A Novice Angler’s Guide to Fishing the Cowlitz

By Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle

I didn’t start steelhead fishing until May of this year. After over 100 hours of fishing, I have yet to haul in a steelhead.

The steelhead is known as the “fish of 1,000 casts” (which are better odds than they give you for a tiger musky, the fish of 10,000 casts), but that doesn’t keep chrome-hungry anglers from haunting likely fish-holding holes, it just spurs us on.

I was a raw noob when I started river fishing in May, and even after 100 hours of summer-run steelhead chasing and well over 300 hours of salmon seeking, I’m still barely beyond novice level.

Why should you listen to me? Because I know how to get you started, if you haven’t already taken a stab at steelheading. I’ll point the way — right to the experts.

I Confess, I’m an Addict

After an uneventful couple of months of summer-run steelhead seeking on the Cowlitz, my eldest son and I decided try something new — an maybe find a fish to take home.  My son is my fishing partner and river fishing instructor, although he’s barely dry behind the ears himself when it comes to fast water.

August found us wading waist deep into the Puyallup River, pursuing the famed biennial pink salmon run. I thought I might be crazy, as I first waded into that murky water. After standing there a while, I knew I was definitely crazy. Crazy for salmon fishing.

If I hadn’t already been hooked on river fishing, the pink salmon run would have taken me down — hook, line and sinker.

In September we began fishing the Barrier Dam area of the Cowlitz River, which is where I found the confidence to go fishing on my own. There I met a community of river-addled addicts, all with the same goal in mind — dinner and a tall, but true tale to tell while savoring a good meal.

I fished the Barrier Dam area through October and into November, landed a ton of fish (very few of which were edible or legal to keep, unfortunately) and I learned a lot from my new friends.

The most important lesson I learned is that when it comes to river fishing, your best bet is to sidle up next to somebody that knows what they’re doing and pick their brain.

River fishing is a complex, detail-laden, ever-changing, ever-evolving undertaking that takes near Herculean effort and a whole lot of time to master. There are no shortcuts.

But before you go, heed my warning: river fishing is addictive, can be hazardous to family relationships, may cause fits of anxiety, sleepless nights and you won’t want to stop.

Meet Some Fellow Addicts

I met Richard Goodwin, of Olympia, Saturday afternoon on Christmas Eve. Richard is a career Army man who, after 27 years overseas, has settled in stay.

Why? Because he’s fallen in love with the river.

Richard started river fishing in October, when an experienced steelheading friend talked him into trying it. He was on his third day of fishing (for this week) when I caught up to him.

“It just took one trip in October to get me started. I’ve been down here every weekend since then,” Richard said.

Lois Lambert, of The Dalles, Ore., started river fishing when she met her boyfriend two years ago. He lives in Yakima, they like to meet in the middle and fish together.

“We go to the Klickitat, White River, and we fish the Columbia a lot too. He always says I out fish him, but I don’t,” Lois said with a wide grin. “I just caught me a fisherman, that’s all.”

Lois said having a patient teacher has made all the difference in the world to her.

“I think a lot more women would be out here fishing with their husbands if they’d just take the time and be patient with them,” Lois said.

Although some men might be opposed to the idea of having more women on the river — especially their own wives — Lois’ boyfriend Kelly, who had one steelhead landed that day compared to Lois’ two, enjoys the company and the camaraderie, he said.

Monday, the day after Christmas, I caught up with Jas Sangha, local owner of the Chehalis and Centralia Wendy’s restaurants, as he plied the Cowlitz River waters at Blue Creek accompanied by family members visiting from California over the holidays.

Jas was brand-new to the sport of steelheading, but found a good teacher, Chris Baily of Lacey, to lead him through the process and find success.

“Every year we try to do something different to show my niece and nephews how beautiful Washington state is,” said Jas. “This year it’s fishing.”

Jas had the whole bank of anglers grinning ear to ear as he hauled in a beauty of a native 10-pound steelhead that afternoon.

Beginner’s luck? Maybe so, but I think I can say with some confidence that without the help of an experienced guide, Jas would have been lost and fishless. Steelhead fishing isn’t something you can master overnight, it takes time.

Getting Started

Like I said before, your best bet is to find somebody that knows what they’re doing when it comes to steelheading and have them show you the ropes.

If you don’t have any steelheading friends, hire a guide for the day. An experienced guide isn’t cheap, but it will save you money in the long run.

Steelheading gear is specific to the sport. Don’t grab a bass rod and head for the river, thinking you’ll be able to hold your own in the combat fishing zone known as Blue Creek.

Avid angler Wes Cooper, of Castlerock, found that to be true on his first trip to the river.

“I’m from Tennessee,” Cooper said, “the first time I came out here, I had a 6-foot bass rod with me. An old-timer took one look at it and shook his head at me. Then he reached for a spare rod he had and said, ‘Here, son, you better try this.’ He ended up giving me the rod at the end of the day.”

Cooper is now paying the favor forward and is fishing with fellow soldier and Montana-raised angler, Justin Hoff, of Lacey.

“This kind of fishing is nothing like what we have in Montana,” said Hoff, now a full-fledged river addict.

Hoff had hit the Nisqually River on Tuesday morning and in just 40 minutes had landed two chum before he broke his rod in half. That didn’t slow him down, however, he just made a side trip in to Cabela’s on his way down to the Cowlitz River with his 10-year-old stepson, Justin Shepard, in tow.

That’s what I call dedication to the sport.

Gearing Up

What are they biting on? Ask 100 fishermen and you’ll get 100 different answers.

There are a lot of methods of steelhead fishing, both from a boat and on the bank. My advice is to do your research, pick one and learn it. Watch the successful anglers; see how they play the fish, what they’re using and how they’re using it.

The gear isn’t cheap and you can count on sacrificing a lot of tackle to the river gods before you find a fish. That’s just part of the sport, though, and is to be expected.

You’ll need to get a good pair of waders (or, at the very least, a pair of knee-high waterproof boots), weather appropriate clothing and gloves. Don’t forget to bring a stocking cap, it can get mighty cold on the river as you say to yourself, “Okay, one last cast,” over and over and over again while the night falls around you.

A light source is a valuable tool to bring, whether you plan to start fishing before daybreak or fish well past dark. The trail to the mouth of Blue Creek is long, can get muddy and is hard to navigate in the dark.

Jump In With Both Feet

Once you have the fishing gear and the fishing guru lined up, all you need to do is jump into the sport with both feet and step into the river. It takes time (a lot of time) and effort (a lot of effort) to get good at it.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but try to stay humble when you do. Even the most experienced bass-man or trout-troller will need to spend some time getting used to the ways of the river.

Try hitting the river midweek for your first effort, avoid the crowds.

The weekends at the Blue Creek Boat Launch are packed with anglers, both experienced and inexperienced. If you go on the weekend you’ll probably end up frustrated and unhappy.     And the experienced anglers won’t thank you for the mess you’ll make when you consistently toss your line over theirs and get hold up the whole line of fishermen.

There is a Rule of Etiquette to river fishing. Learn the rules and listen to your elders.

Mondays and Fridays are only slightly less crowded than the weekends.

Just how crowded can it get? Well, on High Holy fishing days at the height of the season, they pack 100 anglers onto a bank that is really only comfortable for 20. That’s why they call it “combat fishing,” because you’re standing shoulder to shoulder, battling not just fish, but men.

See You There

As I sit in front of my computer screen this morning, working on fishing reports and outdoors briefs, I feel like that kid in the Disneyland commercial that says, “I’m too excited to sleep!”

I’m too excited to write!

All I can think about is getting out on the river today. The water is coming up and I’m hoping to bring home my first winter-run steelhead of the year — heck, my first steelie ever.

It’s time to go outside and play. See you there!

•••

Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer and Outdoors enthusiast who lives in Cinebar.  Visit her photography blog, The (Almost) Daily Bird (blogs.chronline.com/dailybird), follow her on Twitter (ChronKim) or on facebook (Kimberly Mason — The Chronicle). Contact her at kz@tds.net, text or call 269-5017.

Where to Surf the Web for More Info

Barrier Dam Campground, Salkum (barrierdam.com). The website says the Barrier Dam Campground is one of Washington’s best kept secret. But seriously, Don Glaser (BDC owner), who doesn’t know about you, the Friends of the Cowlitz and one of the best places to grab tackle and get a good tip or three on local fishing? You’d have to be living under a rock — a big, heavy rock — to not know about the BDC. Karen Glaser posts a weekly fishing report on the website.

Gamefishin.com (www.gamefishin.com). Look for up-to-the-minute fishing reports here, chat in the forum or cruise the articles. This site is always up on the swim of things.

Steelhead University (steelheaduniversity.com). This is the go-to site for novice and experienced steelhead anglers alike. Fishing guides post up-to-date reports here, fishing experts give you the lowdown on what’s working there. This site is chock full of information — here, there, and everywhere. Also be sure to check out the sister site, Salmon University (salmonuniversity.com).

Washington Lakes (washingtonlakes.com). Don’t let the name fool you, this website covers not just lakes, but rivers, streams, the South Sound, and ocean waters. The forums are full of interesting, informative, and sometimes downright hilarious posts. And the fishing reports are as fresh as the fish I (hopefully) just hauled out of the water.

USGS Water Flow (waterdata.usgs.gov/wa/nwis/rt). Experienced anglers check the water levels before they head to the river. Anything between 5,000 and 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) is what you’re looking for. For the water flow data at Blue Creek Boat Launch on the Cowlitz River, hover your mouse over a likely-looking dot on the state map and click.