish a year to 100,000 or even 50,000. But noting that no scientific study has ever been done to prove that sea-run cutthroat hurt salmon runs, Dammer says the state is arguing for the larger number of sea-run hatchery plants: “Hopefully, we will maintain a viable fishery.”
Buckner is concerned with the proposed hatchery cutbacks.. “They want to dismantle the hatcheries because they’re hugely expensive,” he says. “If the issue is you really want the native fish to come back, let’s have conversations about removing the dam. Otherwise, let’s keep the hatcheries on the system.”
The Cowlitz River consistently produces tremendous runs of anadromous fish, along with prodigious catch rates–none of this is a secret to gear anglers, who have reaped the river’s bounty for decades. But Washington’s fly-angling community, long enthralled with the steelhead and salmon rivers of Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula, has barely noticed. For those fly fishers looking for new waters with wide open spaces, though, it’s high time to discover the Cowlitz.