Editor’s Note: Following a year with pink salmon fishing, we’re awaiting forecasts for 2024 Chinook and coho season outlooks.
The Nisqually River is a powerhouse fishery for fall salmon fishing in the South Sound area.
Trout and steelhead? Not so much these days if you’re looking to take home fish.
The lower river, which enters the Sound between Olympia and Tacoma, is a popular destination from August to October, when fall salmon return. In good years, the runs can be fairly thick here.
The Nisqually River begins on the Nisqually Glacier high up on Mount Rainier and flows about 80 miles northwest to saltwater.
The upper river flows through Lewis County.
At around the midpoint, a dam forms the large Alder Lake reservoir, best known for its spring kokanee fishing but also decent for trout and warmwater fishing.
Starting at Alder Lake and continuing to saltwater, the Nisqually River forms the boundary between Pierce and Thurston counties. It’s this lower section that is fished for hatchery salmon.
Thanks to the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s hatchery program, with funding from Tacoma Power, there are lots of fin-marked Chinook and coho salmon smolts released into the lower river that return as big adult fish.
Fall Chinook are the largest fish and often arrive in the largest numbers, with catches possible well into multiple thousands, so they bring plenty of anglers here in the late summer and early fall.
Chinook should arrive in increasingly fishable numbers during the month of August, with fair fishing often possible by mid-August.
However, fishing for them is likely to be even better in September, when catches typically reach their peak.
All wild Chinook salmon must be released in the Nisqually River system.
The vast majority of Chinook here are hatchery fish.
While the Chinook are likely to be going strongest in September and taper off in October, hatchery coho numbers build a little later. Coho also are showing up in September, but fishing for these silvers is likely to be best in October.
Coho can be very aggressive, striking lures including spinners, spoons, wobbling plugs and jigs with wild abandon. Drift gear also will do the trick when they’re biting. Or they can be utterly lock-jawed and frustrating in freshwater.
I’ve found the most success soon after a rainfall that brings mobs of silvers into the river system.
The Nisqually also can get impressive pink salmon runs in odd-numbered calendar years. However, like the coho and Chinook (and frankly all Northwest salmon), the runs tend to fluctuate wildly and depend heavily on ocean conditions.
The 2021 and 2023 seasons offered some pretty good odds for anglers, so fingers crossed the 2025 season brings lots more humpies.
When the pinks are in thick, these smaller salmon create a fast and furious fishery. They often show up in late July, and fishing can be hot through August and into early September, right about the time Chinooks are arriving in good numbers and the first silvers might make an appearance.
Chum salmon arrive on the lower river later, usually peaking around November and continuing into the first month or so of winter.
Old-timers will remember some great chum harvests here, but these days all chum salmon must be released unharmed in the Nisqually.
In fact, many of these fish will arrive after Nov. 15, when the lower river closes to all fishing.
While we’re talking about fishing regulations on the Nisqually, also note that the part of the river open to salmon fishing doesn’t open until July and it also is closed to all fishing on Sundays even after the opener.
Furthermore, there are other strict rules in place (as well as some enforcement) in an effort to eliminate illegal fish-snagging that has been an issue on the Nisqually and other popular salmon fisheries.
Definitely read the current year’s regulations for up-to-date rules and keep your fishing techniques legal. Fishing regulations have a tendency to change over time, especially when there are protected salmon and steelhead in the mix.
The Nisqually historically was known for absolutely monster-sized steelhead.
Today, the river is managed as a sanctuary river for both summer and winter steelhead, which are all wild (no hatchery steelhead plants here) and protected by the Endangered Species Act.
As a result, they must be released unharmed if caught.
Wild steelhead numbers have rebounded somewhat in recent years from some pretty dismal returns a decade or so ago, thanks in large part to this protection, according to the Native Fish Society.
Most winter steelhead arrive and spawn while the river is closed.
The steelhead spawn in several lower Nisqually tributary creeks: Muck, Yelm, Tanwax, Ohop and Mashel.
The Nisqually is home to three native trout species, but for anglers there isn’t a lot to get excited about.
The lower river below the hydroelectric projects around Alder Lake is managed as a catch-and-release fishery for all cutthroat trout (including sea-runs) as well as for wild rainbows. Same is true for most of the lower river’s tributaries.
There will be some sea-run cutthroat coming in around the same period as the salmon runs, but they must be released if caught.
Rainbows down here may very well be juvenile wild steelhead, but at any rate any non-clipped rainbows must be released. And that’s likely to be any you catch.
The upper river into Lewis County falls under statewide trout-fishing regulations, so in theory you could go trout fishing here.
But it’s fair at best for some smaller cutthroat and rainbow trout, and the river is pretty milky due to glacial runoff during a fair bit of the prime season.
Some tributaries have a bit better trout fishing.
Location and Access
The lower Nisqually River in the Interstate 5 area is only about 25 minutes south of Tacoma and less than 20 minutes from Olympia.
There is a fair bit of private property along the lower river, where the salmon fishing occurs.
WDFW has a river access located on 6th Avenue SE, just upriver from Old Pacific Highway SE in the Nisqually Community. The access is near the railroad bridge.
The private Riverbend Campground also offers fishing access east of the railroad tracks off Clubhouse Lane SE.
Above the hatchery, not far below the salmon fishing deadline at the bridge upriver, there’s bank access at the mouth of Muck Creek.
The upper river is accessible in spots along Highway 706 (National Park Highway), a route to the popular south side (Paradise area) of Mount Rainier National Park, but again the river isn’t known for great trout fishing up here and there is not salmon and steelhead fishing.