Fly Fishing Washington’s Methow River
Queen of the North Cascades
Flowing out of the North Cascade Mountains, aka “The American Alps”, the Methow (pronounced “met-how”) River is arguably one of the most beautiful and humbling fisheries in the Northwest. Home to big cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, cut-bows, whitefish, and steelhead, the Methow is typically open for trout fishing from early June to late September. Depending on fish return numbers, the river is also open for steelhead in the fall.
The Methow is one of the upper tributaries of the mighty Columbia River, and begins its course in the rugged North Cascade Range. Picking up water from smaller streams and Lost River, the Methow flows east past the towns of Mazama and Winthrop. The Chewuch River, with origins in the Pasayten Wilderness area, dumps into the Methow at the town of Winthrop. The river continues to flow down the valley to the town of Twisp, where the Twisp River add yet more water. Once past Twisp, the Methow runs towards the Columbia River, passing the town of Carlton and Methow, and finally joins the great river near the town of Pateros. What starts as an alpine stream in the mountains ends as a river in the dry sagebrush of Eastern Washington.
Fly fishing on the Methow begins downstream from the Weeman Bridge, which is located about 5 miles downriver from the town of Mazama. This upper section of the river is considered to be a true alpine setting, with amazing views of the North Cascades and gin-clear water. The fish tend to run between 10-16 inches, with more rainbow trout coming to your fly than cutthroat. The upper section ends at the town of Winthrop, where the Chewuch River dumps into the Methow. As the water gets bigger, so do the fish. From Winthrop to Twisp, the size of the water increases, but it still has that alpine feel. This middle section is heavily guided, and has limited put-in and take-out areas, but if you do manage to make the all-day float, the fishing can be as good as it gets. Fish here can run up to 20”, with occasional cutthroat going over that. The 3rd section that runs from Twisp to Carlton is nearly as good, with some of the best fly water on the river. It is a full day float if you put in near Twisp, and you may have to speed-fish to get off the water by dark. This section holds some bigger cutthroat, some as large as 24”. From below Carlton, the river enters a dryer landscape, but the fishing remains very good. This lower section offers numerous put-ins and take-outs, so you can definitely shorten your float time if your schedule requires it. Rumors and the occasional picture tell of monster cutthroat being caught in the lower river, with reports of fish to 26” and 5-7 lbs.
Rods and Flies
A 9 foot 5 weight is the perfect tool for the Methow, though I have thrown a stiff 3 weight on the upper river on a few occasions, and you can get away with a 4 weight as well. Most folks prefer a floating line during trout season, though some of the deep drifts just beg a sink a tip. During steelhead season (aka North Cascades Combat Fishing), Spey and switch rods are the way to go. During the early season, nymphs such as Hare’s Ears, Princes, Stoneflies, and Pheasant Tails will do the trick. Once the river becomes more fishable after the run-off is done, the real games begin. Foam hoppers, ants, and beetles will bring many fish to the surface. As the summer turns to fall in August, make sure and bring that whole box of caddis. Early fall is, in my humble opinion, the absolute best time to be on the river. Make sure and stop by the fly shop at Sun Mountain Lodge and talk with the guys before you get on the river.
Depending on the snowpack, the season on the Methow can go from early July to late September. During low snow years, the fishing can be very good in June, though it has been some years since that has happened. Once July has come, the hopper fishing really takes off, and can be good into August. As the leaves begin to change color, it is time to change flies and put on caddis. Do your best to match the hatch! Fishing in the mornings usually grants you less wind and heat, especially in the lower river. Like clockwork, the wind machine kicks on in the afternoon, usually blowing upriver.
Check the Regulations
Save yourself the hassle and just pinch all of your barbs, and release all fish while they are in the water. Please do your part and help keep our river the great fishery it truly is. Make sure and consult the regulations and the local fly shops to keep abreast of open and closed sections of the river as things can change based on steelhead return numbers, snowpack, and water volume. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife usually announce the opening of steelhead season a few days prior to the day, so check their website as well. Good luck on the river, and keep your line tight!