Cowlitz River

Spring and Fall Chinook, Coho Salmon, Winter and Summer Steelhead, Searun Cutthroat, Columbia River Smelt, Green and White Sturgeon
Flows into the Columbia river near Kelso


Interstate 5 parallels the east side of the river from Kelso upstream to Toledo. But the most popular stretch of river is upstream, between Toledo and the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery. To reach this area, take U.S.12 east from I-5, turning right (south) on Tucker Road, left at the Y onto Classe Road, left on Spencer Road, and right onto the road leading past the state trout hatchery and to the river. To reach the salmon hatchery further upstream, continue about four miles farther on U.S.12 to Salkum and turn right at the “Salmon Hatchery” sign.


Boat ramps can be found at the trout and salmon hatcheries, with well stocked tackle stores, gas stations, and grocery stores at the junction of U.S.12 and Tucker Road and at Blue Creek Bait and Tackle. Barrier Dam Campground, a short distance north of the salmon hatchery, has RV spaces.

Rules and regulations click the pamphlet


Fishing the Cowlitz River:
Winter steelhead and spring chinook are the two biggest draws at this river, and for every good reason. The Cowlitz has been Washington’s top winter steelhead stream every winter, giving up as much as 30,000 fish in a single season, although in recent years the numbers have been in the 15,000 fish range. Boat ramps at the salmon hatchery, trot hatchery, and other points downstream make this one of Washington’s most heavily boated rivers. During the winter season, a bulk of the boat traffic is concentrated on the two miles of river downstream from the trout hatchery. Some boaters back-troll plugs and diver baits combinations for their steelhead, but a technique called “free-drifting” has become very popular in recent years. It involves making long casts across and slightly upstream, using lighter sinkers than those commonly used associated with drift-fishing, and allowing the boat to drift downstream while your line drags behind. Bank anglers also make good catches of winter steelhead from the Cowlitz, but if you want to fish the best spots, plan on getting shoulder to shoulder and combat fish. The mouth of Blue Creek, just downstream from the Cowlitz Trout Hatchery, may produce several hundred fish in a single morning, with several hundred anglers on hand to catch them. The area below the Barrier Dam is also popular with spring chinook anglers, both those fishing from the bank and those who launch at the mouth of Mill Creek, where the gravel road ends in a two-lane boat launch. Boater’s can’t fish between the ramp and the Barrier Dam, but they catch a lot of chinook from the half mile of river immediately downstream from the ramp. Back-trolling Kwikfish and Flatfish with a strip of sardine lashed to the belly of each lure is effective for boat anglers, as is back-bouncing with large clusters of salmon roe and shrimp combinations. Bank anglers drift fish shrimp, roe, and the shrimp-roe combo known as the “Cowlitz Cocktail”. Spring chinook fishing peaks in May. As the spring salmon fishery tapers off, summer steelhead picks up, and the Cowlitz often provides excellent summer steelheading from July through October. There are dozens of producing fishing spots between the trout hatchery and Toledo. Boat anglers probably account for 70% or more of the fish. Coho returns have been poor in recent years. Hatchery production of sea-run cutthroat has been good enough on the Cowlitz over the past decade to allow anglers what amounts to a bonus trout limit. While the daily limit on most streams is two fish, it’s five on the Cowlitz. Release all wild fish if possible. The mouth of the Blue Creek is the hottest hole on the river. Rolling a nightcrawler on the bottom has been the best producer, some cutthroat reach 20″ in this river. Sturgeon and Smelt can be found near the mouth in the town of Kelso. Fall chinook fishing can also be a fun time. My last trip in the middle of September produced 5 Kings, and one wild release of a 30#. Most hatchery fall chinook range from 12#-25#.

Here is a picture of the Columbia River, where the mouth of the Cowlitz joins it on a busy day of fishing.


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