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The Weekender Report
The latest in fish and wildlife recreational opportunities across Washington State

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December 2011

(This document is updated periodically throughout the month to reflect current rules and opportunities. Please download the latest copy before heading out! Last updated December 16, 2011)

Contact: (Fish) 360-902-2700
                (Wildlife) 360-902-2515

Outdoor adventures inspire some great holiday gift ideas

Despite the winter chill, Washingtonians have plenty of reasons to head outdoors during the holiday season. Steelhead are surging up coastal rivers, waterfowl hunting is in full swing from the Skagit Valley to the Columbia Basin, and birders are gearing up around the state for the 112th annual Christmas Bird Count.

Those planning to do some holiday shopping between their outdoor adventures can share their appreciation of Washington’s recreational opportunities with the gift of a fishing license, hunting license or a Discover Pass.

Although the new licensing year doesn't begin until April 1, a lot of people like to have their license in hand a few months early, said Joe Stohr, deputy director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

“It's always great to be prepared when the new season arrives,” Stohr said. “Besides, hunting and fishing licenses make great holiday gifts.”

Starting Dec. 1, state fishing and hunting licenses are available for the 2012 season by phone (866-246-9453), online (http://wdfw.wa.gov/licensing/), and from licensing dealers around the state (http://wdfw.wa.gov/licensing/vendors/).

A Discover Pass also makes a fine gift, providing access to nearly seven million acres of state-managed recreation lands, including state parks, water-access points, heritage sites, wildlife and natural areas, trails and trailheads. The annual pass – valid for one year from the issue date – is $35 with transaction and dealer fees if purchased at a license dealer, by phone or on-line.  For details on purchasing, see http://discoverpass.wa.gov/.

Licensed hunters and fishers do not need a Discover Pass to access lands managed by WDFW, because they receive a free Vehicle Use Permit with their license.

One such area is WDFW’s Oak Creek Wildlife Area about 15 miles northwest of Yakima, where hundreds of hungry elk and big-horn sheep gather each December to feed on alfalfa hay and pellets. Prospective visitors should call ahead (509-653-2390) about feeding times and elk-viewing tours.

Rather dig some razor clams?  An evening dig is scheduled for Long Beach, Twin Harbors, Copalis and Mocrocks on Dec. 10. In addition, WDFW has approved digs Dec. 22 and 23. For updated information, check the department’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/.

For more information about fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing available over the next month, see the Weekender Regional Reports posted on WDFW’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/weekender/. These reports are updated throughout the month to provide current information about recreational opportunities around the state.

North Puget Sound

Fishing: For most area anglers the holiday season is a time to choose between fishing for steelhead in the region’s rivers or heading out on Puget Sound for crab and blackmouth salmon. 

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) are all open for salmon fishing in December. Anglers fishing those marine areas have a two-salmon daily limit, but must release wild chinook salmon.

John Long, statewide salmon manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), said anglers could do well fishing for blackmouth, especially around the San Juan Islands. “Traditionally, anglers have had success fishing for blackmouth in the San Juans this time of year,” he said. “Of course weather can be a factor, but if conditions are good and you put time in on the water you could hook a nice-size fish.”  

Long reminds anglers that salmon fishing in Marine Area 9 (Admiralty Inlet) closes Dec. 1.

Before heading out, anglers can check creel reports for information on catch and effort in Puget Sound. Recreational fishery samplers with WDFW collect the information each week at fishing access sites throughout Puget Sound.

Crabbing also is open in some marine areas of Puget Sound, including marine areas 4 (Neah Bay), 5 (Sekiu), 6 (eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca), 7, 8-1, 8-2, a portion of Marine Area 9 north of a line that extends from Olele Point to Foulweather Bluff, 11 (Tacoma-Vashon Island) and 13 (South Puget Sound).

In each area, crabbing is allowed seven days a week through Dec. 31. 

The daily catch limit in Puget Sound is five Dungeness crab, males only, in hard-shell condition with a minimum carapace width of 6¼ inches. In addition, fishers may catch six red rock crab of either sex per day, provided those crab measure at least 5 inches across. Additional information is available on the WDFW website

All crab caught in the late-season fishery should be recorded on winter catch cards, which are valid until Dec. 31. Winter cards are available at license vendors across the state. Catch reports are due to WDFW by Feb. 1, 2012. For more information on catch record cards, visit WDFW’s catch record card webpage.

For a change of pace, anglers in the region may want to venture out in the evening to jig for squid. Good spots include the Elliott Bay Pier in Seattle and the Edmonds Pier. More information is available on the department’s squid fishing webpage. Information on fishing piers is available here.

In freshwater, several rivers are open for steelhead fishing, including the Skagit, Snohomish, Skykomish, Snoqualmie and Green (Duwamish). Bob Leland, WDFW’s steelhead program manager, said as long as the rivers stay in shape anglers should have some good opportunities to fish for steelhead during the month. “Fishing for hatchery steelhead picks up around mid-December, when we traditionally see the peak of the run,” he said.

Rainbow trout are another option for freshwater anglers, who might want to try casting for lunkers at Beaver Lake near Issaquah. About 2,300 hatchery rainbows – averaging 2 to 3 pounds each – were released into the lake in early November. Beaver Lake, which is one of several westside lowland lakes open to fishing year-round, is best fished by small boat, although anglers also can be successful fishing from shore.

Other good bets during December are Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish, where anglers can hook perch, cutthroat and smallmouth bass. Anglers targeting perch should fish near deep ledges, said WDFW fisheries biologist Danny Garrett, who recommends using nightcrawlers. “Perch are generally caught within a couple feet of the bottom,” he said. For cutthroat or smallmouth bass, try trolling deep, 30-100 feet or more. “Anglers will likely have to put in some time to hook a smallmouth, but those that do could catch a big fish,” Garrett said.

Hunting: Waterfowl hunting is in full swing in the region, where success rates should continue to improve as New Year’s approaches. “If the weather and tides cooperate, waterfowl hunting should be good throughout the month,” said Dave Ware, game manager for WDFW. Waterfowl hunters have through Jan. 29 to hunt ducks and geese in the region.

Hunters who would like to participate in the Snow Goose Quality Hunt program on Fir Island and in the northern Port Susan Bay area should visit WDFW’s website for information on the rules and requirements.

Another option is a Waterfowl Quality Hunt Program, which provides duck and goose hunting opportunities at more than 40 sites in Whatcom, Skagit and north Snohomish counties. For more information, visit the quality hunt program’s webpage.

Meanwhile, upland bird hunters have through Dec. 31 to hunt forest grouse.

Big-game hunts also are under way in several areas. Archers have through Dec. 8 to hunt deer in Game Management Unit (GMU) 437, through Dec. 15 in 466 and 460, and through Dec. 31 in 407, 410 and 454. The region's muzzleloader hunts for deer run through Dec. 15. Muzzleloader and archery hunts for elk also continue in the region through Dec. 15.

Before heading out, hunters should check the Big Game Hunting pamphlet and the Waterfowl and Upland Game pamphlet for details. Also, area-by-area summaries of the hunting prospects throughout the state are available on WDFW’s hunting prospects webpage.

As noted on page 15 of the pamphlet, Jan. 31 is the deadline for hunters to report their hunting activity for each special permit acquired and each deer, elk, bear, and turkey tag purchased in 2011. Those who do not meet the deadline must pay a $10 penalty before they can buy a license next year. Those who report by Jan. 10 will be entered into a drawing for one of nine special elk or deer permits.

Wildlife viewing: During the holiday season, several Audubon Society chapters throughout the region are coordinating Christmas Bird Counts (CBC), which get under way this month. Sponsored by Audubon, the annual event enlists birdwatchers – veterans and novices – to contribute their sightings over a 24-hour period to the world's longest-running bird database. For more information on the CBC, visit the Audubon website. To get involved, visit the Washington Ornithology Society's website for a counting circle in your area.

Birders might want to consider conducting their counts along the Skagit River this season. Each winter, hundreds of bald eagles spend December and January along the river, where the carcasses of spawned salmon provide a feast for the birds. After a few weeks of dining, the eagles head north to their summer homes in Alaska and British Columbia.

The Skagit Valley also is a great spot for birders. Thousands of snow geese congregate in the Skagit Valley each winter, and can be found in the area from mid-October through early May. A great place to view the birds is at the Fir Island Farms Reserve Unit of WDFW’s Skagit Wildlife Area. For more information on the Fir Island Farms Reserve Unit, visit WDFW’s website.

South Sound/Olympic Peninsula

Fishing: The holiday season has arrived and with it comes opportunities to hook hatchery steelhead on several coastal streams, catch crab and salmon in Puget Sound and dig razor clams on ocean beaches.

Clam diggers will get a chance to dig some fresh razor clams for the holidays during an opening Dec. 22-23 at four ocean beaches. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) approved evening at Long Beach, Twin Harbors, Copalis and Mocrocks beaches after marine toxin tests showed that the clams on those beaches are safe to eat.

Evening low tides during the dig will be at 4:40 p.m. Dec. 22 and at 5:29 p.m. on Dec. 23. No digging will be allowed at any beach before noon.

Dan Ayres, WDFW coastal shellfish manager, recommends that diggers hit the beach one to two hours before evening low tide for best results.

Clam diggers are reminded that they should take lights or lanterns for the nighttime digs and to check weather and surf forecasts before heading out. No digging will be allowed before noon on any of the razor-clam beaches. Harvesters are allowed to take no more than 15 razor clams and must keep the first 15 they dig, regardless of size or condition. Each digger’s clams must be kept in a separate container.

All diggers age 15 or older must have an applicable 2011-12 fishing license to harvest razor clams on any beach. Licenses, ranging from a three-day razor clam license to an annual combination fishing license, are available on WDFW’s website and from license vendors around the state.

Meanwhile, winter steelhead fisheries are under way around the region, where more and more hatchery fish are expected to move into rivers as the month progresses. “Fishing for hatchery steelhead is usually at its best in December,” said Kirt Hughes, regional fishery manager for WDFW. “Fishing should be productive for anglers as long as the weather cooperates and the rivers stay in shape.”

Anglers fishing the Quillayute and portions of the Bogachiel, Calawah, Hoh, and Sol Duc rivers have a daily limit of three hatchery steelhead. In the Grays Harbor area, anglers fishing the Chehalis, Humptulips, Satsop and Wynoochee have a daily limit of two hatchery steelhead.

Rather catch salmon? Anglers can find late-run hatchery coho salmon in some of the region’s rivers, including the Chehalis, Satsop and Skookumchuck. For winter chum salmon, anglers might want to try fishing the Nisqually River. The late-chum run hits full stride mid- to late December and generally remains strong until at least mid-January, said Hughes.

Portions of Puget Sound also are open for salmon. Anglers fishing marine areas 11 (Tacoma-Vashon Island) and 13 (South Puget Sound) can keep one chinook as part of a two-salmon daily limit. On Hood Canal (Marine Area 12), anglers have a daily limit of four salmon, but only one of those fish can be a chinook. Anglers are reminded that marine areas 5 (Sekiu) and 6 (eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca) are closed for salmon fishing.

Before heading out, anglers can check creel reports for information on catch and effort in Puget Sound on WDFW’s website.

Crabbing also is open in some marine areas of Puget Sound, including marine areas 4 (Neah Bay), 5, 6, 7 (San Juan Islands), 8-1 (Deception Pass, Hope Island and Skagit Bay), 8-2 (Port Susan and Port Gardner), a portion of Marine Area 9 (Admiralty Inlet)  north of a line that extends from Olele Point to Foulweather Bluff, 11 and 13

In each area, crabbing is allowed seven days a week through Dec. 31. 

The daily catch limit in Puget Sound is five Dungeness crab, males only, in hard-shell condition with a minimum carapace width of 6¼ inches. In addition, fishers may catch six red rock crab of either sex per day, provided those crab measure at least 5 inches across. Additional information is available on the WDFW website

All crab caught in the late-season fishery should be recorded on winter catch cards, which are valid until Dec. 31. Winter cards are available at license vendors across the state. Those catch reports are due to WDFW by Feb. 1, 2012. For more information on catch record cards, visit WDFW’s catch record card webpage.

Before heading out, anglers should check WDFW’s sportfishing regulations pamphlet for details on all fisheries.

Hunting: Most archery and muzzleloader hunting opportunities for elk are open through Dec. 15 in the region, although the muzzleloader hunt in Game Management Unit 652 runs through Dec. 8. The region’s archery and muzzleloader hunts for deer wrap up on various dates in select game management units. For details, hunters should check the Big Game Hunting pamphlet.

Meanwhile, waterfowl hunters have through Jan. 29 to hunt for ducks in the region. Goose hunts in Goose Management Area 3 also are open seven days a week through Jan. 29. However, hunts in Goose Management Area 2B (Pacific County) are limited to Saturdays and Wednesdays only through Jan. 21.

Upland bird hunters have through Dec. 31 to hunt forest grouse.

Before heading out, hunters should check the Waterfowl and Upland Game pamphlet for details. Also, area-by-area summaries of the hunting prospects throughout the state are available on WDFW’s hunting prospects webpage.

As noted on page 15 of the pamphlet, Jan. 31 is the deadline for hunters to report their hunting activity for each special permit acquired and each deer, elk, bear, and turkey tag purchased in 2011. Those who do not meet the deadline must pay a $10 penalty before they can buy a license next year. Those who report by Jan. 10 will be entered into a drawing for one of nine special elk or deer permits.

Wildlife viewing: During the holiday season, several Audubon Society chapters throughout the region are coordinating Christmas Bird Counts (CBC), which get under way this month. Sponsored by Audubon, the annual event enlists birdwatchers – veterans and novices – to contribute their sightings over a 24-hour period to the world's longest-running bird database. For more information on the CBC, visit the Audubon website. To get involved, visit the Washington Ornithology Society's website for a counting circle in your area.

Southwest Washington

Fishing: This year's winter steelhead season got off to a promising start just before Thanksgiving, when the first wave of fish started taking anglers' lures in several tributaries to the lower Columbia River. With decent river conditions, catch rates should continue to improve in the weeks ahead, said Joe Hymer, a fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

“Despite recent high water and cold weather, that first jag of winter steelhead was definitely on the bite,” Hymer said. “So long as the rivers don't rise too high or fall too low, we could be looking at a darn good fishery this year.”

Before planning a trip, anglers should be aware that Long Beach and several other ocean beaches are scheduled to open for an evening razor clam dig Dec. 10. In addition, WDFW has tentatively scheduled digs Dec. 22 and 23, pending the results of marine toxin tests. For updated information, check the department’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/.

Best bets for winter steelhead include the Cowlitz, Lewis (including north and east fork), Kalama, Grays, Washougal, Elochoman, and Salmon Creek in Clark County. All have a two-fish daily limit, but Hymer cautions anglers to check the Fishing in Washington rules pamphlet for rules specific to each river.

As with all steelhead fisheries in southwest Washington, only hatchery fish with a clipped adipose fin and healed scar may be retained. All wild steelhead must be released.

Anglers are also reminded that the White Salmon River has been closed to fishing until further notice since late October, when Condit Dam was breached to provide fish passage. The reopening date is not yet certain.  

Hymer notes that water conditions, often highly variable at this time of year, can make a big difference when it comes to catching fish. “If the water is too low, the fish get spooky - if it's too high it can be dangerous to be out there,” he said.

As basic preparation for a steelheading trip, Hymer recommends checking the Northwest River Forecast (http://www.nwrfc.noaa.gov/) or other sources before heading out. “Most anglers do best when water levels are rising or dropping,” he added. “It's a lot harder to catch steelhead in the peaks and troughs.”

In deciding where to fish, it also helps to know how many smolts were planted in specific rivers and how many adult fish have returned to area hatcheries. In the first case, Hymer recommends checking WDFW's smolt-planting schedule for 2010. WDFW also posts hatchery returns on a weekly basis.

While winter steelhead are the main attraction right now, late-stock coho will continue to bite through December. Most of those fish are too dark for consumption, but some bright fish are still available, Hymer said. As he sees it, the best bet for coho is the Cowlitz River where over 30,000 fish have returned this year. 

Hymer also flagged several new fishing regulations that take effect Dec. 1 on specific rivers:

  • Grays River – Opens to fishing for hatchery steelhead, hatchery coho, and adipose and/or ventral fin clipped chinook from the Highway 4 Bridge to the South Fork. Also on Dec. 1, the open area on the West Fork also expands from the hatchery intake/footbridge to the mouth that day.  
  • Green River, North Fork Toutle River, and mainstem Toutle from the mouth to the forks – All close to fishing for steelhead and salmon. 
  • South Fork Toutle River – Closes to fishing for steelhead from the 4100 Bridge upstream. Fishing remains open under selective gear rules from the mouth to the bridge.
  • North Fork Lewis River – The night closure and anti-snagging rules are lifted from Johnson Creek to Colvin Creek. (The area from Colvin Creek upstream to the overhead powerlines below Merwin Dam reopens for hatchery steelhead and salmon Dec. 16.)
  • Cowlitz River from Mill Creek to the barrier dam – Night closure and anti-snagging rules are lifted.
  • Blue and Mill creeks (tributaries to Cowlitz River) – Blue Creek opens to fishing for hatchery steelhead and sea-run cutthroats, while Mill Creek opens to fishing for hatchery steelhead.  
  • Wind River – Catch-and-release fishing closes for game fish above Shipherd Falls. 
  • Klickitat River – Closes to fishing for trout, hatchery steelhead and salmon, except for salmon fishing from the Fisher Hill Bridge downstream, which remains open through January.  The night closure remains in effect. The whitefish-only fishery opens from 400 feet upstream from #5 fishway upstream. Whitefish gear rules will be in effect. 
  • Swift Reservoir – Closes to fishing. 

Rather catch a sturgeon? Winter conditions have put a chill on catch rates from Bonneville Dam downriver to the Wauna power lines, but new seasons will open Jan. 1 from Bonneville to McNary Dam.

The news for trout anglers is that WDFW is scheduled to stock three lakes in Clark County with half-pound rainbows in early December. Lacamas Lake will receive 8,500, while Battle Ground Lake and Klineline Pond will each get 5,000.

There should also be plenty of trout remaining from plants in November to provide good fishing at other lakes through the end of the year. John Weinheimer, a WDFW fish biologist stationed in Vancouver, notes that Fort Borst Pond, a juvenile-only fishing pond near Centralia, received 1,200 jumbo rainbows just before Thanksgiving, as did South Lewis County Park Pond near Toledo. Kress Lake near Kalama got 1,000, Rowland Lake near Bingen got 1,700, and Battleground Lake got 2,500. Anglers should be aware they’ll need a Discover Pass to enter Battleground Lake State Park. 

Weinheimer also reminds anglers they can keep up to 10 adipose clipped rainbows in Scanewa Lake (Cowlitz Falls Reservoir).

Hunting:  Waterfowl hunters presented 566 geese at check stations in Vancouver, Woodland and Cathlamet through Nov. 27, the end of the first hunting period in Goose Management Area 2A. That amounts to about 2.2 geese per hunter – an average success rate for the hunting area that includes most of Clark County and all of Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties.

So what can hunters expect when the area reopens to goose hunting Dec. 7? Dave Ware, WDFW game manager, sees better hunting – there and in other areas of southwest Washington – in the weeks ahead.

“This is the time when waterfowl of all kinds start arriving from the north in large numbers,” he said. “The storms in late November helped to get the birds moving for the late season, which generally provides the best waterfowl hunting of the year.”

Hunting seasons for ducks and geese run through Jan. 29 in southwest Washington, although goose hunting in Area 2A (Wahkiakum, Cowlitz and part of Clark County) and 2B (Pacific County) could be cut short if hunters take more than 40 dusky geese. Anyone hunting geese in those areas should keep watch for news of a possible closure.

For more information, see the Migratory Waterfowl and Upland Game pamphlet on WDFW's website.

Most hunts for upland game birds are now closed, although the statewide forest grouse hunting season continues through Dec. 31. Big-game seasons are also winding down, although archers and muzzleloaders still have some time in December to take deer or elk in select game management units. Ending dates vary from unit to unit, so hunters should check the seasons outlined in the Big Game Hunting pamphlet. Hunters with a valid license can also take a cougar through Dec. 31 anywhere in the South Cascades or Klickitat zones this year.

As noted on page 15 of the pamphlet, Jan. 31 is the deadline for hunters to report their hunting activity for each special permit acquired and each deer, elk, bear, and turkey tag purchased in 2011. Those who do not meet the deadline must pay a $10 penalty before they can buy a license next year. Those who report by Jan. 10 will be entered into a drawing for one of nine special elk or deer permits.

Wildlife viewing:  A birder in Klickitat County recently reported seeing a Clark’s grebe foraging with several dozen western grebes just west of The Dalles Bridge. A day earlier, another birder spotted a house wren in a mixed flock on the River S Unit of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

Perhaps those birds will be among those counted during the 112th annual Christmas Bird Count, which runs from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5 in Washington state and throughout the Americas. Sponsored by Audubon, the annual event enlists birdwatchers – veterans and novices alike – to contribute their sightings over a 24-hour period to the world's longest-running bird database.

For information on the Christmas Bird Count, see the Audubon website. To find a counting circle near you, see the Washington Ornithology Society's website, or check with birding groups in your area.

Eastern Washington

Fishing:  The region’s four winter-only rainbow trout lakes opened  to fishing Dec. 1 and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) fish biologists  measured good fishing at three of them on opening day.

Southwest Spokane County’s Hog Canyon Lake, 10 miles northeast of Sprague, had 60 percent open water, just enough ice cover to keep anglers from getting boats out. WDFW central district fish biologist Chris Donley of Spokane checked 40 anglers who had harvested an average of three trout each.  The fish ran from 10 to 19 inches in length. Donley said if the weather stays cold, Hog Canyon may be unfishable by the end of the first week of the season due to thin ice cover.  

Donley  reported that Fourth of July Lake, two miles south of Sprague in Lincoln County,  had 95 percent open water and still enough ice near the shoreline to keep boats out.  He checked  50 anglers who had harvested  an average of 2-1/2 trout each. The fish were from 12 to 20 inches in length.  

“Most of the fish at Fourth of July are in excess of 14 inches with some very large 22 to 24-inch fish in the mix,” he said.  “Fish densities are not back to where they were historically, 10 to 30 years ago, but the fishery is definitely getting better. We have a cormorant and pelican predation problem on that lake in the spring and summer that makes it difficult to get enough fish to recruit to the population to provide the kind of fishery that existed there in the past.”

Donley noted that both Hog Canyon and Fourth of July lakes have a daily catch limit of five trout, but only two can be over 14 inches.

The other two winter season trout lakes are in Stevens County -- Hatch Lake, about five miles southeast of Colville, and Williams Lake, 14 miles north of Colville

WDFW northeast district fish biologist Bill Baker of Colville reported Williams Lake was mostly ice-free on the opener and some anglers had broken ice at the ramp and managed to get small boats in.  Every angler Baker checked was catching fish, with an average size of about 14 ½ inches.  The largest fish he checked was 15 ¾ inches, and the smallest was just over 13 inches.

“It was good fishing at Williams,” Baker said. “Everyone who fished for a couple of hours limited out with their five fish.”   
Hatch Lake had almost no open water on opening day, Baker reported, and the ice was not safe to walk on -- probably only an inch or so on most of the lake.

“I only checked one angler at Hatch who had caught a single 15-inch fish,” Baker said. “The water he could access was just two to three feet deep, so it’s not surprising that fishing was slow.  When the ice conditions become safe for ice-fishing, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be good fishing there.” 

There can also be good trout fishing opportunities through the winter at several large year-round waters in the region, including Rock Lake in Whitman County, Sprague Lake on the Lincoln-Adams county line, and Waitts Lake in Stevens County. Net-pen-reared rainbows are usually a good bet, too, at Lake Roosevelt, the huge reservoir off Grand Coulee Dam.

Snake River steelheading continues to produce good catch rates, although the latest creel check, Dec. 6-15, showed far fewer anglers on the river. WDFW southeast district fish biologist Glen Mendel relayed that the best fishing recorded was on the Tucannon River, a tributary of the Snake, where a half dozen anglers spent an average of a little over two hours per steelhead caught. Other catch rates measured were: a little over four hours per fish caught in the stretch of the Snake River below Ice Harbor Dam; a little less than five hours per fish caught in the stretch upstream of the interstate bridge at Clarkston; a little over six hours per fish caught between Little Goose and Lower Granite dams; 10-11 hours per fish caught between Ice Harbor and Lower Monumental dams and between Lower Granite Dam and the interstate bridge; and 21 hours per fish caught between Lower Monumental and Little Goose dams.

As winter advances and temperatures drop, anglers are reminded to be careful about ice that can hamper access on fishing waters – both ice cover on lakes and shoreline “shelf” ice on rivers and streams.

According to U.S. Coast Guard guidelines, no one should venture onto lake ice unless it is at least four inches thick, clear and solid.  As much as nine inches may be needed to safely support snowmobiles or other vehicles. Such ice depths can form after at least a week of below freezing temperatures, both day and night.

Ice depths vary throughout a waterway due to underwater structures, springs, geothermal activity, and water movement caused by flows, wind, or waterfowl use. Rivers and streams rarely have safe ice because of constant currents. Thawing and re-freezing can create air pockets that leave ice “honeycombed” or porous and significantly weakened.

Drilling a hole in the ice from a safe, near-shore location can give anglers an idea of ice depth. However, drilling only provides an estimate of the ice depth because shallow water near shore freezes quicker than deeper water in the middle of a lake where springs may slow the freezing process.

WDFW does not measure ice on fishing lakes and cannot guarantee ice fishing safety. But here are a few tips to help keep an outing safe:

  • Don’t fish alone. Let others know exactly where you and your fishing partners are going and when you plan to return.
  • Keep fishing holes small and few. When drilling fishing holes with an ice auger, keep the diameter under eight inches. Bigger holes are not necessary to land fish and can create a safety hazard for others.
  • Watch your step. Avoid ice fishing near feeder streams or known springs; brush, logs, plants or docks; multiple ice cracks or ice that is popping or otherwise audible; and dark-colored ice that may be weak.
  • Spread out. Too many people congregated in one area may be more than the ice can safely support. Disperse weight and fishing holes.
  • Be prepared for weather conditions. Dress in layers and wear thermal underwear, fleece or wool, and wind and waterproof outerwear, especially for feet, hands and head. Take extra clothes, food, water, sand for on-ice traction, and a sled for easy on-ice transport of all equipment.
  • Be prepared for emergencies. Carry equipment such as ice picks or awls, rope, and personal flotation devices. Also pack a first-aid kit and matches for starting a fire.

Hunting:  Persistent snow cover would help hunters participating in upland game bird seasons that continue through the month and into the new year. Forest grouse hunting runs through Dec. 31. Pheasant, quail, chukar and gray partridge hunting runs through Jan. 16.

The last game farm raised rooster pheasant releases of the season were conducted just before Thanksgiving weekend, although a few birds may still be available on those release sites.

Best prospects among all species may be chukar and gray partridge, especially in Lincoln and Whitman counties, including the rugged “breaks” of the Snake River on Whitman County’s south boundary line. Good bird dogs are essential this season, and when snow cover is available, birds will hold better for them and present shooting opportunities.

Waterfowl hunting continues through Jan. 29, including extra goose hunting days in Lincoln, Spokane and Walla Walla counties after Christmas and before New Year’s. Populations of Canada geese are good in the Burbank area of Walla Walla County and around Clarkston in Asotin County (where goose hunting is open daily throughout the season). With limited local duck production, most hunting opportunities come with migrant birds from Canada and Alaska and are dependent on how long local waters remain ice free.

Late archery, muzzleloader, and Master Hunter deer and elk hunting conclude Dec. 15 at the latest, depending on the game management unit and season. A few special permit opportunities, including second deer tag and damage-control hunts, also conclude on Dec. 15 or at the end of the month.

The late fall general hunting season for wild turkey also concludes Dec. 15 in game management units 105-124 in the north end of the region, where the big birds are abundant in large groups now.

Big game (deer, elk, black bear and turkey) hunters are reminded to report harvest within ten days of a kill, or if unsuccessful by Jan. 10, 2012, to be eligible for special hunting permits next year. All big game hunters must submit hunting reports by Jan. 31, 2012. See page 15 of the Big Game Hunting Seasons & Regulations pamphlet for all details.

Wildlife viewing:  The winter season can provide excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Bird watching may be the most popular, and certainly the easiest if it’s through a window looking out on backyard bird feeders.  Birds that winter in Eastern Washington don’t need feeders to survive, but feeders can draw birds in for close-up viewing recreation. WDFW biologists urge those who feed to be diligent about keeping feeders clean to avoid spreading disease among birds. Use plastic, glass or metal tube feeders that can only accommodate a small number of birds at one time and that are easily cleaned on a weekly basis with a 10 percent bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts warm water). Use high quality, clean, dry bird seed. Keep areas under feeders clean of excess spilled seed to minimize fungal growth and the chance of attracting pests. For more information, see WDFW’s website.

Another way to watch birds and learn more about them is to participate this month in the 112th annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count (CBC), the longest running “citizen science” survey in the world. Between Dec.14 and Jan. 5, 2012, tens of thousands of volunteers throughout North America will brave winter weather to add a new layer to more than a century of data. Count volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile (24-km) diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. The data collected by observers allow biologists to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across the continent.

Counts are being coordinated in several communities in the region. If observers live within a CBC circle, they may arrange in advance to count the birds at their feeders and submit those data to their local compiler. Some counts may charge small fees ($5 or less) to cover the cost of materials for compilers, the annual CBC summary, and maintenance of the CBC website and database. Here’s where and when counts are scheduled and who to contact for more information:

Novice birders can learn about the Spokane area’s winter birds from long-time Audubon leader and biology professor Gary Blevins at the Dec. 14 evening meeting of the Spokane Audubon chapter. For details, visit the Spokane Audubon chapter’s website.

WDFW Wooten Wildlife Area Manager Kari Dingman said that as winter advances with persistent snow cover, more elk and deer may be more visible. That’s mostly because more of them will move to lower-lying areas, closer to roads and humans. “Elk and mule deer in the Blue Mountains are still up high,” Dingman said in late November. “White-tailed deer, though, are everywhere, as usual.”

Snowy owls are being observed in northeast Washington earlier than usual. These big white owls, with round heads and big yellow eyes, breed on northern tundras and migrate just into the northern tier of the U.S. when food becomes scarce. WDFW staff have reported individual owls in Stevens County, just south of Colville, and in Lincoln County north of Davenport. Biologists say this may be a year when more snowy owls are seen in Washington because of conditions further north.

Northcentral Washington

Fishing: Three Okanogan County lakes switch from catch-and-release fishing to catch-and-keep fishing for rainbow trout on Dec. 1. Big Green, Little Green, and Rat lakes all have a daily catch limit of five trout, which can be caught on bait. 

Then again, Patterson Lake near Winthrop can be good for yellow perch during the winter, said Bob Jateff, Okanogan district fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Bait can be used year-round and there is no daily limit on perch. “In fact, anglers are encouraged to retain as many perch as possible, regardless of size, to better balance the fish populations in the lake,” he said.

Jateff reminds anglers using WDFW access sites at these winter fisheries to display the WDFW vehicle use permit that came with their fishing license. Non-fishing recreationists who use the access sites for other activities need to have a Discover Pass.

In Chelan County, Fish and Roses lakes provide good fishing during December and throughout the winter, WDFW Chelan district fish biologist Travis Maitland of Wenatchee. Yellow perch and rainbow trout are the main winter targets at both lakes, which are open year-round.

“Fish Lake is popular for ice fishing,” Maitland said, “but until we get low enough daytime and nighttime temperatures to produce thick, safe ice, everyone should be cautious.”

According to U.S. Coast Guard guidelines, no one should venture onto lake ice unless it is at least four inches thick, clear and solid.  As much as nine inches may be needed to safely support snowmobiles or other vehicles. Such ice depths can form after at least a week of below freezing temperatures, both day and night.

Ice depths vary throughout a waterway due to underwater structures, springs, geothermal activity, and water movement caused by flows, wind, or waterfowl use. Rivers and streams rarely have safe ice because of constant currents. Thawing and re-freezing can create air pockets that leave ice “honeycombed” or porous and significantly weakened.

Drilling a hole in the ice from a safe, near-shore location can give anglers an idea of ice depth. However, drilling only provides an estimate of the ice depth because shallow water near shore freezes quicker than deeper water in the middle of a lake where springs may slow the freezing process.

WDFW does not measure ice on fishing lakes and cannot guarantee ice fishing safety. But here are a few tips to help keep an outing safe:

  • Don’t fish alone. Let others know exactly where you and your fishing partners are going and when you plan to return.
  • Keep fishing holes small and few. When drilling fishing holes with an ice auger, keep the diameter under eight inches. Bigger holes are not necessary to land fish and can create a safety hazard for others.
  • Watch your step. Avoid ice fishing near feeder streams or known springs; brush, logs, plants or docks; multiple ice cracks or ice that is popping or otherwise audible; and dark-colored ice that may be weak.
  • Spread out. Too many people congregated in one area may be more than the ice can safely support. Disperse weight and fishing holes.
  • Be prepared for weather conditions. Dress in layers and wear thermal underwear, fleece or wool, and wind and waterproof outerwear, especially for feet, hands and head. Take extra clothes, food, water, sand for on-ice traction, and a sled for easy on-ice transport of all equipment.
  • Be prepared for emergencies. Carry equipment such as ice picks or awls, rope, and personal flotation devices. Also pack a first-aid kit and matches for starting a fire.

Steelhead fishing on the mainstem Columbia River usually picks up in December, as the action slows a little on the upper tributaries with advancing winter conditions.  Areas to try include both above and below Wells Dam, at the mouths of the Entiat, Methow and Wenatchee rivers, and in the area across from the Eastbank Hatchery. Selective gear rules are in effect for the mainstem, although bait is allowed. There is a mandatory retention rule on adipose-fin-clipped hatchery steelhead, and a night closure.

Hunting: Success rates for waterfowlalmost always pick up in December, when wintery conditions move northern ducks and geese into the Columbia Basin. This is especially true for large, open bodies of water like Potholes Reservoir or Moses Lake.

“I suspect we have a good portion of our northern birds in the area, but they are concentrated in the reserves due to heavy hunting pressure during the Thanksgiving holiday,” said WDFW Columbia Basin district wildlife biologist Rich Finger of Soap Lake in late November. “I hear rumors of ‘hotspots’ out there, but the birds won’t disperse from the reserves until we get another round of rough weather.”

Finger said the first state-federal Columbia Basin aerial waterfowl survey of the season should occur in early December, weather permitting, with subsequent surveys through the winter. When available, the results will be posted on WDFW’s website.

Goose hunters in Goose Management Area 4 will have four extra hunting days this month with the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Normally open only on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays, goose hunting will also be open on Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 26 and 27, and Thursday and Friday, Dec. 29 and 30.

If snow accumulates this month, upland game bird hunting opportunities should improve, with pheasant, quail and partridge holding better for hunters with dogs. The season continues through Jan. 16.

The last releases of rooster pheasants from regional game farms this season were conducted just before Thanksgiving weekend. Some birds may still be available on release sites noted on WDFW’s website.

Late archery deer hunting concludes Dec. 15 in select game management units. Fifty special wild turkey permit hunters have through Dec. 15 to bag a bird in Okanogan County units. Hunters are reminded that Jan. 31 is the deadline for hunters to report their hunting activity for each special permit acquired and each deer, elk, bear, and turkey tag purchased in 2011. Those who do not meet the deadline must pay a $10 penalty before they can buy a license next year. Those who report by Jan. 10 will be entered into a drawing for one of nine special elk or deer permits.

Wildlife viewing: The winter season can provide excellent wildlife viewing opportunities throughout the region. Waterfowl watching almost always picks up in December, when wintery conditions move northern ducks and geese into the Columbia Basin, especially on large open bodies of water like Potholes Reservoir or Moses Lake.

But most people do most of their bird-watching at home. Birds that winter in Northcentral Washington don’t need backyard bird feeders to survive, but feeders can draw birds in for close-up viewing recreation. WDFW biologists urge those who choose to feed to be diligent about keeping feeders clean to avoid spreading disease among birds. Use plastic, glass or metal tube feeders that can only accommodate a small number of birds at one time and are easily cleaned on a weekly basis with a 10 percent bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts warm water). Use high quality, clean, dry bird seed. Keep areas under feeders clean of excess spilled seed to minimize fungal growth and the chance of attracting pests. See the WDFW website for more information on winter bird feeding.

Another way to watch – and learn more about – birds is to participate in the 112th annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count (CBC), the longest running “citizen science” survey in the world. Between Dec.14 and Jan. 5, 2012, tens of thousands of volunteers throughout North America will brave winter weather to add a new layer of data to the survey. Volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. The data collected by observers allow biologists to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across the continent.

Counts are being coordinated in several communities in the region. If observers live within a CBC circle, they may arrange in advance to count the birds at their feeders and submit those data to their local compiler. Some counts may charge small fees ($5 or less) to cover the cost of materials for compilers, the annual CBC summary, and maintenance of the CBC website and database. Here’s where and when counts are scheduled and who to contact for more information:

Mule deer are becoming more visible on their winter range in the Methow Valley of Okanogan County. WDFW Okanogan district wildlife biologist Scott Fitkin of Winthrop reminds viewers to be alert and cautious on the area’s roadways to avoid hitting deer crossing from one side to the other.

Southcentral Washington

Fishing:  Catch rates for hatchery steelhead have picked up in the Hanford Reach, but are still running a little slower than normal. Paul Hoffarth, a district fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), said fishing should remain productive through December as steelhead mill around waiting for the spring spawn.

The question, though, is whether anglers will brave the elements to catch those fish as they move upriver. “Angler participation definitely drops off as we head into the winter months,” Hoffarth said. “The fish are still out there, but fishing tends to get spotty – good one day, bad the next.”

As with all area steelhead fisheries, only hatchery fish with a clipped adipose fin and healed scar may be retained. All wild steelhead must be released.

The Yakima River Basin is closed to steelhead fishing, but the whitefish season opens Dec. 1 on both the Yakima and Naches rivers. As in years past, the catch limit is 15 fish per day, but anglers are required to use a single-point hook, measuring no more than 3/16 inch from point to shank (hook size 14).

Anglers fishing the Yakima River from Easton Lake to Keechelus Dam can catch eastern brook trout under selective gear rules. No size or daily limits are in effect for eastern brook trout, but fishing is strictly catch-and-release for all other species of trout.

In other waters, WDFW recently stocked half-pound rainbows in the North Elton Pond near Selah, which opens to fishing Dec. 1 with a two-fish daily limit. In addition, the department plans to stock excess rainbow trout brood weighing 3-8 pounds apiece in several other lakes by early December. Fio Rito Lake and Mattoon Lake are each scheduled to receive 125 of those lunkers, Myron Lake 100 and Rotary Lake 125. I82 Pond #4 will also get 125 big trout and Reflection Pond in Sarg Hubbard Park 40.

Hunting:  The corn harvest attracted more than 30,000 ducks to the Toppenish National Wildlife Refuge in late November, with many more birds expected to follow in the weeks ahead, said Jeff Bernatowicz, a WDFW wildlife biologist based in Yakima. “Duck hunting in the Yakima Valley has been better than I’ve seen in years,” he said.

Further east in Franklin and Benton counties, WDFW biologist Mike Livingston said ducks have been slower to arrive – but should arrive en masse during the coming weeks. “We’re seeing a lot of birds in northern Franklin County, but they’re spotty in other areas,” Livingston said. “So long as it doesn’t freeze up too soon, we expect to see a lot of ducks moving in throughout the region through December.”

Hunting seasons for ducks and geese run through Jan. 29 in central Washington, a major flight path for birds moving south from Canada and Alaska. Duck hunting is open daily, but goose hunting is restricted to Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays and holidays in Goose Management Area 4, which includes Franklin, Benton and Kittitas counties. Hunting seasons are open seven days a week for both ducks and geese in Goose Management Area 5, which includes Yakima and Klickitat counties.

December is also prime time to hunt upland game birds. The hunting season for forest grouse is open through Dec. 31, while those for pheasant, California quail and partridge will remain open through Jan. 16. For more information, see the Migratory Waterfowl and Upland Game pamphlet.

While most big-game hunting seasons are winding down, archers and muzzleloaders still have some time in December to take deer in select game management units. Archery seasons for elk are also open in several parts of the region. For more information, see in the Big Game Hunting pamphlet.

As noted on page 15 of the pamphlet, Jan. 31 is the deadline for hunters to report their hunting activity for each special permit acquired and each deer, elk, bear, and turkey tag purchased in 2011. Those who do not meet the deadline must pay a $10 penalty before they can buy a license next year. Those who report by Jan. 10 will be entered into a drawing for one of nine special elk or deer permits.

Wildlife viewing: Starting in December, hundreds of hungry elk and big-horn sheep will descend on WDFW's Oak Creek Wildlife Area, where visitors can watch them dine on alfalfa hay and pellets. With cold temperatures and heavy snow in the forecast, managers at the wildlife area 15 miles northwest of Yakima are expecting a strong turnout.

WDFW's winter feeding program usually gets under way when snow starts to pile up. Even before feeding begins, some animals are visible near traditional winter feeding sites. Bald eagles can also be observed feeding on spawned-out salmon along the Yakima River.

Oak Creek visitors can check the recorded message on the headquarters phone (509) 653-2390 for updates on feeding and volunteer-led, elk-viewing tours. Tour reservations must be made at least 48 hours in advance by calling (509) 698-5106.

Meanwhile, area birders should be aware that the 112th annual Christmas Bird Count runs from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5 in southcentral Washington and throughout the Americas. Sponsored by Audubon, the annual event enlists birdwatchers – veterans and novices alike – to contribute their sightings over a 24-hour period to the world's longest-running bird database.

For information on the Christmas Bird Count, see the Audubon website. To find a counting circle near you, see the Washington Ornithology Society's website, or check with birding groups in your area.