Cowlitz River Steelhead in Winter

December’s best for Cowlitz River metalheads
By Dusty Routh
What: Powerfully productive winter steelhead fishing on one of the best metalhead rivers in the Northwest.

Where: The Cowlitz River in Lewis County.

From Blue Creek down to Mission Bar is the river’s best steelheading water.

When: Things get cooking in late November, and by December the river has plenty of steelhead in it.

How: Pulling plugs will work, but side-drifting eggs and Corkies on long, noodle spinning rods is ultra-deadly here.

Rich Mercado
Rich’s Northwest
Guide Service

Onco Sportfishing

VLT Guide Service

Salmon & Steelhead
Guide Service

TOLEDO, Wash. — In the world of steelhead fishing, there are bad rivers, good rivers and excellent rivers, in terms of your chances of putting steelhead in the boat.

The Cowlitz River in southwest Washington falls into the latter category, easily.

It has a continuous flow of incoming hatchery steelhead from Thanksgiving into January and February, with enough fish that a lot of experienced anglers and guides have multiple-fish days all the way through winter with no problem.

What’s more, this month is considered by many to be the very best for Cowlitz River winter steelhead. One of those proponents is Rich Mercado of Rich’s Northwest Guide Service (253-535-0403).

“It’s got a continuous flow of fish, and I think December is the best month to be on the river. I really fish it hard in December, and again in January.”

He pounds the river hard in these two months for a variety of reasons.

“It typically kicks off around Thanksgiving,” he said, “there’s fish in there by then. But the fishing doesn’t get hot until December. But I also like that month because with the holidays and everything else going on a lot of guys aren’t on the river.”

“And I like January too, because a lot of the guides who work the Cowlitz are off it, doing the sportsman shows. The fishing can stay hot all the way through the end of January.”

Delayed fish

It used to be on the Cowlitz — like a lot of other big steelhead rivers in the state — that all the fish tended to show up at once, and for a two to three-week period the fishing would be red-hot, then it would die off and slow to a crawl.

But WDFW and the Blue Creek Hatchery now has a delayed planting schedule, which means returning fish are more spread out.

“We used to get just a big bulk of fish all at one time,” Mercado said.

“And everyone banged on the fish real hard and then it would slow down. But the way they do the delay plant thing now, it’s a longer season.”

“You have to work a little harder for your fish, but at least you have fish for a lot longer period of time.”

Almost the entire winter run is made up of hatchery steelhead heading to the Blue Creek Hatchery.

But every winter Mercado said he encounters a few “wild” fish, which he’s sure are hatchery fish that didn’t get fin-clipped.

“You can definitely tell they’re hatchery fish,” he said.

“They’re all real cookie-cutter, about 10 to 12 pounds. But all the hatchery fish in the winter tend to be nice fish, bigger than the summer-runs.”

And not all of them fit into that 10 to 12-pound category.

“Occasionally we’ll hit a fish that’s 18 to 20 pounds. Last season we got some 16s and 17s. And I had a client that got back-to-back 20s, two 20-pounders from the same hole.”

“He hit the first one behind a big boulder in the boulder garden right near Blue Creek. So we ran back up and on the third drift he got the second one,” Mercado said.

Favorite haunts

For Mercado and a lot of the other guides who jet-sled the river, the best way to fish is to launch at the ramp at the hatchery on Blue Creek, and go around the corner into the mainstem of the Cowlitz.

Work that water really well, then continue to slide down the river as far as the Mission Bar.

Or if you want to encounter fewer people, fish from the Mission Bar on down towards Toledo and the I-5 bridge.

Boondogging nirvana

You can pull plugs on the Cowlitz, of course, but this is a river that’s absolutely made for side-drifting, and it’s an incredibly effective technique.

Mercado uses 10½-foot Lamiglas LLS spinning rods, outfitted with Shimano Stradic spinning reels.

He spools up with 10-pound mainline, and uses 8-pound fluorocarbon leaders.

He uses two No. 4 Gammy hooks, a small Corky and a small gob of cured eggs.

Corky colors include red, red/orange, green, red or clown/chartreuse, and peach/orange.

In the summer, Mercado recommends using a really small gob of eggs, about the size of a dime, but in the winter he ups the size to about a nickel or quarter size, depending on the water flow.

Mercado’s side-drifting platform is a new 25-foot Alumaweld with a 200-hp tiller Mercury and an 8-hp, 4-stroke kicker motor.

Mercado said the best way to learn how to sled or drift the Cowlitz is to go on the river when the water’s down.

“Go when it’s low and look at the water and see what the structure is,” he said.

“Then you know what’s down there, and you’ll know what to expect when the water’s high, because you know where everything is, like logjams and rocks.”

What you’re looking for in December are current seams.

“I’ll really key on fishing the different current structures there, that’s how I typically fish it,” Mercado said.

“Because that’s where the fish are going to be. And they tend to be in the same spots, so if you catch fish in one hole, come back in a week and there’s fish in that same hole again.”

Mercado tends to work his favorite places over and over again, because of the propensity for different steelhead to use the same places in the river.

“If I’ve caught fish in that place before, I’ll pound it pretty hard. But sometimes you don’t want to move around a whole lot, because at certain times in certain places, there’s a bite that’s going to happen, maybe a 10-minute or a 5-minute bite.”

“If you’re gone looking for new places and new fish, you may only get two fish that day because you missed the hot bite in some of those other places where you know there are fish.”

Anchor or drift?

The Cowlitz used to have more drift boats on the river than sleds, but that ratio is changing.

The question then becomes, is it better to anchor up and work an area thoroughly, or drift through it and run back up to it?

For Mercado, free drifting, or boondogging, is so effective that it’s his numero uno preferred way to work the river.

“If you do anchor up,” Mercado warns, “just be careful of what’s up above you. Some of those rock walls along the river have caved in before, that’s how that guy got killed a few years ago on Super Bowl Sunday.”

“When we have freezes and thaws, and rains, you get a lot of erosion, and stuff comes down, like trees and rocks. What happened there was the hillside caved in, and guys went in the water, so you don’t want to be anchoring underneath big cliffs with trees hanging over you.”

Watch out for others

Anchoring makes it hard for the boats that are free drifting, and free drifters can get in the way of boats that are anchored.

The Cowlitz has gotten to be a very busy place in the winter, with wading anglers, drift boaters and sledders all sharing the same water.

“You have to just be courteous and patient,” Mercado said.

“Some guys in their brand new boats are running the river at mach speed, and you really don’t need to be doing that.”

There’s too many people on the river, especially drift boats that can’t maneuver out of your way. So everybody just has to cut everyone else some slack, and they’ll have a better and safer time of it.”