A Year of Learning Southeast Washington Fishing

by Thomas Butler, February 08, 2020

I grew up in North Seattle in the 60’s and 70’s. I bet we spent almost 300 days a year fishing sometimes. We would grab our rods after school and head to “the creek”. Otherwise we would take our bikes and go to the log boom or the slough, Green Lake or the arboretum. We knew all the creeks that fed the Northwest end of Lake Washington by heart. There weren’t many days we didn’t catch rainbows, silvers or perch. And on an occasional rare day we caught salmon, steelhead or sea-run cutthroat. High school and college brought days on the Stillaguamish and the Foss, high lakes in the North Cascades, Okanagan, and trips for Golden’s at 10,000 feet in the Wind River Range. Other days were spent fishing 7x tippet in a hurricane on lakes Lenice and Lenore.

Then came work and more school. It took many years and long hours to become a professional land surveyor and I didn’t fish. Didn’t even buy a license. When we first got married and had our kids we were busy and struggling to get by. Once the boys were several years old I started taking them fishing, and mom started coming along because she grew up fishing in Florida. We fished a lot and the boys liked it, but somehow later it was club sports or they were off with their friends. I got into triathlon and we only fished sporadically for many years.

Now my kids have kids who are old enough fish, and as I have time as I only teach part-time at the Community College, I’ve fallen in love with fishing again.

It’s not like the old days. Not like when I was a kid, and not like when I moved here to survey and raise the kids in 1992. I hear it from all the older sportsmen and farmers, “Well, it used to be ….”, is the common refrain. Many of them just don’t fish anymore, although most hunt. Well, it may be different than it was before, but it’s still a lot of fun. There are more opportunities to fish than many people realize, and there are fish to be caught.

I figure an hour is enough time in the car for the kids, and plenty for me too, so I’ve been on a mission to learn the waters within 60 minutes of Walla Walla the way I knew my home waters as a kid. I want to catch fish regularly, so time to learn. In that 60 minutes I can get to the Columbia between McNary and Richland, and the Ice Harbor and Lower Monumental pools on the Snake. The Walla Walla and Touchet Rivers are no more than20-30 minutes away and the Tucannon River is an hour. As for lakes, I fish Bennington Lake (Mill Creek Reservoir), which is 10 minutes away and the Tucannon Lakes in the Wooten Recreation Area, which are an hour away. This is a lot of water and I’m not an expert. But here’s what I’ve learned to improve my catch rate, and hopefully yours too.
To start, although Mill Creek is only ¼ mile from my house it is off the list. When the boys were young Mill Creek got regular plants of trout, and provided good fishing. My boys caught and released their first lure caught fish here. I think the biggest smiles I can remember from them was when they watched as the stockers chased their spinners through the current to smack it. Now Mill Creek is in trouble. There are no more plants. As with most waters down here the regulations seem to change every year, with a significant variation every few years. It’s closed from the mouth to the dam, and selective fishing above. There has been significant restoration work recently and more is planned. Hopefully this will help. After fishing it a few years ago and only getting tiny fish I let it go.
I still thrill for that special day when I can get a salmon or steelhead, just like when I was a kid. We all know the score though, not many fish for a number of reasons. That being said, there are fish to be caught, especially if you’re willing to do your homework and put in the hours.

We started of our fishing year last January after the season reopened looking for steelhead. We focused on the Snake between Lyons Ferry and Little Goose Dam. My son had bought a G3 then turned around and bought the Thunder Jet the fall before and we had spent 4 or 5 fishless trips first trying to troll flashers for Chinook, where we lost one jack, then jigging for steelhead, before the river was closed. During this time we learned to handle the boat and gear, and see the river. Everyone we talked to who fishes around here said “you got to go within 400’ of the hatchery ladder at Lions Ferry and troll or jig”. We did, and it didn’t work for us. We did see a couple caught. We also saw boats coming from down river and up river and they had fish. Time to explore. We never got downriver, but found structure or marked fish in several areas above Lyons Ferry, off the mouth of the Palouse and along the cliff, by the elevators, by the Tucannon River, across from Texas Rapids and below the dam. Many fish seem to come from below the dam. We focused our efforts from the bridge below the Tucannon to the bend well above it. It was also around this time I began to look at the CBR Fish Passage Data website religiously to see if fish were coming over the dam. I saw fish, but the graph showed way less than years past. We spent 2 more fishless trips working the area hard with hardware and baits. Jigs, beads, crawlers, spoons and in all the colors. We even trolled. Nothing. Maybe just not enough fish to be caught. Then, after jealously watching some guys have success a few times, we luckily met them at the boat ramp one day and they told us how they were catching fish. They said they would tell us because we had always been respectful and had not crowded them when they were getting their fish, and they felt sorry for us watching us freeze in the rain and snow and wind each week.

The most successful rig going is a shrimp with scent 9’ below your bobber drifted along the shorelines. After we learned this we got several fish and even got my daughter in law her first punch ever. Not a fishless trip after that from early January through February. The next most successful setup was a big black and gold rooster tail fished shallow, followed by big dark jigs under a bobber. We launched at Lyon’s Ferry KOA, and although it cost $5, it was ice free even on the coldest days, with clean potties and the store was usually open.

Having fish to eat and smoke I shifted focus in middle February to exploring the Walla Walla and Touchet Rivers. This is about the time I started to make regular use of the Department of Ecology flow monitoring website, so I could match a flow number to what I saw. Water level, current speed, wade-ability, even clarity based upon how long since it rained was noted. Wow, fishing online, how far have we come. What else can one do online. Well, I found a number of fairly recent articles in various publications about our local steelhead runs. I found hatchery reports and behavior studies. I found the CBR pit tag website. And not just for steelhead but many gamefish. I’ve read these documents and looked at the data sets many times. I still don’t have enough experience to really make any suggestions, however I’m catching more trout and other fish this winter than I did last. As far as the steelhead go, the old timers were right, it ain’t like it used to be. Steelhead plants used to be out of basin fish, and October to Thankgiving were hot. With the more culturally appropriate endemic fish stock being used for the last several years the runs are reported to be later. For example in the Tucannon only 30% of the fish have left the Snake by March 1. I know fish winter over off the mouth of the Walla Walla also. Some of these come in to the Walla Walla in late October according to the pit tags. I haven’t seen them. I’ve looked along the lower river in the WDFW area. This is slow estuary water, and with easy access there are lots of fishers of all types dunking shrimp below bobbers. Two fish, probably traveling upriver, have been creel checked so far through early January. This area is where the pit tag station is.

As you move upriver there is some fishing on the old Hindman property at a Tri-State Steelheader’s access point a mile West of 9 Mile bridge. Climbing the fence ladders takes you to some pools, runs, riffles and basalt ledges. This seems to me to be an extremely hard place to fish. Very brushy, steep, undercut banks. This is a tough area to wade even in low water, although I have not explored this area a lot. I did come across some bull trout earlier this winter in this section, which were carefully released as they are protected. They were very eager, but had seemingly big heads for their body, which was skinny. I think maybe they have spawned and/or are hungry. Anyway, two reasons I will probably leave this area alone.

Above 9 mile there is a lot of private land along Byrnes Road that is mostly posted as open to hunt and fish by the awesome landowners. This is also smallmouth bass water in the summer. Catch them until you get bored. Use your favorite weapon, doesn’t seem to matter most of the time. Many people float this and below in kayaks (NOT in winter). For the winter I have found a lot of good water to swing flies through here. I’m getting to be a better caster but not catcher. I also like to throw hardware and this is a fun area to wade and cast.

Further up the river, above the Touchet, is the WDFW McDonald Access. I really don’t know much about it even though there is a lot of water. I think every time I get here I’m already tired and the water looks angry. Lots of varied water and it is smolt habitat also.
Last February I also fished the Swegle Road WDFW Access at the Mission. There are several really good holes and runs but they are a bit apart. You may find guys plunking crawlers close to the access but get away from that for some less spooked fish. I’ve caught trout in here throughout the year. You’ll appreciate this area most with a short rod. I even drift bobbers with a 6 ½’ stick, although it isn’t really very effective. Spinning I usually fish spoons upstream or with a flick slightly up and across. The river’s not big here. My best day here actually came in February fishing nymphs downstream below Mill Creek, several Rainbows.

Over on the Touchet, which I find much prettier, I’ve had a chance to fish a few areas. I tried to fish the Dodd Road access one day when the river was high. All I found was 15’ cliffs. A lot of the land along the lower Touchet is private, and you really should ask. Most homes are occupied by renters and it’s really not right to ask them. I remember a lot of good water up through the valley and through Prescott, and I’ve got permission from several people I worked for over the years but haven’t had time to get anywhere yet. The Prescott area was legendary “back in the day” and if there’s fish, I figure they are going to hold in the same spots year after year, more or less, based upon gradient and travel distance.

Above this I have fished the stretch from the State Park up to Rose Gulch. Some is private, but permission is easy and several of the people will share “the spot”. I’ve caught several rainbow trout in this section throughout the year. In winter I’ve caught them bottom bouncing beads. A 7-12” trout is so easy to release on a size 4 barbless hook. Often you can slack line them if they come at you or when at your feet you can dump them without touching them. However I haven’t lost any fish with barbless hooks as long as I keep tension on them. I usually find them along the bank structure or in cobbled runs. I have yet to pull a fish out of a “hole”. Maybe my wading, I don’t know. The guys I do know who catch steelhead in here swear you got to be in an area with the basalt cliffs and ledges. You guys are welcome, I pick up yards of your line in the summer. Braid is tuff stuff.

Above this area on the Touchet I’ve been fishing from the sewage treatment plant, along the golf course, through the town of Dayton, and up to the Confluence of the North and South Forks, which is where steelhead fishing ends and only the summer selective fishery exists. This reach has a trail along a well set back dike on one side or the other. The area is pretty, but you may not be alone. Lots of smallish fish, and I’m sure it’s hit hard. The smolt release/adult trapping site is in town, and the pit tag reports bull trout and steelhead passing up and down stream at various times in the year. The state used to plant brown trout in here, and I hear of people still catching some occasionally, but not much. We used to fish for browns right in the park in town, me with a 4wt and my son throwing tiny Mepps spinners, catching fish until he got bored. Then ice cream for the drive home, again, only an hour.

One of the flies that I always see around Dayton on the Touchet and over in the Tucannon Dainage on the river banks in February is the small brown stone fly. They stick out in an odd way, this black insect crawling on the snow. Putting my observation to good use, I tied a few Pat’s Stonefly’s this winter and headed over to the Tucannon see if I could do anything with it. Being as sneakey as I could on the small brushy river as it runs through the Wooten area, a la Curtis Creek, except I fished downstream in the challenging conditions as it was easier, I ran the flies through all the likely spots. Every time I encountered a certain situation I found a Rainbow in the lie. I got most of them, a silver flash then their colorful sides showing as they struggled side to side deep in the current. They are not big, a little smaller to the same size as a stocker, but so pretty. I found bull trout in the exact same water type as on the Walla Walla, except this is way higher and in a different system, and the fish smaller and at least a year younger. I also found a few whitefish but often they scattered across the bottom of the deep pools into the logjams. My wading again, should go upstream. One whitefish tried the size 8 stone, but it wasn’t hooked square in the mouth. The other ate a small black beadhead stone on the dropper. Again, I’m not an expert, but the time spent on the water last year led to catching fish this year.

These winter adventures on the small rivers have usually been a solitary endeavor and I love the solitude, winter is a wonderful time of year, but now that my youngest son has found he likes wearing waders and fly fishing I’ll have company. My wife thinks he’ll keep me safe, and I feel better also, I’m not quite what I once was. I don’t want a Darwin award.

And speaking of my wife that brings me to the month of March in Southeast Washington. Used to be that March 1 was the eagerly awaited spring trout opener, and we would head over to fish one of the Tucannon Lakes. Now most of the lakes are open year round and it doesn’t mean as much, except that it is generally the date around which the lakes will be ice free and have received the initial stocking of trout. Check the WDFW fish plant website to see regular updates. This is also usually the date around which she can begin to be out and enjoy the activity, even if all bundled up. For me it also means I am basically going to stop fishing for real fish, salmon, steelhead and wild fish, in the rivers, and start fishing for stocker trout or other stuff for a while. Don’t get me wrong, I love stockers. The state does a good job of making these fish available to us down here. They are just different. At this time of year there is still smoked fish about, but the fresh trout are really nice. Opening weekends are busy, especially Sundays, but otherwise there is plenty of room with easy access at one of the lakes. Doesn’t really matter which one you pick, they are all pretty, and some are more “developed” than others. If one doesn’t work the next one is a few minutes away. Camping is available but basic. It’s really easy though, it was one of our kids first overnighters in warmer weather.

Over the years we have come up with a sure fire method for quick limits of the good eating stocker fish, although there is that occasional day. My wife runs a slip sinker rig with a 18” leader to a marshmallow and worm. I run a worm 4’ below a slip bobber. Size 8-10 hooks with 6 lb. test leader is plenty. My wife doesn’t trust any less after loosing a triploid one day, and her fish beach slide isn’t a work of art. I often run 2 lb., usually to no benefit. Both setups work well, but some days one does have favor over the other. If the worms don’t work, white, then chartreuse power eggs are the go to. Later in the year when the crowds thin I’ll try some flies. Bait usually wins 2 or 3 to 1, but by this point there is fish in the freezer so I let them go and we eat the bait caught fish.

The state now plants these lakes through the fall, and they hold up pretty well all year, with Spring and Blue sometimes being open all winter. Summer heat does have it’s effects too. To fish the fly only Big 4 you have to wade the river, which is moderately easy except in higher water. Hip boots may do but I’m always glad for my waders. In warm weather just wet cross. The lake is harder to fish lately than it used to be due to excessive brush growth. Fishing can be really good or bad. If nothing is obvious a fair place to start is a chronomid like a TDC very deep under an indicator. Otherwise fish whatever you’re confident in. If a fish is willing to hit, in most situations, it will hit whatever you throw, as long as you’re fishing it confidently and as designed.

By mid-late April, after all chance of flooding is over, the Corps. Of Engineers fills Bennington Lake with runoff and after a settling period the lake receives substantial plants of trout. The lake is less than 10 minutes from home and is a nice facility so we spend a lot of time here. This is the place my kids learned to fish, and it has only gotten better. I think they were 4 or 5, I wish I took more pictures like now. They had had some swim lessons and were sure enough on their feet on the uneven ground I felt they were ready. The nice thing is the fishing is fast enough, usually, to keep the small ones interested. Occasionally I’d loose him to throwing rock or sticks or wandering off, but it’s training, that’s the way it goes. We are near the city. And what’s funny, kids seem to like that 2-3” perch more than trout.

At times in the spring it may seem more crowded, but often we fish with just a few other parties or Osprey for company. For a change of pace we sometimes take the canoe and troll flies or dick nights. In August the water warms and blooms and the fishing almost stops, but fires up with the first cooler weather. I always thought this lake died in winter. Everybody does. It may be 10 feet deep when at winter pool. I’ve never caught what I would consider a holdover. But I think I’m wrong. There is that occasional big bass we catch each year. I got one late this fall. And so far in December and January there have been trout on my bobber rig. Amazingly, after Christmas, I was up practicing casting in a 30 mph side wind with a new chronomid imitation and had my indicator go down. The take was so soft as I gently lifted I could feel the fly slide from it’s mouth. I now think some of the skinny, dirty bellied fish we occasionally get in the spring are the holdovers.

While the reservoir is a nice diversion, as May rolls around and the water warms we find ourselves fishing the Snake again. A lot. Both the Ice Harbor pool and the Lower Monumental pool. We’ve caught an occasional walleye, some big, but that is a fish we haven’t really fished for yet. Then there are the perch, not for me anymore. We go to chase smallmouth bass. I like smallmouth. They remind be of trout the way they fight, at least a first, but they often give up to soon. They also act like a cutthroat often hitting most anything with abandon, only then to seem to disappear from the river. For now we seem to be good at catching the 10-12” fish. Most days. Some days it’s hard. My son loves the 3” yellow curly tail grubs. I like a shad rap or jointed craw. Concentrate on the 10’ within any shoreline and it seems like you can catch as many as you want. Next summer we’re going to learn to use the depth finder to fish structure in hopes of bigger fish. We’ve caught a few but with no consistency. I also found trying to fish with a six weight fly rod wasn’t going to work, the wind seems to blow all summer, so I need an 8wt to match my sons. Think the wife will fall for it?

In June we went to fish for shad below Ice Harbor Dam. While we learned to navigate the swift water and set the anchor in a current, we didn’t catch many. But that was fine, it was fun and we’ll definitely go back for more.

As the summer days began to shorten and all the garden goodies were sitting on the counter to be washed and canned I realized that the Chinook would soon be here. I got way ahead of myself, hoping against hope that we may find a fish in this down year, and we proceeded to waste 4 or 5 trips to McNary looking for that elusive Salmon fish in late August and September. We got good at getting ready and launching, setting up gear, choosing the right weight, setting a speed, working the new downrigger and so on. We were sure everything was right, we’ve both watched hundreds of videos. But no fish. Frustrating. We then heard from a guy at work that we would have better luck in the Kennewick or Richland area. In early October, on our first visit, we worked the area in front of Columbia Park. I mean we trolled the whole stretch, right offshore near the humps and break edge. Reminded me of watching guys troll off Edmunds while waiting for the ferry. We got a Chinook adult and a jack for the smoker and we had a Coho adult for fillets when company came over the holidays. We caught our fish on 360 Pro Troll flashers with Brads Superbaits and Simon spinners. At least we learned to do it right for a day. An awesome day!

Since the Snake is closed this winter I’ve been spending time studying the smaller local rivers again. It is early January and the first steelhead of the year just passed the lower pit tag stations on the rivers. It is finally raining and the rivers are filling. All my research says it just gets better from now until the April 15 closing date. Can next year be better than this year was? I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.

Some guys think I may share too much occasionally. I look at it this way. I want to catch fish. If the resources are not being used the state won’t supply them. If people aren’t catching fish, nobody buys a license, the system won’t be supported, even at the level it is now. So in my own selfish interest, I’ll spread the word, you can fish all year long in Southeast Washington. Let’s all catch some fish, have a good time, and spread the word next year. Let’s learn what’s going on in our backyards and pass it on so our grandkids kids have fish.

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