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Fly Fishing the Cowlitz River in Washington State

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Outdoors and Recreation
Photo by William Smith/Unsplash

If you have ever heard the term combat fishing then you may have also heard the Cowlitz River and its famously large Steelhead mentioned as well. In the late Fall and early Winter the Steelhead at Barrier Dam can be stacked up very thick. And with the North side of the river near the dam being one of the only easily accessible spots the crowds can be dense and sometimes down right hostile.

This is often shoulder to shoulder fishing with long powerful spinning and bait casting rods for very large and powerful fish. Generally to even get a spot on the Cowlitz, especially on the weekend, you have to get there well before dawn and wade out into the river to claim your spot. A spot you will probably have to occupy the entire time to avoid it being taken by another angler. I haven’t heard about any violence in recent years, but in the past there have been fist fights and even guns drawn.

So you might be asking, “Why would a fly fisherman even think of trying the Cowlitz River?” Well, if you can get there on a week day you can often find space to cast a fly and catch huge Steelhead.

Winter Steelhead are notoriously difficult to catch on a fly rod. A large Steelhead on a dry fly in the winter is one of the Holy Grails or fly fishing lore. Generally in the winter when they are moving up river to spawn and their metabolisms slow down they stop feeding and will mostly strike flies out of aggression. Even then, you often have to get the fly right down in front of their faces. And because they rarely school up as they make their way up the river to spawn they are often much harder to find than Salmon are.

This is where the Cowlitz River at the Barrier Dam really shines. There is a fish ladder that the Steelhead use to make their way up to the hatchery above the Barrier Dam, but because their numbers are so huge they will also bunch up down river from the dam where your odds of catching them on a fly rod greatly increase.

The Cowlitz is pretty wide in this spot and depending on how much rain there has been it can be running fairly swiftly. Waders are a must of course, but a Spey Rod isn’t a bad idea either. Being able to cast a heavy full sinking line far out into the center of the river and get it down in front of the fish is a huge advantage over a regular single handed rod. I’m not the greatest with a Spey Rod, but the few times I’ve been able to use one at the Cowlitz were also days when I was into at least three fish.

Comets, Popsicles, and Leech patterns in black, purple, and pink are my go to flies here. Weighted flies along with a full sinking line help to get the flies deep so that they are right in front of the Steelhead’s noses, which is where you want them if you hope to get them to strike.

This is another river that I highly advise you to drift with a guide that specializes in fly fishing it for winter Steelhead. Though fly fishing for summer steelhead is much less crowded and there are more areas that can be waded, Barrier Dam in the winter is all the pleasant. If it weren’t for the increased odds of hooking into a really large steelhead I probably wouldn’t do it. A guided trip in a drift boat, though still cold, would be much easier than the combat fishing from the bank below the dam.

This is an okay video that at least shows several fish hooked and landed on both the Klickitat and Cowlitz River using a Spey Rod.