Best Steelhead Fishing Rivers in Washington: Summer & Winter Runs

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Editor’s Note: The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in recent years has been enacting emergency restrictions or closures on coastal steelhead fishing due to low returns in multiple rivers. Watch for updates to regulations prior to fishing.

You can catch a steelhead any month of the year in Washington.

If you read through our recommendations for the best steelhead fishing rivers across the state, you should know right where to fish to have a shot at doing just that.

Wild and hatchery steelhead return to their home streams in two distinct runs, summer and winter.

The runs overlap so much that when summer steelhead start arriving to westside streams in the spring, they often join wild winter steelhead getting ready to spawn.

At the other end, summer steelhead are quite often still preparing to spawn themselves in the fall and beyond as mint-bright winter steelhead start showing up in many rivers.

Winter-runs make up the bulk of the steelhead runs on the west side of Washington, with a few notable exceptions where summer steelhead also come back (usually as hatchery fish).

East of the Cascades, Washington’s steelhead runs are dominated by summer-run fish, although when they actually arrive in fishable numbers often stretches well into the fall and winter months.

This article focuses largely on hatchery steelhead runs, which are managed with anglers in mind and offer an opportunity to harvest these excellent game fish.

The harvests result in catch records that help future anglers determine where better numbers of fish are often caught, but keep in mind that stocking regimens, the cyclical nature of fish runs, local water conditions, and other factors can change your odds for success every year.

There also are wild runs of steelhead in an even wider range of Washington rivers, especially winter runs on the western side of the state. These are fished catch-and-release.

Be sure to check out statewide and specific river regulations before going steelhead fishing, as all anadromous fisheries in Washington tend to be more highly regulated than many other types of fishing.

We’ll take a look at steelhead fishing across the three geographic regions that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has designated for the purpose of catch records.

We’ll start with the Puget Sound Region and then move into the Columbia River and Coastal regions.

As you read through this overview, you’ll notice that some of the best rivers have links that will take you to more detailed information about those fisheries, so be sure to check those articles out for your top choices.

Puget Sound Region

The runs in the most populated region in Washington have seen more downs than ups in recent decades, but there are definitely some steelhead runs still worth fishing. Here are some ideas.

North Puget Sound Area Steelhead

The Skykomish River has been the region’s most reliable steelhead fishery, bringing catches of both summer and winter steelhead to the bank.

Expect the best summer-run catches on the Skykomish to come in June and into July, while winter steelhead catches tend to peak here in December and January.

The main Skykomish has been stocked with good numbers of smolts from both runs.

Additionally, Sky tributaries Tokul Creek and the Wallace River are being planted with more modest numbers of winter steelhead smolts to add to the Skykomish Run. If you like fishing small streams, these could be worth trying themselves for keeper steelies.

The Snoqualmie River hasn’t been worth targeting lately, producing several dozen winter steelhead in recent years.

Also on the north side, at last check the Nooksack River (at Kendall Creek) and the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River have been stocked with some of the highest numbers of winter steelhead in the region, and the Stilly also gets a moderate plant of summer smolts as well.

Catch results have been mixed year to year in both rivers.

The Skagit River is such a large system we didn’t want to leave it off this roundup, but it is not currently stocked with steelhead. The mainstem and some tributaries (including the Sauk River) have some native steelhead but pay attention to early fishing closures, before many wild fish return.

South Puget Sound Steelhead

On the south side, the Green River (Duwamish) is fairly well planted in recent years with summer steelhead, especially in Soos and Icy creeks. Icy Creek also gets a planting of winter steelhead.

Recent catch results here have been underwhelming in recent years but keep the Green near these trips in mind because they could pick up with good conditions and the current level of planting.

North Olympic Peninsula Steelhead

While the southern Sound near Olympia and the east side of the Olympic Peninsula are largely managed for small runs of wild steelhead, you’ll find some catch and keep fishing on the northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula.

Several smaller systems draining into the Strait of Juan de Fuca are planted with winter hatchery steelhead smolts.

The Hoko River would be our first suggestion in this region, as it gets the most smolts, has a state park, and can be productive starting in December.

The Sekiu River and Dungeness River also get a smaller number of hatchery plants, resulting in modest harvests, as might the Sail River on the Makah Indian Reservation.

Columbia River Region

The mainstem Columbia River is a decent producer of summer steelhead.

In the lower sections of the big river, mostly below Vancouver, catches are made up almost entirely of summer steelhead.

The hatchery fish that anglers seek are caught from beaches and boats alike, peaking in June and July but offering reasonable odds starting around Memorial Day on through the summer.

Steelhead catches occur up into the mid- and upper Columbia mainstem, but they are modest and somewhat scattered in the main river and often get hooked by anglers targeting salmon.

Lower Columbia River Tributaries

Most anglers turn their attention to the tributary rivers, where it’s easier to pinpoint holding water than in the wide Columbia.

Without a doubt, the Cowlitz River is king when it comes to lower Columbia River steelhead fisheries.

It’s also no secret, so you’ll be joined by hundreds of your “best” friends whenever the runs are good, especially the closer you are to the hatchery.

The Cowlitz River can be very productive for both summer and winter runs, thanks to more than a half million fin-clipped smolts of both varieties planted at Blue Creek.

As with anadromous fish anywhere, success rates in the Cowlitz can vary quite a bit from year to year.

Expect this river’s summer steelheading to start ramping up in June and really hit its stride in July and a good part of August before tapering off toward the end of summer.

The winter run here tends to be quite late, with catches ramping up during February and likely peaking in March. April can also be pretty good.

A few of the tributary rivers can be good as well.

The Toutle River (especially South Fork) is worthwhile if you like small-stream steelheading in great summer weather.

The Coweeman River on the lower Cowlitz near Kelso has had a small hatchery winter run, but results will vary based on planting schedules and this mostly has been a local stream.

After the Cowlitz, the next best runs among lower Columbia River tributaries are usually in the Kalama River and North Fork of the Lewis River, which aren’t stocked quite as heavily but nevertheless get generous plantings to support excellent summer runs and fair (or sometimes good) winter runs.

A couple of other smaller steelhead rivers we would recommend you get to know in the region include the Washougal River and Elochoman River.

The Washougal, just east of Vancouver, is planted with decent numbers of fish for both runs, with moderate results in recent years.

Although farther out for most anglers, the Elochoman River on the lower river near Cathlamet can be a really nice little steelhead stream, usually with better winter catches although a modest number of summer fish have been planted here as well.

Salmon Creek near Vancouver has a very small hatchery-boosted winter run as well, but your odds are better in one of the other rivers in the region.

Columbia River Gorge Steelhead

Heading upriver, the Columbia River gorge has a couple good steelhead fishing tributaries.

The two rivers you should focus on for keeper steelhead are the Klickitat River and the Little White Salmon River. Both can be excellent for summer steelheading, especially in July and August.

The Little White Salmon fishery includes Drano Lake at the mouth, which gets stopover steelhead from upriver runs and is a very popular (often crowded) boat and bank fishery.

Eastern Washington Steelhead Fishing

In Eastern Washington, there are several good steelhead rivers with late-arriving summer runs.

The Snake River system gets a lot of planted hatchery smolts.

The lower mainstem through southeastern Washington has four dams creating reservoir fisheries, with the lowest one of them (between Ice Harbor and Lower Monumental dams) usually the top producer for impoundment steelheading. Trolling is popular.

These lower Snake steelhead fisheries start picking up in September, with better fishing usually into October.

Farther upstream around Clarkston, catches are also good for steelhead heading toward Idaho’s Clearwater River or heading farther up the Snake River.

Many of the latter hatchery steelhead will turn a little farther upriver and head into the Grande Ronde River, where both Washington and Oregon plant very good numbers of summer steelhead.

The lower Grande Ronde may be far out for the vast majority of Washington residents, but if you’re up for adventure some years it can be red hot starting in the fall and continuing through winter, as the weather allows.

The Walla Walla River and Tucannon River have modest hatchery steelhead fisheries. Check before fishing these streams. For example, steelhead runs have been way down on the Walla Walla River, and steelhead fishing may be off-limits.

The upper Columbia River is quite heavily stocked with summer steelhead smolts, including in several tributaries, but fishing opportunities off the mainstem are limited.

The Methow River and Wenatchee River are particularly well-stocked and longtime anglers may remember some glory years in these rivers.

However, under annual regulations the Wenatchee River is closed to all angling below Wenatchee Lake, and the Methow is also seeing increased restrictions through the years that likely will keep you off the water here.

That said, keep an eye out just in case the WDFW opens these or other upriver fisheries for special harvest seasons.

Washington Coast Region

Grays Harbor Area Steelhead

The biggest steelhead catches on the Washington Coast are often made in the Grays Harbor and Chehalis River basin on the central coast (and southern Olympic Peninsula), an easy drive west from Olympia.

While the mainstem of the Chehalis only rates as fair, we suggest you zero in on several tributaries that can be excellent.

The area’s top steelhead producer is usually the Wynoochee River, which is nicely stocked with both summer and winter steelhead smolts and produces good catches most years in June and July and again starting in late December or into January.

The Humptulips River also is stocked with both runs, though not quite as many total fish, and produces at similar times to the Wynoochee.

The Skookumchuck River east of I-5 can be excellent producing stream for its size, especially focusing right below the hatchery.

The Satsop River on the lower Chehalis also can be good for winter steelhead.

Both of these Chehalis River tributary streams usually are going strong during good river conditions from January to March.

Olympic Peninsula Steelhead

Farther north, onto the Olympic Peninsula’s western coast, the Bogachiel River would be our top choice for landing a hatchery steelhead or two.

The nearby Calawah River is a fair choice for winter steelhead as well, and it also can produce a modest number of hatchery summer steelhead.

The Hoh River and Queets River (and often the Queets River tributary Salmon River) can be worthwhile options for hatchery steelhead.

The Tsoo-Yess River, also commonly known as the Sooes River, is heavily planted with steelhead but falls largely under the jurisdiction of the Makah Indian Reservation. Check with the tribe for details.

The Peninsula also can have some of the best wild winter steelhead fishing anywhere in Washington, with the river systems already mentioned as well as others hosting wild runs.

The Sol Duc River isn’t planted with hatchery steelhead but has good numbers of wild fish (and a rare hatchery stray that you can keep).

Willapa Bay Steelhead Rivers

On the southern Washington Coast, the tributaries flowing into Willapa Bay can offer fair to good steelhead fishing, although recent catches have been somewhat unimpressive.

When the runs are strong, look for the Willapa River, Naselle River, and North River to offer the best odds.

Washington Resources

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