Every steelhead season on the Walla Walla River leads to me learning something new. Whether it’s how the river channel changes in response to flood flow, losing access to private property, or different angling regulations. Some things never change though. Steelhead move in from the Columbia River with the first major fall freshet, usually around Thanksgiving weekend. After that, it’s hit and miss. Like recently (end of December), when snowmelt blew it out.
The Walla Walla River upstream of McDonald Bridge has selective gear regulations. A jig under a slip bobber is typically the way to go. Whether with a fly rod or spinning rod, take your choice. Downstream you can dunk bait. I fish both areas because you never know where steelies will stage and I use whatever method works best because I like to catch steelhead. There’s sportsman access at both the McDonald and Detour Road Bridges. Elsewhere, it’s up to your ability to sweet talk landowners, navigate barbed wire and roll under electric fences. That I am still able to perform all three functions at age 67 is testimony to my dedication to the sport.
I found good water conditions three times in December of this year and managed to land two wild steelhead. Over that time period, I also caught a 19” bull trout and a total of 10 large rainbow trout, ranging from 14 to 18” long. The bull trout was not a surprise. I often catch one each winter when they move downstream from headwaters with high flow. The number of large rainbow trout was surprising, however, although I frequently hook one or two in places where I imagine a steelhead would be. I would give my left arm to catch five fish of that size in the South Fork during trout season.
So why are all the “winter rainbows” in the Tucannon River 8 to 10 inches long and Walla Walla trout much larger? My theory is the majority of Tucannon winter trout are residual hatchery smolts while the larger Walla Walla trout represent an adfluvial population of fish that migrate downstream to the Columbia River when the lower Walla Walla gets warm and low in early summer before returning to overwinter when steelhead migrate into the lower river. Unfortunately, winter angling regulations allow for harvest of two rainbow trout downstream of McDonald Bridge, which may explain why all of the trout I hooked were on non-selective gear further upstream.