Anglers fishing the Alsea River system, in the winter of 2003-04, harvested an amazing 4,663 hatchery steelhead, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. That’s better than several nationally-known rivers did that year, although the Alsea’s typical catches in a decent season are a still very good 2,000 or more hatchery-marked steelhead.
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 the Willamette Valley. In addition to winter steelhead, the Alsea bay and river offer great fall chinook salmon fishing.
The Alsea’s winter steelhead run is made up of two separate brood stocks. One has been used for many years and tends to return early, with the first fish possible by Thanksgiving but better numbers appearing in December and January. (January often is the peak harvest month on the Alsea in both the mainstem and excellent North Fork.)
A second hatchery run was created using wild steelhead from the system. Like their native parents, the returning steelhead from this strain tend to return over a longer period and are available in good numbers in late winter, so fishing can be very good in February and continue into March.
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.
Bank anglers get to excellent fishing (but often crowded conditions) below the angling deadline at the hatchery on the North Fork as well as at 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).
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, and fish often congregate in release areas. Five Rivers itself has a seasonal winter steelhead opening up to Buck Creek.
During higher water periods, catch rates are much better on the North Fork. In fact, thanks to the hatchery and bank access there and below, the North Fork typically produces higher total catches than the mainstem but is a bank-only fishery and is one of northwest Oregon’s best small streams for winter steelhead fishing.
Guide Jon Payne says drift boaters should try floating either from launches at Mill Creek to Campbell or from Campbell to Salmonberry. These 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.
Best River Levels
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.