Skookumchuck River Fishing

Skookumchuck River Fishing

beautiful skookumchuck river grey scale

The Skookumchuck River is an off-the-beaten-path place to fish for coho salmon in the late fall months but is far better known for the run of hatchery winter steelhead that arrives between February and April.

The Skookumchuck River emerges below the dam which creates the boundary for the Skookumchuck Reservoir.

The waters feeding the Skookumchuck Reservoir and eventually making their way into the river emerge from the foothills south of the town of Yelm, but west of the Cascade Mountain range.

As the wettest season hits, many of the feeder creeks dump more significant water into the Skookumchuck River making the flows more substantial.

Here’s a link to my favorite river gauge station on the Skookumchuck River.

Skookumchuck river on a map

Most of the salmon and steelhead fishing is done in the section of the river approximately 1 river mile below the dam, though there are some other access points as well.

The Skookumchuck River has a return of chinook, but the primary allowed seasons are on coho salmon. You wouldn’t want to mess with the chinook anyway, given that they are a bit burnt out by the time they make it up.

Big firetruck red coho that bit a spinner

Many of the coho will be fire trucks (very close to spawning), but a 10+ lb fire truck coho is still an awesome fish to battle with.

I mostly do catch and release up there, but I wouldn’t hesitate to bonk a bright one.

The Skookumchuck River is the furthest upstream tributary of the Chehalis River to have a steelhead hatchery on it.

The hatchery steelhead runs on the Skookumchuck River are considered “late stock”, and are raised at the Skookumchuck fish hatchery just downstream of the dam.

These are in-basin stock and upstream migration of any “wild steelhead” is completely blocked by the dam.

Nice skookumchuck bright steelhead

In terms of good places to fish for steelhead close to Pugetropolis, the Skookumchuck, and other Chehalis tribs represent much of the steelhead fishing and harvest opportunity since Puget Sound River steelhead options are extremely limited.

You can use the table of contents to skip down to the conservation topic as there’s quite a bit going on here given the issues with Chehalis River wild steelhead continuing to miss escapement goals.

The major issue for anglers though has been a lack of opportunity to fish for hatchery steelhead near the hatchery “kill zone” where it’s unlikely to encounter wild steelhead.

Why wouldn’t these hatchery areas be open every year without question?

Perfect steelhead drift

The Chehalis River system in general has some of the unhealthiest returning stocks of wild steelhead in the state and the department (WDFW) wants to have a robust monitoring plan to ensure anglers aren’t encountering wild steelhead during the hatchery steelhead season.

Once Steelhead begin returning to the hatchery and they get reported by WDFW, this graph will automatically update, typically on Thursdays.

When to fish for winter steelhead on the Skookumchuck River?

I would try anytime in the month of February until it closes and expect to encounter a hatchery steelhead during that time.

Hatchery winter steelhead smolt plants for the Skookumchuck River 2017-2022

Note: Smolts planted in the 2022 year will predominantly return as 3-year fish in the 2023-2024 winter steelhead season.

As you can see since 2017, steelhead smolt plants have remained fairly steady.

Hatchery winter steelhead returns from 2013-2023

There were a few difficult years recently for winter steelhead which have been reflected throughout western Washington steelhead rivers, but the Skookumchuck has still provided decent steelhead fishing.

Sadly, those almost 4,000 returned hatchery winter steelhead in 2021-2022 provided no angling opportunity. Neither did the 2,500 that returned in 2022-2023.

skookumchuck steelhead landed landscape 1

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 Skookumchuck River though? For starters, the river is quite small compared to other rivers in the state which opens it up for many potentially effective steelhead techniques.

However, the biggest factor will likely come from the fishing regulations themselves. If we get a season, using bait will almost be guaranteed to be banned.

They keyword you are looking for in the fishing regulations is “selective gear rules”

What’s the hottest technique for catching winter steelhead when you cannot use bait?

Soft beads!

You can rig these up to be fished on a drift leader but my favorite is under a float.

You can read all about this technique in the aforementioned link on winter steelhead fishing.

I will typically put a split shot about halfway down my leader as the soft beads are neutral buoyancy and rig them about 2″ above my hook.

My favorite soft beads are the ones made by BnR, and I tend to use sizes from 14 to 20mm in colors from orange, pink, red, and everything in between.

Here’s an Amazon link below to get you started with BnR soft beads:

You may want to review the YouTube video below on how to fish for winter steelhead.

Gearing up to fish for Winter Steelhead on the Skookumchuck River

I think the following rod is a solid place to start your approach to gearing up for the Skookumchuck, but anything in that class would be appropriate:

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 area around the Skookumchuck River.
  • 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.

The main issue with salmon fishing on the Skookumchuck River is that it’s quite a few river miles from the ocean entry point of Grays Harbor near the main-stem Chehalis River to the final river mile below the dam.

Additionally, the Skookumchuck River can get quite low when it’s not being aided by recent rainfall, so that really slows salmon down on their upstream migration, which means there have to be a few conditions just right to find a bright coho willing to bite that far from the ocean.

Either way, the run of coho can easily stretch into December and it is always fun to tangle with one as you can often fish by yourself before the steelhead season gets going.

Skookumchuck Coho 2023

These graphs will automatically update as fish start to return to the hatchery

Skookumchuck Coho Run timing 2023

Fishing for coho on the Skookumchuck River is usually productive throughout November and into the first week of December.

However, you will have much more consistent success if you learn to time the high water surges and subsequent drops that occur during late-fall storms.

Timing the right water flows is your best chance to fish on the greatest number of freshest coho salmon up high on the Skookumchuck River.

Escapement history has been fairly steady outside of a few slim years for Skookumchuck River hatchery coho salmon.

I’ve done extremely well fishing for coho on the Skookumchuck River twitching jigs or fishing with spinners.

Checkout my guide to river fishing for salmon to get more how-to ideas.

Species Date Additional Rules

from mouth to 100’ below outlet of TransAlta WDFW steelhead rearing pond located at the base of Skookumchuck Dam CRC (333)

All species

Aug. 16-Nov. 30

Night closure. Single-point barbless hooks required.

Trout

Sat. before Memorial Day-Apr. 30

Statewide min. size/daily limit. Except: Cutthroat trout and wild rainbow trout: min. size 14”.

Other game fish

Sat. before Memorial Day-Apr. 30

Statewide min. size/daily limit.

Salmon

Oct. 16-Nov. 30

Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6 including no more than 2 adults. Release adult Chinook.

Dec. 1-Dec. 31

Min. size 12”. Daily limit 6 including no more than 1 adult. Release Chinook.

You should always check WDFW’s Emergency Rules page before you go to ensure you have the latest information about what the regulations are.

On Dec 1st, 2023, the Skookumchuck River closed to all fishing. It may open later on, so you need to check the emergency regulations link above to determine that up-to-date status.

My policy is that I don’t give away fishing spots on my blog. However, there is one extremely well-known spot, anyone can find with a little bit of online research that I would be mistaken to not include as just a “start here” fishing spot.

Skookumchuck fishing spot near hatchery

Just search for Skookumchuck Fish Hatchery and you are parking about 1/4 mile east of that facility before you reach the locked gate.

You can fish near the deadline or walk downstream at least a mile if you want to get away from the crowds.

If the Skookumchuck River does open for hatchery steelhead, expect lots of people to crowd this area!

Chehalis wild steelhead escapement

Unfortunately, the reality on the Chehalis River is that wild steelhead are consistently coming in under escapement and continuing to trend lower.

This continued decline is even with the favorable ocean conditions of the last few years.

With greater marine heat waves expected, and no changes to commercial fishing in BC or Alaska, where will we be with our wild steelhead runs in the coming years?

All of these factors become major concerns with allowing fisheries to be opened on any Chehalis tributary.

WA Coastal Steelhead Season Chehalis reach spawning

From a biological diversity perspective, all of the Chehalis River tributaries are important for wild steelhead recovery.

According to the steelhead management plan that exists, even in years where escapement is forecast to be missed, there’s a small amount of impact allowed on wild stocks.

My contention is that in rivers like the Skookumchuck, with robust hatchery returns of winter steelhead and a fish passage barrier (Skookumchuck Dam), we should have these fisheries as they pose little risk to wild stocks.

The key issue in opening an opportunity on hatchery winter steelhead though is crafting a monitoring plan to ensure wild steelhead impact is not occurring. I wrote about this in more detail after a recent Steelhead town hall here.