Gray’s Harbor Steelhead Showing in Big Numbers

By: Mike Ainesworth

The Gray’s Harbor Rivers have been excellent for hatchery steelhead this winter. In fact, I don’t remember a year this productive in the last decade. Most surprising, this is coming off of a bad coho season. Historically, when you have a poor coho run the steelhead follow suit. For whatever reason that hasn’t been the case this year and we’re more than ok with that.

I have no idea why it’s been so productive. This year we had warm temperatures off the coast and a lot of people thought that was killing fish off, but we are seeing strong returns of steelhead. For some reason these steelhead survived better than coho. Everyone is dumbfounded by it, but no one is complaining, that’s for sure.

While favorable water conditions might be tough to find the good bite should continue through January. We’ve been plagued with a lot of rain right now so there haven’t been many fishing options recently. When the water is high like this the Cowlitz has been the place to go because the water is controlled. Meanwhile, in Gray’s Harbor, we’ll have to wait longer for rivers to fall in shape. We have another big storm coming in now and will be around on and off through the weekend. Fortunately, things are looking good for next week.


We’ve seen a lot of double-digit days, which isn’t the case on a typical year. To get your limit is always a good day, but day after day, even in low and clear conditions, we’ve been catching double-digit numbers. I’m guessing the hatchery run will slow by the end of the month. Then we’ll start to encounter more wild fish than hatchery fish.

For best success I would concentrate on the hatchery drifts. Keep in mind, there’s a hatchery on all our major rivers in Gray’s Harbor. If you are going out to catch and release you’ll encounter more wild fish upriver of the hatchery. Otherwise, stay from the hatchery, on downriver, and you’ll have a better chance to catch fish.


What portion of the water column I target depends on water levels. Coming off high water I concentrate working close to the banks. In high and dirty water they are going to hug the banks. However, as the river starts to fall and get clear I’ll start to work the deeper runs and slots. Early morning you can try close to the bank, but as the sun comes up move to the deeper runs and out of the way pockets.


Typically, when I start fishing falling water I like to run a lot of bait. That way I can have the color aspect of running the deeper red cured eggs while also putting the scent trail in the water prior to them seeing it. The Red BorX O Fire cured eggs stand out better, but as the water gets lower and clearer I’ll go to pink and natural. Usually, starting in high water I’ll use a chunk of roe the size of a quarter and then work my way down as the water falls. Once I get into really low and clear I’ll have barely any berries on there. This is when smaller is better.

During steelhead season I’m mostly using all fluorocarbon, normally 12-pound Maxima as a leader line. On my main line I’m running 25-pound Maxima fluorocarbon. I like using double size 4 hooks with Beaumac Cheaters in the middle of the hooks.

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Editor’s Note: All wild steelhead must be released. Anglers may keep two hatchery steelhead per day. Guide Mike Ainesworth operates First Light Guide Service. For more info on his Gray’s Harbor steelhead trips please visit