The rugged northeastern corner of Oregon may seem too far from the Pacific Ocean to be one of the state’s hotbeds for steelhead action.
Such an assumption would be wrong.
In boom times, the Grande Ronde River and its dynamo tributary, the Wallowa River, rank right up there with the Deschutes and Rogue rivers for their incredible catches.
In fact, there have been years when anglers took home close to 20,000 hatchery steelhead from the two rivers combined.
That’s an incredible number of fish from two streams so far from Oregon’s big cities … although anglers from Washington and Idaho also have discovered the riches here.
But let’s be honest, the runs in more recent years have been significantly more modest, although steelheading here is still productive and coming into this area for any reason is a wonderful idea.
The steelhead arriving in northeastern Oregon are summer steelhead that first enter the lower Columbia River in the spring and work their way inland during the summer.
They often delay their journey up the Columbia and Snake rivers and pull into cooler tributaries to wait out the hot weather, with most arriving in Snake River country in the early fall.
There have been so many hatchery fish in these runs that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife offers three-fish daily limits (and no annual limit as long as you have proper tags) for fin-clipped steelhead.
But definitely check the rules before bagging that many steelies, because there have been low-run years in which ODFW temporarily reduces the bag limit.
Check out these great rivers:
Grande Ronde River
This very popular summer steelhead river is a real producer and worth every mile of the drive northwest from La Grande for steelhead fans during the middle of the fall season.
Fly fishing is popular on the Grande Ronde, and conventional tackle also will get the job done.
The Grande Ronde opens for steelhead fishing in September and sees its first few caught that month, but things really get crazy in October and November.
Fishing tends to slow (as does the number of people willing to do it) during the dead of winter, when ice forms on and off, but sometimes picks up again in the month or two before the river closes after April.
Especially during the fall, the bulk of steelhead here are caught in Oregon’s lower stretch, between Wildcat Bridge and the state line (the Grande Ronde flows into Washington state before joining the Snake River).
At the center of this area is the small community of Troy, and roads closely follow the river to offer plentiful access in this area.
Make sure you are properly licensed if you venture very far downstream (north), because you’ll find yourself in Washington.
Above Wildcat Bridge (Powwatka) to the mouth of the Wallowa River, where most hatchery steelhead turn off, getting to the river is more difficult.
It is possible to drift this section of river by launching higher up on the Grande Ronde or on the lower Wallowa River and making a long float.
Like the lower Grande Ronde (and even more so), this is a particularly far-off river for most Oregonians, reached by driving beyond Enterprise and Joseph.
But despite its location in the far northwestern corner of the state, the Imnaha has been known to produce 1,200 to 2,500 summer steelhead in a good season without as much pressure as the Grande Ronde.
The season opens Sept. 1, but you’ll find few if any steelhead in Oregon’s section on the opener.
Depending on the year and the weather, fishing here can get very good in October and November and then usually picks up again in March through April, when more anglers are willing to give it a shot again.
It currently is closed to steelhead fishing from May through August. Check current regulations for possible updates.
Steelhead fishing is open below Big Sheep Creek, which flows into the river at the community of Imnaha.
While roads follow the river, there are long stretches where you’ll need permission to cross private property (ranches) for access.
There is a little more public land in the mix below Horse Creek, adding to the access, but the road can be rough.
Below Cow Creek Bridge, the road veers away from the Imnaha River but the intrepid can hike and fish along a riverside trail about four miles to the mouth at the Snake River, on the Oregon-Idaho border.
More: Fishing the Imnaha River
The famous Snake River is wild and scenic, but many of its summer steelhead started in hatchery ponds.
The river can produce 2,500 to more than 3,500 summer steelhead in a season, when the runs are good, with best catches starting in October or November and often continuing into December.
The season here begins Sept. 1 and runs through April, but few if any summer steelhead will arrive by the opener. Look for catches to get underway in late September or early October.
Some years, fishing will pick up again in March and April, before the season closes for four months.
The best steelhead fishing is right below Hells Canyon Dam, where the hatchery fish return.
To reach this area, take Highway 86 east from Baker City, cross into Idaho, follow the river north (downstream) to where you can again cross over to the Oregon side and fish the area below the dam.
Additional downriver sections of the Snake River can be reached by hiking into the canyon.
Simply put, some years the Wallowa River can put out an astonishing number of steelhead during the late winter and first few weeks of spring.
You might do fairly well in the fall, but visit between sometime in February through the last day of the steelhead season on April 30, and you have a reasonable shot at taking home the generous three-steelhead daily limit.
This modest-sized river is capable of of sending 10,000 steelhead to the dinner table during a year’s time, although glory years like that have been absent for a spell now.
These fish have been in freshwater almost a year by this time, so they won’t be as silver and fat as the winter steelhead running at the Oregon coast this same time of year, but these fish still are fine game fish and decent table fare.
The first of the run makes it up the Grande Ronde River and into the Wallowa during the late fall, but at that time the lower Grande Ronde is really the better bet.
Wait until after the New Year, however, especially after the days start getting longer and winter loses just a little of its bite that the Wallowa River really takes off.
In a particularly good month around February or March, the Wallowa can put out thousands of steelhead. In fact, nearly 5,000 fish were tagged on this river in a particularly good March a decade or so back. Runs tend to be cyclical.
The lower Wallowa River doesn’t have great access below Minam State Park.
That remote section can be boated in a long float (usually done in several days) from the park, down to the confluence with the Grande Ronde, and then down the larger river to take-outs at Powwatka or beyond.
Bank anglers will find access at the Minam park and upriver at numerous spots along Highway 82 and other area roads.
Popular bank-fishing spots include the canyon below Deer Creek in the Minam area, where some of the steelhead are acclimated.
Similarly, the stretch of Wallowa River below the hatchery on Spring Creek, near Enterprise, also has a high number of holding steelhead by late winter.
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