Wynoochee River Fishing: Steelhead Hot Spot

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Originating among the rugged mountains of Olympic National Forest, the Wynoochee River is one of the best steelhead rivers on the Olympic Peninsula.

A strong case could also be made that it’s among the best in all of Washington, especially for those looking to take a hatchery fish or two home for dinner. 

Fishing opportunities on the Wynoochee River encompass nearly the entire calendar year.

The river is closed to fishing in April and most of May. Besides that, summer and winter steelhead runs, along with modest numbers of Chinook and coho salmon, keep things interesting from June right through to March.

The Wynoochee River is a tributary of the Chehalis River, and the two rivers merge just a few miles upstream from where the Chehalis enters Grays Harbor.

The whole system is ground zero for the salmon and steelhead fishery on the southern side of the Olympic Peninsula. 

Stretching across 60 miles of Grays Harbor County, the Wynoochee River provides ample opportunity for drift boat fishing as well as numerous options of bank access. 

Fly anglers often focus on the upper portion of the river, where the stream is narrower and the crowds are thinner.

Broader sections farther downstream are better suited to fishing from a boat, and there are several popular drifts that open up most of the river to fishing.

Far upstream in Olympic National Park, the river has been dammed to form Wynoochee Lake. The lake offers some unique angling opportunities of its own. 

The dam has also proven a hindrance to natural salmon and steelhead reproduction on the river. Even so, increasing numbers of wild steelhead appear to be returning most years. Significant hatchery operations help to maintain the most popular fisheries. 

Steelhead

Steelhead are the main attraction for most anglers who fish the Wynoochee River. There are major winter and summer steelhead runs, with annual catch rates regularly surpassing 4,000.

Wynoochee River steelhead tend to average 7 to 10 pounds, but fish up to 15 pounds are reasonably common, and a few 20-pounders are brought to the bank many years.

Winter-run steelhead, on the whole, tend to be a little bigger than their summer counterparts.

The first fish of the winter steelhead run start showing up in late November, and steadily increase as the winter wears on. January and February show the highest catch rates most years, but many steelhead are taken right up to the end of March.

Wild steelhead tend to run a bit later than their hatchery brethren, so expect to release a few more unclipped steelies as the season wears on. 

The summer run begins with a few catches from the season opener around Memorial Day, and hits its peak in July and August.

Some fish summer fish remain in the river into the fall, so there’s no significant gap between when the summer run ends and the winter begins.

Salmon roe is an effective bait, especially for winter steelhead that arrive toward the tail end of the fall salmon run. Many local guides back-bounce roe in deep holes, or drift-fish with a float when the current isn’t too swift.

Fuzzy marabou jigs and pink steelhead worms can do the trick as well. Plugs like Yakima Mag Lips and Luhr Jensen Kwikfish also have their devoted adherents. 

Official bank access is limited to a handful of spots, but much of the river is accessible to anyone willing to do some wading and bushwacking. Be respectful of private property.

A boat makes fishing here easier, and there are several access sites for drift boaters to choose the section they want to fish.

The most popular drift on the river is from Old White Bridge down to Black Creek, a stretch of about 8 miles that includes several prime runs and deep holes. 

A bit farther upstream, another popular drift of 12 miles can be achieved by putting in at Schafer Creek and taking out at Old White Bridge. This section takes a little more effort to reach. It also receives less fishing pressure and is a great stretch where a lot of big steelies congregate.

Fly anglers also have plenty of opportunities to catch hefty steelhead from the Wynoochee, and you’ll find good fly water if you head a little farther upstream from the classic drift boat territory. 

Big, brightly colored marabou flies are the offering of choice for winter-run steelhead. Egg patterns are a good choice in winter too.

In summer, when the water is lower and clearer, a more low-key offering like a muddler minnow tends to fare better.

Most of the steelhead caught on the Wynoochee River are hatchery fish. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) plants approximately 170,000 steelhead smolts to supplement the winter run. Another 60,000 or so juvenile summer-runs also are released here.

Hatchery fish can be identified by their clipped (and healed) adipose fins, making them legal to harvest under Washington’s sport fishing regulations. 

Wild steelhead have been seen more and more in recent years, at times nearly as many as hatchery fish according to some local anglers. At present, all wild steelhead must be released immediately if caught.

Salmon

The Wynoochee River is, to be completely honest, not the best salmon river on the Washington Coast.

Other rivers in the Chehalis River system, including the nearby Humptulips River, often see more substantial salmon runs, to say nothing of iconic rivers farther up the peninsula, like the Hoh River and Sol Duc River

That being said, the Wynoochee River hosts modest runs of Chinook and coho salmon every autumn, and many anglers who cast for them see their persistence rewarded.

Chinook Salmon

Chinook salmon start to appear in small numbers in September in the Wynoochee River, with a few more following in October. It’s a limited run, to be sure, and release rules apply to part of the river. 

This river offered prime Chinook spawning grounds until the completion of the Wynoochee Dam in 1970. Their favorite spawning sites rendered inaccessible, Chinook numbers have declined ever since.

Of the few fish that do return, a handful spawn in the main stem of the Wynoochee River. Others head up into smaller tributaries like Carter, Schafer and Helm creeks. Look for deep holes near the mouths of these streams where big salmon like to rest before moving on upstream.

A variety of fishing techniques provide a chance to connect with Chinook salmon.

Salmon roe is an especially effective bait. Try a back-bouncing technique with enough weight to keep your bait “bouncing” along the bottom, or try a float when conditions dictate.

Chinook salmon are hard to catch anywhere, and a big one in the Wynoochee River is a bit like catching a unicorn.

Still, with some steelhead still lingering and coho salmon just starting to arrive, the early fall months are well worth fishing all the same.

Coho Salmon

Coho salmon arrive a bit later than Chinook, and fishing for them usually gets underway the first or second week of October. When the first significant rains of autumn arrive and bring the water up, that’s usually a sure sign that cohos are in the Wynoochee. 

Many of them stay in the river through November, and anglers typically catch them using wobbly spoons and spinners (Blue Fox spinners are a perennial favorite). Eggs can do the trick too, and twitching jigs beneath a float is arguably one of the most enjoyable tactics. 

The WDFW access sites at Black Creek and Old White Bridge are the most popular spots. It also can pay to get away from the crowds a bit when the river is busy. Doing so may require some wading, or a drift boat that you can use as a taxi of sorts. 

Coho don’t get quite as hefty as Chinook salmon, but typical 5-pound-plus cohos return to the river every year, and a 10-pounder is not uncommon. 

Starting in 2019, WDFW began stocking 100,000 coho salmon smolts in the Wynoochee River annually. Since then, catch rates have improved as expected. There’s reason to hope that catches will continue to grow as a result. 

However, please not that for now at least, these new Wynoochee coho are not marked and must be released as if a wild fish if caught.

This could change with future plants, if marked fish are planted. It also could change seasonally by emergency rule if WDFW determines the run will be large enough to support harvest of unmarked coho.

That all said, the Wynoochee is definitely a river to keep an eye on as the coho salmon fishery, hopefully, continues to improve and offer more opportunity in the years ahead.

Chum Salmon

A very modest run of these strong salmon enters the Wynoochee. Frankly, just a few dozen or so are caught in October and November, when most anglers are probably fishing for coho or early steelhead.

The chum runs are slightly better in nearby rivers like the Humptulips and Satsop. Generally speaking, chum salmon fishing is better in several Puget Sound tributaries.

Other Fish Species

A few other species inhabit the Wynoochee River for all or part of the year. On days when the steelhead and salmon aren’t biting, there’s a chance these other fish can save your day.

Resident Trout

Resident (i.e. non-migratory) trout populations in the Wynoochee River are a matter of some debate. Some anglers will swear that there are native rainbow trout in the river. Others dismiss these claims as hogwash. 

While it’s quite possible to encounter rainbow trout in the Wynoochee River, any rainbow-trout-like fish you encounter downstream from the Wynoochee Dam is more than likely a steelhead smolt that has yet to return to the ocean. 

That being said, rainbow trout do reside in Wynoochee Lake, and are commonly caught in the upper Wynoochee River above the lake as far upstream as Wynoochee Falls. There’s some beautiful fly fishing water in this stretch. 

A small population of sea-run cutthroat trout also enters the lower Wynoochee River every year, typically in late summer and early fall. You have a good chance to find them in deep pools and slack areas in August and September.

Cutthroat trout are known for being indiscriminate hunters compared to rainbow trout. They’ll strike a wide range of wet and dry flies, as well as salmon eggs, small spinners and spoons.

Note the special size limits required to keep trout in most of the system. At last check, both wild rainbow and cutthroat trout need to be at least 14 inches to harvest, but check for updated regulations before fishing.

Learn about some of the best ways to catch trout in lakes and streams.

Whitefish

Whitefish don’t often get the respect they deserve, but these fish could be called a cult favorite of sorts. There is a small-but-devoted following of diehard Washington whitefish anglers. 

Wynoochee Lake has a substantial whitefish population, but they can also be found in many parts of the river, both above and below the reservoir. Whitefish generally favor deep pools with relatively still water, and bite best in clear conditions. 

Fly fishermen often target whitefish using nymph patterns. They also bite readily on grubs and small jigs, and may take a single salmon egg on a hook.

Whitefish up to 16 inches are common, and bigger fish are possible.

Planning Your Trip

Rain is always the wild card when planning a fishing trip on the Wynoochee River. The same could be said of any river on the Olympic Peninsula, but the Wynoochee is especially susceptible to being rendered unfishable by a heavy rainstorm. 

Because much of the landscape around the Wynoochee River has been logged substantially over the years, its waters can become excessively muddy after a rain.

The river usually returns to fishable levels within a few days, and is less prone to fluctuations in the drier summer months than in winter.

Directions to the Wynoochee River

The mouth of the Wynoochee River is immediately downstream of the Chehalis River Bridge, which carries State Route 107 across its namesake stream. Much of the river is 40 minutes to an hour west of Olympia via WA-8 and US-12. 

The community of Montesano is nestled in the crook of the Wynoochee and Chehalis Rivers. The city offers a variety of amenities, including a well-stocked tackle shop (East County Sporting Goods) and numerous shopping and dining options. 

From Montesano, Wynoochee Valley Road follows the river upstream all the way to Wynoochee Lake in the Olympic National Forest.

Camping is available near the dam at the Forest Service-operated Coho Campground.

Bank and Boat Access

The WDFW operates a handful of access sites along the Wynoochee River.

In addition to these areas—listed below in order from farthest downriver to farthest upriver—numerous unofficial access sites can be found along Wynoochee Valley Road.

  • Twin Bridges Park: The county-owned Twin Bridges Park is located on the lower Wynoochee River in Montesano. An excellent shore fishing site, the park offers access to several hundred feet of exposed gravel bar that are especially popular among local anglers.
  • Sterling Landing: An undeveloped 30-acre green space along the Wynoochee River, Sterling Landing is a good bank fishing spot with abundant shore access. It also has a gravel ramp that can be used as a put-in or take-out spot for boats.
  • Black Creek: The farthest downstream of the three ramps operated by the WDFW, the Black Creek Boat Launch includes a concrete ramp and limited bank fishing access.
  • Old White Bridge: The Old White Bridge Boat Launch is arguably the most popular launch site on the river among steelhead anglers. Drift boaters often drift the 8-mile section from here down to Black Creek. There’s good bank access here too.
  • 7400 Road: The farthest upstream of the three official state-operated public access sites, the 7400 Road Boat Launch is just upstream from the mouth of Schafer Creek. This site includes shore access and an unimproved boat launch. It is sometimes used as the beginning of a 12-mile drift trip down to Old White Bridge. Adventurous anglers can also hike upriver from here when water levels are reasonably low.
  • Wynoochee Lakeshore Trail: Operated by the U.S. Forest Service, the Wynoochee Lakeshore Trail begins at the Wynoochee Dam site and encircles the man-made Wynoochee Lake. Access to the river below the dam is also available from the trailhead.

Find more fishing spots in Grays Harbor County

Washington Resources

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