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Originally published Wednesday, September 26, 2012 at 7:01 PM

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The icy joys of fall and winter steelheading on the Methow River

The wily steelhead is a fabled fish, and Washington's Methow River is a fabled fishing ground — if only for its character and beauty. A winter fishing season beckons the hardy (or foolhardy) angler.

Special to The Seattle Times

If You Go

When to fish

Steelhead season on the Methow River is expected to start sometime in October, but on low-return years there might not be a season at all. Check with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for updates, www.wdfw.wa.gov or recorded hotline: 360-902-2500.

Fishing guides

Several guide services offer winter trips, including:

Kevin van Bueren of North Cascades Fly Fishing, based at Sun Mountain Lodge, Winthrop; 800-572-0493, Ext. 735 or www.fishandfloat.com.

Ellensburg-based Red's Fly Shop, 509-933-2300 or www.redsflyshop.com. Twisp-based Griff's Fly Fishing, 509-929-3813 or www.griffsflyfishing.com.

Prices typically run $300 to $500 for two people. Most guides welcome questions about conditions.

Be careful out there

Steelhead fishing on the Methow River is not for the faint of heart. It can get very cold, and the footing can be treacherous.

Guide Kevin van Bueren advises checking the weather. If it's not likely to get above 22 degrees, don't bother. "That's a great time to go to a coffee shop, relax, get your muffin — or drive down lower on the river where it might be warmer."

Fishing tips

Bring a fishing license with a steelhead endorsement, or purchase one at Pardners Mini Mart in Winthrop.

Know the regulations (see www.wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/regulations).

If anglers are hooking too many wild fish, the season can close with a few days' notice.

Fishing is usually open on the Methow from its confluence with the Columbia River at Pateros to its confluence with the Chewuch River at Winthrop, but most anglers stick closer to Pateros.

— Craig Welch

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Some great writing here. Love your humor. MORE
Don't forget your oxygen tanks if you head over before we get some significant rain. MORE
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TWISP, Okanogan County — At least it was no longer sleeting.

I stood ankle-deep in the Methow River on a frigid morning last fall, picking away the ice welding my fishing line to the guides of my fly rod. My nearly-new waders had sprung a leak, and I'd learned I could cast wearing a bulky puffy coat. But an impenetrable mist hovered above, making it hard to tell if the night's slashing rain was coming back.

Still, I remained convinced as ever that my misery would be rewarded — that for the first time in my life I would land a Methow steelhead.

Nothing justified such confidence. Self-delusion just happens to be all that sustains a rookie winter steelhead fisherman.

I've been fly-fishing for summer trout on the Methow for years. Its fish aren't the biggest or the wiliest and there aren't blizzardlike caddis or mayfly hatches. But granite peaks rise above green ranchlands that turn gold in summer and an ever-changing assortment of thin braids and roiling pockets gives this midsized stream a rich character. From its North Cascades headwaters to its lake-flat pools near the Columbia, the Methow is among the West's prettiest rivers.

So when a friend in September looked down from a roadside perch and glimpsed hundreds of massive anadromous fish torpedoes stacked up below, we decided this year we'd catch a winter steelhead. That's when the delusions began.

The fish of 1,000 casts

"They call steelhead the fish of a thousand casts, and they don't call it that for kicks and giggles," said Keith Rowe, with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He recounted the maxim we'd forgotten: The effort-to-success ratio is so awful that beginners need more than a few days.

Steelhead, like salmon, are born in gravelly beds and race to sea before returning home. Unlike salmon, they may spawn more than once. Returning silver-streaked fish can outweigh a toddler. But they may prove just as finicky. They may hide behind rocks at the top of riffles or plunge deep into opaque pools. They may hang out in shallow troughs near shore, or scatter at the first sign of salmon.

More than anything, winter steelheading demands comfort with discomfort. The Methow season usually starts in October, and if enough anglers hook hatchery fish rather than wild fish, the season can run through the end of March. That means fishing takes place at a time when temperatures may dip below zero degrees Fahrenheit.

"Some days you'll trudge through two feet of snow," said Kevin van Bueren, who owns a guide service, North Cascades Fly Fishing, affiliated with Sun Mountain Lodge, outside Winthrop. "The walking may be the only thing that keeps you warm."

Even then, things can get strange. Once, while casting after Christmas, floating, slushy river ice encased van Bueren's line. The iceberg gave his fly a perfect drift and just as he thought about how weird it would be to catch a fish, he did. But the powerful creature raced back and forth below the surface and the scissor action of the line against the now-solid ice actually sheared through his line. Needless to say, he lost his fish. And he's a pro.

Power fishing

With 10 percent of anglers catching most of the fish, why put oneself through such anguish? Easy: As one guide told my fishing partner, "The tug is the drug." Steelhead are so fast and powerful — Rowe has seen one yank a fly and run so hard it pulled a rod out of a fisherman's hands — that getting one on becomes an addiction.

Or so they tell me.

For us, the weather broke and we raced through four seasons in a day. By afternoon the sun warmed our faces. But it had been so long since I'd tried to catch a steelhead, I'd forgotten how little action I might see.

"These fish really make you work for it," Rowe said.

And he should know. Rowe drives the river daily gathering catch data for surveys that help the state decide if there will be a season — and for how long. The job affords him an unusual vantage. He's watched anglers flog stretches of water as barren of fish as any bathtub. He's watched skittish fish swim away from an oblivious clown-foot who barreled into the water to snag the "ideal" casting perch. Before my day was out, I would commit both sins. I got skunked.

Was it worth it? That's a tricky question. It was magical to slide over river cobble so long after summer's passing, but it would have been nice to at least spy a fish.

And yet, a month after hanging up my waders, I found myself daydreaming about the Methow again.

Craig Welch is The Seattle Times' environmental reporter: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com.

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