Washington Rivers


What to Expect in February

Note: This What-To-Expect is from Westfly's Legacy pages and may not accurately reflect the current fishing at this venue.

Typically, mid-to late-February is when native steelhead arrive. For steelheaders, the usual winter mantra--"clearing and dropping, clearing and dropping"--means you want to be on the water after (not during) a storm, when the river is dropping and is starting to clear. Ideally, visibility should be2-3 feet. If you're not sure if the river is clear enough, wade in up to your knees; if you can't see the toes of your boots, go home.

But if there hasn't been any rain for a while, then the water is low and clear. That leaves steelhead feeling vulnerable and disinclined to take a fly. Approach them with stealth and use a thinner than normal leader until the rivers have more color and water in them. You should also use a small drab fly under these conditions.

When the water is cool you should heed the usual winter admonition that steelhead will hug the bottom and be hard to budge. Under winter conditions, a steelhead will seldom move more than18 inches to either side or a foot upwards. They won't move down. So your fly needs to travel very close to the fish and at or just above the fish's eye level.

There are two primary ways to do that: use a weighted fly with a sink-tip line and present the fly on a classic wet fly swing; or use indicator tactics. The latter works best when you're fishing ledges, slots, and pocket water. It's can also be the most productive tactic when the water is very cold (under40 degrees).

Before you go steelheading, check the river levels: sudden surges will put the fish off the bite, and very high water will make the rivers too muddy for fishing.

Every stream clears at a different rate, depending on its gradient, the condition of the surrounding banks, and the state of tributaries. The best bet is to pick one or two favorites and learn how they behave under different conditions. After a bit of observation you'll learn the levels at which a stream fishes best.

Streamside trouters have limited options in February, although it's definitely better than January. Blue-winged olive hatches will become more intense as the month progresses. They'll be strong through the end of April. While the duns hatch in the early afternoon, the nymphs are active most of the daylight hours; they are frequently found drifting in the current near the river bottom. In the mornings you should tie on a size18 gold-ribbed Hares Ear or Pheasant Tail on a dropper rig with a big stonefly imitation on the point--or use a "tool" fly to get your small offering down.

However you rig up, drift your flies through runs with slow to moderate flow and along current seams near riffles. In some areas you will pick up whitefish by the score, but in others you will find trout.

About noon to1:00 p.m. you should start to see some blue-winged olive duns on the surface. Generally, overcast or cool, drippy days prolong and intensify the hatch, bringing more trout to the surface. Sometimes the best hatches occur when the weather is warming up after a couple of cold days. Cold weather will depress the hatch.

The slow-to-moderate speed runs where you cast a nymph in the morning (see above) are good, but the best dry fly action should be in the backeddies because the duns get trapped there and become easy pickings for trout.

Near the end of the hatch and for about an hour afterwards, use a size18 Soft Hackle with a gray-olive body or a similarly-colored fly tied like a Diving Caddis, or try Jeff Morgan's Diving Baetis pattern. Dead-drift this fly, giving it an occasional jig with your rod tip. This simulates female blue-winged olives that crawl below the surface to lay their eggs. A small split shot may be needed for some runs.

Other than the blue-winged olive hatch, look for midges in the afternoon. Present a midge pupa on a dead-drift just below the surface if you suspect the trout are taking them (and maybe even if you don't). Backeddies, slow runs, and places where the current is compressed (such as around a rock) are good places to look for midging trout.

An often over-looked winter trout food is spotted caddis larvae. A Zug Bug or Prince imitates them well. Dead-drift it near the bottom along current seams and in slower water below a riffle or drop-off.

Little brown stoneflies (which are black) are also present this month. There aren't many of them, but when one lands on the water it is unlikely to be left alone if a trout is nearby. Try a size16 black Elk Hair Caddis or Parachute Black Stone near the banks, or a size 14 black Hares Ear near the bottom.

Whitefish are still spawning, so drifting an Egg Fly near the bottom can be a good way to pick up trout. Whitefish eggs are small and pale.

Near the end of February, some rivers may have hatches of March browns if the weather is warm and rivers aren't too high. A size12 Comparadun, Sparkle Dun, or CDC Cripple works well.


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