2023 Update: It looks like another strong year for pink salmon! WDFW’s pink salmon forecast calls for about 397,000 of these odd-year salmon to return to the Puyallup River in 2023. That’s almost 40,000 more than were predicted in 2021 (a good year) and many times better than the paltry 2019 run.
These days, the primary fishing happening in the Puyallup River is for fall runs of hatchery-reared coho and Chinook salmon.
The river also can be great for pink salmon fishing during odd-numbered years, at least when returns of this smaller cousin are at full power.
Steelhead, sea-run cutthroat trout and wild salmon still return to the Puyallup, but these are highly regulated in the lower river that passes through the Tacoma and Puyallup areas.
The Puyallup begins on the glaciers of Mount Rainier and flows fast (and at times milky with glacial runoff) toward Commencement Bay in Tacoma.
Even with general declines in salmon fishing in the region, the Puyallup still has the ability to put out very good numbers of fish, thanks in large part to hatchery production.
Most of the Chinook and coho of interest to anglers are returning to the state hatchery on Voight Creek, a few miles up the Carbon River from its confluence with the Puyallup near Orting.
The Puyallup Tribe’s hatchery program also rears several types of salmon and steelhead and is focused on rebuilding depressed stocks of these native fish.
Salmon fishing can be fair (sometimes good) when it opens in mid-August, and it gets progressively fishier as the month progresses.
While late August should see the first decent numbers of Chinook and in odd years could bring lots of pinks if there’s a good return.
Fishing for both of those fish is likely to continue (and probably improve) into September, which coho numbers also start to build when there’s a good run.
While all of these species may still be available in October, coho tend to be the major focus of the later salmon season.
Catches of pink salmon can still be excellent and top 10,000 during the fall season in a decent year like 2017. But other years can get pretty dismal for these fish, which aren’t reared in hatcheries.
Environmental factors like drought affecting rivers and ocean conditions affecting saltwater survival typically play the largest role in salmon returns.
Note that wild Chinook and all chum must be released in the Puyallup River system. The same goes for wild steelhead, wild resident rainbow trout, and all cutthroat and bull trout.
The fishing seasons on the main river below the confluence of the Carbon River (where hatchery salmon turn toward the Voight Creek Hatchery) are highly restricted to target the returns of these hatchery fish.
At this writing, the mainstem Puyallup below the Carbon confluence is only open to salmon fishing from Aug. 15 through the end of the year, a time period that takes in the majority of fall salmon hatchery runs but tends to exclude some of the migratory trout and steelhead.
Additionally, the lowest open portion of the river, from the 11th Street Bridge in Tacoma (near the mouth) to the East Main Bridge in Tacoma is closed on certain days during the week for parts of the season.
Where to Fish
Puyallup River salmon anglers here have a fair number of bank access points and there also are pretty good drifts for boaters to reach even more fish.
The lower river, including right in Tacoma, is heavily diked and channeled, but it is paralleled by roads and accessible in a number of locations.
The North Levee Road runs right along the north bank from Tacoma into Puyallup.
Plunkers sometimes set up shop down there, and it can get pretty busy when good numbers of salmon are moving into the river from Puget Sound.
A better choice is often upstream from Puyallup, particularly from Sumner up to the mouth of the Carbon River.
Riverside Drive and McCutcheon Road parallel the river and offer quite a few bank access points from Sumner up to the McMillin areas, a nice stretch of river for salmon anglers.
Chinook anglers often fish with bait, while casting spinners can be great when the coho arrive in numbers.
There is a WDFW unimproved launch at the end of 116th Avenue E in the McMillin-Alderton area between Sumner and Orting. It’s on the west bank and reached off State Route 162.
A few miles downriver, Riverside County Park near Sumner is largely undeveloped but has river access including a seasonal boat slide (permit required). It’s on the east bank where the Puyallup makes a 90-degree turn to the west.
Boat anglers also work the area from the mouth of the Carbon River down toward Sumner. Back-pulling wobbling plugs is a good way to catch coho and other types of salmon, according to Lip Rippers Fishing Adventures.
The Puyallup River can have both summer and winter runs of steelhead, but the winter run is typically the biggest.
That’s not to say BIG, and this honestly isn’t really a fishery at all these days.
While the river’s steelhead runs were historically strong, up into the 1980s, they have largely crashed since.
WDFW discontinued its hatchery winter steelhead program at Voight Creek more than a decade ago.
The Puyallup Tribe (with WDFW) runs a small supplementary hatchery program that plants a modest number of broodstock winter steelhead on the White River system, in an effort to boost the winter steelhead population.
The steelhead smolts are released in a tributary of the Clearwater River, which flows into the White southeast of Enumclaw. The White River flows into the Puyallup near the City of Puyallup.
At last check about 30,000 winter steelhead smolts were released in that area, with several hundred fin-marked plus later generation unmarked steelhead returning in recent years.
Most of those steelhead will pass through when the lower Puyallup River is closed to all fishing.
Like many glacially fed rivers, the Puyallup isn’t always great for trout when it’s running the color of concrete during the warmer months.
Historically, sea-run cutthroat trout moved into the lower river in good numbers during the late summer and early fall after fattening up eating shrimp and other forage in Puget Sound.
The days of keeping a stringer of sea-runs is over, as all cutthroat trout must be released throughout the Puyallup River, including those migratory fish as well as resident cutthroat upstream.
The same is true for wild rainbow trout and threatened bull trout that reside in the river system as well.
Some non-native brook and brown trout have been found in the river system, and those may be kept under statewide rules.
While the lower few miles of the Carbon River have a short fishing season aimed at hatchery salmon runs, the mainstem farther upriver opens the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and remains open part-way into winter.
Selective gear rules apply above Voight Creek, so no bait fishing is allowed outside the salmon-fishing area.
The Carbon River is open to salmon fishing in the lower few miles in the Orting area, only from the mouth of Voight Creek downstream to the confluence with the Puyallup River.
Salmon fishing is currently open in that lower area during the months of September, October and November only.
Fishing for steelhead and trout is open, including higher up in the Carbon River to State Route 162 bridge, but harvests for nearly all other fish you’d find here are not allowed. Exceptions would be for hatchery steelhead (strays these days) and non-native trout species.
Read the fishing regulations carefully for seasons, deadline areas and tackle restrictions.
This stream, also known as the Stuck River, is another major Puyallup River tributary … that interestingly until about a hundred years ago was actually part of the neighboring Green River basin.
As mentioned, White River tributaries are the lone source of hatchery steelhead in the Puyallup River these days, and it’s a modest one at best that doesn’t offer fishing opportunity.
Besides the low numbers, the river currently is regulated for catch-and-release fishing, except for whitefish.
Read the latest White River fishing regulations for details.
There is some seasonal fishing allowed up in the Clearwater River, which runs through both King and Pierce counties before joining the White River.
While the Clearwater gets some fin-marked hatchery winter steelhead returning to spawn, it’s closed to fishing during the prime winter migration season.
The Clearwater does have trout fishing, largely catch and release under current rules.
It also takes some work to access in many locations.
Again, if headed to the Clearwater carefully read current regulations for details, including harvest restrictions for native trout species.