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  Great Washington Getaways Home  |  Methow River Valley
Methow River

The Methow’s waters originate high in wilderness, ensuring a steady supply of cold, clean water native trout need to survive and thrive. Photo by hildabobsphotography

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  Methow River Valley camping and fishing adventure
Summer Steelhead
Summer steelhead show up in the Methow, a Columbia River tributary, from late summer through fall. The fish remain in the river until their spawn in mid-spring of the following year. Steelhead are the Methow’s most sought after fish, but the river’s trout fishery is gaining attention as trout numbers and size increase under selective-fishery regulations. Photo by Joshua McLellan
The Methow River Valley is one of Washington’s most revered natural playgrounds. It sits east of the North Cascades, in the range’s rain shadow, and is surrounded by the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The small towns of Twisp and old-west-themed Winthrop draw visitors year-round, but summertime is truly the high season, when anglers share the scene with tourists, cyclists, golfers, mountain bikers, hikers, campers, equestrians and a host of other outdoor enthusiasts.

Many traveling anglers blow right through the Methow on their way to and from the scenic North Cascades Highway (State Route 20), never realizing that the valley itself is a worthy destination. The area offers two state parks, 24 Forest Service campgrounds and many private lodging options.

The Okanogan County Tourism Council has a wealth of visitor information.

Methow River is a catch-and-release paradise

Cutbow trout
The Methow is a fine place to learn to fly fish or to hone your skills. The river's rainbow and cutthroat trout are eager risers to dry flies. The river becomes easier to safely walk and wade as summer progresses and flows decrease.  Photo by Joe Saselli

The cold, clear and notoriously beautiful Methow River weaves a ribbon of sun-drenched trout water through the treed, semi-arid landscape. The river’s pristine waters flow from snowfields in the Pasayten and Lake Chelan-Sawtooth wilderness areas, and are carefully managed as a selective-gear fishery. Fly anglers flock here for the river’s small size, its abundant and willing trout, and regulations that forbid bait and require the use of single, barbless hooks. Spinning and baitcasting anglers need only equip their offerings – spinners, spoons, plugs or jigs – with single, barbless hooks to meet the Methow’s regulations.

Steelhead trickle into the Methow in early fall, but summertime is time for catching and releasing trout. The river has a strong population of wild rainbows and westslope cutthroat. More than a decade of catch-and-release management has resulted in bigger fish, and more of them. Average fish are 10 to 14 inches with specimens of both varieties stretching toward – and perhaps beyond – 20 inches. By definition of the law, any rainbow of 20 inches or longer in the Methow is considered a steelhead.

Floating the Methow can be tricky

Paralleled by State Route 153 and county roads, the Methow offers plenty of bank access and launch points for rafts and drift boats. The river is challenging water, however, and is suitable only for skilled rowers. Drift boats are not advisable in many stretches, especially during the lower flows of late summer, and it’s wise to obtain expert counsel before planning a float. Several outfitters offer whitewater rafting and float trips for anglers looking to learn the river or to indulge in a day of being guided by a professional.

For do-it-yourself fly anglers, fly selection on the Methow isn’t too tough. The ’bows and cutts are ready risers for large stonefly and grasshopper patterns most of the summer; ’hoppers come on in early to mid-July. The trout also consume lots of caddis, some mayflies, and terrestrials like ants and beetles. Most anglers fish a dropper below their larger flies: Copper Johns, Pheasant Tails, Hare’s Ears and soft hackles. Woolly Buggers, sculpin patterns and other streamers work well too, and will sometimes result in an incidental steelhead as the season progresses. So will nymphs and dries; tie good knots.

Anglers armed with spinning rods should buy lures with single hooks or customize their own, being sure to fully pinch barbs. Small to medium spinners are great choices for trout, as are minnow imitations, a variety of jig types, and spoons. The river also harbors lots of mountain whitefish, whose length ranges into the high teens. They mostly take subsurface patterns like nymphs.

Pearrygin and Alta lakes offer a variety of pursuits

Alta Lake
Family-friendly state parks at Pearrygin and Alta Lakes make great base camps. Alta Lake State Park is also very close to the famous Columbia River salmon fishery at Brewster. Photo by Andy Walgamott

A quick drive northeast of Winthrop, Pearrygin Lake State Park offers a huge campground, a 3.1-mile nature trail, and an excellent trout lake whose generous hours for water sports enthusiasts still ensure quiet mornings and evenings on the water for anglers. The park has more than 150 spots for tents and RVs, as well as two reservable group camps, two cabins, and a vacation home. A private resort offers camping and boat and kayak rentals.

Pearrygin Lake is stocked heavily with rainbow trout fry that grow into the teens, averaging 10 to 13 inches. During June and early September, trout are likely to be somewhat shallower than during July and August when high temperatures will drive them down toward the thermocline, a thin band of ideal-temperature water between temperature layers. Try trolling or still-fishing at different depths, but know that warm surface temperatures mean trout are deep. All the usual trout lures and baits work here, and trollers do well with leaded line, small downriggers, or weights heavy enough to troll lures and baits 20 to 40 feet deep.

At the mouth of the Methow Valley, on a timbered bench above the Columbia, Alta Lake State Park offers over 120 tent and utility sites for vehicles up to 38 feet. Although the park, campground, and lake are all slightly smaller than at Pearrygin, Alta Lake shares a very similar fishery and cascades to a depth of almost 80 feet. Fishing is good for rainbow trout, and finding that magic thermocline layer becomes key as summer progresses.

One cautionary note for prospective campers:  State Parks officials strongly recommend reserving summertime camp spots several months in advance at Pearrygin and Alta state parks (and others throughout Washington’s popular state park system).  These two lakes are especially popular in the high season, which generally runs from mid- to late June through Labor Day.