Under the Open Sky: Still Stalking Summer-Run Steelhead

By Kimberly Mason
For The Chronicle
When I meet local anglers along the Cowlitz River I am often asked, “Have you caught a steelhead yet?”
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is still “No.” But I’m learning.

I spent seven days in a row on the Cowlitz this week. Some days I only worked my line for a few hours, I spent the whole day in the water a few of those days, and other days I spent most of my time wading in and out of the water whenever someone hooked a fish and I saw a photo opportunity in the making.

Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle. Rory Maddox, Winlock, used a silver corky and a pinch of pink yarn to entice this 8-lb. summer-run steelhead out of the Cowlitz River at Barrier Dam on Tuesday, Aug. 21. The fish looks a bit worse for wear since he's weathered a few attacks, but he couldn't have shone any brighter in the noonday sun — a real chromer. "I usually only come down here a couple of times a month," said Maddox, "but I can't wait until fall salmon season, I'll be here a lot more often."

I started the week hunting fall Chinook (my favorite fishing season), but ended up stalking summer-run steelhead as I watched angler after angler hook into them and haul them out of the water.
There have been fewer anglers than usual at the Barrier Dam lately, so these last few weeks — before the fall Chinook season heats up — is a terrific opportunity for you to hit the water and warm up your throwing arm or learn a new fishing technique.
It’s also a terrific time to learn to apply the “10 Rules of Combat Fishing Etiquette” while the traffic is still light and anglers aren’t gearing up for a fight.

Austin Rico-Collette, 12, Onalaska, fighting to hold on to a steelhead in the Cowlitz River at Barrier Dam on Saturday while his dad, Sean Collette, coaches and readies the net. Austin didn't pull a steelhead out of the water that day, but he outfished the rest of the anglers on that stretch of the river. Austin said he is looking forward to fall Chinook season this year, the only fish he has yet to land out of this river.

10 Rules of Combat Fishing Etiquette
There are a few rules of etiquette in river fishing I have learned to follow that tend to keep the “combat” of competitive steelhead fishing in the water and against the fish, not on the banks against the guy standing next to you.
Rule 1: Wait to cast your line until the guy downstream from you has cast his.
Rule 2: Have patience, don’t cast over someone else’s line. If they hook into a fish at the end of their drift, you’ll end up being the bad guy when he loses the fish.
Rule 3: Don’t let your line drift too far downstream. And start to reel in when your line hits the three o’clock mark (you’re standing at six), or else you’ll risk hooking the fisherman next to you.
Rule 4: If you notice your line drifting faster than everyone else, add a bit more weight to slow your line down. If your line is moving slower, take off some weight.
Rule 5: If someone moves out of the line or off the rock, don’t move into his spot unless you are sure he has quit fishing that area. Always ask before you take someone’s place.
Rule 6: If someone hooks a fish, reel in your line — quickly — and be ready to move out of the fisherman’s way in case he has to work the fish up or down the bank.
Rule 7: When you get a fish on the line, yell “FISH ON!” loud and clear so everyone can hear you and get out of your way.
Rule 8: If there is plenty of room on the river, don’t stand too close to your neighbor. Spread out and fish your own water.
Rule 9: Fish the same way everyone is fishing. If everyone in the area you want to fish is drifting, you need to free drift fish too. If they’re using a bobber and jig, jig up too. Plunking? Plunk. The experienced anglers will use the best method for the water, listen to them and watch how they work.
And Rule 10 (the most important rule): If you don’t know something, ask. Most of the experienced anglers I have met on the river are happy to explain to you how you can make your day — and his day — a better day on the water.
May your lines stay tight and your feet stay underneath you. Happy fishing.

American Crows hop in mighty, effort-filled leaps from rock to rock along the Cowlitz River at the Barrier Dam as they scavenge for something to eat.

Birding at Barrier Dam
You don’t have to step one foot in the water or even bring your fishing rod to enjoy the Barrier Dam area of the Cowlitz River, where fishing is often an entertaining spectator sport.
There is also a great variety of interesting birds to watch.
Great Blue Herons, Bald Eagles, Belted Kingfishers, American Dippers, gulls and other LBJs (little brown jobs) are commonly seen picking fish carcasses clean, plucking small fish from the river, or picking up scattered eggs.
On Tuesday I watched as a flock of Canadian Geese flew upstream on the river and then made “whiffling” maneuvers to quickly lower their speed and altitude over the water and make a quick drop into the river behind the hatchery.
When a goose “whiffles” he keeps his head steady and quickly twists his body to 90- to 180-degrees.

Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer and photojournalist. Visit her website The (Almost) Daily News (almostdailynews.com), find her on Facebook (Kimberly Mason — The Chronicle), call 269-5017 or email kim@almostdailynews.com.