A Fin? You Win On The Cowlitz

EDITOR’S NOTE: THE ORIGINAL HEADLINE AND LEAD SENTENCE OF THIS STORY (NO FIN, YOU WIN …) WERE INCORRECTLY STATED DUE TO THE EDITOR HAVING ONLY HAD ONE CUP OF COFFEE WHEN HE THOUGHT THEM UP. BAD EDITOR. IT WOULD BE BETTER STATED AS A FIN, YOU WIN …

It’s a-fin, you-win days on the Cowlitz starting this Saturday, Sept. 18.

An “unexpected abundance” of hatchery-produced but unmarked Chinook showing up this season has led WDFW to include them in the bag limit.

NORTHWEST SPORTSMAN SEPTEMBER COVER GIRL HEATHER LUSK WITH A 2009 COWLITZ FALL CHINOOK. (SWANNY'S GUIDED FISHING)

You may now keep one adult Chinook with an intact adipose fin as part of the two-adult king daily limit between the boundary markers at the mouth upstream to 400 feet below the Mayfield Dam Powerhouse.

A rule change announcing the change was sent out late yesterday afternoon.

The coho limit remains four hatchery adults per day.

A total of 1,559 hatchery Chinook adults and jacks have returned to the Cowlitz Salmon hatchery through Wednesday, Sept. 15, as well as 111 unmarked kings. Only 38 hatchery coho had returned yet.

As for how to fish ’em, here’s the nut of our September issue’s article, by Terry Von Ottohausenstein:

You’ll find Bill Swann of Swanny’s Guide Service (360-446-5177) fishing above Castle Rock most of the time.

“Those fish seem to squirt right through the lower river,” he explains. “Then they get above Castle Rock and put on the brakes. There are a lot of deep holes and flats in there.”

That means fishermen can find salmon holding from Castle Rock all the way to the Barrier Dam, so we are talking about a lot of water for fishermen to spread out in. You can expect bright kings up here, because Swanny reports that the dark tule Chinook that enter the Cowlitz rarely move higher than the first 2 miles up from the mouth.

He says a lot of fish will stage at the mouth of the Toutle River and in the flats just above the Toutle, where local anglers troll a lot plugs for them. The late run of coho will be headed up the Toutle and there is a bank fishery where the Toutle dumps into the Cowlitz. Look for the late coho to start showing up there about the first of October, along with a lot of fishermen. The late run will peak in late October, but there will be fresh, bright silvers available into early November.

In between the Barrier Dam and the Toutle there are miles of good holding water that produce salmon every year. This reach is best in September when the early-run silvers are in the river. By October the kings are played out and the late run of coho kicks in. Then it’s time to fish below the Toutle until it blows out, usually in mid-October.

FREE-DRIFTING IS what both guide Lee Barkie (360-304-0771) and Swanny prefer to do for Cowlitz salmon, using the same popular method that is the favorite of local steelheaders. The light lines and leaders make for an exciting fight, especially if you hook a big king. One of Swanny’s clients hooked and landed a 42-pound king last year on light line, and followed that with a 36-pounder.

Free drifting lets you really cover the water, which is the key to catching fall salmon here.

“You can really cover the water and find the biters,” says Barkie.

The guides also back-troll diver-and-bait combos and pull plugs.

Both swear Cowlitz salmon have a taste for eggs cured with Pautzke’s Fire Cure. Barkie usually tips his eggs with a small bit of sand shrimp as well. A small bit of yarn can also help, especially when treated with scent.

Barkie says that anglers should look for shallow flats in the morning hours, which is when he free-drifts.

“I look for softer water about 6 to 10 feet deep,” he says.

As the sun climbs, about 9:30 to 10, the fish will move upriver to the first deep hole they find and hold up for the day. Then he switches to a hover-with-bait approach, which means dropping your bait about 2 feet off the bottom with about 8 ounces of lead and backing very slowly down through the hole.

“The bite can go on and off all day,” he says.

From the mouth up, good ramps include Gearhart Gardens, I-5 bridge, Camelot, Castle Rock, Olequa Creek, Toledo, Mission Bar, Blue Creek and Barrier Dam. For descriptions and directions to each, go to sschapterpsa.com/ramblings/Cowlitz_launches.htm.

MOST GOOD BANK SPOTS are well known and fished hard. Still, there are lots of limits caught from the bank in the Cowlitz.

Early in the season the Barrier Dam or the Blue Creek area can produce well. The mouth of the Toutle will draw a few fish, including early kings, but the hot coho action doesn’t start until October. There are a few areas on the Toutle itself that can be fished as well.

WDFW says that next year all hatchery fall Chinook back to the Cowlitz will have clipped adipose fins.

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