Beat the Winter Doldrums
“Wake up, wake up you sleepyhead. Get up get up get out of bed. Time is a wasting and this day has begun.”
For some reason, this aged nursery rhyme rings true when I think about getting up to fish on a cold, dark wintry morning. And it’s not just me who feels that way. There is ample scientific evidence to show long winter nights cajole the average person’s pineal gland into a state of complacency. So why should you roll out of bed to chase cold-blooded fishes whose metabolism has recently slowed? A simple answer could be you fish because you must–if only to keep from having to go duck hunting.
Not to worry your sleepy little head, however, because the range of options available for winter anglers east of Oregon and Washington’s Cascade Mountains is almost limitless. Whether for pure sport or table fare, the primary challenge is which species to work into your busy holiday schedule.
High on your list should be summer-run steelhead, so named because they first enter the lower Columbia River in early summer. Many of these fish don’t enter tributary streams until after fall rain or early snowmelt increases flows. Others loiter in mainstem reservoirs of the Columbia and Snake Rivers until early spring. December and January are peak months for steeheaders in Eastside streams such as the John Day, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Tucannon, Grande Ronde, Wenatchee and Methow Rivers. Figuring out where to fish should involve careful study of stream hydrographs using the USGS stream flow website (http://waterdata.usgs.gov) and determination of your optimum driving-time to fishing-time ratio.
All types of steelhead venues are available in December, ranging from shrimp-and-bobber to drift fishing to fly-casting. Consider trying the forebays of McNary, Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental or Little Goose Dam if shrimp-and-bobber rigs are your thing. Another venue for this proven method is at the Lyons Ferry Hatchery near Starbuck, Washington. Drift fishing with roe, nightcrawlers and shrimp generally produces the best results for these sea-going rainbows in tributary streams. The Ringold area of the Hanford Reach is also sought out by fly fishers and gear anglers in the winter due to returning steelhead that loiter along the shoreline, attracted to warm spring water from the hatchery.
My favorite way to beat the fruitcake blues is to go after mountain whitefish. These large-scaled, pointy-mouth cousins of salmon and steelhead reside in the free-flowing Hanford Reach of the Columbia River year-round, but numbers increase markedly in late fall when they migrate from McNary Reservoir to feed on fall Chinook salmon eggs.
A medium-light spinning rod, 7 to 8 1/2 feet long is suggested for shoreline angling in the Hanford Reach. Use slinkies or pencil lead in a setup similar to a steelhead drift rig. Salmon eggs or orange hackle flies tipped with maggots are the most common method of enticement for these egg-hungry fish. I also use Exude soft plastic roe or 10 mm plastic orange beads to fool enough whitefish to fill my smoker. Fly casters use a 5 to 6 weight rod with sink tip line or pinch a small split shot 8 inches above their offering.
A nymphing technique known as the Czech method is popular with fly fishers in the Deschutes and Crooked River in central Oregon. Essentially, a weighted nymph is tied on as a bottom-bouncing fly, with smaller attractor flies tied above on one or two leaders. Other waters east of the Cascades that support significant mountain whitefish populations include the Klickitat, Middle Fork of the John Day, Umatilla, Walla Walla, upper Yakima, Naches, Wenatchee Rivers and Methow Rivers.
Perhaps the most obscure fish on my short list of winter angling venues is the burbot or freshwater ling. Burbot are easily recognized by their eel-like shape, slanting sharp teeth and large chin barbel that lends a beatnik-like appearance. Although burbot can be caught in deep cold water during the summer, most anglers target them in the winter when they stage in shallower water to spawn. Indeed, burbot are one of a handful of fishes known to spawn at near-freezing surface temperatures under ice.
Washington State is the southern limit of this coldwater species. Eastern Washington locales where you can seek burbot include Potholes, Reservoir, Lake Rufus Woods, Lake Roosevelt and Lake Osoyoos. More remote areas worth checking out include Palmer, Bead (where the state record of 17.37 lbs was caught in 2004) and Sullivan Lakes. In the Yakima River watershed, try Lakes Cle Elum, Kachess and Keechalus, but bring your ice auger.
Burbot can be harvested with a tended rod having up to three hooks. Large hooks, ranging from #1 to 2/0, are favored. Most any kind of cut bait or nightcrawlers works. Because burbot feed mainly at night, consider getting your forty winks the next day.
The white and flakey flesh of burbot is so sweet some call it “poor man’s lobster.” A word of caution, however. This toothy predator is on the consumption advisory list for Lake Roosevelt with a Washington State Department of Health recommendation of no more than one meal per week due to high levels of mercury.
Finding a patch of walleye is no longer a challenge in the Columbia Basin. After being introduced to Banks Lake and Lake Roosevelt in the 1950s, walleye are now found throughout the Columbia and Snake Rivers, in addition to many inland lakes and reservoirs.
Winter hotspots in the main Columbia River include submerged islands and channel edges between Rufus and John Day Dam and similar bottom type near Irrigon, Oregon. Wide-open flats proximate to the channel downstream of the Snake-Columbia River confluence remain as one of the best places to find large walleye. In the lower Snake River, Lower Monumental pool has the most to offer, with walleyes found from the mouth of the Palouse River upstream to the Little Goose Dam. Hardcore winter anglers from the upper Columbia region favor Lake Roosevelt, Lake Rufus Woods and Banks Lake. Jason Bauer’s website, Northwestwalleye.com, provides regular updates for this area. Walleye can be also caught under the ice in Moses Lake and Potholes Reservoir.
Trolling is the most effective way to locate walleye when they are scattered in open water. Standard gear includes deep-diving crank-baits or spinners on a worm harness held deep with 1 to 3 oz bottom-walkers. Once a school of biters are found, you should switch to a near-vertical presentation using either lead head jigs or blade baits. More experienced anglers use the lightest jig head possible while maintaining bottom contact with taut line in order to feel the subtle tick signaling the bite of a lethargic walleye. Universal colors of chartreuse and white provide improved visibility at deeper depth.
If your idea of fun is ice chunks in your rod guides, insulated bibs and a facemask, then perch fishing is for you. While most fish go into a state of torpor or suspended activity when water temperatures plummet, yellow perch remain active in the coldest of conditions.
An ultra-light action ice rod with 2 to 4 lb test mono or small diameter Berkley FireLine, is recommended for finessing yellow perch. From an anchored boat or a steep shoreline, anglers might rig a terminal sinker on a 3-way swivel with a #8 hook on 6 inches of leader. When bobber-fishing, use a small foam or balsa float, such a thill with the minimum amount of split shot. One rule is to keep bait near the bottom. Often a slow retrieve of a 1/32 to 1/16 oz jig tipped with a worm or maggot will promote a bite. Experienced ice fishermen rely on an assortment of metal jigging spoons, such as the Swedish pimple, or small, skirted lead-head jigs in colors ranging from red-and-white to chartreuse. Because a perch bite can be subtle, set the hook on a series of taps or when the bobber starts to move. Don’t wait for it to go under.
According to Maddy Sheehan’s, hot-off-the-press, 11th edition of Fishing in Oregon, northeastern Oregon’s Cold Springs Reservoir, McKay Reservoir and McNary Channel Ponds all afford opportunity for yellow perch. These slack water venues may also occasionally require an ice auger.
Tri-Cities anglers frequent Cargill Pond, an off-channel area of the lower Snake River near Hood Park. “Scooteney Reservoir is often a good ice fishery if the reservoir freezes over,” says District fish biologist Paul Hoffarth. “There’s lots of perch in the 8 to 10 inch range along with some nice crappie and walleye.”
Moses Lake, Silver Lake (Spokane County), Patterson Lake and Palmer Lake also hold good populations of yellow perch. WDFW’s Region 2 biologist, Mike Schmuck, shared that Banks Lake has a good winter population of perch in the south end. “There can be a good ice fishery if it freezes around Coulee City. Dock fishing at the Potholes Mar Don Resort can also be very good in the winter.”
Trout fishing is thought to be synonymous with sunny days, insect hatches and family picnics. However, don’t put away your tackle after Thanksgiving Day if you favor this popular fish. While most low-elevation streams of eastern Washington and Oregon are closed to trout fishing after October 31, the upper Yakima River remains open year-round from Roza Dam to Keechelus Dam for catch-and-release using selective gear.
Central Oregon also has options for winter trout. Lake Billy Chinook is open year-round (Except for the Metolius Arm) for bulltrout, kokanee and rainbow trout. The Deschutes River from the mouth to the northern boundary of the Warm Springs Reservation and the mainstem Crooked River are also open year-round for trout.
Traditional winter patterns for fly fishers include sculpin imitations or two-fly tandems consisting of a large, weighted stonefly nymph trailing a smaller attractor-type nymph floated below a strike indicator. Swinging large streamers are also effective under seasonal coldwater conditions when trout tend to congregate in deep pools. You might also be lucky enough to match a wintertime midge hatch when air temperatures warm in the afternoon.
Another venue that favors sleeping in is spring-fed Rocky Ford Creek near Ephrata, Washington. Rocky Ford stays a near-constant 50 oF, thus keeping its resident population of large rainbow trout active all winter long.
If your preference is to fill a cooler with trophy-sized, orange-meated trout, then travel north to Lake Rufus Woods for triploids. Here, boat anglers troll plugs and spinners adjacent to commercial net pens and along shoreline kick-points. White or chartreuse tube baits or 1/8 to 1/4-ounce jigs tipped with nightcrawlers can do the trick if fished near the bottom. Most boats launch from Seatons Grove downriver from Elmer City where it’s about a 10 mile run to the main net pens.
If it’s too frosty to fire up your aged Evinrude, then join other bank fishermen to fish Power Bait, salmon eggs, shrimp or nightcrawlers near the net pen complex. Shoreline access off Highway 2 west of Nespelem is allowed via cooperation of Tim’s Ranch, Columbia River fish farms and the Colville Indian Reservation. Fishing from the west shore requires a Colville Tribal permit.
A few words about winter angling safety are constructive. Always dress warmly and carry a working cell phone. Before venturing out onto the ice, make sure it is at least 4 inches thick, has no fractures and is not separated from the shoreline. And don’t get on a boat without putting on a life jacket. You won’t last an hour when water temperatures decline to 40 0F and lower.
One benefit of fishing the “dry side” of Oregon and Washington is not having to battle the frequent rain that Westside anglers must deal with. Jack Frost may nip your nose but it’s nothing that can’t be handled with a wool cap, down vest and a pair of lined gloves. Not to mention that Eastside fishing venues are rarely crowded in the winter. More important, you can stay in bed a little longer– if only to ponder the many possibilities.