With football season recently behind us, baseball opening day is months away and they’re just dropping the checkered flag at either our local or at sanctioned tracks nationwide, how are we supposed to burn off our nervous energy? Assuming that you have already completed your winter maintenance regiment for your boat and gear, made all the lures that you and your neighbors can use in the foreseeable future, and read every issue of NW Reel Life for the third time, it’s time to go fishing.
The decision to wet a line is always the easy part, sorting through seasonal closures and winter accessibility can be a challenge. As with any PNW fishery, double check the regulations and Emergency Changes before you head out to participate in the many solid fishing opportunities available this time of the year. The following are a few ideas to get you started, and may your fish box need frequent cleaning.
Lake Washington is an urban gem. Cutthroat trout, kokanee, perch, and various warm water fish are available year-round. There is great trailer boat access as well as a number of fishing piers. During the winter months it is primarily a cutthroat, kokanee, and smallmouth show but there are also large schools of perch available along deeper drop-offs. The primary winter cutthroat and kokanee fishery is at the south end of Mercer Island. But if you are willing to go on the hunt, there are other areas that hold fish; some real trophies. Make sure to quickly release any chinook that take interest in your offerings.
Lake Merwin is a local go-to for winter kokanee. If you are traveling to get there, make sure you check the wind forecast before you head out the door. The lake can get very windy and choppy, make sure that you have all your safety gear in order. When fishing Lake Merwin during the winter, try to troll at 1.0 MPH, and the smaller your presentation, the better. You will see multiple schools of fish on your electronics, but not all will be in a playful mood. When you do find a snappy lot, mark it on your electronics or take a visual bearing and keep after it.
Lake Cavanaugh and Lake Samish both host a winter kokanee fishery. They are kind of fickle during the winter and the bite may be during a brief afternoon hatch. We have limited at either lake during the winter but that’s not the norm. Persistence is the name of the game. Troll 1.0-1.3 MPH. Small micro hoochies, flies, and spinners seem to have the edge. In addition to your secret corn recipe, a small tidbit of nightcrawler, worm, or a live maggot will greatly enhance your allure. You may even want to add them to your hooks, it will drive the kokanee wild!
Lake Roosevelt; as the weather permits, if you’re looking for lunker kokanee, Roosevelt is the place to be. Although I don’t like hauling the boat over the pass in the winter anymore, I love fishing Lake Roosevelt, so with the right weather forecast we may head that direction. I’m sure kokanee are available throughout the lake, but we usually fish out of Spring Canyon. We tend to focus on the dam area but we also fish the lower 5 or 6 miles. I typically start at 10-40’ with a 60’ setback, but may fish deeper as required. Because there is the potential to hook a 3+ pounder, I typically up my leader to 20-pound fluorocarbon.
Winter road conditions are still a possibility. I addressed this in a previous article but it’s worthy of a mention. Again, pay attention to winter boating safety/etiquette. If the road conditions are questionable, carry chains for both your tow vehicle and for at least 1 axle on the trailer. Bring a couple sand bags and shovel. A liberal application of sand can be a lifesaver.
At the ramp, assess the situation before you back down a long, icy ramp. Take the time to chain up your tow vehicle if required. The area between the top of the ramp and the water could be icy. If you lose traction, don’t panic, it is likely that once your tires hit the water, you’ll regain traction. Just keep your cool, you don’t want to jackknife ½ way down the ramp. It would put a damper on your plans. Once the trailer is wet, you may have to let the rig sit in the water for a bit to thaw before the boat will boat float free. No kokanee shuffle or celebratory dancing while onboard or at the dock, you don’t want to slip and end up sharing the lake with your aquatic rival. The fish won’t bite when they’re laughing their tails off.
Finally, and as a courtesy; at the end of your time on the lake load your boat and slowly pull out of the water just enough to clear the water. Stop and let the rig drain or drip-dry, this will minimize ice buildup on the lower 1/3 of the ramp.
In addition to winter lake opportunities, a trip on the salt can be very productive. Both Marine Area 10 and 13 should be open. MA 10 is scheduled to be open February 1, 2023 through March 31st, but check the WDFW Emergency Regulations for early closures or seasonal schedule adjustments. MA 13 is open year-round, but again, check the WDFW Emergency Regulations before you leave the driveway. When open for winter chinook, MA 10 is one of the most consistent salmon fisheries in the state. The minimum size limit is 22” and the fish need to be clipped. 4-10# fish are common, with possibility of a trophy fish any time you hook up all makes for a very exciting fishery. I believe that pound for pound, blackmouth are one of the hardest fighting fish in the PNW.
Although many fish are caught mooching cut plug herring or jigging, the fishery is primarily a downrigger show. You want to be fishing right on the bottom. Often you will notice that your fish is all scraped up and find gravel in the fish’s belly when you clean them. Flies or small spoons paired with 11” flashers, plugs and helmeted anchovies all catch fish.
We fished the MA 10 opener this year. My boatmates and I had agreed to make it a C &R day. We hadn’t fished salmon in the salt since September, and didn’t want to go 3 and out in the first hour. We had a stellar trip. From the moment we went gear down, we had fish on. We had to wade through a lot of 20-22” fish and cycled through probably 10 or 12 legal fish before keeping one. I pulled the hook on the big fish of the day and the estimated 10 pounder swam off before we were able to slide the net under it.
I took full responsibility for the lost fish and had to wear the “farmer” overalls. We had already decided to finish the pass and pull the plug for the ride back to Everett. The meter showed a cloud of bait with a few salmon holding just off the bottom. 1, 2, 3, BAM! The port downrigger goes off, and we are on a very solid fish. Hoping to hook the second meter mark, I decided to keep the boat at speed and put the screws to the fish. It was up on top but way off to the side when it got sideways to the flasher, and it swam off. We rarely lose a fish, and I got too big for my farmer britches.
Although we had plugs and an assortment of both trolling flies and spoons on board, we started with Skinny-G spoons and never looked back. We did determine that the lighted flashers had an edge over our regular flashers. We fished the bottom in 80-120’ of water and tried to stay on the down current face of any underwater structure, or along underwater points. It was an incredible day of fishing and an excellent option for a winter fishery.
There are a number of winter steelhead opportunities in the PNW. Many coastal streams are open and occasionally Puget Sound rivers open under WDFW Emergency Rules. I considered breaking the February, April steelhead fisheries down, but I think that that is a whole different article and best written by a coastal steelhead expert. The point in mentioning winter steelhead is that when many of our fisheries are closed, we have a steelhead fishery available. A theme here; again, as with any PNW fishery, double check the regulations and Emergency Changes before you head out.
Fishing withdrawals, cold sweats, and general heebie-jeebies? There don’t have to be, with a little research you have multiple options to treat your fishless disorder. Whether you’re a freshwater, salt angler, or bankie, there are many opportunities to soothe what ails you.