COWLITZ RIVER — For those of you that think of a good days fishing and instantly recall hot summer days spent kicked back in a row boat on a lake with a lazy attitude and six-pack of cold beer, quietly drinking in the scenery and not really caring whether you go home with anything more than a deeper tan — winter-run steelhead fishing on the Cowlitz River may not be for you.
Whether from the banks of the Cowlitz or in a boat, winter-run steelheading is a battle against the elements. It’s you against the river, the wind, the rain, the waves, the steelhead and, sometimes, your fellow angling combatants.
It isn’t for everyone, but if you think the thrill of this adventure might be for you, consider heading into battle under the careful, resourceful guidance of an experienced guide.
A good guide plays the role of everything from general to drill sergeant to deck hand on his boat — whatever the situation calls for at the moment.
His job is to make sure you are able to keep your line in the water at all times, in the right place and with the right gear. When your line breaks, he hands you another rod, ready to go.
You don’t tie lines, bait hooks or do anything more than think about where to cast, how your line is drifting and waiting for that gentle steelhead tug before you set the hook and head into the best part of the battle — playing the fish into the net.
The Battle Begins
At the Blue Creek boat launch area of the Cowlitz River, there is a large number of anglers crowding the river and banks on almost any Saturday of the year.
But in December, as the temperatures drop and the steelhead start coming in from the ocean in larger and larger numbers, the steelheaders become an army of eager anglers.
It was still dark as night early last Saturday morning as I boarded Scott Gibson’s Woolridge sled. Too dark to see how many boats that had already launched, but you could hear them roaring up river and easing back down.
As the light came up, I counted over 30 boats and 60 anglers in that short stretch of river.
On this trip, we concentrated on making the journey from the boat launch to the mouth of the Blue Creek as we drifted down river, casting at the edges.
“When the water is high like it is now,” said Gibson, “it pushes the fish against the edge. They mostly concentrate on the hatchery side of the river, although you’ll catch some fish on the other side too.”
At the end of each pass, we gathered in our lines and raced back up to the front of the long line to make our way back down river again, hoping for a hit.
How Gibson Fishes
Gibson has been fishing the Cowlitz River for almost 20 years, since he was a kid.
“I’ve seen a lot, I’ve met a lot of people, and I’ve figured out that it’s all about paying attention to detail and trying different things,” Gibson said. “Just because something worked yesterday doesn’t mean it’s going to work today. You have to take in all of the variables — like visibility, water height, and such — before you decide what to use as bait.”
You can bring your own rod and gear, if you like, when you fish with Gibson.
“But if you want to pay me to help you catch fish, I would prefer you use my gear,” Gibson said.
Gibson spends approximately three hours tying lines and getting his gear ready before you ever step foot on his boat.
“We go through about 70 or 80 leaders in a normal day,” he said. “It’s all about keeping you in the water all the time, we’re here to catch fish, not tie lines.”
The Battle Won
As Gibson pulled his boat into the dock at the end of the day and we all posed for pictures with our six fish, there were several — including other guides — that came up to the boat to ask the most common question asked of any successful angler, “Hey, what were you using?”
“I’m not going to give away all of my secrets,” Gibson told me later, “but the number one thing to remember is to keep it simple. It’s very easy to mimic a bait that is in their natural environment with simple gear.”
Presentation is everything, Gibson said. “You can have a good bait, but if the presentation is off the fish won’t bite.”
All guides like to keep their secrets to themselves — that is until you hitch a ride on one of their boats as a customer. Good guides can make you a better fisherman, whether you fish from the bank or a boat.
How to Find a Good Guide
Pick up recommendations good guides by word of mouth, from friends and trusted acquaintances that have had success.
If you don’t know anyone that can recommend a good guide, go down to the boat launch to watch the boats come in. Talk to the guides and their customers.
“I get a lot of return customers,” said Gibson, “and I’m always glad to see them. It feels like you’re out fishing with friends, not working.”
Gibson continued, “I really enjoy meeting new customers too, I’m always excited to get them in the boat and get them into some nice fish.”
A trip with Gibson runs from $200 for a one angler, $175 for two, or $150 for three or more.
“Four people fish my boat comfortably,” he said.
The deck is nearly big enough to double as a dance floor, but there are few amenities other than the fine fishing gear.
“I’ll provide everything you need to catch a fish; you bring your own lunch and drink, make sure to dress warm and bring rain gear,” Gibson said.
It takes just a few simple questions to gauge the experience of each angler.
“The experience of the fisherman helps me to determine the best way to run the boat and get my customers into some nice fish,” he said.
Fishing never gets old for Gibson.
“I could talk about it all day,” he said, “it’s a big part of my life.”
“I want to try and teach people as much as I can when they are on the boat,” Gibson said, “and help them learn to catch more fish. And who doesn’t want to learn to catch more fish?”
Gibson Guide Service
December is the best month to hit the early winter-run steelhead. Although the January run is a close second to December, the quality of the fish starts to deteriorate as the early run comes to a close.
“My favorite run is the late winter run for steelhead,” said Gibson. “That’ll get going sometime in March. The fish tend to be bigger in that run and it’s a quality fish for the table.”