There are few places where winter steelhead – anadromous rainbow trout – swim right by skyscrapers on their upriver spawning runs. Portland, Oregon, is one of those places.
Several of these steelhead runs close to the urban area can offer fishing that rivals the angling in less-populated places on the Oregon coast. The runs are a mix of big native fish that put on tremendous battles before release and hatchery fish (with a clipped adipose fin) that may be kept for dinner.
The following are the Portland area’s best winter steelhead rivers:
“The Clack” is the metropolitan area’s leading river if you count the number of hatchery winter steelhead taken home from it most years, based on Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife records. In a typical winter season, steelheaders take home about 2,000 hatchery-born fish.
The first winter steelhead to enter the Clackamas, starting before Christmas, are bound for a federal hatchery on Eagle Creek. This run peaks around January, but around that time anglers start seeing the first arrivals of a second winter run bound for the Clackamas itself. That late run stretches winter steelhead fishing into the spring, often peaking in numbers during March and overlapping with the arrival of the first summer steelhead.
Besides the hatchery on Eagle Creek, additional hatchery fish from the state are released near Dog and Foster creeks on the mainstem.
The areas near the tributaries can offer good fishing. Try the mouths of Eagle Creek, Dog Creek (McIver State Park) and Clear Creek (Carver), which also are go-to spots when the big Clackamas is high and mud-colored. There are additional spots to fish at High Rocks (Gladstone), Riverside Park (Clackamas) and River Mill Dam (Estacada).
Boat launching and take-out spots are at Feldheimer’s Road and the following parks: McIver, Barton, Carver, Riverside and Clackamette.
Eagle Creek gives the Clackamas River system a great one-two punch. It flows into the bigger river near the community of Eagle Creek, west of Estacada.
Eagle Creek will blow out of fishing shape quickly following heavy rainfall, but it also will come back into fishable condition well before the much bigger Clackamas will. In fact, it’s often at its best when the Clackamas is running ugly with mud and silt. However, if the Clackamas has fallen into a pretty steelhead green after a dry spell, that most likely means Eagle Creek is low and clear and difficult to fish.
Eagle Creek has a few good bank spots at Bonnie Lure Park near the mouth, along Eagle Fern Road (including the park of the same name) and by hiking into the canyon below Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery well upstream on Rainbow Road. This stream is too small and treacherous for safe boating.
Eagle Creek winter steelhead fishing often peaks early, with the best fishing in late December through January, but can be pretty good into February and a handful are caught in March (though many will be showing some color by then).
The Sandy River brushes past Gresham and other Portland suburbs but anglers can feel like they are deep in the wilderness. It quite often produces more than 1,000 hatchery winter steelhead and has had years in which four times that many were caught. It also has a strong run of native fish that run larger and fight harder than their hatchery kin but must be released.
Well-known guide Jack Glass of Team Hook Up fishes the Sandy for steelhead from Christmas through March, usually focusing on the lower river below Oxbow because he fishes from drift and jet sled boats, depending on the water.
Bank access on the Sandy is pretty good overall. One of the most popular (often crowded) spots is at the mouth of Cedar Creek, home to the Sandy Fish Hatchery. Also in the upper river area, access can be found at Revenue Bridge and the former Marmot Dam site. Good bank fishing access also is available downstream at Lewis and Clark, Dabney, Oxbow and Dodge parks.
The parks have boat launches. The water below Dodge is highly technical and only for expert boaters, and in that section of the river boaters must step out of their watercraft to fish. See the regulations for additional boating and fishing restrictions.
More Winter Steelhead Rivers Near Portland
Most winter steelhead pass through the big river without seeing an angler's line, but there are modest fisheries here. Most anglers plunk with Spin-N-Glos from sandy beaches, especially in the lower river below Portland. The Reeder Road area on Sauvie Island is one of the most popular spots for this.
The lower Willamette isn’t known as a steelhead river for the most part, but don’t tell that to the regulars who fish it at Meldrum Bar in Gladstone. This is where winter steelhead bunch up before entering the Clackamas River. Most anglers plunk with Spin-N-Glos close to the bank. A modest number of winter steelhead are caught in the river above Willamette Falls and in a few upriver tributaries.
The Molalla once was stocked with smolts to produce a hatchery run of winter steelhead. Those days have passed, but the river just southeast of the metro area can be very good for anglers who enjoy catching and releasing wild steelies. If on a rare occasion you catch a stray hatchery steelhead (with a clipped and healed adipose fin), you can keep it.
The short mainstem and especially its big forks, the North Santiam and South Santiam, are fantastic summer steelhead streams but also offer fair fishing for winter steelhead. Unlike the summer-runs, most of these winter fish are wild and must be released. A few hatchery fish do show up, and you can keep steelhead with a healed-over adipose fin (hatchery marked) all year.
Yes, this river is in the Central Zone, but the drive through the Columbia River Gorge isn’t any longer than many Portlanders make to reach other steelhead streams. And this river that enters the Columbia at the town of the same name often gets less pressure. The regulations and favorite fishing spots are somewhat in flux after the recent removal of Powerdale dam, so check with ODFW for rule updates before fishing here.
Also on this website, more articles about steelhead fishing around Oregon:
One source for this article was the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Winter Steelhead Guide. For current regulations, consult ODFW's annual regulations booklet or website.