Winter may be here, but good fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities are plentiful
For Washingtonians, the start of the new year is prime time to fish for winter steelhead, dig razor clams and enjoy the annual spectacle of bald eagles, snow geese, elk and other wintering wildlife.
Other possibilities include sturgeon fishing, which opens Jan.1 from the mouth of the Columbia River to McNary Dam, and hunting for ducks and geese during seasons that run through Jan. 30 in most areas of the state.
But winter weather is an important consideration wherever you go. Ice fishing can be a dicey proposition in most parts of the state and heavy rains can render a river "unfishable" - even dangerous - virtually overnight.
"Preparation is essential for any outdoor activity, especially in winter," said Mike Cenci, deputy enforcement chief for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"Check the weather conditions, river conditions and road conditions - and let people know where you're going before you head out," advises Cenci.
And, of course, wear warm, waterproof clothes. "We don't get a lot of T-shirt weather in January," Cenci said.
For those looking to avoid the crowd and witness wildlife in its natural habitat, Bald eagles are now on display from the Skagit Valley to Lake Roosevelt. Bald eagles can also be observed feeding on spawned-out coho salmon at Oak Creek and along the Yakima River. Also, snow geese and other migratory birds are gathering throughout the coastal lowlands. Wintering elk are also on view in a number of areas, including the feeding station at Oak Creek Wildlife Area northwest of Yakima off Highway 12.
For anglers looking to reel in salmon, coastal areas currently open for fishing include marine areas 7 (San Juan Islands), 8-1 (Deception Pass, Hope Island and Skagit Bay), 8-2 (Port Susan and Port Gardner) and 10 (Seattle/Bremerton). Anglers fishing those marine areas have a two-salmon daily limit, but must release wild Chinook salmon.
Winter is also prime time to jig for squid in Puget Sound. Good spots include the Elliott Bay Pier in Seattle and the Edmonds Pier. More information on squid fishing is available on the state wildlife department's website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish/squid/. Information on fishing piers is available at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/piers/.
Closer to home, winter steelhead are still the name of the game for anglers in the Columbia River Basin, although several other fisheries are beginning to compete for anglers' attention. Sturgeon fishing reopens Jan. 1 from the mouth of the Columbia to McNary Dam, and state hatchery workers have begun planting dozens of regional lakes with thousands of rainbow trout.
Anglers continue to reel in hatchery steelhead from portions of the Columbia and Snake rivers, although the lure of bigger fish will undoubtedly prompt some to switch gears. Starting Jan. 1, Lake Umatilla - also known as the John Day Pool - will reopen for retention of white sturgeon that measure 43 to 54 inches from their snout to the fork in their tail.
Anglers planning on taking part in the fishery should be aware that the annual sturgeon quota for Lake Umatilla is 165 fish, said Paul Hoffarth, a regional fish biologist. "In recent years, the quota has been reached in a couple of months, so I'd advise anglers to get out early if they want to take a sturgeon home for dinner," he said.
Another option is Lake Wallula (McNary Pool), including the Snake River below Ice Harbor Dam, which will reopen for sturgeon retention Feb. 1.
Meanwhile, steelhead fishing has been up and down, typical of the winter fishery, said Hoffarth, who noted that some of the best catches on the Columbia River have been reported in the Ringold area. In the Tri-Cities area, the fishery is open for retention of hatchery steelhead from John Day Dam upstream to the wooden power line towers at the old Hanford town site through March 31, 2011.
Another section of the Hanford Reach is open to fishing for hatchery steelhead from the Highway 24 bridge (Vernita Bridge) upstream to Priest Rapids Dam. Fishing in that area, which opened Dec. 8, is one of a number of angling opportunities funded by the Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement Fee.
The lower Snake River is also open for the retention of hatchery steelhead through March 31. The daily limit in the Snake River is three hatchery steelhead and barbless hooks are required.
Walleye fishing can get slow in winter, but there's always a chance of catching a lunker. Hoffarth said some of the largest walleye of the year are boated during the winter months near the Tri-Cities - including the 19.3-pound state record taken in Lake Wallula in 2007.