Steelhead: I Follow Fisherman Garrett Dokter Along a Southwest Washington River in Search of Washington State’s Highly Sought-After Steelhead
SOUTHWEST WASHINGTON — I cast into a deep hole, waiting for the lure to reach the bottom before slowly reeling back in. It takes mere seconds before feeling the unmistakable tug of a fish striking. Ten more seconds of fighting before the beast emerges and I see a flash of the chrome body. No way. Is this the fish I’ve been searching for the past month? Have I finally hooked my first steelhead in 15 years? Please don’t spit the hook.
From the depths
Steelhead, coastal rainbow trout, are perhaps the most popular sport fish in the state. They are what Washington anglers look forward to every winter, typically starting December and ending in March, depending on the river.
Revered for their high-intense battles when hooked, these giant trout look similar to salmon, though unlike their salmonid counterparts they do not die after spawning in rivers and streams. No. These powerhouses are hatched from eggs, migrate to the ocean, return to the river they were born in to spawn themselves and then repeat the process several times over the duration of their lives.
That’s why Garrett Dokter, 32, of Southwest Washington, and I are tromping through a cowfield early Friday morning. We’re in search of the Shangri-La of sport fish in the Pacific Northwest, and we’re looking to start the New Year off with a bang.
From the beginning
Dokter grew up on the banks of a coastal river in Southwest Washington, one that meanders in a horseshoe around his mother’s property. It’s prime grounds for cutthroat trout year-round, Chinook salmon in late summer, coho in the fall and — you guessed it — steelhead each winter.
Dokter, who’s been a commercial fisherman his entire adult life — gillnetting, crabbing, dragging and so forth — might even be more skilled sport fishing from a bank. He knows how to find fish and, most importantly, how to catch them.
For me, I’m the exact opposite. I grew up salmon fishing as a teenager, but fell out during a 10-year drug addiction and subsequent recovery. I only just got back into fishing in August 2020. And while I did find some minimal success with a handful of kings and silvers the past few months, I’ve yet to even see even one steelhead in the past month or so that people have been landing them on this undisclosed river in Southwest Washington.
The reason I keep this river under wraps is for a multitude of reasons, many of which fishermen already know without mentioning. For those who don’t, I simply do not want to put any extra pressure on a river system that is already under intense force from out-of-the-area fishermen. In short, rivers are better kept to yourself.
To say steelhead are on the decline in Washington state is to put it mildly. All but one coastal steelhead run in the state is expected to have well below its escapement goal in 2021. The Chehalis River is expected to have 2,000 fish fewer than its spawning goal of 8,600; Queets/Clearwater 637 fewer, the Humptulips 534 less and the Willapa 344 fewer. The Quillayute, located on the Olympic Peninsula near Forks, is the only coastal river expected to have more fish (3,376) than its escapement goal.
That prompted the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WFDW) to announce new restrictions Dec. 8 that prohibit fishing from floating devices and the use of baits or scents in coastal rivers. The restrictions went active Dec. 14.
The WDFW said in a press release that the new measures aim to reduce the number of steelhead caught in coastal waters by 50 percent. The hope is to prevent the same fate of the wild Puget Sound steelhead, whose numbers have dropped by 97 percent and have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 2007.
Today, less than 5 percent of historic populations of wild salmon and steelhead return to Pacific Northwest rivers and streams. Five of the seven steelhead Distinct Population Segments (DPS) in Washington are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In a 2018 study by the WDFW, of the 73 steelhead populations monitored, 38 (52 percent) showed decreasing trends since 1980. In Southwest Washington, just 38 percent of populations showed an increasing trend, the third lowest in the state.
On the river
Dokter and I wind our way around a farm owned by a gracious woman who lets people fish her stretch of the river and begin our trek down to the bank. We’re using a method I’ve never used before.
Since August, I’ve been fishing almost exclusively with Blue Fox spinners. Today, with a constant drizzle and the river trending toward flood stage, we’ll be using a jig and bobber. Dokter rigs our poles up, mine with a nightmare-style jig that’s red and black, and he begins teaching me the nuances.
First cast should always be 6 feet or so back from the bank, he says, to prevent the fish from spotting you. Cast lightly, so the bobber and jig don’t splash the water too hard. Make sure your bobber is pointing straight up. Mend your extra line in the water as it drifts so when you do get a bite you don’t have a bunch of slack and can set the hook. It takes a while but I start to get the hang of it as we slowly make our way downriver hitting each slow-moving hole.
Dokter began fishing when he was 6 years old, entering a youth derby at a local pond. There were two prizes; one for the biggest fish and one for the most fish. He ended up nabbing the most for his age group, landing five trout.
“I was hooked ever since,” Dokter said.
He began fishing regularly when he moved to his mom’s current house, with the river that horseshoes the property. That’s where he learned to track down and target salmon and steelhead, having a stretch of prime river to himself. Into adulthood, there were many years he didn’t fish, spending months at a time commercial fishing in Alaska or on the ocean miles off the Washington coast. Even then, he never gave up his No. 1 hobby.
“I drove my mom and everybody else nuts,” Dokter said. “I’d be home for one day and I’d be on the river fishing.”
It really wasn’t until these past few years that he began getting back into sportfishing heavily. He’s been off from com--mercial fishing since November, and doesn’t plan to return until dragging season in April. So he gets to spend the prime steelhead months with nothing to do but fish.
Back to the river
We hit the entire stretch of river along this farm but get zero bites. We don’t even see another fisherman the entire two hours we’re there. For some reason, the fish aren’t there or they aren’t biting. So we decide to pack up and hit a different fork, one that Dokter says is always lower than the main fork when the water level and flows are high. We drive 10 minutes or so before he tells me to park in a little pull-off on the side of a country road. We enter into a trail hidden in plain sight and emerge a few minutes later next to a narrow stream about 4 feet deep.
We space about 30 feet apart and begin drifting, casting the bobber and jig and letting it glide downstream at about a brisk walking pace. All of a sudden my line goes tight and I jerk! Is this it? Nope. A snag. And it won’t come off. There goes one of Dokter’s $5 jigs. I rig back up and keep going as we head to another hole.
We’re three hours in and have yet to get even one bite. It’s to be expected. Steelhead are notoriously tough to hook. It’s one of the main appeals for anglers. And once they’re hooked, it’s like being hit by a freight train, Dokter said. They can and will shoot downriver and take your line with them. They’ll come to the surface then shoot down to the bottom of the hole. They become high-flying trapeze artists, shooting and spinning through the air in attempts to unload the hook buried in their mouth.
“They’re that tricky breed of fish,” Dokter said. “They’re tough. They’re harder to catch. You feel way rewarded when you do catch one. Salmon are just big and stupid. When you’ve got one, you’re almost guaranteed to catch it.
“With steelhead, I swear they’ve got a hand and can reach up and take the hook out of their mouth. If you make one mistake, they’ll highlight that mistake and you won’t catch them. You’ve got to be on top of your game for steelhead.”
And even when Dokter does land one, he mostly lets them go. He’ll usually keep the first few nice ones he catches, baking them with onions and lemon or lime. He likes them even better for eating than salmon, even though their meat is more pinkish than the red flesh of wild salmon. That’s mostly due to how rare they are. During salmon season, a fisherman can easily fill their freezer and eat salmon every day. Not so with steelhead. They’ve been referred to as the fish of a thousand casts.
He hasn’t noticed a huge decline in steelhead numbers on this river over the years. It varies. Last year, he was on the river almost every day and caught just one all year. Two years ago, he caught nine without putting much time into it. But he usually likes to dedicate an entire month to steelhead fishing.
“You don’t just walk out and go, ‘OK, we’re going to catch a steelhead,’” Dokter said. “You appreciate it after you’ve put in the work and know-how. It’s almost like hunting steelhead is what I like to call it.”
One last chance
We finally arrive at what will be the final half-mile of river. It’s Dokter’s secret fishing grounds. A place few people can access. Four hours in, we’re getting to the point where it’s more about the appreciation of being outdoors and having the opportunity to even fish for steelhead. I couldn’t imagine living in a state without salmon and steelhead. It gives me gratitude just being able to be here right now; among the trees and moss and birds. Not a vehicle in earshot. Waiting for that bobber to go down. This is what it’s about.
“It’s nice to get up, get out, do something and, even if you don’t catch anything, it’s still a good walk in the woods,” Dokter said. “Time to think, and collect your ideas. It’s a good time.”
We continue on until we reach the final hole on our journey. This bend of the river looks promising, deep, dark and slow-moving. I decide to switch back to my trusty spinners that have awarded me eight or so cohos the past two months. I pick up “old faithful,” also known as the all-gold No. 4 Blue Fox. It’s been my top salmon-catcher this year. Then I see an all-gold spinner that I bought on a whim at Sunbirds in Chehalis. It even says “Steelhead” on the blade. This is the one. This is it.
I slowly approach the hole as Dokter heads to the rapids off to my left to cast his bobber. First cast, I fling the spinner about 20 feet out and let it sink to the bottom. I reel back in a short, quick burst to engage the spinner and slowly retrieve it as I feel a hard tug and wiggle. NO. WAY. My line peels to the left as I hold tight, my heart thumping in my chest.
“I got one!” I yell to Dokter.
He comes running over as the fish surfaces for a second and we see the flash of silver in the green water. This is it. It has to be a steelhead!
I finally horse it next to a log that juts out a few feet from the bank. Dokter tightropes the log, grabs it by the head and carries it to shore. It’s chrome bright! Dokter opens its mouth and goes, “Nope. It’s a silver.”
Dang. The excitement evaporates as I notice the black mouth, a telltale sign of a coho. Steelhead have white mouths. Plus, it doesn’t have the dark green back of a steelhead.
I thump it over the head with a stick, bleed it and we begin our walk back to the car. I feel a sense of accomplishment as we admire this chrome-bright fish and wonder how the heck such a nice coho was still in the river when we figured the run was long over. It’s a worthy consolation prize after five hours today of no luck with steelhead. Some days, you take what you can get. I’ll gladly take this.