Summer Cowlitz Steelhead By Hannah Pennebaker

Your Summer Steelhead Destination!


By Hannah Pennebaker

I’ll never forget the pure adrenaline and rush of seeing that bobber go down. As I frantically set the hook and checked my drag, the fish began to thrash and soar out of the water. I had been standing in the water, casting, and watching my bobber for the tiniest hint of movement for over seven hours. About fifty other anglers had come and gone, but only one of them had caught a fish so far. Hope seemed slim, but I didn’t give up. The thought of catching my first steelhead kept me going. It was all worth it once I had that fish on the line. 10 minutes later, my arms were shaking, but I couldn’t stop staring at that beautiful steelhead in the net. It’s a true accomplishment for any angler to catch a steelhead, and an unforgettable experience. The Cowlitz River is famous for its incredible runs of summer steelhead. A tributary of the Columbia River, it runs about 100 miles throughout Southern Washington. Beginning in June, the river floods with summer steelhead, and the run lasts until about August. There is a strong run of hatchery fish, which means you have a good chance of catching dinner for the evening! Let’s delve more into why the Cowlitz River is one of the best destinations around for summer steelhead fishing. 

The Cowlitz River is one of the state’s top summer steelhead producers, but thanks to a WDFW approved program run by Tacoma Power, you have an even better chance of catching a keeper steelhead. At the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery, Tacoma Power (with WDFW’s approval) tags about 150 fish a week, trucks them downriver, and releases them. This helps give fishermen a second chance at catching these intelligent, tricky fish. 500-800 fish are typically “recycled” every year. If you catch one of these recycled fish, make sure to call the number on the tag and report your catch. Taking a little time to do this helps WDFW know how successful the program is, and they will also tell you how long the fish was and how much it weighed when it was captured at the hatchery. I can thank this program for helping me catch my first ever steelhead! If you look closely at my photo of the summer steelhead pictured in this article, you can see the pink tag sticking out of the top of the fish. 

Adding to the list of what makes the Cowlitz River such a great summer steelhead destination, it has plenty of public access for boaters. There are at least 8 boat launches dotting the river- Barrier Dam, Blue Creek, Coal Creek, and Toledo are the most popular. Jet boats and drift boats are both welcome at the Cowlitz. There are shuttle services available for drift boat anglers launching at Barrier Dam and drifting to the Blue Creek boat launch. Kayak and pontoon anglers also have good success at the Cowlitz River. If you have a jet boat, back trolling bait or plugs is a good choice. Drift boat anglers can pick their drift and cast bait at holes along the river, or anchor up and keep working one spot. Sand shrimp, salmon egg clusters, and coon shrimp are all great baits. Small Mag Lips and Kwikfish are consistent producers while back trolling. It’s a good idea to check the weather and river flow before heading out. River levels greatly fluctuate depending on snow melt and rain. Steelhead are smart, wary creatures, especially when the river is low and clear. Pick your offering accordingly!

Luckily for shore anglers, the Cowlitz River is one of the most easily accessible rivers in the area. There are plenty of areas along the river where you can park, walk down to the river, and cast a line. There is a handicapped access ramp at the trout hatchery as well. Blue Creek is the most famous hole in the river, but it can get crowded when the fish are in. Many guides and shore anglers alike flock to this area. Don’t be afraid to get away from the crowds and try new spots. Waders are a huge plus! You can wade to different spots and cover more ground to find the fish. I recommend looking at maps and satellite images to plan your adventure. It can be a hugely rewarding experience to find a spot well away from the crowds and catch your limit. 

Boat anglers and shore anglers alike often use the bobber and jig method to catch fish on the Cowlitz. 1/8 to 1/4 oz jigs are the most common choice, paired with 3/8 to 1 oz rated bobbers. Color choice will vary depending on water conditions. Choose bright jigs in colored water, and more natural looking jigs in clear water. You’ll want to put a small amount of weight below your bobber to help it stay upright. Split shot or inline weights work great! As previously discussed, steelhead are wary and have good eyesight. I recommend fluorocarbon leaders and clear bobbers to help hide your gear. You can tip your jig with bait to increase your chances of success. Coon shrimp tails, sand shrimp, and salmon eggs will make your jig even more enticing to a hungry steelhead. One of the most important factors in fishing bobber and jigs effectively is depth. You’ll want to use a bobber stopper to help adjust your depth. Find out where the bottom is (your bobber will be tilted upstream) and adjust your bobber stopper about 6-12 inches above it. Look for water that flows at about walking pace and cast about 45 degrees upstream. Let your bobber float all the way down, while lifting your rod tip and picking your line up and off the water. It’s a good idea to minimize slack in your line, so you can set your hook quickly when the bobber goes down. Bobber and jigs consistently produce fish, and it’s a thrill to see your bobber go down!

It's never a bad idea to go on a guided trip for your first time on the river. There are many reputable guides that fish the Cowlitz for summer steelhead. Most guides are willing to answer questions, and they will work hard to put you on the fish. Guides will also clean and fillet your fish, if you’d like. Rivers change on a daily basis, and not everyone has the time or patience to learn the ins and outs. It may be worth it to invest in a guide’s knowledge and experience, especially if the river is quite the drive for you.

Whether you choose to fish from a boat or on shore, make sure to put the Cowlitz River on your list of summer destinations this year. Thanks to the thriving fish hatchery and recycled fish program, chances are good that you’ll come home with a steelhead in your ice chest. Cowlitz summer steelhead are willing biters, and they put up great fights. They also taste amazing on the smoker or grill. Rules and regulations can change daily, like river conditions, so make sure to plan your trip out well in advance. Good luck and have fun!