Fill your December days with these great Washington fishing and shellfishing opportunities!
Story originally published in the Northwest Sportsman Magazine December issue
This month, shrug off the “bah, humbug” spirit and instead take in all the merriment that’ll have you “fa-la-la-ing” from the coast to Puget Sound and across the mountains into Eastern Washington!
In line with the “12 Days of Christmas” and in no chronological order, here are the 12 top choices to break away from the holiday dinner table and the dreaded ugly-sweater work party.
RAZOR CLAM DIGS ON COASTAL BEACHES
Many are digging the decent success since the 2023–24 season opened in late September. The season average is 14.8 clams per digger (the daily limit is the first 15 clams dug per person regardless of size or condition) at Long Beach and Twin Harbors, 15.0 at Copalis and 14.5 at Mocrocks. There’ll likely be plenty of holiday cheer with tentative dates on Dec. 13, 15, 17, 27, and 29 at Long Beach, Twin Harbors and Mocrocks; and Dec. 14, 16, 26, and 28 at Long Beach, Twin Harbors and Copalis.
Digging is allowed from 12 p.m. “noon” to midnight only. Not all beaches are open for every dig, so make sure to check before venturing out. Openers are dependent on marine toxin levels staying under the threshold of 20 parts per million. Final approval usually occurs about a week or less — sometimes two to three days — prior to the start of each digging series. More tentative dates for January and February will be announced soon. For additional information, go to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) razor clam webpage.
DUNGENESS CRABBING IN OPEN AREAS OF PUGET SOUND
Winter crabbing tends to be quite productive and unlike summer, you’ll likely find fewer crab pots in the water to compete with your own!
Crabbing is open daily through Dec. 31 in the waters east of the Bonilla-Tatoosh line (Marine Area 4), Sekiu-Pillar Point (Marine Area 5), eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca (Marine Area 6), San Juan Islands (Marine Area 7), eastern side of Whidbey Island (Marine Areas 8–1 and 8–2), northern Puget Sound/Admiralty Inlet (Marine Area 9) and Hood Canal north of a line projected true east from Ayock Point (Marine Area 12). In Puget Sound areas, crabbers are reminded that setting or pulling traps from a vessel is only allowed from one hour before official sunrise through one hour after official sunset. For more information, go to the WDFW crabbing webpage.
Coastal areas– Ilwaco-Columbia River (Marine Area 1), Westport-Ocean Shores (Marine Area 2), La Push (Marine Area 3) and Neah Bay (Marine Area 4) — are also open year-round for crabbing, but be sure to check the seasonal gear restrictions, such as the ban on hoop nets — also known as cone nets or dome pots — during fall pot gear closures.
RAINBOW TROUT IN YEAR-ROUND LAKES
If you missed out on the Black Friday trout fishing event, you still have time for holiday cheer to catch more than 60,000 fish averaging one to two pounds apiece, in 23 lakes around Clark, Cowlitz, Island, King, Klickitat, Lewis, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston, and Yakima counties. In October, many other year-round lakes were also planted with trout.
Simple fishing gear will do the trick. Use a lightweight, limber rod with a medium-sized spinning reel, and for bait try the soft, moldable dough baits that come in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. Others will use worms, maggots, salmon eggs, scented marshmallows or small spinners, jigs, and spoons. For weekly trout plants, go to the WDFW trout stocking webpage.
KOKANEE IN LAKE ROOSEVELT
This huge 77,684-acre impoundment of the Upper Columbia in Northeast Washington is open year-round and known in winter to generate large-sized kokanee. As reservoir levels drop this month, fishing should improve and remain productive well into April. The kokanee average 13 to 17 inches, with some weighing three to five pounds.
Kokanee have thrived thanks to an abundant biomass of daphnia and other zooplankton that boosts growth rates and fills out their bodies with tasty reddish-orange-fleshed meat. The daily limit is six, but only two with an adipose fin. Rainbow trout can also be found in this fishery. The lower third of the reservoir is best, from Grand Coulee Dam to above the Sanpoil River Arm at Clark Point.
SALMON AND STEELHEAD IN STATEWIDE RIVERS AND STREAMS
Despite colder temperatures and unpredictable flooding in December, there are options to catch salmon or early winter steelhead. While some rivers closed as of Nov. 30, several along the coast remain open for coho (be sure to check the WDFW website for what rivers are open and what fish species you can or can’t keep). A popular hatchery steelhead and hatchery coho is the Cowlitz. Late returning coho can be found in the lower Hanford Reach of the Columbia River with a daily limit of two. In Western Washington rivers, including coastal seasons that are planned to be announced soon, fishing for early returning hatchery winter steelhead should improve this month, typically peaking between Christmas and New Year’s Day. You can find more information on the 2023–2024 coastal steelhead season by going to the WDFW news release.
CHINOOK IN DEEP SOUTH PUGET SOUND
One of the only shows in town for winter hatchery Chinook is southern Puget Sound (Marine Area 13). Many peg this area as a ghost town for salmon, which is a myth and anglers are quietly waxing those lowly expectations by catching a fair number of hatchery-marked Chinook on waters relatively protected from winter’s ever-present blustery weather and rough seas. Try along Fox Island off Point Gibson near the Big Rock, Fox Point, Fox Island public fishing pier on the eastern shore, Point Fosdick, Anderson Island, Lyle Point, Budd Inlet, Devils Head and Johnson Point. There’s also several Puget Sound piers open year-round for salmon fishing.
SQUID JIGGING IN PUGET SOUND
Many had a good chuckle from the November Northwest Sportsman column and suffering from “squid life crisis,” but the situation is true, and your immediate cure is to drop a jig off a pier. Accessibility works into everyone’s playbook, whether you hit a pier or fish from a boat. The peak of the squid migration is now through the end of January. For details, go to the WDFW webpage. WDFW has also renewed Puget Sound squid dockside surveys for the 2023–2024 season. Part of how WDFW fishery managers support a sustainable squid population is through angler catch-and-effort surveys throughout the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. This study will provide new information about the recreational squid fishery and provide insights into this species’ life history, migration, growth, and abundance. WDFW dockside creel surveyors can be easily identified by their agency logo or a bright reflective orange vest, and anglers are asked to cooperate when approached. The surveyors will ask a few simple questions about what time each angler started fishing and when they plan to quit, as well as home zip code, which helps paint a picture of fishing group demographics. Samplers will count the number of squid caught and weigh each person’s total catch. You can find out more on the squid survey by going to the WDFW blog.
RAINBOW TROUT IN RUFUS WOODS RESERVOIR
This 51-mile-long reservoir between Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams is a winter fishery where rainbow trout average two to six pounds, with some exceeding the 20-pound mark. The Colville Confederated Tribes, in cooperation with WDFW, produce and annually release about 14 million pounds of hatchery-raised rainbows from three net pens. Fish are attracted to hatchery pellets leaking out of the commercial net pen operations. This popular winter fishery is where the state record rainbow was caught, a 29.60-pound fish landed by Norm Woods on Nov. 11, 2002. An interesting fact is that that record has been broken four times at Rufus Woods, three times in February and the other during the last week of January.
LAKE WHITEFISH AT BANKS LAKE AND OTHER COLUMBIA BASIN LOCATIONS
A lake whitefish could very well be part of a Rodney Dangerfield “I get no respect” joke, but don’t underestimate giving this hard-fighting fish some love. In recent years, anglers have taken notice of this abundant species in Eastern Washington waterways.
Expectations are high for another stellar winter fishery at Banks Lake, a large reservoir that stretches along Highway 155 between Coulee City on the south end and Electric City on the north end with about 91 miles of accessible shoreline, mainly on the eastern side. The best fishing areas are the northernmost points across from North Dam Park and by the dike at the Coulee City Marina. From a boat, try off the red buoys or anywhere along the riprap.
In early winter, fish will move into shallower waters and reservoir inlets to spawn, usually around cobbled, sandy flat areas. The average size of lake whitefish is 18 to 24 inches, with some up to 31 inches. Lake whitefish can also be found at the Eastside’s Lake Roosevelt and its lower Spokane River Arm; Soda, Billy Clapp, and Moses Lakes; and Potholes, Rufus Woods, and Scooteney Reservoirs. For details, go to the WDFW blog.
ICE FISHING IN EASTERN WASHINGTON
Knowing when to start ice fishing on eastside lakes is based on how cold the weather gets in December. In recent years, safe ice has come later than sooner (more like January or early February), but it’s worth tracking starting now. Use extreme caution and keep in mind that ice can be very hard to read. If ice can’t be confirmed to be 4 or more inches thick, don’t trek out. Popular ice fisheries include Sprague, Fish (Chelan County), Roses, Curlew, Banks, Moses, Sidley, Bonaparte, Leader, Molson, Palmer, Patterson, Fourth of July, and Williams (Stevens County) Lakes and Potholes Reservoir. For details, go to the WDFW webpage.
MIXED FISH SPECIES IN MOSES LAKE AND POTHOLES RESERVOIR
These two major year-round fisheries in Grant County are worth a visit to catch a variety of fish. Moses Lake is usually a good choice in December for yellow perch (which are schooling fish and tend to be found in deeper water) and rainbow trout. It also has fair opportunities for walleye, lake whitefish, bluegill, and black crappie. In some winters, it’ll freeze over and produce decent ice fishing near Blue Heron Park.
About seven miles south of Moses Lake is the Potholes Reservoir, which generates rainbow trout and yellow perch during the winter and is fair for walleye. MarDon Resort (mardonresort.com) and Medicare Beach are popular fishing areas. In certain winters, ice begins to form in December and January, and is worth a try, especially in the reservoir’s Lind Coulee Arm around the smaller ponds and on the shallower locations in the sand dunes area.
SEA-RUN CUTTHROAT IN PUGET SOUND AND HOOD CANAL
You’re missing out if you don’t take advantage of winter opportunities to catch and release sea-run cutthroat trout averaging 10 to 20 inches. This fishery is accessible to both bank and boat anglers. The best chances occur before or right after flood tide change, and you can find fish close to shoreline as shallow as 12 inches deep to depths of five to 20 feet. Many anglers are very secretive about their spots, but some well-known locations include the Tacoma Narrows Bridges, Redondo Beach, Lincoln Park to the Fauntleroy Ferry in West Seattle, Golden Gardens, Carkeek Park/Richmond Beach, Meadowdale Beach, and Picnic Point Park near Edmonds. Since this is a sight fishery, a good pair of polarized sunglasses are high on the must-have list. Sometimes you’ll even hook a feisty resident coho or other species.
Most anglers will cast flies or poppers, but spoons and spinners also work. Match them up with forage like zooplankton, salmon fry, herring, candlefish, sand shrimp and worms. For details on a sea-run cutthroat trout study, go to the WDFW blog.
(Editor’s note: Mark Yuasa is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife communications manager and longtime local fishing and outdoor writer.)