The verdant hills and valleys of Lewis County offer a plethora of piscatorial opportunities for the ambling angler. Our saturated section of the Evergreen State is synonymous with both back and front country areas of escape, and the picturesque summer and fall seasons provide ample encouragement for locals and visitors alike to enjoy the sun soaked beauty and pursue the rain raised bounty. In any case, around here we like to be, “Up at dawn, hop in the truck. Head to the river and try our luck, or play all day like Tom and Huck, let the fish go free.”
Mode of approach and technique varies greatly from one angler to the next. Ask 10 fishermen where the bite is and what to use and you will likely end up with 12 different answers, including whether one should catch and keep or catch and release. However, bank and boat fishing are both highly successful for both lake trout and river salmonoids. Similarly, bait preferences range from fly-only, to fluorescent cork and yarn setups, flashy spinners, cured eggs and sand shrimp to the regular ol’ coffee can full of night crawlers for lake trout. For those who desire the whole package of river transportation, bait setup, and technique, there are many reputable guide services plying their trade on local waters. These services can be reviewed online or referred by local visitor centers and bait shops.
COWLITZ RIVER – The emerald waters of the Cowlitz River offer the most varied opportunities for fishing within the county confines. As a major tributary to the mighty Columbia River sixty some miles upriver of where it reaches the Pacific Ocean, the Cowlitz is rewarded with hearty first-choice runs of chinook and coho salmon, steelhead, and sea-run cutthroat. The river fishing is especially plentiful from the Barrier Dam near the hamlet of Salkum to the mouth of the Toutle River just north of Castle Rock. Heavy sediment flow from the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980 is still making its way down and out of the Toutle, severely compromising the water clarity and fishing prospects below its confluence in neighboring Cowlitz County.
The salmon runs come through in bunches starting with the spring chinook, or “springer,” run in early March. This generally comes just after the season’s smelt have run the river gauntlet. The fishing really gets hot as the weather improves on into May. The fall coho salmon run is another event to mark on the calendar as many hundreds of the big fish are pulled from the Cowlitz waters while the riverside maples become imbued with crimson hues.
Steelhead, the slightly smaller cousin of the stately salmon, broach the river with serious summer and winter runs. The summer run picks up steam in early July and fishes well through August, while the Winter run is best pursued from mid-February through April.
Winter smelt dipping is also allowed periodically by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Smelt are juvenile steelhead and they roll through in massive numbers. Their density enables bank netters to hand dip them with nets as they swim by. On good days, netters can pull up more than ten pounds (10 pound limit) per scoop.
CHEHALIS RIVER – The Chehalis River is the most prominent watershed in Lewis County, meandering its way from the far southwest corner, near Pacific County, back to the east through the twin cities of Centralia and Chehalis, before turning west again and heading toward the ocean through Thurston and Grays Harbor counties. From the city of Chehalis the river of the same name is bordered to the north by Highway 12, making access to the river a cinch.
Fall coho salmon, and early and late winter steelhead make up the majority of the Chehalis River bounty, although there are years where the spring chinook salmon run gets going as well. No matter the season the Chehalis River provides the best fishing opportunities around when heavy rains infiltrate the area. While the river does get muddy, the fish seem quite used to it and the bite does not drop off. When the river is running high and thick, anglers are best off to bank fish and drop their jig line close to shore where the fish are feeling their way along.
Anglers should note that there are restrictions on steelhead and salmon harvest due to their listing under the Endangered Species Act. All steelhead and salmon with an intact adipose fin must be released promptly after being caught, as they are considered to be wild stock. Only hatchery run steelhead and salmon missing their adipose fin and a completely healed scar may be harvested.
LAKES – When heavy rains have washed out area rivers there are still plenty of inland lakes that offer secluded and relatively sheltered chances to wet a line. From manmade hatchery stocked ponds in cities along the I-5 corridor to secret snow fed mountain pools with native spawned species, landlocked angling opportunities abound.
MINERAL LAKE – Located in the tiny berg of Mineral, north of Morton on the mountain route of Highway 12, Mineral Lake is arguably the best trout water in western Washington. The nutrient- rich lake in east Lewis County is home to huge brown and rainbow trout, and the isolated ecosystem produces plenty of fish that grow to reach the vaunted 10-pound trout class.
WALUPT LAKE – Walupt Lake is the largest alpine lake in our area with its own unique set of naturally-spawned trout species. Some of the well-fed trout can reach sizes as large as a small salmon. Not far off are the smaller pools of Takhlakh and Council lakes. Although their fishing prospects are not as prominent, their high country beauty makes them worth the trip.
LAKE MAYFIELD – Created by the backed up waters of the dammed Cowlitz River, Lake Mayfield offers a multitude of fishing and general recreational opportunities. Many folks head to these manmade waters simply to enjoy the leisurely beachfront, camping, or boating recreations that generate from its shores. For the keen angler though, there are plentiful populations of large rainbow trout, largemouth bass, and the infamous tiger musky. Most tantalizing though are the landlocked coho that have taken up residence in the warmer lake water. Known as Kokanee, these fish were originally spawned on the Tilton River (lots of fish there too) and gradually moved down to populate the lake.
RIFFE LAKE – Kokanee are also available for angling in Riffe Lake, although these fish have been planted in the system by the WDFW, unlike their kin in Lake Mayfield. Unique from other lake fish, the Kokanee produce a tasty pink flesh, very similar to their river and ocean foraging cousins. Coupled with their rarity, these traits make them a prized catch. The lake also hosts populations of rainbow and cutthroat trout, as well as catfish and smallmouth bass. The bass population has increased so dramatically in recent years that many anglers are known to catch and release dozens of them, all in one day’s fishing in the Cowlitz watershed.
LAKE SCANEWA – The headwaters of the Cowlitz River system are found at Lake Scanewa in east Lewis County. The fishing here is infamous for the fact that its salmon and steelhead have been transported by the WDFW past the three hydroelectric dams that mark the river. Native and hatchery-produced trout populate the lake during all seasons, while chinook and coho salmon, and summer and winter steelhead are present whenever the fish truck makes its popular deliveries.
CLOSER TO TOWN AND FAR, FAR AWAY – Closer to I-5, South County Pond, Carlisle Lake, Hayes and Borst Park all fish well for trout and/or bass, while remaining easily accessible for the busy traveler. Fishing seasons vary, but most of these lakes have ample amenities such as playground, campgrounds, picnic areas, and restrooms.
More adventurous anglers may want to head all the way up toward White Pass on Highway 12 and go off-trail for an uncharted and solitary fishing experience. Native mountain trout populate these frigid streams and are rarely disturbed by the plodding foot and piercing hook of anglers. Wild seekers should tread lightly on these fragile ecosystems and consider catch-and-release fishing to ensure that future generations of visitors are able to enjoy these rare and titillating wilderness experiences.
Hunters who visit Lewis County will experience no shortage of game hunting options in this neck of the woods. Elk and deer season are the main attraction every year, but game birds, waterfowl, small mammals, exotic and predator hunts make for a smorgasbord of opportunity. The locals aren’t too keen on revealing their favorite outposts though. Ask any local and they’ll tell you, “The deer are in the woods.”
The first hunt of the year opens in mid-April when wild turkeys become free game. A youth-only turkey hunt precedes the general hunt by one week. The best area for wild turkeys is west out Highway 6 near Pe Ell, where they roam the logged hillsides. Rumor has it from hunters and loggers alike that wild hogs roam the same hills.
A general black bear hunt is also offered each spring on selected WDFW game management units. Hunters should inquire with the WDFW for specifics, as they change year to year. Other exotic and predator animal hunts are offered throughout the seasons but special permits required. The permits are available only through a WDFW drawing. Mountain goats and cougars are among those animals with special-permitted hunting seasons.
Come fall bird hunting again kicks things off when forest grouse season opens. Grouse season last four months, which allows hunters to follow the birds from the high elevations down to the milder low elevations as the warm air and colors or fall turns to crisp white shrouded winter.
As the foliage begins to change color and fall in the breeze, ringneck pheasants, doves, quail, and brandts, and band-tailed pigeons attract the sights of hunters. Later on, the plentiful rains of late fall and winter also beckon the arrival of water fowl to the area. As creeks swell and summer pastures turn to ponds, northern ducks and geese begin taking up residence.
Getting back to the main attractions, the fall blacktail deer and elk seasons are what really draw man into the forest. Because Lewis County is centrally located in western Washington, we are lucky enough to have populations of both the South (Mt.) Rainier elk herd and the rapidly expanding Mount St. Helens herd. Coupled with a few small bands of elk that roam the lowlands and river valleys, WDFW biologists estimate that there may be upwards of 20,000 individual elk in our area. With these high numbers, the WDFW has stated that hunting is the preferred population management technique for maintaining optimum habitat levels.
Hunters can find their prey in most parts of the county, from the high hills and mountains of east Lewis County to the valleys and rolling hills of the west county down in the Chehalis River valley out Highway 6.
However, deer tend to stick to the lower elevations where the green grass of natural meadows and farmer’s fields attracts them in hoards.
Elk are more varied in their migrations, preferring the seclusion of the higher elevations during the summer and early fall, but then evading the harsh fall and winter weather by moving to the lowlands just as hunting season opens up.
Several different types of weapons are allowed for hunting in Lewis County including modern rifles, muzzloaders, and bow and arrow.
The seasons and areas for each type of hunt are varied and hunters should check with the WDFW for particulars before heading out. Similarly, out of town visitors who wish to apply for hunting permits and licenses should be sure to contact the WDFW well in advance, at www.wdfw.wa.gov.
By Jordan Nailon, For The Chronicle