The long wait is over for anglers in the Upper Chehalis River system. A moratorium on fishing of all sorts came to an end on the mainstem above the mouth of the Black River on Oct. 1, while both the Skookumchuck and Newaukum rivers are set to open up on Oct. 16.
An emergency closure put an end to all sport fishing on the Chehalis River system back in May due to a dismal forecast for returning spring Chinook salmon. That ban on all angling was expected to last through the end of June but was later extended indefinitely when stock assessments did not improve.
The preseason target for returning spring Chinook salmon in the river system was 1,400 fish, but the forecast didn’t align with those goals. The total return was expected to include just 581 adult springers.
“The real reason that we closed things was a low forecast abundance of spring Chinook and after the 2018 return, which was less than 500, a forecast that was in the same range for this upcoming fall threw up a big red flag for us,” explained WDFW biologist Mike Scharpf.
“We decided with the co-managers that we needed to do something.”
In mid-July a series of staggered openings for the Chehalis River system were announced with the upper river last on the list. In August, the Chehalis River and its tributaries opened to anglers from the Highway 101 Bridge in Aberdeen up through the South Elma Bridge. Then on Sept. 16 legal game fishing sparked back up from Elma up to the mouth of the Black River. The mainstem and Southfork Chehalis rivers were the most recent to open to anglers, leaving just the Skookumchuck and Newaukum rivers left to open to sport fishing next week.
Scharpf explained that the closures, and then the staggered openings, were intended to allow spring Chinook to enter the Chehalis River basin from the ocean and then migrate upstream in advance of any legal fishing pressure. He added that springers are still spawning in parts of the Newaukum and Skookumchuck rivers, which is why they’re still closed.
Limited enforcement resources left the state with few options when it came to enforcing the closure, but the regulation change, which even banned fishing for non-native species like bass, left many anglers disappointed and wary at best. At their worst, the public was left angry and tempted to poach through the closure. Most local violators professed ignorance of the regulation change. Others said they simply didn’t care.
Scharpf admitted it’s likely that each spring and summer will continue to be a high-stakes guessing game to see how many spring kings will actually make it back to the Chehalis. He lamented that the persistently dire return projections make tough decisions even more difficult.
“You have to play it year to year. If our portions change and the population goes up then we’re not going to worry about it. If we continue to see really small returns we’re still going to play it by ear,” explained Scharpf. “We certainly understand that bass are a factor to predation. So, if by limiting people from targeting bass are we contributing to predation rates?”
By comparison, the fall Chinook return is expected to consist of at least 17,000 more fish than the spring run. However, no Chinook salmon of either seasonal stock may be harvested on the Chehalis River system.
That means that coho, more colloquially known as silvers, are the primary target for anglers this time of year. And there’s supposed to be a mess of them arriving any time. According to Scharpf the preseason forecast calls for 63,000 wild coho to return this fall and winter with another 48,000 hatchery fish completing their roundtrip as well.
Scharpf added that you can probably take that estimate with a grain of salt.
“Our hatchery forecast last year did not come in nearly as high as the actual forecast so I think the hatchery forecast is a little high,” he pointed out.
All of those hatchery coho originate from just three rivers in the Chehalis system — the Satsop, the Wynoochee, and the Skookumchuck. The bad news for upper river anglers is that just 18 percent of the total silver smolts released in 2016 originated from above the Twin Cities. The Skookumchuck, which flows into the mainstem Chehalis River near Borst Park in Centralia, is the primary benefactor of those hatchery releases. However, 50,000 smolts are released into the Newaukum River through the Lake Carlisle project orchestrated by Onalaska High School. Another 32,000 smolts are released from Elk Creek near Doty in order to create at least some opportunity for silves in the upper system.
If you’re going to head out to the river to try your luck, Schapf says there are a few measures you can take to increase your odds of success. The first of those measures is to keep track of fluctuations in river flow either by eye or through river gauge data available online.
“Increased flows definitely bring in more fish activity,” noted Scharpf. “Certainly on the downturn of big flow seems to be when things are good.”
Then there’s the not so simple matter of what to use.
“I know lower in the system spinners and spoons work pretty good. I also know people have success with a bobber,” added Schapf. “Little Cleo’s, Blue Fox spinners … Pink seems to be the hot color typically but I have yet to throw a spinner this year. I can’t wait to get out and change that!”
The daily limit on the Chehalis River system is six fish, two of which may be adult salmon. Both wild and hatchery coho may be retained but all Chinook must be released. The fall coho salmon fishery will close at nightfall on Dec. 31.
All About That Bass
All of that said, salmon are not the only game-fish in town.
“Once everything reopens everything is open,” noted Scharpf.
While salmon get all the headlines, there are plenty of lip rippers in the upper watershed who have been waiting all summer to take their shot at both large and small-mouthed river bass.
“We find that there’s quite a bit more smallies up in that (upper) area than there are down in this area,” said Curt Holt, a biologist with the WDFW who works out of Montesano.
Holt noted that largemouth bass can be found as far up as Rainbow Falls and as far out as the tidal area of the river. Locally, he recommended looking for small-mouth bass close to Fort Borst Park, whereas largemouth bass are more likely to be hooked closer to Lincoln Creek or Independence.
“Anything that has a side slough attached to it is good for bass fishing. And of course they love structures so anything with debris or slack water is a good place to go looking for them,” said Holt.
He added that bass have a tendency to fast for long periods over winter so time is of the essence if your concerned with actually catching fish as opposed to just standing by the river with a rod in your hand — not that there’s anything wrong with that age old pastime.
“The next couple of weeks is a good time to get them before they get hunkered in,” explained Holt. He noted that the swollen flows from late October or early November rains are bound to push bass out of the mainstem and into the back eddies and edgewater ponds to while away the winter. Then, next spring, they’ll be reinvigorated with hunger as the water warms.
The bite is so good right now that Holt says some salmon anglers have even been catching bass on accident while flipping spinners for silver salmon. Still, he advises to use real bass gear if that’s what you’re trying to hook. Even more importantly is where you choose to cast. Holt advises flipping bait near rootballs, snags, and other good slackwater habitat for the best odds.
“In the mainstem in this time period they are really getting fattened up before they move back into the oxbow areas and retreat for the winter,” said Holt.