2024 Update: While it’s too early to weigh in on the current winter steelhead season, the 2022 calendar year was excellent. That year (the latest for which tag data has been compiled), anglers kept more than 3,000 caught in the North Fork and more than 2,500 from the mainstem. As a system, that total ranks the Alsea favorably among Oregon’s best coastal steelhead rivers. January was the top month, as usual, but catches continued fairly strong into March.
There have been years that anglers fishing the Alsea River system harvested more than 4,000 hatchery winter steelhead.
That’s an eye-popping number, better than several of Oregon’s nationally-known rivers often do.
This central coast hatchery-fed system (including its excellent North Fork) is a go-to spot for anglers looking for a hatchery steelhead or two to bring home for a feast.
Even in a more typical season, the Alsea’s catches often are a still very good 2,000 or more hatchery-marked steelhead, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife catch records.
Of course, like any Oregon steelhead river, there also are those down years when catches are lower, even under 1,000 per season.
We’ve had some really lean years on the Alsea lately, as with many rivers in the region, but the 2021-22 winter season saw some improved catches and a better return to the hatchery. The 2022-23 season was a bit more mixed, by most anecdotal accounts, but the tag data isn’t yet available.
The Alsea River’s headwaters are in the Coast Range, and its North and South forks meet at the town of Alsea.
The mainstem enters the Pacific at the coastal town of Waldport. It is easily accessible from Corvallis and much of the Willamette Valley, as well as from coastal communities.
In addition to winter steelhead, the Alsea bay and river offer great fall Chinook salmon fishing.
When to Catch Steelhead
The Alsea’s winter steelhead run is made up of two separate brood stocks.
One brood stock has been used for many years and tends to return early, with the first fish possible by late November but had more reliable numbers appearing in December and January.
That’s the early run that old-timers will remember, one that occasionally could give you a steelhead by Thanksgiving.
Biologists have been transitioning the Alsea’s hatchery run based on using wild steelhead from the system as their brood stock, and that practice has changed the timing of the best fishing.
Like their native parents, the returning steelhead from this strain tend to return over a longer period and are available in good numbers through most winter months.
Overall, we suggest you start fishing this one near Christmas to try for one of those first mint-bright steelies.
Expect best overall catches to continue at least into January and February, and quite often into March, although the later in the season you go, the more darker or spawning fish you’ll find.
Recreational anglers must release all wild steelhead unharmed. Wild fish don’t have a clipped and healed adipose fin in front of the fish’s tail like the hatchery-marked fish.
The Alsea River system is not planted with summer steelhead. Although there are a small number of steelhead tagged here during the hot months, we’d suggest you’d be better off heading to one of the best summer steelhead fishing rivers on the Oregon Coast.
Where to Catch Steelhead
Bank anglers get to excellent fishing (but often incredibly crowded conditions) below the angling deadline at the hatchery on the North Fork.
There also are plenty of public parks and pull-offs below the hatchery and downstream on the mainstem Alsea, both of which are closely followed by Highway 34 (Alsea Highway), so look around if you want a little elbow room.
Early in the run, ODFW biologist Derek Wilson suggests trying some of the bank access points on the lower river, such as Mike Bauer Wayside and Blackberry Campground, and upstream around the bend at the county park and boat launch at Five Rivers.
The Five Rivers launch also is where some of the steelhead smolts are released, along with from the hatchery on the North Fork, and fish often congregate in release areas.
During higher water periods, catch rates are much better on the smaller North Fork, which recovers far more quickly than the larger river, often in a day or two.
In fact, thanks to the hatchery, and the bank access anglers have there and below, the North Fork typically produces higher total catches than the mainstem but is a bank-only fishery.
Again, don’t expect to find yourself fishing in any kind of solitude close to the hatchery deadline.
More likely when the fishing is good, you’ll roll into the hatchery lot at 0′ dark thirty to find a disappointingly large number of cars already there ahead of you. Regulars claim arriving at midnight isn’t too early if you want a prime spot, but there’s a good chance you’ll still be rubbing elbows.
So definitely check the hatchery lot and take a look. Who knows, you might get lucky. But if it’s too crowded there for your comfort, expect to work a bit to find a bit more breathing room.
The North Fork also is one of northwest Oregon’s best small streams for winter steelhead fishing.
Guide Jon Payne says drift boaters working the mainstem should try floating either from launches at Mill Creek to Campbell or from Campbell to Salmonberry.
These two stretches have good steelhead fishing without as many hazards as other parts of the river that more seasoned anglers like Payne will fish.
There also are good drifts from Five Rivers to Blackberry Campground and Blackberry to Mike Bauer Wayside, or drift boaters can do the full distance from Five Rivers to Mike Bauer.
By the way, the South Fork Alsea River is not planted with hatchery steelhead, although anglers do pick up a very small number of fin-clipped steelhead that take a wrong turn southward.
However, if you fish the South Fork and hook a steelhead, chances are it will be a native that you must release unharmed. On the bright side, there’s going to be far less angling pressure.
How to Catch Steelhead
You can use your regular winter steelhead arsenal here.
On the North Alsea, that means the usual bank tactics such as drift fishing, casting spinners and spoons and floating jigs, plastic worms or bait beneath a bobber.
This is smaller water, especially during low-water periods, so think about gearing down the size of your offerings and in clear water trying out some darker lures. Sometimes a black jig or tarnished spinner works wonders.
Fly fishing can also do the job if you have the room.
Of course, you can take any of those bank tactics downriver to the mainstem, and boaters will run plugs or bait into the paths of aggressive steelhead holding below their drift boats.
Anglers usually start fishing the Alsea for winter steelhead when the river level at the Tidewater gauge is at least 4 feet, with the ideal level around 5.5 to a little over 6 feet.
Plunking is good in higher water, peaking at 7 or 7.5 feet but possible to 8.5 feet.
As previously mentioned, high-water conditions heavily favor fishing in the North Fork below the hatchery, but when the water drops and clears falls, smaller waters get tougher to fish.