Looking out the front window of our house, the cheerful blooms of snowdrops and crocuses push up through dry leaf mulch. A flock of American Robins scrap for rotten fruit from the crabapple tree. The odor of oatmeal cooking advances from the kitchen. It’s early March and the Walla Walla River is once again on the rise. My hope for steelhead has been dashed by another spate of rain and melting snow.

I sift through my loose collection of pocket journals and review scribbled notes that go back 22 years. Back when I was a working stiff, an early run of steelhead pushed their way up the Walla Walla River to the confluence of Mill Creek following the first major freshet in late fall.  A second pulse in flow brought in more fish. I regularly reserved a week or more over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays to fish for these chrome bright sea-going trout.

The drive from the Tri-Cities is one I can do in my sleep. Sandhill cranes circle low over the wildlife refuge where thousands of snow geese stage in late winter.  Backwater ponds are filled with rafts of coots and mallards. Bald eagles roost in tall cottonwoods near an acrid smoke plume that emits from the Boise Cascade pulp mill. Walleye anglers troll offshore with Wallula Gap in the distance. Ridgetop wind turbines peek through low lying clouds. My first view of the Blues at the top of Nine-Mile Hill might show a fresh dusting of snow. The next stop is the Walla Walla River off Old Highway 24.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023.

The first time out is always a scouting expedition. Unfortunately, decades of memories remain obliterated by the 2020 flood: the hole downstream of the highway bridge where steelhead rested behind concrete slags; the hole that ran alongside two car bodies cabled to the bank; the “rope hole” protected by an ancient alder whose branches hung halfway across the river; a 100-yard-long trough that ran deep along the north bank; a two-part hole where current crested against an eroded dirt bank lined with exposed root wads.

What I find instead, in a one-mile stretch of river, is one hole anchored by a crisscross of cottonwood logs and another hole held in place by concrete rip rap and a pair of mature alder trees. I hook and release a 12-inch and 17-inch rainbow in the first hole and a 14-inch rainbow and a 19-inch bull trout in the other.  I bust off a drift rig on one last do-or-die cast and call it a day. More hiking than fishing is involved.

December 23, 2023

After a brief flow pulse the river has settled at 550 cubic feet per second (cfs). Once again, I am relegated to casting from a single bank because flows are too high to ford shallow runs. A 20-minute hike downstream from a sportsman access area takes me to where logs from a 10-year-old stream restoration project protect a steep clay bank. Remaining water is too swift for steelhead to hold. An arduous hike through prickly teasel and shoulder-high reed canary grass is not rewarded

I drive upstream to a familiar stretch of river where I recently received permission to fish. A quarter-mile trek upstream to a mostly unchanged honey hole yields no action. It’s not all about fishing, but, as I’ve stated many times before, sooner or I later I want to catch a steelhead—if only to prove that I can.

January 4, 2024 

At 460 cfs the river has dropped a foot in elevation to allow for safe wading in selected areas. Have steelhead finally migrated to this part of the river? I hook and land two 16-inch rainbow trout in one hole and 12-incher in another. I find a safe crossing and fish a long swift run peppered with concrete slags without success.

Further upstream is a fast run where I once landed a 10-pound wild steelhead. Today it holds a 11-inch rainbow. I grab a thick branch of alder, ford current that crests over my knees, and hook a 15-inch rainbow where a steelhead should have been.

February 21, 2024

Long time no fish because of high water, subfreezing weather, and family issues. The good news is flows have dropped from a high of 2,000 cfs to 600 cfs and stayed at that level for a week. Once lush stands of reed canary grass have turned brown and lie flat to the ground. A pair of redtail hawks circle overhead with a loud “kree.” Mallards, mergansers, and Canada geese lift off from the water surface with a splash and a squawk. A large covey of quail flushes from a floodplain populated with teasel, brush willow, and cottonwood shoots.

No action is found in a long, languid hole where I caught a bull trout and a steelhead two years ago. I sweeten my corkie-and-yarn rig with dyed bait shrimp, add split shot, shift position in current so swift that gravel moves beneath my boot foot waders, and bang casts off the side of a cottonwood log.

It’s high noon when I reach what I now call “the great hole.” It has depth, divergent current, overhead cover, submerged boulders, and turbulence. No action when I cast to the inside edge, main current, or the upstream pocket where concrete slags slow the current. Then a hero cast made to a back eddy sheltered by overhanging alder with 4-inch-long catkins and I sense a two-part grab. A steelhead! The fish holds position in the swift tail-out, sheds water twice on a turn, then seeks comfort in a brush patch. After I extract her, she beelines for the opposite bank. Ten minutes later, the small bright hen is ready for release.  

I park my backside on an ancient cottonwood log and reflect how life takes a turn when new facts are revealed. Only recently did I learn that the Washington Department of Fish and Game stopped stocking hatchery steelhead in the Walla Walla River in 2017 “because of rules around hatchery and wild interactions.”  That 100,000 steelhead smolts are now released in the Touchet River as “harvest mitigation.” This turn of events means that hatchery steelhead which once migrated into the Walla Walla River take a left turn a dozen miles or so downstream of where I prefer to fish. While I don’t mind catching large rainbow trout, my quest is for steelhead.

No doubt I’ve got opinion after fishing this same stretch of river for over 50 years, but old habits are hard to break. Whether this seasoned angler will re-evaluate his approach is debatable. I’ll either have to manage my expectations or find a new venue. Even so, taking a chance on another river that provides equal satisfaction is unlikely to occur at this stage in my angling career.