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2014 Winter Steelhead Guide

General Overview | Northwest Zone | Southwest Zone | Willamette Zone | Central Zone & Northeast Zones | Oregon Fishing Regulations

Willamette Zone

Portland area anglers should have plenty of opportunities to land a winter steelhead in 2014 as ocean survival continues to be good and management changes geared at expanding opportunities appear to be taking hold. Winter steelhead begin moving through the Willamette system during winter months, with the lower river fishery beginning in late November and early December. The native late-run winter steelhead start migrating upstream during the latter part of February and continue into early May.

Wild winter steelhead returns over Willamette Falls for the last five years averaged over 6,000 fish in Oregon City with 4,944 returning last year. Hatchery returns to the Clackamas and Sandy rivers have been increasing in recent years with Clackamas Hatchery collecting a record number (1,947) of returning adults in 2013 after shifting to wild broodstock.

All indications are that opportunities should be plentiful in the Willamette Zone for the dedicated angler.

For more information on steelhead fishing in the Lower Willamette, Clackamas, Sandy, or Molalla rivers, contact the North Willamette Watershed District office at (971) 673-6011. For information on Upper Willamette tributaries, call the ODFW South Willamette Watershed District office at (541) 757-4186 x 249 or the ODFW Springfield Field office at (541) 726-3515..

Lower Willamette

The Meldrum Bar fishery can be a little different than most bank fishing so a good tip is to spend some time on the bank watching other anglers to see how it’s done.

The fishery for winter steelhead in the lower Willamette River (below Willamette Falls in Oregon City) usually begins in early December, although passage counts at Willamette Falls commence Nov. 1. A dry spell followed by a high flow event in late November/early December typically brings the first flush of winter steelhead into the Willamette. With the change to a native broodstock in the Clackamas River, winter steelhead should be available in the lower Willamette from November through the early part of the spring chinook season. Steelhead caught in the lower Willamette River are headed for the Clackamas River and tributaries above the falls including the Molalla, Tualatin, Santiam and McKenzie rivers.

The most popular and accessible bank-angling site in the lower Willamette is located at Meldrum Bar in Gladstone. Many long-time Meldrum Bar anglers are successful in high, muddy water when fishing close to the bank (within 15 feet) using brightly colored gear such as Spin-N-Glos or spinners.

Winter steelhead are known to hold in shallow margins of the Willamette below the mouth of the Clackamas River, waiting for higher flows and warmer water temperature. Steelhead in the Willamette can be very lethargic and less prone to taking the bait during low, cold winter flows.

Look for river flows ranging from 12,500 – 20,000 cfs and water temperatures from 45-55 degrees for the best opportunities. Willamette River flows, temperatures, and Willamette Falls fish counts can be found online. Keep in mind while viewing the fish counts that all steelhead passing the falls after May 31 are considered summer steelhead.

The Clackamas River provides a highly-prized fishery near the Portland metropolitan area and produces the largest recreational catch of winter steelhead of all the Columbia River tributaries.

Clackamas River

Winter steelhead on the Clackamas
-Photo by Garth Wyatt-

The hatchery winter steelhead program on the Clackamas is comprised of two stocks of fish -- Eagle Creek stock and local Clackamas stock that incorporate wild returning fish. Winter steelhead fishing usually begins slowly in December, but noticeable numbers of fish do not enter the system until high water events in January. Eagle Creek stock usually returns from late December through March, with a peak from mid-January to mid-February. The first Clackamas River stock show up as early as Jan. 1 and continue through May. This run usually peaks in March and April.

Counts of fish passing North Fork Dam on the Clackamas River

Hatchery fish are acclimated and released from the Clackamas Fish Hatchery at McIver State Park, the mouth of Foster Creek, and the Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery on Eagle Creek. When these fish return as adults many of them will hold at or below these release points.

The Clackamas River typically fishes best at flows with a gage reading of 10-13 feet, although anglers have been known to catch fish at levels up to 14.5 feet (measured at Rivermill Dam). When the river is high and off color, anglers should concentrate their efforts at the mouths of tributary streams such as Clear Creek, Eagle Creek or Dog Creek (at the hatchery outlet).

The best fishing is two to three days after a high water event, when the river has dropped and fish start to hold in pools or pool tail-outs.

Bank anglers can find access to the Clackamas River in the High Rocks/Cross Park area in Gladstone, Riverside Park in Clackamas, along Clackamas River Drive (there are several pull-off areas), in Carver near the mouth of Clear Creek, Barton Park, McIver Park near Dog Creek, and near River Mill Dam. Easy access to Eagle Creek can be found at Bonnie Lure State Park and Eagle Fern Park. Anglers can also walk down Eagle Creek to its confluence with the main stem Clackamas to find good bank fishing on the Clackamas River.

Boat anglers can find ramps at McIver Park (note: upper ramp should only be used by experienced boaters due to hazardous whitewater), Feldheimer’s Road, Barton Park, Carver Park, Riverside Park or Clackamette Park.

The Clackamas River above North Fork Reservoir is managed as a wild fish sanctuary and is closed to fishing for steelhead and salmon.

Eagle Creek

Eagle Creek, a tributary of the lower Clackamas River, offers a popular winter steelhead fishery with easy access for the bank angler. The first steelhead of the season will typically start showing up in the creek right after Thanksgiving, but it is usually late December before anglers will find significant numbers of fish in the creek. Quality winter steelhead fishing can be expected in Eagle Creek from January on into March. Many of the steelhead caught at Meldrum Bar and in the lower Clackamas are actually destined for Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery.

Many different types of lures can be successful on the creek, with color often dictated by water clarity. Try brighter colors during the murky water conditions and darker, and less flamboyant colors during times when the creek is crystal clear.

Fishing conditions on Eagle Creek are dependent on precipitation and its flows can change dramatically after a good rainfall. Often it will blow out quickly and be unfishable in a matter of hours. On the flip side, it also clears very quickly. It doesn’t take long for the water color to improve, even though the flows may be somewhat high. If there is a long period of cold, dry weather it can get very low and clear, making steelhead fishing a bit more of a challenge. In the past few years, the number of smolts released in Eagle Creek has been reduced from 150,000 to 90,000; anglers have started seeing this reflected in the number of returning adults.

Types of gear that have consistently proven successful include bobber and jig, sand shrimp, corkies and yarn, and small egg clusters with yarn. The skilled fly angler can do very well using steelhead flies.

There are several public access points along Eagle Creek:

  • Steelhead
    -Photo by Charlotte Ganskopp-
    Starting from the mouth of the creek, the first place to try would be Bonnie Lure Park, which is off of Dowty Road. Take a right from Hwy 224 in the community of Eagle Creek to find the park area.  From Bonnie Lure Park you can also access nearly a half-mile of the Clackamas River for bank fishing.
  • Eagle Creek passes under Hwy 224 about a mile past Eagle Creek Store and there is also some bank access there.
  • Very close to the Hwy 224 crossing is Wildcat Mountain Road. Go left towards the hatchery and follow the hatchery signs on Eagle Fern Road. You will soon see several pull-offs on the right that provide great access to the creek.
  • Eagle Fern Park that has many good holes. This access area runs for about a half mile on up to Snuffin Road Bridge.
  • From Snuffin Road you can continue up Eagle Fern Road (also called George Road), and after about three miles, turn right down Rainbow Road to Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery. Fishing can be very good below the hatchery if you are willing to make the hike.

Much of Eagle Creek flows through private property. Longview Fiber and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are the largest landowners along the creek and they are not usually concerned about anglers for most of the year. However, it is advisable to get permission before accessing Eagle Creek on individual private landowner’s property.

Sandy River

Among Columbia River tributaries, the Sandy River is second only to the Clackamas River in producing winter steelhead. This makes it a very popular destination for Portland area anglers. The hatchery program has been comprised of a native broodstock, meaning that the hatchery fish are derived from a portion of wild fish returning to the river. Winter steelhead begin returning to the river in December, but larger numbers do not start showing up in the catch until early February. The fishery usually runs from January through April. It is important to note that summer steelhead are also released into the Sandy River, and return from March through September.

All Sandy River winter steelhead are released from the Sandy Fish Hatchery on Cedar Creek, so anglers should focus their efforts from Cedar Creek downstream. There also are good opportunities for catch-and-release fishing for wild steelhead above Cedar Creek in the gorge above and below the former Marmot Dam site.

The Sandy River is a glacier-fed system that typically runs very muddy when warm winter rains melt the glaciers on Mt. Hood. The river will clear up within 3-4 days after high water if the snow level drops below 4,000 feet and the rain stops or slows to showers. The Sandy fishes best at gage readings of 8-11 feet (measured below the Bull Run).

steelhead trout
-Oregon Fish and Wildlife-

Of special note is the recent removal of Marmot Dam at RM 30. The river became free-flowing again in mid-October 2007, providing fish unimpeded passage to the upper basin. With removal of the dam, river flows and patterns will likely continue to change. It may take several years for the sediment to leave the system, possibly altering your favorite fishing hole in the meantime. In addition, the angling deadline, which was located at Marmot Dam, was relocated to the mouth of the Salmon River beginning Jan. 1, 2008. The former dam site is now managed by BLM and is open for foot or bicycle traffic only.

Anglers can access the Sandy River from many parks including Lewis and Clark, Dabney, Oxbow and Dodge. Access is also available at the mouth of Cedar Creek near the Sandy Fish Hatchery.

Boat anglers access the river at Dodge Park (recommended only for expert boat operators due to hazardous rapids), Oxbow Park, Dabney Park and Lewis and Clark Park near Troutdale. Jet boats are allowed downstream from Dabney Park. Also, fishing from a floating device is only allowed starting from a point that is 200 feet downstream of the Oxbow Park boat ramp.

Sauvie Island

There are several miles of open beach suitable for steelhead fishing on the Columbia River at the Sauvie Island Wildlife Refuge just north of Portland. The best public access to the Columbia River from Sauvie Island is on NW Reeder Road, which runs from south to north along the western side of the Island. Getting to Sauvie Island is easy. Just take Hwy 30 out of Portland and head north toward Scappoose. Look for the bridge crossing onto the island about two miles north of Linnton. After crossing the bridge, drive north on Sauvie Island Road to Reeder Road. Take Reeder Road west across the island about 6 miles to NW Reeder Road where it runs north along the Columbia for several miles. There are several points to find parking in easy walking distance of the river.

The best time of the year to fish for winter steelhead at Sauvie Island is from December to March as steelhead bound for tributaries upstream move past the Island. Many of the fish hug the shoreline in six to 15 feet of water.

NOTE: Once on the island, you will need a parking permit. Daily permits are $7 and can be purchased at Sam’s Cracker Barrel, Reeder Beach RV Park, Island Cove Café and the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area headquarters (during regular business hours). Permits also can be purchased in advance of your visit.

The most popular method is to plunk using a weight or sinker heavy enough so it doesn’t move with the current. The preferred lure is a Spin-N-Glo. Some anglers also attach salmon eggs or sand shrimp to the back of the lure for added attraction. Use 15 pound test line or heavier to adequately hold your gear in place and to fight fish in the strong current. Watch other experienced anglers and ask questions about best rigging methods. Be courteous to other anglers and give lots of space so you don’t crowd in on other’s space. This area is also intertidal, and depth will change 3-5 feet with the tide.

Molalla River

The river is open to fishing year-round for adipose fin clipped chinook and steelhead up to the Turner Creek Bridge. The use of bait is allowed only from May 15 to July 15 in order to provide opportunities for spring chinook harvest while minimizing impacts to native winter steelhead and juvenile salmonids.

The Molalla River in the upper Willamette is no longer stocked with hatchery winter steelhead but is a popular destination for catch-and-release fishing for wild winter steelhead. The Molalla has good numbers of wild winter steelhead and offers the adventurous angler an opportunity to catch this majestic fish in relative solitude. Limited numbers of naturally produced and stray summer steelhead may be present in the system in many of the same areas where winter steelhead are typically found.

Keep an eye on Willamette Falls fish counts as approximately one-third of the total number of steelhead passing the Falls are destined for the Molalla River. Head for the Mo’ when daily counts pick up to over 50 fish per day or total count exceeds 1,000 fish.

If you would like more information about steelhead fishing opportunities or about native fish conservation efforts in the Molalla, contact the Native Fish Society/Molalla River Alliance office at (503) 829-6211.

North and South Santiam

Although known primarily for their summer steelhead fishing, these rivers also offer a fair catch-and-release fishery for winter steelhead.

Approximately one-quarter to one-third of all winter steelhead that pass over Willamette Falls enter the Santiam system.

The best time for catching winter steelhead is from early March through mid-May, and almost all fishing methods work well including bobber and jig, spinners, bait, swinging wet flies and drifting egg patterns. 

Anglers should look for dropping water levels with good visibility and water temperatures above 45 degrees. Water conditions in the North and South Santiam Rivers vary. Typically, flows are relatively high in November and early December as the Corps of Engineers draws the reservoirs down to accommodate flood waters. After that, flows are driven by precipitation until reservoir refilling begins in February. A good site for up-to-date flow information is the USGS website.

Fish that have their adipose fin clipped are considered summer steelhead and may be kept.  Summer steelhead may be present in the river beginning in April. Salmon and steelhead fishing is closed above Foster Reservoir on the South Santiam and above Detroit on the North Santiam, as well as most tributaries with the exception of the Little North Fork Santiam.


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