Welcome to the Toutle Valley!

I'm starting this blog to help visitors find the many things to do around Mount St. Helens and the Toutle Valley.  Our area is surrounded by adventure, high and low, but it's sometimes genuinely hard to find information about these special places.  Before our volcano erupted, the Spirit Lake Hwy followed the Toutle River all the way to Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens with easy-to-find adventure around every bend.  The route was lined with campgrounds, river access, logging roads, trails open to all,  and vast areas to explore. 

Today its different--With all the passes, permits, and rules, it's a tangle of red tape to just understand where you can go for a walk.  Don't dispair!  I know all the secrets... and I might even be asking for your help to make the area more accessible. 

Consider this blog your "insider's guide" to the Toutle Valley.  

Posted By Toutle Trekker

When I was growing up, in the 1970's, January and February were "smelt watch" months.  The signs that the slippery, oily little fish had entered the Cowlitz River were (and are) pretty obvious: guls swooping low over the water and seals venturing up the rivers following the run.  My father would take us out to dip or "dig" smelt, and, with a special long-handled net with small mesh, we would fill 5 gallon buckets with the silver fish.  I think the limit was 25 pounds a day. The banks between Kelso and Castle Rock would be lined with dippers, and choice spots might produce a bucket of fish with one or two digs into the water.  The first batch of fried smelt was pretty good, like a traditional holiday food that is savored once a year.  The second batch, ok, but after a few weeks of off-and-on piles of fried smelt we were ready to get back to venison steak!  My father would also smoke the little fish whole, and I even took them smoked to school for lunch.  

But recently that has all changed.  Smelt are now listed as a "threatened" species.  Some blame the eruption of Mount St. Helens for the decline of runs, others claim overharvest or changing ocean conditions.  Still, some years there are enough fish returning from the ocean to spawn to open a day or two to public smelt dipping.   A few years back, when the season was open for a day, I made a point of taking my children out to dip smelt.  We only got enough for one "mess" but it was more cultural experience that a fishing trip.  Everyone who lives here needs to try smelt dipping at least once.  And lucky for us, today is one of those rare days with dipping allowed.  According to the WDFW the season will last between 8 am and 1 pm with 10 pounds of smelt allowed per person.  The river is open between the Hwy 423 Bridge and the Al Helenburg boat launch in Castle Rock today only.   I drove by the dippers this morning along the Cowlitz.  All the signs were there--seaguls squawking, seals and sealions far upriver, traffic jams along the shore...and lots and lots of buckets of memories.  

For additional openings and more information check out the WDFW website 
https://wdfw.wa.gov/news/wdfw-announces-additional-one-day-smelt-opening-cowlitz-river  

smelt
 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Fall is a great time to visit Cowlitz County's newest "old" park.  Harry Gardner Park has a great story of what a small community's "can-do" spirit can accomplish.  This park at the junction of the North and South Toutle Rivers was completely destroyed by the mudflows from Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980.  For years, the park was abandoned--all structures rotting half buried in the mudflow, while a new forest of invasive Scotch broom took over the land.  Partiers with bonfires and glass bottles left messes and attracted nuisance elements. 

When the Forest Service granted the Toutle Valley some economic development funds for a community action plan, one goal stood out loud and clear--We want our parks back!  After the plan was created, the citizens didn't wait or the government to act.  A group of volunteers spontaneously formed, and over time cleaned up the park.  Pulling the county along, the park was put back into official status, and with sweat equity, county funding,  and another grant, the park has been rebuilt and is open to campers, anglers, hikers, and families looking for playgrounds, sand and water.  The park area expanded significantly with a donation/sale from a local family who owned nearby land also impacted by the mudflow.  The state Department of Wildlife owns adjacent land here, too, creating the largest chunk of public land (124 acres) set aside for recreation and habitat this side of the sediment dam.  Anglers can try their luck on three rivers: the South Toutle, mainstem Toutle and the North Toutle, all from one access.  Be aware that each stretch of river has different rules.  I keep the regulations handy.

The mudflows at Harry Gardner Park area great places to view wildlife and to study wildlife tracks.  Beaver "trails" where these busy rodents have dragged brances toward the rivers crisscross the area.  You will also see the value of manmade fish recovery structures, where people have placed artificial logjams and have planted seedlings in an effort to stabilize a wandering river.  The work completed in the last few years seems to be holding, and new riparian vegetation is taking hold.

Directions: From Toutle, take South Toutle Road, across from Drew's Grocery, and  follow for 1 1/2 miles, across South Toutle Bridge, to the park enterance at Fiest Road.

Facilities: Tent and RV camping with partial hookups; restrooms; covered picnic area; playgrounds and swings; fishing access; wildlife viewing; bird watching; swimming;

Reservations available at Cowlitz County website.  www.co.cowlitz.wa.us/1277/Harry-Gardner-Park

Adjacent Gardner Wildlife Area Information:

https://wdfw.wa.gov/places-to-go/wildlife-areas/gardner-wildlife-area-unit

 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Fishing in rivers and streams in the Toutle River valley opens today, the Saturday before Memorial Day.  The South Toutle has been open for steelhead for a few weeks, but now the North Toutle, mainstem Toutle and Green River are all open, as well as North and Toutle River tributarites (below the sediment dam).   The water levels on the South Toutle have been pretty low, lately, so now that the bigger rivers are open, there may be some better fishing.  The gear and tackle rules are quite complex, but in general, use barbless hooks, no bait, and release anything wild (trout, salmon or steelhead) with an adipose fin.  Bait is sometimes allowed, depending on stream section and time.  Pick up some rules and try to figure them out (good luck).  If you use a single, barbless hook with no bait and no extra weight you should be ok everywhere.  Single-barbless hook spinners are a good choice.

Most lakes are open year round, including Coldwater, Castle and Silver Lake.  I've talked about Silver Lake and Coldwater before, but there is another local option for fishing.  South Lewis County pond, in Toledo, is a nice park with fishing access.  Its a good place to "see" big fish, since it has been planted with grass carp.  You aren't supposed to fish for them, but its pretty exciting for the little ones to see these big fish swimming in the shallows.  I swear, I also saw a sturgeon cruise by like an mini-submarine.  The park around the lake is a fun place to spend an afternoon, and it has a covered area, playground, and popular walking path along with the fishing docks.  The pond is planted with trout (bait ok) and has bluegill, too.  Later in warm weather the water gets mucky and filled with algae.  Visit earlier in the year. 

Directions: South Lewis county Pond is located on SR 505 just east of Toledo.  The turnoff to the park is just east of the bridge across the Cowlitz River.  Park on the left, and walk across to the park. Some of the facilities may be closed, but the park itself is open. 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Green River Fish Hatchery
Fall is a wonderful time to visit the Green River Fish Hatchery--with or without a pole!  Last week I took my two year old nephew to see the salmon.  We saw mommy salmon, daddy salmon, and piles of baby salmon.  We walked down an anglers' trail and waded in the water where several spawned-out Chinook lay dead, their nutrients adding to the next generation.  Because it was the middle of a warm, fall day, the anglers that sometimes flock here to catch returning salmon, were gone for the day.  

The Department of Wildlife places a barrier across the Green River to direct salmon to the ladder leading to the hatchery holding ponds.  Several pairs of Chinook were guarding their "redds", or salmon nests, just downstream of the barrier.  The salmon are easy to see, even for a toddler, as they zip back and forth.  The concrete holding areas were full of salmon, too, and my nephew had a blast watching these huge Chinook leap and splash.  Other rearing areas held thousands of young salmon that swam close in swarms, no doubt looking to be fed.  

Visiting the hatchery is a fun way to spend an afternoon for wildlife viewing, hiking the road along the river, or trying your had at catching a salmon.  Check the fishing regulations and the emergency rules.  The Green River is closed to Chinook retention, and several areas right near the hatchery are always closed to fishing to give returning salmon a safe area, but Coho fishing and steelhead fishing is currently open.  An access road follows the river upstream and makes a nice hike.  

The trick here is actually finding the fish hatchery.  Start at the 1900 logging road that loops below Kid Valley Campground.  Stay right and cross the North Toutle River below 19 Mile House restaurant, then stay to the right on the open (ungated) gravel road.  This 1901 logging road has side roads gated, requiring an expensive Weyerhaeuser permit.  Follow the gravel road uphill to the big yellow gate, which may be open or closed.  Do not go past the gate, but stay to the right and on the "main drag".  Several other logging roads intersect, but they are either gated or signed with Weyerhaeuser's permit required signs.  Stay on the road that has been used the most (508), which winds gradually down to the hatchery.  At one point you will be tempted to go straight, but the 508 main road turns left.  In 1.8 miles you reach another yellow gate that is open with a sign describing rules for using the hatchery area.  Go past the sign and drop down to the hatchery parking. A state Discover Pass or a vehicle access pass that comes with your fishing license is required for parking here.  The best place to see salmon is to the right, past the hatchery buildings, just below the ladder.   Short access trails lead to the river.  

Before the eruption, a paved road crossed the Toutle River and went to the hatchery.  I even rode the school bus here one time to visit my uncle who was working the salmon, and one of my school buddies lived in one of the homes that stood here.  All that changed on May 18, 1980, when the area was inundated with mud.  Later, the mud was scraped away, some of the better homes were moved, and the hatchery restarted.  The county road was not rebuilt, so, like much of Southwest Washington, Weyerhaeuser controls access now, and could shut off public access to the hatchery at any time. 

If you do not want to drive on logging roads, and aren't afraid to get your feet wet, you can also wade across the Green River to the hatchery.   From Kid Valley, head east on SR504.  As soon as you cross the North Toutle River, look for a green, gated road on the left.  Park along the highway near here.  Hike past the gate and down an old road that follows a finger ridge between the dirtier North Toutle and the clear Green River.  This road is lined with some remant old growth and is worthy of its own trip (and its own Blog post).   It might take some bushwhacking, but angler trails are usually abundant.  This time of year the Green River is low, and a wader usually doesn't get wet past the knees.  Work upstream until you reach the trail from the hatchery.  If you come to the cable across the river (that marks the edge of the no fishing area) you've come too far.  Look for trails up the bank that lead to the hatchery.  

The Department of Wildife just obtained ownership of the wedge of land between the rivers here and the should be incorporating it into the St. Helens Wildife Area.  Perhaps better public access will be incorporated into any future plans.  

 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

 

This is a photo of my first Toutle River Chinook salmon.  What a fun fight, as it beat for the rapids and I ended up with tired arms and wet feet, but I landed it. Unfortunatley, the season had just closed to keeping chinook, so I let it go--right after the photo!.  Now all hatchery fish on the Green River have a clipped addipose fin.  (note the intact adipose on this fish).

Chinook
August 1 marks the start of salmon season on the Toutle River system,.  As with steelhead, you will need a Washington state fishing license, a Columbia River endorsement, and a punchcard with salmon as an optionn.  Drews grocery can get you fixed up with all of these documents.  

The rivers might be open, but the salmon don't show up unless we get some rain.  The first fall fish to arrive will be Fall Chinook (aka Kings) headed for the Green River Fish Hatchery.  Then, if we are lucky, the silvers (aka coho) come with the next batch of rain.  Like most fishing, timing is everything.  You want rain, but not so much rain that the rivers turn to chocolate milk.  Sometimes dedicated anglers spend an entire month at Kid Valley Campground, which is a short drive from the mouth of the Green River, where many folks try their luck.  

Again, the rules are complex, especially around the hatchery.  It is so complex there that I feel there should be an accredited course put on by the local Junior College in "fishing regulations".  To be safe, use single barbless hooks with no bait, something like number 4 Blue Fox spinners in various colors.  Salmon move through fishing holes, so you can spend several hours working one hole.  It can get frustrating seing salmon jump and splash all around you but they refuse to bite.  Because of the temptation to "snag", gear rules get more restrictive near the hatchery during prime fishing time.  Carry the regulations with you.  Anything you catch with an adipose fin must be released and not removed from the water.  Bag limits and species are in the rules, but generally only hatchery coho, chinook and hatchery steelhead can be kept.  The rules sometimes change mid-stream mid-season, so check the WDFW website for updates before you head out. 

The same areas I described in earlier posts for swimming and steelhead work for salmon, too. 


 


 
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