Cowlitz River Bank Salmon Fishing


Looking upriver at the Barrier Dam Looking downriver from the deadline, mid September




Link to Cowlitz River / Tacoma Power Website
:  Cowlitz    Or these website relating to river flows CLICK HERE and fish returning to the hatchery  CLICK HERE 

Types of fish Encountered :  Depending on the time of the year, you will encounter cutthroat trout, steelhead, Chinook and Coho salmon.  Also in the fall when the salmon are in you will encounter Jack salmon, usually Chinook.  A “Jack” is anything under 24″, they usually will be about 18″+.   In the fall there are sea run cutthroat trout in the river.  It has even been reported of a sturgeon pulled from the Cowlitz at the mouth of the Toutle.  There also has been some seen at the pool below the fish ladder to the barrier dam fish hatchery during the fall when the salmon are there.   However this is a no fishing zone.

Where to Go :  The most popular spot for bank fishing the Cowlitz is probably below the barrier dam salmon hatchery near Salkum.  Go east on Highway 12 from I-5 and as you enter Salkum turn right on the Fuller Rd.  Go to the intersection of the Spencer Rd, turn left.  Not far the road forks, straight ahead is dead end, so turn right and go down the hill to the hatchery and barrier dam.  Parking is plentiful, good restrooms, picnic tables and a free boat launch here.  If the fish are not biting and the time of the year is right, you can take the grandkids up to the wire fenced intake to the hatchery fish ladder, look over the side possibly seeing fish milling around there before going up the fish ladder into the hatchery.

Downstream off the Spencer Rd.  6 miles is the Trout Hatchery.   Fishing is accessible along the bank above and below the launch.   Another popular spot that is accessed with a well defined trail heading downstream from the Trout Hatchery launch parking lot, is the mouth of Blue Creek, which is a good fish catching location if you like company.  


The combat fishery just below the mouth of Blue Creek


In the picture on the left below, the fishermen in the foreground have hooked 3 Chinook from the line of other fishermen and have brought their fish downstream into the shallow pool to bank land them in the location that is normally occupied by plunkers.   



Looking upriver from the Barrier Dam launch parking lot Mission bar boat launch





Farther downstream a few more miles is a boat launch at the Mission bar where fishing is possible off the bank here below the launch.

Farther yet just west of the I-5 bridge is another public launch, again with bank access.

Then farther down yet the mouth of Olequa Creek has a boat launch with a nice gravel plunking bar below the launch.

And farther yet down stream would be the mouth of the Toutle.   In the photo on the right above, which was taken in July of  2006.   It has come to my attention that now the railroad has closed access to motorized vehicles, so the gravel bar is now off limits for vehicles.   In order to access the river you have to go under or over the train tracks which was railroad property and there already have been numerous people who have been killed or seriously injured from an oncoming train, so the railroad contacted the authorities and asked to patrol or put the word out that it was trespassing and we would be writing tickets.

 As soon as you cross the Toutle to the sand bar on the north is private property, and the owner WILL come encourage you to leave, and he is usually armed.   Where everybody is fishing in the picture is decent, maybe not quite 300 yards long until you run into trees at the water line.   The actual mouth has changed a lot from this older photo.  All of this is accessible to the public


Olequa Creek entering the Cowlitz from the opposite shore The Cowlitz River with the Toutle River entering on the gravel bar center mid right.


As with any river it may be best to go there, take a look when the water is low in the summer.   Make a note the locations or take digital pictures of the large rocks, gravel bars, holes, logs/stumps, etc.  This will give you some idea of where to fish later when the water is higher and the fish move into the river system.

These boat launches are shown and described in another article “Boat launches of the Cowlitz River”.   There is usually good public access places to bank fish at all these launches.

When to go :  There seems to be a run of something there most of the year.   Steelhead would be the most sought after specie.  Salmon would probably be next, with Chinook coming in the spring and the fall.  Coho salmon will show about the 1st of October.  Cuthroat trout will be there mid summer to when the salmon are spawning.

Different types of fishing –

  Plunking with bait/lure
Spin-N-Glo / Oakie / Corky

Oakie / Corky

Drift Fishing/casting
Bobbers used with bait/jigs


Plunking :  Plunkers need to be considerate of drifters as like either being upriver or well downriver of the drifter.  The reason is the caster/drifter will cast out and allow their bait to drift downstream, pull it out, then start over.  A plunker should not put themselves in a situation where they are in the middle of caster/drifters, thereby laying the groundwork for line tangles.  OK, the drifters also need to be considerate of the plunker.  The most accepted unwritten rule is, “He who gets there first calls the shots”.

This method is a rather laid back way to fish and is a term used for still fishing from either the bank or anchored boat, usually with bait near the bottom. The main bait of choice is usually cured salmon eggs.


Typical Plunking set-up


One method used by many is to use a Spin-N-Glo as an attractant in a size from size 2 to 0.  Use a 30″ snelled egg tie leader and thread a Spin-N-Glo on.   This will be your leader to the bait. You can then either use just the Spin-N-Glo alone or with cured salmon roe bait.   Preferred colors for the Spin-N-Glos seem to be chartreuse and or orange.

You can attach this leader to a 3 way swivel, however it is best to add a another swivel and a snap at the end to attach your leader to.  Sliders are not easy to use in plunking as when casting the sinker will want to slide up your line.   The whole idea is to use a heavy enough sinker to hold the lure on the bottom.

Droppers to the sinker should be 8-12”, and of a lighter leader material so it can be broken off if the sinker snags up, without loosing your lure.  Sinker weight will vary with the current, but usually from 2 to 4oz. is sufficient.

You probably should make up complete spare setups, as usually it is easier to tie these up at home than on the river.

Or the Old School set up, 15# main line to 3-way swivel, 18″-24″ leader 15-20# of your choice.  Some fishermen use a large paper clip to pyramid sinker 1-6oz.+ depending on current.   Clown or pearl pink Spin-N-Glo (use the ones whose hole is off center, better wobble) small tuft pink or chartreuse yarn , add some shrimp scent which will kill Springers and steelhead.  Some fishermen use a heavier main line, like up to 25#-30# when the possibility of hooking a salmon is an option.

Be sure to add at least one bead behind the Spin-N-Glo as a bearing to protect the knot.  And a bead chain or a good ball bearing snap swivel at the line snap will help keep the leader from twisting at the 3-way.  You should check it even 10-15 minute until you know what kind of leaves and snot are in the water.  Look for the edge of the current below points, behind deadwood, undercut banks.   Don’t go to big on the hooks, 3/0 is about maximum.  Add a trailer hook.

The fish tend to concentrate near the shore.  This river is not a small river so you may have to cast farther to reach your intended area.   However depending on the location a cast of 50′ or so is a long cast.  You may have to cast a little farther so your lure rests where you want it, as you can reel it in to the desired location.  Plunking works best in pools of slower moving water, or if possible at the seam between the faster water and the edge of the pool’s slower water.   The Chinook will come up and mouth a plain Spin-N-Glo, so you have to be ever watchful of the rod tip.   One place to look for would be the slower moving water directly upstream from a riffle.

Most plunkers use a rod holder set into the river bank.   In this gravel, you may need a large hammer or find a large rock to drive it in.  You should then consider getting a little bell to attach to your rod midsection as a signaling device, as many times you may get complacent and not be attentively watching the rod tip 100% of the time.

Then there is the question of scent.   Do I use it or not?   Well, salmon and steelhead have a very good sense of smell.   It sure does not hurt to add some egg scent as an extra attractant.   Another thing is that many use a few inches of yarn along with the eggs.   This can add a color, but more importantly it serves a dual purpose of supplying a source for your scent to soak into, and if the fish just bites but lets go quickly, it may possibly get it’s teeth tangled in the yarn enough to not let it get away before you can set the hook.

One of the easiest way to learn anything is to watch other fisherpersons on the river.   You might even ask them, most may even be glad to share what they know.  Binoculars can also be useful.

Even consider take a folding chair along for this type of fishing.


Plunkers between the Barrier dam & the launch,  summer Same location as on left, but in mid October


What to do When the Bell Goes Off
  When Plunking:  Sometimes a plunking hit is a little tap tap tap to a WHAM!!!  No matter which, you need to set that hook.  Plunking is not like trolling where you have to let it sit and they pretty much hook them selves.  You have to set that hook and set it good otherwise they throw it or spit your gear.   When the bell is ringing, reel in fast, when you feel the weight of the fish solidly, the hook is set.   However depending on the current you are fishing in, you may have to take the belly out of the line.  The belly is there due to water current.

Slack line or pop up bites, your rod will just pop straight up and go slack possibly from the fish breaking your lead off.   Reel down as fast as possible until you feel the fish then give a good hook set.  You really don’t need to set the hook that hard, if the fish is there, it’s already hooked, just give a good hookset but not over the top.  If you keep getting slack line bites, you may want to hold onto your rod to hook fish.

Sometimes on these slack line bites, the fish will pick it up, drop it and then watch it.   If you have picked the rod up then taken the slack out but nothing is there, give it a little jerk which can entice a instinctive reaction to the fish where they will then really hit the bait as if it was getting away.

Disabled Fishing Access :  Just downstream from the photos above, Tacoma Power has installed an easy access to the river designed for disabled anglers.  This is a wheelchair accessible concrete slightly sloping ramp with 4 level concrete fishing platforms that allow for different river heights and yet be accessible.  Disability parking spots are at the top of the fenced off area.   These platforms have concrete bumpers on the water side.

At extreme low water you may encounter rocks and some woody debris covering the lowest of the 4 platforms or walkways to it.  If you are not a handicapped fisherperson, how about removing this debris next time you are there for those who can not?

Although the platforms is available for anyone’s use, Tacoma Power asks users to yield to people in wheelchairs and those with limited mobility.


Wheelchair accessible access looking downstream to the boat launch immediately below Same wheelchair accessible access looking upstream
Here a handicapped fisherman is giving it a try at plunking as are the bankies below him & a boater is taking out.


Casting:  This will vary depending on where you are and the water/depth conditions.   Usually this will consist of casting a gob of eggs, either alone or in conjunction with a Corky or Spin-N-Glo.   You could use basically the same rigging as for plunking, but with a lighter sinker.  Others will cast spinners.  Here you cast upstream enough so as to let your lure reach bottom about directly out from you.  Let it swing in an arc and come inshore below you.

On this or any river that has the potential of many fisherpersons sharing the river bank, to keep from getting tangled with your neighbor, if you are all strung out along the bank, the lower person casts first, with the next person upstream following.  The farthest one upstream in the row will be the last to cast.   If you miss your turn because you are re-baiting or attending your gear, tough.  You have to wait until the rotation comes around to you again.

If someone gets a fish on, then the others may have to pull their lines in or allow the fisherman with the fish on to negotiate over or under their line to create less a chance to tangle the fish and possible lose it for the fisherman.   If it is a large fish, head downriver to where you can being it to shore in calmer water.  When it comes your turn with a fish on, they will do the same for you.

Drifting :  Here the lure may also be a lure/egg combo, but using a lighter sinker that will allow the lure to bounce along the bottom.   Another version of this method would be using a bobber.  Here the bobber and sinker is adjusted so the lure will be drifted about 12″ off the bottom.   The bobber needs to be sliding on the mainline and be able to adjust it to  the river depth and current at your current location.  This lure can be eggs or a small jig.   With this technique,  you cast upstream at a bout a 45 degree angle, and take up the slack (reel in) slightly keeping the lure just bouncing along the bottom.  When the line and lure is straight below you, you reel in and then start over.

The protocol is the same here as for casting if many are lined up, unless you happen to find a day or early enough in the morning when you can walk downstream with the bobber.

Remember that snagging is not legal and in freshwater it is NOT legal to possess any fish hooked anywhere other than inside the mouth or on the head.

Landing Net? :  If you are alone, casting, or drifting and may well be moving around on the gravel bars, some fishermen will fashion a holding device for the landing net into a backpack with the net bag in the air above their head.  If you however are fishing with a friend, who can maneuver and retrieve a net you have on the shore, that is another option.  The plunkers usually are fishing calmer water and can just beach the played out fish onto the shore by backing up the bank.

Tackle :   

Reels –  Most bank fishermen will probably use a spinning outfit, as it seems to be easier to cast farther which is needed in this larger river.  What ever reel you decide, buy these best you can afford and be sure it has a GOOD drag system, as you do not have the luxury of being in a boat that you can pick up and chase a large fish if it decides to run.  You also need a large enough reel to accommodate about 200 yards of 20 or 25# line.

Rods – A 8′ 6″ medium weight salmon/steelhead rod will probably be seen mostly, as it can be used well for cutthroat, or Chinook.   Some of the dedicated fishermen use a 10-11′ rod, which gains them distance in a large river like this.

Line – Line will possibly vary depending the time of the year and what fish are in the river.  But normally a 12-15# monofilament will do.  If Chinook can be mixed in the potential bag, then maybe up to 20-25# could be used.

Information / Gear : There are 2 good locations that you can purchase tackle that is used here, plus find out what and where the action is.

(1) Fish Country Inc sporting goods (360-985-2090) on south side of Highway 12  between Ethel and Salkum.   This small store is run by a husband and wife team and are friendly, will give advice to the novice, has bait, rods, tackle, a free map of the Cowlitz and willingly offer advice.   Don’t cut Tracy short if Marshall Borsom is not there as she is also a wealth of information on the river.  They open at 6 AM for your convenience.

(2)  Barrier Dam RV and Tackle which is located on the Fuller Rd and is the last place on the left before you get to the Spencer Rd. intersection going to the barrier dam.  It is owned by Don Glaser and his knowledgeable wife.  Don is very much involved with The Friends of the Cowlitz and is current president of that organization.   This business has a very good selection of tackle and can also be very helpful with local gear and information.

Observations : There is usually a decent fall Coho run in this river.  However many fishermen have passed on the information that they have lock-jaw and are not biters.  So no matter how many fish the WDFW allows you to retain in a good year, it is really immaterial as they are only supplying you opportunity, not reality.



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