The North Fork joins the mainstem Nehalem River (a.k.a. South Fork) at tidewater and kicks out the majority of the river system’s hatchery winter steelhead. Its catch rates often rival the larger Wilson and Nestucca rivers, even though its bank access is spotty and its boating conditions tricky at best.
The North Fork is the place to go on the north Oregon coast for early winter steelhead, because catches start coming in by (or even a little before) Thanksgiving most years and are going full bore by Christmas and New Year’s Day. It also peaks earlier, so if keeping a hatchery fish is your goal after late January, you’d likely fare better elsewhere.
In a better year, the North Fork will churn out more than 1,000 hatchery steelhead in December alone, often followed by a good early January catch before fishing declines at mid-winter.
The Nehalem Hatchery on Highway 53 offers the most popular bank fishing access in a few well-fished spots below the deadline. Above the deadline, right below the hatchery trap, anglers with a disability and the proper permit can fish just below the hatchery intake – easily one of the best steelhead and coho salmon fishing spots in the state for qualified anglers.
At this writing, a private timber company (Longview Fibre) is allowing access to the river just below the hatchery, although the road to it crosses the North Fork just upriver and curves around the back side to a few access points. Some of the spur roads down to the bank are rough, so some walking may be necessary. Note that this access is voluntary and hasn’t always been granted, and it potentially could be taken away if anglers don’t respect the property and pack out litter.
Farther below the hatchery, the North Fork flows through plenty of private property, but intrepid anglers can find access where the highway cuts close to the stream. Pull-outs mark some of these spots.
A decent number of fin-clipped hatchery steelhead stray above the hatchery, where there is easy walk-in (or mountain bike) access to forest land after parking near a gate. While numbers of fish aren’t as high upriver, neither is the number of anglers. Especially if you’re after steelhead for the table, ODFW biologist Robert Bradley recommends angling no higher than the falls a couple of miles above Highway 53, because most hatchery fish are removed here.
There are a couple of launches on the river but, frankly, this is one best left to the experts.
Traditionally, the bulk of the North Fork’s annual release of 90,000 fin-clipped winter steelhead smolts has been made at the hatchery. Starting in 2012, just half of the releases will be made there. The other half will be split from downriver release sites, one about halfway to tidewater and other just above tidewater. While Bradley said the effect is uncertain until biologists can study returns, this switch at least has the potential of slowing some of the adult steelhead and improving the angling in the lower river, which most fish pass through quickly today. The first class of fish returning after the change will come back in the last weeks of 2013, with the full effect to be seen across age classes starting the winter of 2014-15.
There aren’t online river level readings for the North Fork Nehalem, but generally it comes into shape a bit ahead of larger North Coast steelhead rivers like the Wilson River. Often the best source for current North Fork river conditions and fishing success is the hatchery’s fishing line (503-368-5670), which is updated as conditions change during the winter steelhead and fall coho salmon seasons.