Northwest Fly Fishing Magazine
Snoqualmie River, WA
by Mike Benbow
For most anglers in the Seattle area, steelhead fishing usually begins and ends with a long drive.
Even with your pedal to the metal, reaching well known rivers such as the Cowlitz and the Kalama in the southwest corner of the state takes as least two hours; more to get to the Sol Duc, the Hoh and the Bogachiel on the Olympic Peninsula in the state’s northwest coerner–at trip that can also include an expensive ferry ride for vehicles towing a boat.
An easier drive northward reaches the Skagit, Sauk and Stillaguamish rivers, but you must still awaken well before dawn if you want time for breakfast before getting to the water at first light.
Then there’s the Snoqualmie–a river that allows most Seattle-area residents at least an extra hour of sleep. The Snoqualmie Valley is only 30 miles from downtown Seattle, and plenty of fishable water flows an hour or less by car. But the the Snoqualmie isn’t just readily available; the river can also be highly productive. Most years, the Snoqualmie is among the top 10 rivers in Washington for catches of winter steelhead.
A River of Contrasts
Every river is different. That’s why fly fishers are so fascinated by them. But if ever there were a river with at least two distinct personalities, perhaps three, the Snoqualmie is it. Beginning in the Cascade Range in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the Snoqualmie gathers swift, gin-clear flows from three forks–the North, South and the Middle forks–that merge just upstream from the river’s defining feature, Snoqualmie Falls. Here the river plunges 268 feet, creating a tourist attraction that draws 1.5 million visitors each year.
The falls also create a sharp dividing line for the fishery. Below, the attraction is fish that go to sea: steelhead, salmon and sea-run cutthroat. Above, is a dry-fly addicts dream, featuring cutthroat and the occasional rainbow, cuttbow and brook trout.
That division has persisted for thousands of years. Receding glaciers left a plain near the falls that was heavily populated by deer and mountain goats. The residents of the area, the upper Snoqualmie band, traded meat on the hoof to the Lower Snoqualmie natives for the right to fish below the falls for salmon and steelhead. “Snoqualmie” is the anglicized version of a Coast Salish word meaning “moon,” and valley natives were called the moon peole, so named from a traditional story about a beaver that went into the sky to steal trees and fire-making tools and bring them to earth.
The Snoqualmie has healthy runs of both winter and summer run steelhead. “The runs sometimes overlap,” say Aaron Reimer, whose River Run Anglers fly shop in a yellow historic barn in downtown Carnation is just a stone’s throw from the Snoqualmie. “You can catch a bright winter-run fish and dark summer-run fish at the same time.”
Reimer, who can be found most Saturdays teaching free Spey-casting clinics in Carnation’s McDonald Park also divides the river below the falls into two segments. In additiona to the split above and below the falls, he says, there’s a distinct difference between the stretch from the falls down to Fall City and the lower river, from below Fall City down to where the Snoqualmie joins the Skykomish River in Monroe to form the Snohomish River. Both of these segments flow through a valley transformed into farmland in the 1880’s after most of the land was logged over. Reimer like the upper segment because there is more access and more ideal fly-fishing water. The lower runs are deeper and slower.
Most of the fish taken in the lower segment, explains Reimer, are steelhead headed for the upper part of the river or the Tolt River, a tributary. Once those fish reach their destination, “they are pretty grabby,” he says. “The numbers are consolidated pretty much in the upper river. They can only go to the falls. A lot of fish lie in the upper falls pool and then slide down at night and after a rain.” Reimer says about half the water between the falls and the Carnation Farm Road bridge is prime fly-fishing water, with a modest gradient and rocky runs with good holding water. In winter the steelhead average about 8 pounds, with hatchery fish reaching about 12 pounds, and wild fish topping out even larger.
In the 2005-06 season, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) stocked the Snoqualmie with 173,456 winter steelhead smolts, a typical number for the last few years. According to WDFW surveys, anglers caught 2,067 winter steelhead during the 2001-02 season, 34 more than were landed on the Skagit, a much more popular steelhead fishery. The Snoqualmie was the ninth in the state for steelhead catches that season, eighth in 2000-01, seventh in 1998-99, and ninth again in 1997-98.
While the Snoqualmie si productive in winter, it can be a difficult fishery because, unlike rivers such as the Skagit, its flows aren’t controlled by dams. “With the weather, you can get some violent upswings and downswings,” Reimer admits.
Because of those sudden and dramatic–violent, Reimer terms them–fluctuations and because the river closes at the end of February, the Snoqualmie is actually more popular among fly anglers for its summer-run steelhead. Certinaly that’s the case with John Rabel, who slipped into Reimer’s shop on a recent morning to look over a new Spey reel. Rabel, who lives on the river, wasn’t eager to sing its praises because he didn’t want to attract more anglers. But he did say this about the Snoqualmie: “It’s close, and I’m addicted to summer-run steelhead. The fishing is pleasant and the catching is occasional. Last year, a Peregrine falcon made about six passes over me checking me out and that’s beautiful stuff.”
The river’s beauty is a factor mentioned by many, especially considering the Snoqualmie’s proximity to Seattle.
“It’s not like fishing the Sauk where the mountains are right in your face, but it is pretty,” says Nathan Keen, manager and co-owner of The Avid Angler fly shop in Lake Forest Park north of Seattle.
The Snoqualmie was the first area river that Dave McCoy, owner of Emerald Water Anglers, scouted when he moved to Seattle in the winter of 2000. He now spends 30-40 days on the river each year. “It’s nice if you compare it to the Cedar [another of Seattle’s urban rivers],” McCoy says. “It has a wilderness feel to it and is much less urban. You’re not fishing in people’s backyards.”
While most anglers agree with Rabel that “catching is occasional” on the Snoqualmie, a lot of them have stories to tell about periods of better-than-average success. Keen says that he hasn’t fished the river all that much, but “for the time I’ve put in, I’ve done very well. Ive’ fished it four times [for steelhead] and hooked four fish and landed three. In recent years, the Snoqualmie has been one of the better rivers for numbers of fish.”
McCoy once enjoyed a remarkable streak of 17 consecutive trips in which clients hooked steelhead. “It was kind of cool,” he says. “I’d wake up in the morning to do a steelhead trip and would have confidence [my client] could get one if [I] could put [him] in a position where he could cast. Some days we’d hook a fish or two and see several other guys hook one on the same stretch of water. There are a lot of fish that go up there.”
Both Keen and Reimer describe the summer-run fish as more troutlike than those in other Puget Sound rivers. “There are more insect hatches on the Snoqualmie for some reason, and it seems to play on the fish,” Keen explains. “It causes the steelhead to be more ‘trouty.'”
Keen likes to fish the river in the fall, after a cold snap or a rain. “After the god days of August, fishing gets going up there, and it can be good,” he says.
McCoy says steelhead fishing on the Snoqualmie can be good in August, and that the summer action actually lasts into December, when the fish “still trickle in.” He agrees with Keen, however, in considering autumn–September and October–to be the best time for summer steelhead on this river.
Most of the upper portion of the main river is “pretty floatable,” according to McCoy. For steelhead he likes the drift from Fall City to Carnation, noting that the section from Snoqualmie Falls to Fall City “gets pounded” by anglers. He cautions, however, that his favorite stretch includes some tricky spots with big sweepers and old bridge pilings, so boaters must use caution and remain alert at the oars.
During summer, anglers must also watch for people floating the river in inner tubes. “The upper Snoqualmie can be an odd place during the bikini bloom,” Reimer says. “in the summertime you can be fly fishing in between the swimmers and the inner tubes.”
Reimer notes that many people advise fishing the river in summer and fall in early morning or evening. “I personally find that from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. can be pretty successful on overcast days,” he says.
The average summer fish weighs about the same as the typical winter steelhead–about 8 pounds. A big summer fish weighs upwards of 12 pounds, and Reimer says that during the summer of 2006, anglers took several fish in the 16- to 18-pound range. The main river is open from June 1 through February 28.
Salmon and Sea-Runs
In addition to steelhead, the Snoqualmie has runs of several species of salmon, with the notable exception of sockeyes. Chinook and pink salmon must be released immediately if caught, as the river has no open seasons for legally targeting them. While the run of pinks has been fairly strong in recent years, it is historically small, hence the release requirements, says Chad Jackson of the WDFW. “Bull trout are also listed [on the federal list of threatened and endangered species],” he notes, adding that anglers “should take a little extra care in releasing the fish,” including native steelhead. The listed salmon, bull trout, and native steelhead all must be kept in the water for release, not pulled out and handled for photos, Jackson adds.
Coho, which Jackson says are more abundant than the river’s other salmon, arrive in late September and early October. Reimer says the Snoqualmie has lots of good holding water for coho. He notes that silvers can be finicky and adds that the one thing anglers don’t want to do is cast a fly into the school and strip it back. “You’ll put them down in a minute,” he says. You always want to strip the fly in front of the school; silver can be mad for the strip.”
Chum salmon arrive in November and can also provide good sport, Reimer says. While salmon can be fun on fly tackle, sea-run cutthroat are perhaps more popular, in part because they arrive in the fall and can be caught on the same flies and in the same water as summer-run steelhead.
“It’s pretty good sea-run cutthroat fishing,” Keen says. “You can be fishing for sea-run cutts and have steelhead be a bi-catch when it’s low and clear. I’ve had that happen, and a buddy has had that happen. We were stripping October caddis pupa patterns in the surface film. You can be fishing for one or the other and without even knowing it be fishing for both.”
Reimer says cutthroat stack up between the Carnation Farm Road bridge and the Tolt River during August and September. He recommends “frog water”–the slower, deeper stretches of water–under shoreline bushes and near logs and other structure. The area around Weiss Creek is a traditional hole, he adds.
Above the Falls
Reimer doesn’t like to fish above the falls, noting that the trout aren’t particluarly big and that he can be fishing the Yakima, a blue-ribbon trout stream, in about the sam time it takes him to reach one of the Snoqualmie’s forks. McCoy agrees the fish aren’t all that big, but he still loves catching them anyway, give the right equipment.
“It’s absolutely a perfect place to be excercising a fish with a lightweight rod,” he says. “We get a lot of out-of-town clients, and one of my favorite things is to take them there.”
The coastal cutthroat of the upper drainage, he says, are beautiful fish with profoundly bright arange gill slashes, pinkish hues down their sides, and a golden hue when they prepare to spawn. “Even a 6-inch fish is gorgeous,” he says, noting he ofter will put a 0-weight rod in his clients’ hands. “A lot of people haven’t even heard of a 0-weight rod. It’s nice to go up and catch a fish that will bend that rod down to the cork.”
Most of the fish on the Middle Fork, which is open year-round with catch-and-release regulations, are 8 to 10 inches long, with a few in the 12-inch range and the rare 16-incher.
McCoy says the middle Fork is the most popular of the Snoqualmie’s three branches and is productive from North Bend to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Access begins at exit 34 off Interstate 90 leading to Middle Fork Road, which becomes Lake Dorothy Road and parallels the rier for much of its length. Hikers can also fish the Middle Fork by trail in the wilderness area.
McCoy also enjoys exploring the North and South forks, which are open from June 1 through October 31, and their unnamed tributaries, noting that they sometimes yield larger-than-expected trout. Anglers can also the South Fork, which parallels I-90 for several miles, by taking an exit near North Bend and looking for access underneath bridges. A country road follows the North Fork for many miles, but McCoy notes that much of the adjacent property is private and owned by people who don’t want visitors.
So what are the Snoqualmies’ best attributes? In addition to being a short trip from a major metropolitan area, the river offers aggressive steelhead–winter- and summer-run fish–that can be easier to find than their brethren in many other rivers because they stack up in the stretch of water below spectacular Snoqualmie Falls.
The river is also the answer to the oft-posed question, “Where can I go fly fishing for trout in the Puget Sound area of western Washington?”
Because most of the rivers west of the Cascades have sparse insect popluations, few have significant populations of trout. That’s not true of the Snoqualmie, which offers excellent, accessible trout fishing on the three forks above the falls.
This wonderful combination of steelhead runs in the lower river and trout fishing in the upper drainage makes the Snoqualmie the quietly revered home water of many Seattle-area anglers.