Fishing: Winter steelhead are still the name of the game in the Columbia River Basin, although several other fisheries are beginning to compete for anglers’ attention. Sturgeon fishing reopens Jan. 1 from the mouth of the Columbia to McNary Dam, and state hatchery workers have begun planting dozens of regional lakes with thousands of rainbow trout.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has also scheduled an evening razor-clam dig to run over New Year’s weekend. Digging will be allowed after noon on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 at Long Beach, Twin Harbors, Copalis, Mocrocks and Kalaloch. On Jan. 2, digging will be allowed at Twin Harbors only.
Meanwhile, anglers continue to reel in adult hatchery-reared winter steelhead – along with some late-run coho salmon – from a number of Columbia River tributaries. The Cowlitz River is still the best bet for steelhead, although the Lewis, Kalama, Grays, Washougal, Elochoman and White Salmon rivers, and Salmon Creek in Clark County are also producing fish, said Joe Hymer, a WDFW fish biologist.
“As usual, river conditions basically determine success at this time of year,” Hymer said. “Most anglers do best when water levels are rising or dropping. It’s a lot harder to catch steelhead in the peaks and troughs.”
As with all steelhead fisheries in southwest Washington, only hatchery fish with a clipped adipose fin and healed scar may be retained. All wild steelhead must be released. The daily limit on all area rivers is two hatchery steelhead.
Starting Jan. 1, anglers may also retain up to two adult hatchery chinook salmon per day on the mainstem Columbia from the I-5 Bridge downstream and in the Cowlitz and Deep rivers. The daily limit is one chinook per day in the Lewis and Kalama rivers. While the bulk of the spring chinook run isn’t expect to arrive until March, Hymer said some lucky anglers will likely start catching early-arriving fish by late January or early February.
“It’s a good to keep the chinook regulations in mind, even if you’re fishing for steelhead,” he said. “Somebody has to catch the first springer of the year, and it could be you.”
WDFW recently released preliminary forecasts of Columbia River salmon and steelhead returns for 2011, predicting an upriver run of 198,400 adult spring chinook compared to an actual return of 315,300 last spring. However, the upper Columbia summer chinook run is expected to be significantly higher than in 2010.
The preliminary forecasts, along with currently anticipated fishing seasons, are posted on WDFW’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/reports_plants.html. Current fishing rules are described in 2010-11 Fishing in Washington pamphlet (http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/regulations/) and the Northwest River Forecast is available at http://www.nwrfc.noaa.gov/.
Ready to catch some sturgeon? All fishing areas will open to anglers Jan. 1 from the mouth of the Columbia River to McNary Dam, except for a small area in Sand Island slough upstream from Beacon Rock as outlined in the current regulation pamphlet. Fishery managers from Washington and Oregon are scheduled to meet Feb. 8 to consider changes to current catch quotas, but Hymer said that won’t affect the fishery until later in the season.
“The main concern right now is the cold weather,” Hymer said. “A warming trend would likely improve the bite when the season gets under way.”
But there will be no fishing of any kind for eulachon smelt this year, he said. Once abundant in the Columbia River Basin, eulachon were listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act last May. Since then, Washington and Oregon have closed all sport and commercial dipping in the Columbia River system. In addition, Washington has closed all marine and freshwater areas statewide for eulachon smelt.
Anglers can, however, still use any frozen smelt they have in their freezer as bait, said Capt. Murray Schlenker, WDFW enforcement chief for southwest Washington. “There’s no law about possession,’’ he said. “You just can’t fish for them.’’
As an alternative, anglers might consider spending a winter’s day fishing for trout on a local lake. Throughout January, WDFW plans to stock more than two-dozen lakes in southwest Washington with thousands of rainbow trout ranging from 8-12 inch “catchables” to 5-8 pound broodstock.
“There’s a lot of interest in trout fishing in winter,” said John Weinheimer, another WDFW fish biologist. “During breaks in the weather, people come out to fish for them like crazy.”
The timing of the fish plants will vary according to the weather and the availability of tanker trucks, but Weinheimer said last year’s stocking plan is a good indication of which lakes will fish. That stocking plan is posted at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/plants/region5/ on WDFW’s website.
“All of these lakes are ice-free in winter,” he said. “Given weather conditions, we don’t encourage anyone to fish through the ice in southwest Washington. It just isn’t safe.”
Hunting: Most big-game hunts in the region will be closed by the end of December, but waterfowl hunters still have time to bag ducks and geese throughout the region. Hunters have through Jan. 30 to hunt for ducks and geese, although goose hunting is now closed at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, where the season’s sub-quota for dusky Canada geese has been reached.
Except for New Year’s Day, the remainder of Management Area 2A is open to hunting for ducks and geese Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays through Jan. 30. For more information, see the Waterfowl and Upland Game pamphlet, available online at http://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/regulations/.
Hunters who purchased tags for black bear, deer, elk or turkey are reminded that reports on their hunting activities are due by Jan. 31 for each 2010 tag purchased. Hunters can file a report by calling (877) 945-3492, or by the Internet at https://fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov.
Those who miss the deadline must pay a $10 penalty before they can purchase a 2011 hunting license. On the other hand, hunters who submit their reports by Jan. 10 will be entered into a drawing for five deer permits and four elk permits in various areas of the state.
New this year, WDFW is requiring hunters to file separate reports for general-season hunting activities and for special-permit hunts for deer, elk, black bear and turkey. That change will give game managers more information about hunters’ success during both kinds of seasons. Whether reporting online or over the phone, hunters should follow the prompts until they receive a confirmation number for each report.
Wildlife viewing: Winter weather in the Columbia River Gorge can be downright inhospitable, but migrating tundra swans don’t seem to mind. Several hundred birds, each weighing up to 18 pounds, have settled in the area, where they have been dining on slugs, snails, insects, crayfish and plants. They especially like the native wapato, a tuber that grows at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Franz Lake near Washougal, and in Mirror Pond across the Columbia River.
The swans typically remain in the area through March, when they make the 3,725-mile trip back to their nesting grounds in the Arctic tundra. The number of tundra swans visiting the area appears to have declined since the early part of the decade, when 2,000 birds were observed on some of the larger lakes. Even so, human visitors can still see hundreds of swans feeding at Ridgefield, Franz Lake and other parts of the gorge.
Some of those swans will no doubt be tallied during the 111th annual Christmas Bird Count, which runs through Jan. 5 in southwest Washington and throughout the Americas. Sponsored by Audubon, the annual event enlists birdwatchers – veterans and novices alike – to contribute their sightings over a 24-hour period to the world's longest-running bird database. Check out this year’s tally under the Current Year Results heading on Audubon’s website (http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count).