At certain times of the year, the best sturgeon fishing in the Pacific Northwest is in the lower Willamette River flowing through the middle of Portland, Oregon.
The lower river is the urban stretch from Willamette Falls (between Oregon City and West Linn) downstream through Portland to its confluence with the Columbia River. The river splits as it nears the Columbia, with the largest flow heading directly to the Columbia across from Vancouver, Washington. The remainder cuts northwest into Multnomah Channel, forming the western boundary of Sauvie Island, and then joins the Columbia downriver at St. Helens, Oregon.
The sturgeon that inhabit the Willamette River system below its major falls are part of the large population that lives throughout the lower Columbia River system and sometimes ventures out to the Oregon and Washington coastlines to feed in bays.
As with sturgeon fishing in the lower Columbia below Bonneville and the Oregon coast, the lower Willamette’s fishery went to a standard of catch-and-release fishing in 2014 due to declining numbers of fish, but regulators consider limited seasons for harvests. (There is sturgeon retention allowed in the Willamette above Willamette Falls, but the numbers of fish up there are quite modest and the catch rates are low.) Further recreational harvest of sturgeon will be considered in the main system if numbers rebound, but for now there are plenty of fish to provide great action for anglers who don’t mind letting go their catch. Note that sturgeon anglers here also need a Columbia River endorsement to fish the big river and tributaries including the Willamette.
There are sturgeon in the Willamette all year, but the best time to fish for them here is during the colder and wetter months, when masses of the large fish move into the lower Columbia’s largest tributary to over-winter and feed in its comparatively warmer waters. Usually the numbers of sturgeon in the lower Willamette begin to climb when wet weather arrives in October or November, any many of these fish stick around until spring. And sturgeon don’t mind the muddy brown waters that fill this river following seasonally heavy rains in the Willamette Valley, and they will bite very well in water conditions that render most other types of fishing fruitless.
“That’s why I love sturgeon fishing. It’s hardly ever not fishable,” said veteran fishing guide Marvin Henkel Jr. “If I can get my boat in the water, I can catch fish.”
Henkel said a number of baits will entice sturgeon. Among his favorites for the Willamette River and Multnomah Channel are squid, sand shrimp and anchovies. Smelt are excellent baits in January and February, and when the shad run arrives each spring they are ideal bait for catching monster sturgeon.
Here are some of Henkel’s go-to sturgeon fishing spots on the lower Willamette River and Multnomah Channel:
The very lowest part of the lower Willamette River has excellent numbers of sturgeon from fall through spring, and this is one of Henkel’s very favorite places to fish from about December to March, before switching over to spring chinook fishing in the same area.
Note that fishing boats must steer clear of large ships coming and going from this busy section of river. And you must be prepared to safely anchor and effectively fish in 60 to 80 feet of water that is often the best water in this stretch.
Below the St. Johns Bridge, where there is an excellent launch at Cathedral Park under the east end of the bridge, head in the direction of the mouth and look for excellent fishing near the Toyota docks and off the grain barges.
There also is very good water above the bridge, including just above the train bridge located a mile above St. Johns, Henkel said.
“There’s so many fish in the Willamette, it really doesn’t matter” precisely where you fish in this stretch during the main season, he said, as long as you find the depths where most of the fish are.
Below Willamette Falls
If the lower river presents challenges for boaters of average skill, the river below Willamette Falls is difficult even for the experienced. Novice boaters would be better off going with a very experienced angler or guide, or fishing it from the docks at West Linn.
The area below the falls attracts the river’s largest fish during the spring, but there also is a seasonal closure from the falls downriver to the railroad bridge located in the Lake Oswego and Oak Grove area. At this writing (2014), that river section is closed for the months of May through August, but check regulations for updates before fishing.
When it’s open, Henkel usually fishes the river above that fishing catwalk located on the west bank to stay clear of bank anglers using that facility. This is fast water between 30 and 100 feet deep.
When large sturgeon are present, a whole shad is probably the best bait possible, Henkel said.
Henkel doesn’t fish the Willamette much between the falls and the lower harbor, but he said anglers who want to explore just a little will find excellent places to fish for sturgeon in holes located near Oaks Park, the Old Spaghetti Factory, Milwaukie/Oak Grove and near the Sellwood Bridge, among others.
The entire length of the channel, also called the Slough, holds sturgeon. Henkel prefers the lower end, downriver from the launch at Gilbert River (Sauvie Island) to the mouth near St. Helens. Closer to Portland, he said, there is shallower and less productive river, and numerous houseboats pose extra challenges and come with speed zones that make getting around harder.
He usually heads downriver about a mile from the ramp or comes out from the launch at Scappoose Bay. There are holes up and down that stretch of river that will hold good numbers of fish, often smaller to mid-size sturgeon. Henkel suggests looking for about 40 feet or more of water for good fishing. One spot off the sawdust pile that has excellent fishing is 50 to 70 feet deep.
The lower flow of the Channel has an advantage in that anglers can get away with only 4 or 5 ounces of lead at times, although more will be needed in a strong tide (the Willamette system is tidally influenced up to the falls).
Marvin Henkel Jr. of Portland has been a professional fishing guide since 1999. His clients at Marvin’s Guide Service fish for salmon, sturgeon, steelhead and walleye in the Columbia and Willamette rivers and on Tillamook Bay.