Washington Rivers


What to Expect in December

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

iiiSteelhead. gggBefore 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. Remember, wade up to your knees; if you can't see your toes, go home.

It's seldom productive to fish for winter steelhead when a river is rising, but a clearing and dropping river can create aggressive steelhead. Every stream clears at a different rate, depending on its gradient, the condition of the surrounding banks, and the state of its 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; some 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. 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 with traditional tactics; 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).

When choosing a fly, consider the condition of the river. When the water is low and clear, small drab flies often work best; you'll need a thinner tippet under those conditions, too. When the water is on the murky side, a large black fly can be more effective.

Winter steelhead fly fishers need guerrilla tactics to survive. As soon as rivers begin to drop and clear, hoards of gear anglers will invade the prime bank-angling runs and stand shoulder-to-shoulder casting slinkies and roe. If you walk up and say, "Excuse, but I need about200 feet of elbow room so I can do my double spey cast," you'll be lynched before lunch.

A boat can help a lot. It can put you into places that aren't so crowded, places where you can stake out some turf and be left alone. Also, seek out the productive water that the gear guys won't touch, such as bouldery sections, pocket water, and small, snaggy tributaries.

Chum salmon are mostly over and done with. There are still fish in the rivers, but the vast majority of the chum salmon are dead or died a week ago and don't yet know it. A few fresh stragglers will show up in early December, but it will be difficult to pursue them without snagging the dark spawners that are already there.

While you might still fair-hook a fresh chum (especially in deeper water), the primary use of chum salmon at this time is to provide eggs for dolly varden. Drifting a medium-sized peach-colored Egg Fly or equivalent below spawning chums can be productive on many Puget Sound rivers (you can't target dollies on the Peninsula). When chasing dolly varden, you can use trout indicator tactics. Try to find some natural eggs to make sure you've got the right color and size; dollies can be very selective about the size and color of eggs. Carry a variety of colors and sizes with you so you can match the "hatch." See Egg Flies for some advice on egg flies and some patterns.

When fishing for dollies, you may end up snagging a chum. This is not a good outcome when you're using a6-weight rod and 3X tippet. One solution is to tie your egg patterns on a light wire hook. If you snag a chum, point the rod at the fish and clamp the line to the rod. If you're lucky, the hook will straighten out before the tippet snaps. This way you don't leave the hook in the chum salmon (Christmas may be coming, but that's no reason to decorate chum salmon with little colored balls).

Another dolly varden option is Egg Sucking Leeches. Carry these with a variety of head colors and pick ones that match the color of chum salmon eggs. Present the fly on a wet-fly swing.

Trout fishing will slowly fade as the water cools. Trout anglers will have slim pickings this month, with the exception of winter stalwarts, such as Rocky Ford.

Blue-winged olives and midges are the main hatches on any stream this month. During emergences of blue-wings, use a Sparkle Dun or Baetis Cripple. On most streams, however, blue-winged olive hatches will be weak until late February. They fade to nothing when it's very cold.

For midge hatches, a Griffiths Gnat or Sprout Midge is a good dry fly choice. When fishing the dry midge, you might try tying12 inches of leader to the hook bend, then tie a pupa pattern to the other end of it.

By the end of the month we might spot a few of the winter-hatching stoneflies known black stoneflies (black stoneflies are actually from the little brown stonefly group). Tie on a size16 black Elk Hair Caddis and cast it near the bank. You can also dead-drift a size-14 black Hares Ear or A. P. Black near the bottom..

Except for hatch periods, trout are more likely to take subsurface fare such as blue-winged olive nymphs. Asize-18 Pheasant Tail or Hares Ear will work when dead-drifted near the bottom. One way to get it there is to use a two-nymph rig with a big nymph, such as a Kaufmanns Stonefly or Rubber Legs, on the point and the smaller fly on a dropper or as a trailer. Trout may take either fly, but are most likely to inhale the smaller one.

On any river with a good population of free-living caddis (spotted caddis and green caddis), a size14-16 Zug Bug or Prince is a good choice because it resembles the larvae, which trout take all year.

Don't ignore whitefish this month. Trout tend to go semi-dormant as the river temperature drops, but whitefish are more tolerant of the cold and are more active than trout in December and January. You'll find them in slower runs, in slow water next to fast water, or in the slow pockets below the head of a riffle. They are schooling fish, so if you find one you've found the mother lode. If the trout prove elusive, go nymphing for whitefish; they'll pull your string, but not as hard as a trout would. If you're not picking them up, you're either in water that's too fast or your fly is not close enough to the bottom.

Whitefish will be spawning in many rivers, and trout may take spilled eggs. See Egg Flies for some tips on fly patterns.


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