After a soggy start to November, we finished out the month with some cooler, drier climes, bringing most of our rivers into fishable shape. Like eagles on a fresh chum carcass, we flocked to the water to see what was out there and have been finding lots of chum salmon, bull trout and even some late coho in the mix. It’s a strangely pleasant time of year to be afoot on our local flows, swaddled in fleece, Gore-tex and Primaloft, searching the milky green water for something bright and full of vigor, gazing off into the dim haze that shrouds the Cascades.
We should begin seeing the first of our winter steelhead over the next few weeks. Recently, the state submitted a new steelhead management plan to NOAA that proposes a spring catch and release steelhead fishery on the Skagit. The prospect of once again enjoying swinging flies beyond the iron skies of January and into the budding warmth of Spring certainly lifts our spirits. In the meantime, enjoy the holidays and take to the water when you can and when conditions allow. It’s comfortably cold once again, snowing in the mountains and beautifully crisp along the lonely river bars.
Even with the continued rain, rivers are keeping their figure much better than when we were all walking around in T-shirts at the beginning of November. End the year on a high note…go fishing. We find that’s a darn good way to start the new year as well. Wishing you the best of Holidays from the Confluence Fly Shop!
It’s largely a river show in the North Sound area for the next few months. If you’re a diehard stillwater angler, you certainly have a few options as well between Pass, Squalicum and a handful of year round lakes. With the colder weather, you’ll want to slow your presentation way down and fish micro leeches and streamers like Zonkers, Flash Fry, Kiwi Muddlers and Rolled Muddlers. We ourselves are mostly fair weather lake fishermen. If we conspire to immerse our lower halves in bitterly cold water for the better part of the day, we’d just as soon be catching steelhead, or at least a bunch of bull trout while trying.
When the Nooksack finally dropped into something resembling fishable a few weeks back, we found it absolutely full of chum salmon along with the odd late coho. For chum, Alaskabou’s in purple/pink and popsicle color, along with Starlight Leeches in pink or purple have been working well. As much as a lot of folks like to swing flies out there, if you can dead drift your fly with an occasional twitch, either under a light sink tip, floating line or indicator, you will generally catch more chum. They really seem to prefer the drift and twitch presentation. Most years, chum will be present in the Nooksack through much of December, though start to taper off after the first few weeks.
The Skagit continues to produce some bright coho and usually fishes through most of December. There will be fewer fish around this time of year, but often some of the biggest of the season. Chrome Magnets in pink or purple, Starlight Leeches in black, pink or purple, Dali Lamas in pink/purple, pink/white or chartreuse/white and Hotshot Comets in chartreuse, purple, pink or black and copper are working well when the water has some color (which is most of the time). In low, clear water if we get a week or two of freeze in the lowlands, reach for your smaller California Neils, Olive Sparkle Buggers and Green or Copper Globs.
As the salmon runs wane, look for bull trout from the Stilly, Skagit and Nooksack to be keying in on egg patterns or various egg sucking leech type flies. This steady seasonal drift of protein is simply too important to ignore. If you like catching whitefish. They love egg patterns this time of year as well. If you don’t, you’re probably going to catch a few anyway while fishing for bull trout. Flesh flies will fish well through December and early January also, so be sure to have some tan or flesh colored Bunny Leeches in your box. Find the eagles lining the leafless shoreline cottonwoods like silent sentries and you’re probably not far from an area where char, trout and whitefish are getting their egg on.
For many of us, December officially kicks off the winter steelhead season. Some of the more productive rivers in Western Washington for early hatchery fish include the Bogachiel, lower Queets and Quinault systems, though some areas require a tribal guide to fish. In our neck of the woods, the Skykomish system usually sees the bulk of the North Sound hatchery steelhead return. The Stilly and Nooksack see fewer fish, but sometimes fewer fish comes with fewer people. Not always but often enough.
All of these rivers see a handful of early wild fish returning in December. These are what we search for and find them just often enough to keep at it year after year. If you’re looking for a magic winter steelhead fly, there isn’t one. We fish with equal zeal the Signature Intruder, Trailer Trash, Guide Intruder, Fish Taco, Squidro, Burnt Chicken, Marabou GP, Pick Yer Pocket and Hohbo Spey in blacks, purples, pinks or oranges as our primary colors. Winter steelhead success is about covering water and getting a good slow swung presentation on our rivers. One way to cover more water proficiently is by using a two handed rod. Long rods and spey casting makes the day easier on your body, keeps your fly in the water longer if you’re doing it right and really allows you to control your presentation at a distance better than with a short rod.
For those of you new to steelhead on the fly, there is a certain zen to it, and there’s also a lot of simple common sense. If you’d like a hand in breaking it all down, learning to cast proficiently with a two handed rod or simply want to hang out and indulge in the marvels of modern graphite spey rods, join us for our December 10th Sage and Redington spey day on the Nooksack. The one thing we cherish about many of our North Sound rivers is that even when there are few steelhead around, you’re often catching nice bull trout regularly throughout the day. Bulls keep your heart pumping in the rain and cold. And every so often, the next pull is not a bull.