Winter steelhead fishing can be very good in Oregon’s big rivers, but those same rivers have a tendency to suddenly offer poor fishing after heavy rains make them high and muddy.
Fortunately, there are many smaller streams that clear far more quickly and offer good steelhead fishing soon after a heavy rain. The following rivers in Northwest Oregon, including the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Northwest and Willamette management zones, are among the best small steelhead streams.
Please note that most of the following streams have a mix of hatchery and wild steelhead. Only those with clipped and healed adipose fins may be kept in this region. There also are a number of Oregon coastal streams that aren’t planted with hatchery steelhead.
Coastal streams, listed north to south:
The Necanicum enters the Pacific Ocean at Seaside. A nice number of hatchery fish arrive in early winter and a strong wild run follows in mid- to late winter. Look for the hatchery run to peak in December and January and produce anywhere from 300 to 1,000 fin-clipped steelhead. Although it is closely followed by U.S. 26 and U.S. 101, this pretty stream near Seaside has limited access. Get to good fishing above tidewater at Peterson Point off Highway 101 and off Highway 26 at Klootchie Creek Park (the “Big Spruce Hole”) and farther upstream at Black’s Bridge, where Campbell Group allows river access on commercial forest land. Steelhead smolts are planted near Teevin Bros. off Highway 101 and at Klootchie Creek and Black's Bridge. If the Necanicum is slow, the North Fork Nehalem to the south and three lower Columbia River tribs to the north (listed below in this article) are relatively close streams with hatchery winter steelhead runs.
Though it doesn't produce nearly as many hatchery steelhead as the larger Wilson River nearby, the Kilchis comes back into fishing shape faster. Generally the winter season catch is modest, and a fair number of these fish might stray back to the Wilson River, where they were raised as a facility on the South Fork Wilson. The hatchery run is an early returner, with most fish landed in late December and the first weeks of January. Going in December gives anglers the bonus opportunity of bringing home a bright fall chinook from the river's notably late salmon run. Bank access on the lower river is tough due to private property. Bank anglers can get to the water at Mapes Creek launch (known at the Logging Bridge), Kilchis Park and numerous spots along Kilchis Forest Road. Boats put in at Mapes Creek or Kilchis Park and can float down and take out at Highway 101 (known as Parks Landing, where bank access isn't very good). Steelhead smolts are planted at the launch and park. The forks are closed to angling.
This stream enters the Nestucca River near Hebo in southern Tillamook County and, thanks to Cedar Creek Hatchery, it can be a big producer of up to 1,000 winter steelhead some years, as well as a smaller summer steelhead run and spring chinook. Early and late winter runs spread through at least March, with peak catches often in December or January. Get to the river at the hatchery, the Heart Attack Hole or the sewage treatment plant in Hebo. Figure Three Rivers will be in good shape if the Nestucca is on the high side but too low once the bigger river falls and clears. For more about fishing for winter and summer steelhead here, see: Nestucca and Three Rivers Steelhead Fishing.
Big Elk Creek
Big Elk Creek is a tributary of the Yaquina River, near Elk City upstream from Toledo and Newport. This small stream offers bank fishing in spots along Harlan Road up to the bridge over Grant Creek (the first bridge), which is the fishing deadline. While angling is open throughout the creek below the bridge, winter steelhead smolts are released near Milepost 13, so returning adults often move into that area. The annual catch on this small stream is usually a couple hundred fish. Most of those are landed from late December into February.
North Fork Alsea River
This is where you'll find the Alsea River Hatchery, destination for most of this great winter steelhead river's run. The main river offers fine fishing, but when it's too high, the North Fork above the town of Alsea up to the hatchery (where there's bank access) is the place to try. In fact, the North Fork routinely produces more steelhead than the mainstem Alsea, reaching nearly 3,000 in the 2009-10 season. There are two hatchery returns here, an early one that gets going around the holidays and a broodstock run that stretches fishing through late winter. The hatchery is just off Highway 34, the route to Corvallis. For more details, see: Alsea River Steelhead Fishing.
Lake Creek is a fair to good winter fishery between Eugene and Florence. Winter steelhead smolts are released in Green Creek, a little over four miles up from the creek’s confluence with the Siuslaw River. You can’t fish in Green Creek itself, but there is good access to Lake Creek just below the release site. The Lake Creek catch is 200 to 500 fish most winters, which is well below the mainstem Siuslaw but productive when the bigger river is blown out. Oldtimers may recall that winter steelhead previously went up to Greenleaf Creek, but the change in release sites was long enough ago that adults are now mostly in the lowest four miles. For more details, see: Siuslaw River Steelhead Fishing.
Columbia River tributary streams, listed west to east:
North Fork Klaskanine River
Southeast of Astoria, off Highway 202 near Olney, this small fishery can be fairly productive for winter steelhead, giving up as many as 500 per winter in recent years. This is an early run, with the best catches coming around the holidays and into early January. Fish a few access points along Highway 202 in the short stretch from the hatchery down to the confluence with the South Fork, including the hatchery and Sigfredson County Park. The smolt release of 40,000 is done at the hatchery.
Near Knappa on Highway 30, about 10 miles east of Astoria, Big Creek has a good hatchery run popular with the locals. Look for public access at the hatchery and Big Creek County Park, both upstream from Highway 30, with some access below the highway as well. Peak fishing is usually in late December and the first few weeks of January. During poor years, the harvest dips to about 200 fish, but good runs boost it to 600 or more. The entire release of 60,000 winter steelhead smolts per year is from the hatchery.
About five miles east of Big Creek, this stream is almost as tiny as its namesake insect. But with a little stealth and short casts, it can be very fun to fish for its run of hatchery winter steelhead. The run peaks from late December through early January. Don’t bother with this stream during long dry spells as the steelhead will be spooky in gin clear water. Access points include below the hatchery, near Highway 30 between Westport and Knappa, and downstream (west) about a mile at Gnat Creek Campground. The annual catch can range from 150 to over 300 marked fish. About 40,000 smolts are released annually at the hatchery.
A Portland-area high-water favorite, in past years a good season on Eagle Creek approached 1,000 winter steelhead, but a reduction of smolt plants several years back has reduced the run size a bit in this Clackamas River tributary. Eagle Creek has a federal hatchery and is the first metropolitan stream to recover from heavy rains. Look for access at Bonnie Lure Park near the mouth, along Eagle Fern Road (including Eagle Fern Park) and in the canyon below the hatchery. This creek also has a coho salmon fishery in early fall.
Sandy River (Upper)
OK, it's a stretch to call this a small river, but the Sandy’s upper reaches are on the small side and often weather a good rainfall – but only when snow levels are low enough to keep a good bit of high-elevation precipitation on the ground in solid form. If the freezing level is high, forget this one for at least a few days after a good dousing. Access points in the upper river near the city of Sandy include close to the fish hatchery at the mouth of Cedar Creek, Revenue Bridge and the former Marmot Dam site. The Sandy almost always has at least a decent winter run, with harvests often 2,000 or more in a season. There also are plenty of big wild winter steelhead for catch-and-release angling, as well as summer steelhead, spring chinook and a popular fall coho salmon fishery.
Also on this website, more articles about winter steelhead fishing:
For current regulations, consult the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's annual regulations booklet or website.