Kalama River Fishing: Catch Salmon & Steelhead

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As a tributary of the Columbia River, the Kalama River is part of the largest river system in the West. Yet the Kalama is often overlooked by anglers, many of whom flock to larger tributaries on the Columbia, like the nearby Cowlitz and Lewis rivers. 

That’s a shame, because substantial salmon and steelhead runs invade the Kalama River, providing nearly year-round angling opportunities. 

The Kalama River’s relatively small size also makes it an easier place to fish than many other Washington rivers. It’s just 45 miles long—all of it within the borders of Cowlitz County—and at most points narrow enough to cast clear across to the opposite bank. 

From its headwaters on the shoulder of Mount St. Helens, the Kalama River’s swift, cold, green-tinted waters tumble down through the Cascade Range until they reach the lowlands, where the river becomes more placid as it eventually reaches the Columbia. 

The Kalama River hosts multiple salmon and steelhead runs every year, with at least some fish around every month of the year.

The spring Chinook and summer steelhead often are the largest runs, and the ones that get the most attention from anglers. 

But there are significant fall-run Chinook here too, along with a sometimes sizable coho salmon run in the fall, followed by a winter steelhead run that lasts well into spring.

All of that, coupled with the river’s modest size and abundance of bank and boat access, makes the Kalama River a great place to wet a line. 

Of course, like most rivers, the Kalama can be cyclical. Not every year is a banner year for salmon and steelhead, and you’ll hear reports that the glory days of fishing on the Kalama River are behind us.

Don’t let those reports put you off. When the fish are running on the Kalama, there’s plenty of rod-bending action to go around. 

Chinook Salmon Fishing

Chinook salmon are the largest and most sought-after of the Kalama River’s salmon. The spring run is an event that local anglers look forward to all year. 

Catch rates of spring-run Chinooks (“springers,” as a lot of locals call them) range from 300 up to around 700 depending on the year, with plenty of fish in the 10- to 20-pound range.

Some years, the river gives up a couple in the 30-pound class, though fish that size are more common with the fall run. 

The action gets going in March and peaks from late April through May, before eventually petering out in June. 

Early in the season, the mouth of the Kalama River is the place to be. The Columbia River bars near the mouth often yield some big early-season Chinooks before the fish migrate farther upstream.

Drift fishing and plunking are common methods that work well from shore or from a boat. Kwikfish and Flatfish plugs are popular from boats, and some anglers will wrap a plug in herring to give it extra scent and flavor.

Natural salmon roe and shrimp are also popular baits. Roe tends to become more effective later on in the salmon run, as the notoriously aggressive and territorial Chinooks are known to eat the eggs of competing salmon. 

Two hatcheries operate on the Kalama River. Located at Fallert Creek and Kalama Falls, the hatcheries are responsible for stocking salmon and steelhead in the river, and many Chinook salmon ultimately end their journey at the Kalama Falls Hatchery, where salmon are spawned. 

Popular bank access is available at or near both of the hatcheries, though the area from 1,000 feet below the fishway to 1,000 feet above the fishway at Kalama Falls Hatchery is closed to protect the fish that congregate there en masse. 

The entire stretch of the river from the Kalama Falls Hatchery down to the mouth is open to Chinook salmon fishing year-round, though only hatchery-raised fish (identifiable by their clipped adipose fins) may be kept. 

Some of the best Kalama River fishing spots include Modrow Bridge, where the DFW operates a public access site, Mahaffey’s Campground, and a series of deep holes above and below the Fallert Creek Hatchery (Beginner’s Hole, Marietta Hole, Slab Hole and Fallert Bridge Hole, among others).

Especially on the strength of its spring Chinook, but also thanks to occasionally great coho fishing and some fall Chinook, the Kalama River made our list of Best Salmon Fishing Rivers in Washington.

Kalama River Steelhead

Steelhead are rainbow trout that spend the majority of their lives in the ocean. They return to rivers like the Kalama every year to spawn.

On the Kalama River, summer-run steelhead follow hot on the heels of the spring Chinook. They begin arriving in May and June, just as salmon season is winding down, and there’s usually solid steelhead fishing throughout July and August. 

Most steelhead weigh between 5 and 10 pounds, but fish over 20 pounds have been caught on the Kalama.

There is a lot of prime steelhead water on the Kalama River, and easy access means you can take your pick of the best spots.

Early in the season, focus your efforts from the mouth of the river up to the Fallert Creek Hatchery, and then shift your attention farther upstream as the fish make their way upriver.

The Modrow Bridge Hole and the area just below it, known as Rainbow Drifts, is a favorite area early in the season. Later on, try Beginners Hole, the hatchery areas, Fallert Bridge Hole and the Kalama Canyon, which has a lot of good drift fishing water.

Throughout much of the Kalama River, natural baits are often favored. Salmon roe is often the most effective, but many anglers catch fish on nightcrawlers, crawfish tails and ghost shrimp. 

Spinners and spoons can sometimes get vicious strikes, and there will always be room on the Kalama for fly fishing. Weighted flies are often most effective, as steelhead have a tendency to hold tight to the bottom in deep, boulder-strewn riffles.

Streamers, nymphs and egg-imitating flies can all work at times. Ultimately, steelhead can be unpredictable, and sometimes come up to grab a dry fly when other presentations fail. You just never know.

A long section of the upper Kalama River, from Summers Creek upstream to the intersection of 6000 and 6420 Roads, is designated fly-fishing only. It is, to be fair, not as productive as the lower portion of the river, but it is a good place for fly-fishermen to enjoy having the river to themselves.

It’s also worth noting that there’s a winter steelhead run on the Kalama that often produces just as many steelhead as the summer run, but doesn’t always get as much attention. 

This may simply be because summer offers more pleasant fishing weather, but also because flows are often higher in winter, making the fishing a bit more challenging. 

Still, hardy winter steelheaders catch plenty of big fish in January and February. Some of the biggest fish of the year are winter steelies.

Coho Salmon

When the leaves turn yellow, look for a flash of silver below the water’s surface. Coho salmon spawn in the Columbia River’s tributaries—the Kalama River included—every fall. 

Nicknamed silver salmon for their shimmering appearance, cohos don’t get quite as big as Chinooks. But good runs seems to cycle around with some regularity, and in those years you have a solid shot at catching them in the 6- to 12-pound range, with the occasional brute approaching the 20-pound mark. 

Coho salmon start to show up in the Kalama River in very late summer, and there’s excellent fishing from September well into November most years. 

The best fishing usually comes about mid-October, when the fall rains arrive in earnest and raise the river, making it possible for the coho to advance upstream.

Bank fishing and wading are easy in fall, but some anglers use drift boats to hop from spot to spot.

Many of the holes that harbor Chinook or steelhead earlier are equally productive for coho, including Beginner’s Hole just below the Fallert Creek Hatchery.

With no dams or other obstructions, coho can eventually spread out throughout much of the river.

A wide range of lures and baits can tempt coho salmon to strike, and plugs are the go-to choice for many anglers. Some prefer chunky casting plugs while others favor Flatfish/Kwikfish-style plugs.

Hoochies, Blue Fox spinners and twitching jigs all have their devotees as well, and salmon roe can be just as effective for coho as it is for Chinook and steelhead.

Some anglers even fly-fish for cohos using oversized streamers.

The Kalama River hatcheries have stocked a lot of coho smolt over the years, and in good years thousands of them return to the river each fall.

As with Chinook salmon, the river is open to coho fishing all year up to the Kalama Falls Hatchery, but only hatchery (clipped fin) fish may be harvested. As a fall-only salmon run, you’ll really have a handful of months with a decent shot at them.

Fall anglers are likely to encounter a few Chinook salmon while fishing for coho. Fall chinook are not necessarily as abundant as their spring-run counterparts in the Kalama, but some giants have been caught in the autumn.

How to Catch Salmon

Interested in hook Chinook, coho and the other Pacific salmon species caught in Washington? A good place to start is our Salmon Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.


You might hear some debate over whether the Kalama River has any resident (i.e. non-migratory) trout to speak of. Like most rivers in the Columbia River system, the answer seems to be “few, if any.”

For the most part, many of the trout-sized fish you catch is more likely to be a steelhead or salmon smolt that has yet to make its way back to the ocean. (A larger one might be a jack salmon that made it to the ocean but turned around a year or two early.)

There are parts of the year when anglers—especially fly-fishermen—can find themselves catching these smaller fish in abundance.

The ethics of intentionally targeting smolt is debatable at best, and if you happen to catch one, it’s best to release it unharmed. 

The Kalama River does host a modest number of sea-run cutthroat trout population in fall. Anglers may see a few right from the tail-end of the summer steelhead season into the fall salmon runs.

Cutthroat trout will strike eggs and nightcrawlers, as well as a variety of wet and dry flies. Small spoons and spinners may get some bites as well.

Generally, a downsized version of any bait that works for salmon can also work for cutthroat. 

Planning Your Trip

Although the Kalama River doesn’t get as much fishing pressure as some rivers in Washington, it can still get quite busy when the salmon and steelhead seasons are in full swing.

After all, it’s a quick trip from Vancouver and Longview in Washington and really just up the freeway from a couple million people in the Portland, Oregon area.

On top of that, if the nearby Lewis River just to the south or Cowlitz River just north are still running high and muddy following a rain, the Kalama is often the best option for area anglers as it typically drops into fishing shape sooner than bigger rivers.

If you’re planning to fish the bank during peak times, try to get there early to secure a prime spot.

Kalama River Access

The Kalama River’s confluence with the Columbia River is just off Interstate 5 at the city of Kalama. A small city of a few thousand people, Kalama offers a wide range of accommodations as well as shopping and dining options.

From Exit 32 on I-5, Kalama River Road follows the river for much of its course, and provides access to numerous fishing spots, boat launch sites and campgrounds. 

Some of the best places to access the Kalama—listed here from the mouth of the river upward—include: 

  • Sportsman’s Club: Maintained by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Sportsman’s Club access site is located on the Columbia River near the mouth of the Kalama. It includes an unimproved boat launch, ample parking and shore access. 
  • Camp Kalama RV Park: Shore fishing access is available to campers at Camp Kalama RV Park, which overlooks the river. It’s a popular base camp for anglers, and the owners of the campground offer fishing licenses and transportation along the river. 
  • Modrow Bridge: The Modrow Bridge boat ramp is another WDFW site. This one has a concrete boat ramp and limited bank fishing access.
  • Mahaffey’s Campground: Just downstream from the popular Beginner’s Hole, Mahaffey’s Campground is located directly on the river and offers fishing access as well as tent and RV sites. 
  • Beginner’s Hole: WDFW maintains an excellent bank fishing area at Beginner’s Hole. There is no boat launch here, but it’s a great place to wade for fish from shore.
  • Hand: Another WDFW site, the Hand boat ramp is slightly upriver from Fallert Fish Hatchery. 
  • Prichard’s: The Prichard’s access site includes a hand launch for small boats, plus plenty of parking and shore access right across the street from the fly shop Prichard’s Western Anglers.
  • Red Barn: The Red Barn access site is an unofficial fishing spot and boat launch on Kalama River Road. Look for the red barn on the opposite side of the road. 
  • Kalama Falls Fish Hatchery: Shore fishing access is available at the Kalama Falls Hatchery. It’s a popular place during peak seasons, and some tourists come here not to fish, but to merely watch the salmon or steelhead arriving.

In addition to the sites listed above, there are countless unofficial turnouts along Kalama River Road that provide fishing access to the river.

The farther upriver you go, the more rugged the terrain becomes.

Fishing in the fly-only water above Summers Creek requires some hiking and wading, and demands a certain level of physical fitness as the river becomes more canyon-like.

Washington Resources

WDFW Fishing and Stocking Reports
WDFW Fishing Regulations
National Weather Service forecasts