Washington Rivers


What to Expect in January

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

January can be a good month for steelhead anglers who travel to rivers with strong hatchery-based runs, but anglers have to understand that temperature and precepitation rule their fishing. When it's relatively warm, precipitation that would normally stay as snow in the mountains will fall as rain and run into rivers. Cooler conditions will improve river conditions by keeping that snow where it does the most good: in the mountains.

When winter fishing, the windows of opportunity are often just narrow slits. Fishing for steelhead can be excellent, but any trip planned more than a day or two in advance will be a crap shoot. You have to be prepared to drop everything and head for your favorite stream on short notice. The motto is: "be prepared, and act quickly."

The best fishing is when the rivers are dropping and clearing after a major rain. Otherwise, look for steady (not heavy) rain followed by brief dry-but-cloudy spells (or drizzle) with temperatures in the mid- to upper-40s in the Puget Sound area and coast. Extended dry weather or very cold temperatures are generally not good for winter steelheading.

The convential advice for winter angling is: when rivers are high, fish high; when rivers are low, fish low. That's because the tributaries and upper reaches are the first places that streams clear after a storm. And when there's a dry spell, it's the lower sections that hold the most water.

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.

Cold water means most fish will hug the bottom; a few will suspend a few feet above, if the conditions are right. In either case, they will be hard to budge. Under these conditions, a steelhead will seldom move more than18 inches to either side or a foot upwards. It 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 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 fish off the bite, and very high water will make the rivers too muddy for fishing. Remember, wade up to your knees; if you can't see your toes, go home.

With a few exceptions, trout fishing will be slow this month, but you should be able to find plenty of whitefish. For whitefish, use a small nymph on a dropper with a big stonefly nymph on the point. For a small fly use one of the following: size18 Gold-Ribbed Hares Ear, size 18 Pheasant Tail, size 12-14 Zug Bug, or size 12-14 Prince. Also, whitefish are often suckers (huh?) for a small white fly during winter conditions.

The blue-winged olives will hatch every afternoon around1:00 p.m., but the best hatches will be on drizzly or overcast days. This hatch gets stronger in February and March. Temperatures near or below freezing will not produce a good hatch. If you hit it right and the hatch comes off in fish-stimulating numbers, your best dry fly options are a Sparkle Dun, Parachute Baetis, or Baetis Cripple. Don't neglect the subsurface option.

Trout and whitefish will feed on spotted caddis larvae all winter. A Zug Bug or Prince nymph can be a good choice. Fish it near seams and in slower water below a riffle or drop-off.

Little brown stoneflies (aka winter stoneflies or black stoneflies) will be appearing on some rivers this month.

Whitefish are spawning, and trout will take drifting roe. A small Egg Fly in pale peach or yellow is a good choice; drift it near the bottom.

The best trout fishing will be from about10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. As soon as the water starts to cool off, trout will hunker down and not come to your fly.


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