Columbia Steelheading On The Rise

The great roving eye that is Northwest Sportsman magazine’s Weekend Hot Bite Finder has been focused this week on finding the very first pink salmon caught in Puget Sound and the opening of a sockeye fishery on Baker Lake in Washington’s North Cascades tomorrow, but a report of “insanely good” summer steelheading has our all-seeing eye zooming in on the lower Columbia River.

That report came from a local tackle shop, but even in the judgement of a slightly more sober fisheries biologist stationed along its shores, catches in the big creek below Rainier, Ore., and Longview, Wash., have been “good” in recent days.

It’s a wee bit tardy, but the summer run is officially on!

So, with that in mind and a great weather forecast for this weekend, we’ve pulled an article by Sandy, Ore., writer Terry Otto which ran in a recent issue of Northwest Sportsman — complete with a map to the best beaches and how to fish ’em — and posted it here in hopes it yields big catches for you.

Good luck!

PRESCOTT BEACH, Ore.—You are just dozing off into a daydream when you hear the little bell go off. Fish on! Grabbing the rod from the holder you tighten up the line and put the rod to the fish.

Bursting from the water right in front of you a big, rosy-sided steelhead somersaults through the air, trying to throw the nasty Spin-N-Glo imbedded in its jaw. While fighting the fish you say the fishermen’s prayer, “Please don’t let him come off!”

Eventually the prize is yours, and a chrome-bright summer steelhead comes to the bank.

Break out the T-shirts, barbecue grills and the coolers, it’s time to get the whole family out of the house and head to the banks of the river to suck up some sunshine, broil a few hot dogs, drink a soda or too and enjoy the fine weather. And don’t forget the fishing gear, because the metalheads of summer are here.


As if the season wasn’t fun enough already, here comes another great run of steelhead making their way up the Columbia. This year’s projection is for over 390,000 adult fish and follows last year’s run of 410,000.

These are some of the easiest of the many salmon and steelhead runs to catch, and the schools of eager-biting silvery fish make it even easier by running right along the shallow edges of the river.

All you need to catch Lower Columbia steel is a poleholder, a rod and reel, a little bait, a tide book and a bell.

Then, find yourself a beach and join the sun-worshippers. “Plunking,” as the sport is called, is very much an event where people gather to picnic and socialize as much as to catch fish.

And what a fish to catch! Summer steelhead are famous for their acrobatics, jumping high and making serious line-burning runs when hooked. Also, they are some of the best table fare the Columbia offers. Like the larger spring Chinook, these oil-rich fish will stay in the river for many months before spawning, so they come in fresh from packing on the fat of fertile ocean waters.

The Columbia’s summer steelhead run is actually comprised of three stocks. The first to arrive are the Skamanias, a hatchery run that is headed to the lower river tributaries such as the Cowlitz, Lewis and Willamette.  They run about 7 to 10 pounds on average and show up early, peaking about the Fourth of July.

The next segment is the “A” run, steelhead that average about 4 to 6 pounds and are headed to the Deschutes, mid- and upper Columbia and Snake tribs. They will arrive in force about mid-July as the Skamania run peters out.

Finally the big “B” run fish arrive in August, and they’ve got shoulders, running from 12 to 16 pounds. They are headed to Idaho rivers.

In the lower river the bite is spotty in May, but gets solid in June. It stays good along the beaches through July, but in August the bite switches to the cold-water fisheries such as the mouth of the Cowlitz, and the fish start running deeper.

Summer steelhead may be one of the most overlooked fish that returns to the big river. The pressure for them is nothing like springer madness. While some spots get busy, there is plenty of room for more fishermen on the beaches and there is no shortage of good access to the river.

Just where should you go? Where can you catch fish? That’s easy.

“Anyplace you can get access to the river,” says Cody Clark of Bob’s Sporting Goods (360-425-3870) in Longview. “If you can get to the bank you can catch fish.”

Beaches, riprap banks, rocky shorelines, and bluffs are all good because the fish are swimming right past your feet.


Cody’s shop is plunk central for the Lower Columbia, and novice fishermen can get the straight scoop on what to use if they stop there on their way to the beach.

Gearing up is easy, and inexpensive. Start with a medium length rod (8½ feet is good) that can handle throwing up to 4 ounces of lead. You need a reel spooled with 20-pound or stronger mainline, and some 15-pound mono for leader. A 6- to 18-inch lead line with a 3- to 6-ounce pyramid or sand claw weight is attached to the line above a barrel swivel with a slider or a spreader bar.

From the barrel swivel tie on an 18- to 36-inch leader with a No. 4 Spin-N-Glo and a 1/0 hook tipped with a cured prawn tail. The most popular color prawn is pink, although red and purple can have their days. Favorite Spin-N-Glo colors include watermelon, rainbow, rocket red and fire-tiger red.


Some anglers fish with multiple baits, running two or three leaders off one rig. Additional lines are often fished with steelhead plugs, such as an X-5 FlatFish or a U-20 Brad’s Wigglers in fluorescent red are the favorites. However, throwing a multiple hook rig correctly can take some practice.

These rigs are easier to cast if you use spreader bars instead of sliders.

If the area you’re fishing is too snaggy and you keep losing your lead, you can try “Flintstone fishing,” as Clark calls it. Simply tape a rock to your line instead of lead, and just rip the line loose when you get snagged.

The first mistake novice anglers make is to fish too deep. Steelhead follow the bank closely – very closely. In fact, when Clark fishes the riprap he often uses a ten-foot rod and simply holds the rod out and drops his line straight down. This puts the bait in the depth he likes, about 6 feet.

“The steelhead are usually running about 6 to 12 feet deep,” says Clark. “When fishing the beaches you need to cast a little further out to reach that depth. About 15 to 20 feet from the bank is about right.”

Watch the other fishermen, note just where they are fishing, and then fish that depth yourself.

Always make sure you have gear and weight that matches what the others are using. One errant angler with too little lead can cause havoc with the fishermen below him when his line doesn’t stick to the bottom and drifts down, fouling everyone else. It’s very important to fish correctly when you are in such close quarters, or you won’t make many friends, and plunking is a social fishery.

Once you get the bait where you want it, put the rod in the holder, and hook the bell on the rod.

Now all you do is sit back, relax and wait for the bell to go off.

Well, almost.

It’s a good idea to check the bait at least once an hour and clear any debris off your line.

In the meanwhile, read your tide book. The Columbia is tidally influenced all the way to Bonneville Dam, but the tides are bigger in the lower river and affect the currents more.

“You need to get a tide book,” says Clark.

The outgoing tide is best because it creates stronger currents that will work your baits better, and force the steelhead close to the bank. On the flood tides the fish often ride the currents upriver away from the shore. Clark reports the fishing is best from the slack tide an hour ahead of the ebb, through the hour of slack at the end of the ebb.

“The steelhead bite well during those tide changes,” he adds.

Unfortunately, tide charts for the Columbia are often not completely reliable because they can’t take into account changes in flows from hydro releases or rains. It’s good idea to arrive early in case the tide turns ahead of the chart.

* Cathlamet: This small Washington town marks the point where the fishing starts to get good. There are riprap banks all along the Columbia and rocky bluffs that make good spots all the way to County Line Park. There are pull-outs and parking spots along Highway 4 that local angler’s target, but, again, there are miles of riprap banks that never get fished.

* County Line Park: This family-friendly park on, yep, the line between Wahkiakum and Cowlitz Counties offers a great place to take the family and picnic while waiting for the bells to go off. The beach is easy for seniors and youngsters to get around on and the fishing can be excellent. Clark likes to fish here and reports that during the peak of the run – late June and July – the beach can get crowded.


“Once the fish are in good, you need to get there early to get a spot,” he says.

* Lower Columbia tribs: A few miles above the park, steelheaders take quite a few fish near the mouths of Abernathy, Mill and Germany Creeks. These are also favored shad spots.

* Willow Grove: Just below Longview this beach offers fairly easy access off a paved road, and there is a long stretch to fish. There are restrooms nearby.

* Kalama beaches: Good places for beginners, since there is a lot of room to spread out.

* Lewis River mouth: Not a big area, but the point at the end of Dike Access Road on the north side of the Lewis River mouth has enough space for a few anglers to plunk.

* Washougal River: The mouth of this river is a good place to find steelhead, both those running up the smaller stream, and those following the Columbia.

* Oak Tree Hole: This well-known spot on the Washington side of Bonneville Dam below the boat launch is a perennial favorite for plunkers. The shore is riprap, and there are bathrooms nearby.

Beaver State-side beaches can be the best bet early, but by July the best bite switches to the Washington side.
* Jones Beach: The first good beach on the Oregon side, this spacious stretch between Westport and Clatskanie offers plenty of room to fish, but no other amenities.

* Dibblee Beach: Another beach with room to roam, but no amenities, this beach just below the Lewis & Clark Bridge has good fishing, but the access road is rough, and a four-wheel drive is recommended.

* Prescott Beach: A $2 day fee gets you in to this park and beach. This is a good choice for families with restrooms, a play area for the kids, and restrooms.

* Willow Bar, Walton Beach: A $7 day fee gets you access to these good fishing beaches, but there are no amenities or restrooms.

* Sauvie Island beaches: The north beaches along Reeder Road provide some of the best action and are easy to get to, but there are other good beaches as well.

* Willamette River/Meldrum Bar: This is the most popular bank spot for summers on the Willamette, and for good reason. Right in the heart of Portland, the bar produces a lot of steelhead and through early June spring Chinook are often caught too. Expect some company here, but the locals are pretty tolerant of newcomers.

* Government Island: The state recreation area here is accessible only by boat, but the park offers restrooms, picnic areas and a dock. There are also good beaches on other parts of the island as well.

* Lewis and Clark State Recreation Area: There is good access here along the lower Sandy River. Hit these reaches early; by July the run is over in the lower Sandy.

* Rooster Rock State Park: This a great park for families with full amenities and plenty of shore access.

* Tanner Creek: The mouth of this creek is one of the best spots to catch summers on the Oregon side below the dam.

* Bonneville Dam: Bradford Island on the Oregon side below Bonneville is another good spot to plunk for steelhead and summer Chinook, and a few are taken from Robins Island.

While steelhead run so shallow a boat is not needed, one can be helpful for getting to uncrowded areas.

“A lot of fishermen use their boats to get to island beaches,” says Clark. “Those spots can be pretty good, and you can get off to yourself.”

Some fishermen make a multi-day trip of it and spend a few days camped on the beach with family, enjoying the scenery and solitude while tangling with a few steelhead.

There are dozens of good islands that rarely get fished. Sand Island near the town of St. Helens has some amenities, such as picnic areas and pit toilets.

The daily limit is two adipose-fin-clipped adult steelhead.



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