Fruitcake blues. Slump. Winter doldrums. Seasonal affective disorder. No matter what you call the feeling, there’s something about short days, low light and the chill of winter that can lead to depression. The solution? Go fishing!
Let’s chalk a few fish off the list. Chinook salmon have spawned and died. Smallmouth bass and white sturgeon have likely found a deep hole to settle down for the winter. Walleye will be difficult to find until water temperatures trigger their pre-spawning behavior. I’d also not spend time chasing after channel cats.
The good news is that local waters teem with other finny table fare. Here’s my holiday greeting card version of top angling opportunities within an hour’s drive of the Tri-Cities.
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Sometimes you just need to catch a fish, if for no other reason than to prove that you can. That’s where mountain whitefish come into play.
A cousin to salmon and trout, these large-scaled, pointy-mouth fish are found in the Hanford Reach year-round. However, now is the best time to find a school of hungry “Mr. Whites.”
A friend and I fished from my boat near Ringold over Thanksgiving weekend and landed more than 25 whitefish drifting “faux” eggs over salmon spawning beds. Our catch, ranging from 14 to 19 inches long, went straight to the smoker.
Whitefish can be expected to retain “memory” of salmon eggs for a few weeks or so, after which you might entice them with an orange-hackle fly tipped with a maggot.
December and January are peak months for steelheaders on this side of the Cascades. Despite a weak upper Columbia River run, there are steelhead to be had in the Snake River and tributaries.
Boat anglers can troll Wiggle Warts and shrimp under bobbers in McNary Reservoir from now until February. Night fishing with lighted plugs is also popular.
The Lyons Ferry Hatchery offers easy access for the shrimp-and-bobber crowd. Other choices for bank anglers include Wallula Gap, Ice Harbor forebay, and the south shore near Charbonneau. Tributary streams such as the Umatilla, Walla Walla, Tucannon and Touchet rivers all have runs of steelhead that enter with the first fall freshet and stage until they spawn the following spring.
Do you prefer to swing a fly on the Hanford Reach? Steelhead tend to congregate along the Ringold shoreline during the winter, attracted to warm spring water from Hatchery Creek. Taylor Flats is also worth a try. I recommend studying the discharge pattern from Priest Rapids Dam before you venture out to avoid casting from the willows.
Yellow perch are one of the few area fishes that remain active during the coldest time of the year. I know that it’s time to cast for perch when fringe ice appears and vehicles line up along the shoreline of Cargill Pond.
Scooteney Reservoir is often a good ice fishery if it freezes over. Farther afield, Moses Lake and the Potholes Reservoir can provide good action in the winter.
I suggest arming yourself with a lightweight spinning rod, a carton of nightcrawlers, and a small balsa or foam float. Set your bobber stop to keep your bait near the bottom. A slow retrieve of a lightweight jig tipped with a worm or maggot will often promote a bite. The bite of a perch can be subtle, ranging from a series of taps to moving your bobber sideways. In other words, don’t wait for the bobber to go down before you set the hook. Also, never venture onto ice unless it is at least 4 inches thick.
There’s more, of course. You could tow your boat north to troll streamer flies or hoochies off leaded line for rainbow trout or kokanee in Lake Roosevelt. You could plunk PowerBait for triploid “bows” beside the net pens on Lake Rufus Woods. Stir-crazy fly casters might try Rocky Ford Creek near Ephrata, where lunker rainbows stay active in 50-degree water.
How about something completely new and different? Try for elusive burbot under the ice at the Potholes. The point is that somewhere, somehow, there’s a fish waiting for you. (Sounds like a great jingle for a relationship website.)
No matter what your inclination, dress warm, don’t get on a boat without wearing a life jacket, and shake off the holiday blues.
Dennis Dauble is a retired fisheries scientist and author of three books about fish and fishing. Learn more at his website, DennisDaubleBooks.com