Cowlitz River Winter Steelhead Fishing 2022-2023

Steelhead fishing can be great times on the water
Steelhead fishing can be great times on the water for everyone

The Cowlitz River flows from the southeast side of glacier surrounded Mount Rainier. The Cowlitz flows freely through miles of mountain forest and valleys west of Highway 12  until it hits Mossyrock Dam. Stopped up flows create Riffle Lake as a large reservoir in southwestern Washington. 

From there, the Cowlitz River flows a short distance before hitting Mayfield Dam, creating a smaller reservoir in Mayfield Lake.  About 10 miles downstream from Mayfield Dam  you will find the Blue Creek Trout Hatchery where many of the returning steelhead are bound for, and here begins the section of river that most steelhead anglers are interested in, as the waters are often populated by hundreds of steelhead all year long that pass through boats and bank fishermen  to return to the hatchery. 

The Cowlitz River later flows into the Columbia River and then into the Pacific.

This blog article attempts to concentrate in one place the angling opportunity, fishing regulations and hatchery data to make your research and steelhead trip planning to the Cowlitz River as simple as possible.

Prior to the dams being built, the Cowlitz once boasted incredible returns of salmon and steelhead. Since the dams were installed, the hatcheries were supposed to make up for the loss of natural spawning habitat.

Much controversy has erupted in the last several decades due to concerns about genetic mixing between hatchery and wild steelhead impacting the still remaining wild stocks on the lower river.

In particular this concern has played out by eliminating the planting of out-of-basin steelhead stocks which used to create an early returning steelhead season that drew thousands of anglers throughout the state and supported many guide businesses from November to January.

There is now only a late winter steelhead season which generally goes from January to April.

Despite all of this, the Cowlitz river can be a great place to target hatchery steelhead for fun and retention all year long, which few rivers in the state can boast.

Let’s take a look at a couple of new features I’ve got up on the blog to help you understand run timing and how many steelhead are returning at the hatcheries

  1. Automatically updating graph of the Escapement Report for the Cowlitz River
  2. Historical run timing graph providing a visual of when steelhead normally return to the Cowlitz River
  3. Automatically updating creel report graph that reveals what part of the river steelhead are being caught and how many boat and bank anglers are participating.

Cowlitz River Winter Steelhead Fishing Report

The below graphs will update as WDFW publishes their SW WA Fishing Report once a week.

Boat anglers on the Cowlitz River above I5

Bank anglers on the Cowlitz River above I5

Boat anglers on the Cowlitz River below I5

Bank anglers on the Cowlitz River below I5

Updated Status of returning hatchery Winter Steelhead on the Cowlitz River

Historical Run Timing of hatchery Winter Steelhead on the Cowlitz River

As you can see, the late run winter steelhead kind of trickle in until March when things really take off and into early April when you see the peak of the run typically.

Fishing Regulations for the Cowlitz River 2022

COWLITZ RIVER – COWLITZ/LEWIS CO.
from boundary markers at mouth to Lexington Bridge CRC (561)
All speciesAnglers may fish with two poles with Two-Pole Endorsement.
July 1-Sept. 30Night closure. For salmon and steelhead fishing only.
TroutApr. 1-Fri. before Memorial DayStatewide min. size/daily limit. Except: Release wild cutthroat trout and wild rainbow trout.
Sat. before Memorial Day-Mar. 31Min. size 8”. Daily limit 5. Except: Release wild cutthroat trout and wild rainbow trout.
Steelhead (hatchery)July 1-July 31Min. size 20”. Daily limit 1.
Aug. 1-Aug. 31Closed.
Sept. 1-Sept. 30Min. size 20”. Daily limit 1.
Oct. 1-June 30Min. size 20”. Daily limit 3.
Other game fishYear-roundStatewide min. size/daily limit.
SalmonJan. 1-July 31Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6. Up to 2 adults may be retained. Release all salmon other than hatchery Chinook and hatchery coho.
Aug. 1-Dec. 31Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6. Up to 3 adults may be retained of which up to 1 may be a Chinook. Release all salmon other than hatchery coho and hatchery Chinook.
from Lexington Bridge to Mill Creek CRC (561)
All speciesAnglers may fish with two poles with Two-Pole Endorsement.
TroutApr. 1-Fri. before Memorial DayStatewide min. size/daily limit. Except: Release wild rainbow trout and wild cutthroat trout.
Sat. before Memorial Day-Mar. 31Min. size 8”. Daily limit 5. Release wild rainbow trout and wild cutthroat trout.
Steelhead (hatchery)Year-roundMin. size 20”. Daily limit 3.
Other game fishYear-roundStatewide min. size/daily limit.
SalmonJan. 1-July 31Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6. Up to 2 adults may be retained. Release all salmon other than hatchery Chinook and hatchery coho.
Aug. 1-Dec. 31Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6. Up to 3 adults may be retained of which up to 1 may be a Chinook. Release all salmon other than hatchery coho and hatchery Chinook.
within a 100’ radius of the new Cowlitz Trout Hatchery outfall structure CRC (561)
All speciesAnglers may fish with two poles with Two-Pole Endorsement. Open only to anglers with disabilities who permanently use a wheelchair and who have a designated harvester companion card. These anglers may fish within posted markers when adjacent waters are open.
TroutApr. 1-Fri. before Memorial DayStatewide min. size/daily limit. Except: Release wild cutthroat trout and wild rainbow trout.
Sat. before Memorial Day-Mar. 31Min. size 8”. Daily limit 5. Except: Release wild cutthroat trout and wild rainbow trout.
Steelhead (hatchery)Year-roundMin. size 20”. Daily limit 3.
Other game fishYear-roundStatewide min. size/daily limit.
SalmonJan. 1-July 31Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6. Up to 2 adults may be retained. Release all salmon other than hatchery Chinook and hatchery coho.
Aug. 1-Dec. 31Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6. Up to 3 adults may be retained of which up to 1 may be a Chinook. Release all salmon other than hatchery coho and hatchery Chinook.
from Mill Creek to 400’ or posted markers below the Barrier Dam CRC (561)
All speciesAnglers may fish with two poles with Two-Pole Endorsement. Fishing from any floating device prohibited.
Apr. 1-Nov. 30Night closure. Anti-snagging rule.
May 1-June 15Fishing from south side of river is prohibited.
TroutApr. 1-Fri. before Memorial DayStatewide min. size/daily limit. Except: Release wild cutthroat trout and wild rainbow trout.
Sat. before Memorial Day-Mar. 31Min. size 8”. Daily limit 5. Except: Release wild cutthroat trout and wild rainbow trout.
Steelhead (hatchery)Year-roundMin. size 20”. Daily limit 3.
Other game fishYear-roundStatewide min. size/daily limit.
SalmonJan. 1-July 31Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6. Up to 2 adults may be retained. Release all salmon other than hatchery Chinook and hatchery coho.
Aug. 1-Dec. 31Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6. Up to 3 adults may be retained of which up to 1 may be a Chinook. Release all salmon other than hatchery coho and hatchery Chinook.
within a 100’ radius of the new Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery wheelchair ramp (within the posted fishing boundary) CRC (561)
All speciesOpen only to anglers with disabilities who have a designated harvester companion card. These anglers may fish within posted markers.
Apr. 1-Nov. 30Night closure.
TroutApr. 1-Fri. before Memorial DayStatewide min. size/daily limit. Except: Release wild cutthroat trout and wild rainbow trout.
Sat. before Memorial Day-Mar. 31Min. size 8”. Daily limit 5. Except: Release wild cutthroat trout and wild rainbow trout.
Steelhead (hatchery)Year-roundMin. size 20”. Daily limit 3.
Other game fishYear-roundStatewide min. size/daily limit.
SalmonJan. 1-July 31Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6. Up to 2 adults may be retained. Release all salmon other than hatchery Chinook and hatchery coho.
Aug. 1-Dec. 31Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6. Up to 3 adults may be retained of which up to 1 may be a Chinook. Release all salmon other than hatchery coho and hatchery Chinook.
from 400’ or posted markers below the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery barrier dam to boundary markers near the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery water intake located about 1,700’ upstream from the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery barrier dam
All speciesCLOSED WATERS.
from boundary markers near the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery water intake located about 1,700’ upstream from the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery barrier dam to 400’ below Mayfield Powerhouse CRC (561)
TroutApr. 1-Fri. before Memorial DayStatewide min. size/daily limit. Except: Release wild cutthroat trout and wild rainbow trout.
Sat. before Memorial Day-Mar. 31Min. size 8”. Daily limit 5. Except: Release wild cutthroat trout and wild rainbow trout.
Steelhead (hatchery)Year-roundMin. size 20”. Daily limit 3.
Other game fishYear-roundStatewide min. size/daily limit.
SalmonJan. 1-July 31Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6. Up to 2 adults may be retained. Release all salmon other than hatchery Chinook and hatchery coho.
Aug. 1-Dec. 31Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6. Up to 3 adults may be retained of which up to 1 may be a Chinook. Release all salmon other than hatchery coho and hatchery Chinook.
from 400’ below Mayfield Powerhouse upstream to Mayfield Dam.
All speciesCLOSED WATERS.
from the posted PUD sign on Peters Road to the Forest Rd. 1270 (old Jody’s Bridge) CRC (559)
All speciesClosed to all angling within posted “Closed Waters” signs around the adult fish release site.
Sept. 1-Oct. 31Anti-snagging rule. Night closure.
TroutYear-roundStatewide min. size/daily limit. Except: Release wild cutthroat trout and wild rainbow trout.
Other game fishYear-roundStatewide min. size/daily limit.
SalmonYear-roundMin. size 12”. Daily limit 6. Up to 2 adults may be retained. Release all salmon other than hatchery Chinook and hatchery coho.
from Forest Rd. 1270 (old Jody’s Bridge) upstream and tributaries CRC (559)
All speciesSelective gear rules.
TroutSat. before Memorial Day-Oct. 31Statewide min. size/daily limit. Except: release cutthroat trout and wild rainbow trout.
Other game fishSat. before Memorial Day-Oct. 31Statewide min. size/daily limit.

Emergency Fishing Regulations for the Cowlitz River

Please refer to WDFW’s emergency rules page for a full list that are in effect until I can get the e-rules automation working fully again.

It’s your responsibility as the recreational angler to know ALL of these rules, not just what is discussed here on the blog.

Forecast for 2022 Cowlitz River Winter Steelhead

Hatchery winter steelhead smolt plants for the Cowlitz River 2015-2021

Note: Smolts planted in the 2021 year will predominantly return as 3 year fish in the 2022-2023 winter steelhead season or in the case of summer steelhead, the 2023 summer steelhead season.

What’s exciting about the above bar chart is that 2021 represents the largest winter steelhead smolt plant in recent history by a large margin which hopefully correlates with strong returns of winter steelhead in 2023.

Hatchery winter steelhead returns from 2013-2022

I don’t have access to. specific forecast for 2022-2023 season, but based on the smolt plants and decent summer return I’m optimistic about this being a good Cowlitz Steelhead return year.

How to fish for Winter Steelhead on the Cowlitz River

I strongly recommend starting out by visiting our comprehensive how to on fishing for winter steelhead. The article covers techniques, gear and a whole lot more.

What’s unique about the Cowlitz River though? Part of the challenge with the Cowlitz is that it’s quite large and water flows are often times around or above 10k cfs, which is a river size you cannot cast across.

Luckily, steelhead often prefer to cruise along in the softer current near the river banks.

I would separate the cowlitz into largely two sections where a variety of techniques get employed to target them fairly consistently along these dividing lines.

Lower Cowlitz River

The lower river, which can probably be considered everything from the mouth as it pours into the Columbia to the I5 bridge, is typically targeted from the bank via the plunking technique.

Plunking (which I don’t have a detailed write-up on), involves essentially still fishing with a heavy weight (6-12 oz) and typically bait such as cured salmon eggs or coon shrimp in a traveling lane, waiting for steelhead to bite.

Upper Cowlitz River

The I5 bridge upstream and especially around Blue Creek are extremely popular places to fish a variety of techniques in smaller water (still quite significant flows) targeting steelhead more actively.

One of the absolute most money methods is using a small jig underneath a slip float, fairly close to the bank in softer water tipped with a bit. of shrimp. The afore linked article talks extensively about this method.

These areas are heavily fished by jet boats however, and while there will be many steelhead in this stretch of river especially very close to the Blue Creek area, expect intense competition.

I’ve also had success fishing spinners very close to the bottom to trigger an aggressive winter steelhead bite. With so much fishing pressure, you often have to think about an alternate fishing method that most people aren’t using to stand out and get bit.

Gearing up to fish for Winter Steelhead on the Cowlitz River

You have to start with a conversation about the best fishing rod for winter steelhead fishing on the Cowlitz River…Now of course this will largely depend on the technique and what part of the river you are fishing, but when it comes to targeting the upper part of the river with deadly techniques like float and jig or soft beads, or even drifting some yarnies or eggs, the following rod is a solid place to start:

Much could be written on selecting the best rod for steelhead fishing, and outside of matching rod to fishing technique and river size, a lot of rod selection comes down to considering the kinds of casts you will make and the hook sizes you will use.

A rod needs to be able to drive the hook deep enough into a fish so that it won’t come off easily, but also have enough give (slow action) for feisty fish to not come off.

I’ve written quite a bit about hook sizes, rods and reels in these linked articles, so I suggest you give them a read if you’re looking for more, but here’s what I like about the Okuma Guide Select Pro 9’9:

  • I run a lot of Okuma rods and they make a high quality low->mid range fishing rod that’s suitable for most anglers.
  • I like the 9’9 length for techniques like float fishing where you constantly have to mend your line to keep it off the water.
  • I prefer spinning to casting due to the flexibility to make casts from many angles around cover, which is common in the blue creek area
  • I love the medium->light rating. That tells me it’s going to have enough give to handle a spazzing steelhead, but allow me to drive a smaller hook, that is common with my steelhead fishing gear, home.
  • Lure weighting up to 1/2 oz will handle my 1/2 oz float setup or 1/2 oz drift weight or even size 3-4 spinner I may use. I tend to go lighter spinners on the Cowlitz as the water is warmer compared to non-dam controlled flow rivers during winter time.

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