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Cowlitz Silver Salmon Run Could Set Record

The Cowlitz River is on course to see a record return of coho (silver) salmon, according to senior fisheries biologist Mark LaRiviere of Tacoma Power, and anglers are showing up in record numbers to find them.

“We had a record run of 14,000 coho last year,” said LaRiviere. “This year we’ve already had a return of over 10,000 fall coho and we still have three or four weeks left to the season. We’re on course to beat last year’s record run.”

WDFW has increased the number of adult salmon anglers are allowed to retain in the stretch of the Cowlitz River from the mouth to the Mayfield Dam.

The 2011/2012 Sportfishing Rules Pamphlet limits fishermen to six salmon, only two of which may be adults. As of Aug. 1 and until further notice, the WDFW has increased the limit to allow all six fish retained to be adult salmon, only two of which may be chinook salmon.

Only hatchery fish may be retained. “Wild” fish sporting the adipose fin must be released.

I spent six days on the Cowlitz River on the stretch of water below the Barrier Dam in Salkum to take a snapshot view of the river, the fish and the anglers.

Approximately 90 percent of the anglers I talked to were not Lewis County locals, but had driven 70 to 120 miles down Interstate 5 to seek their limits in what is one of the most famously favored and high-producing fisheries in western Washington.

“The Cowlitz is a very active fishery, in a unique situation,” said LaRiviere. “There is a 100-mile stretch of river with no dams until the Barrier Dam, and there aren’t any tribal nets across the river. Sportfisherman have the opportunity to harvest fish in the Cowlitz without having to share the resource.”

On a Saturday or Sunday, it’s typical to see 50 to 100 anglers, standing nearly shoulder to shoulder in the waters between the Barrier Dam and the boat launch. Mondays and Fridays are busy, but slightly less so. Midweek the area receives the least pressure, hosting only 20 to 30 fishermen at a time.

“I was kinda disappointed that the Barrier Dam isn’t living up to its reputation as a combat fishery,” said a Seattle angler with a grin on Friday afternoon. “Everyone’s been pretty good-natured all day.”

Wednesday through Friday of last week there was a definite convivial air above the waters of the Cowlitz, in contrast to the desperate, sometimes volatile atmosphere of the Saturday anglers fighting a bad bite of lock-jawed silvers and fighting off dark, ugly king salmon. Tangled lines from anglers casting out of turn or over the lines of fishermen trying to move their hooked fish downstream into slow waters cause tempers to flair. Alcohol also seems to affect the attitudes and trip-wire tempers on the weekends.

Monday and Tuesday of last week the bite was on strong and many of the anglers had to spend a lot of time with their line reeled in and waiting for the upstream anglers with fish on to wade past them until they could cast again.

“Hook your fish and move your butt is the rule,” said one angler as he waited for another angler to pass down the line.

If You Go, What You Need to Know

The river is crowded on the weekend and Mondays and Fridays. Midweek is the best time to go.

Be prepared with waders and rain gear, a stout rod and a reel filled with 15-pound test or better.

Shrimp and eggs are the No. 1

choice of anglers who fish the upper pool just below the Barrier Dam. Spinners, such as the Blue Fox in sizes 3 and 4 are also popular.

Those wading into the water along the stretch above the boat launch favor corkies and yarn or corkies and bait. Most are throwing a 1-ounce weight over a long leader.

“There’s no set color or pattern,” said Don Glaser, of the Barrier Dam Campground. “It’s trial and error every day. Some have been using the dark purples and blacks with success for the silvers.”

Marshall Borsom, of Fish Country in Ethel, said he’s seen a lot of anglers having success with a variety of combinations of colors — green, pink, red and orange, and chartreuse for the early morning and evening bites.

The bite was off later this week, Borsom said he had heard they netted fish out of the Columbia, “and that’ll put a hole in the run for a couple of days. But there’s a bunch more coming.”

There are a few bright kings still coming through, though most are dark. It’s dead in the center of the silver salmon run, and that’s what most of the anglers are hoping for as they cast out their line. A few winter-run steelhead have made a showing, although it’s still early in the season.

Fisheries biologist LaRiviere said the river flows have stayed very stable and he expects it to stay that way for the rest of the season.

“We considered dropping the river levels because we had some work to do on the river,” LaRiviere said, “but when we saw the number of coho that were coming in and the number of people fishing for them, we decided to put off that work until next year.”

    Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer based in Cinebar. She can be contacted at