Fishing the Grande Ronde River

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Tucked away in the Northeast region of Oregon, the Grande Ronde River is one of the finest hidden gems in the state.

Known primarily for its premier steelhead and trout fishing, the Grande Ronde is hardly more than a creek in places.

The Grande Ronde’s quaint size and remote location make it a destination for steelhead anglers east the Cascades looking to escape the expansive waters of the famed Deschutes River in Central Oregon.

The Grande Ronde is such a great fishing destination that we feature it in our articles Best Fly Fishing Rivers in Oregon and Best Steelhead Fishing in Northeast Oregon. Follow the links for more details on those types of fishing.

From a killer salmonfly hatch in the spring to explosive steelhead fishing through the late fall, the Grande Ronde has it all – let’s dive into the details!

Steelhead Fishing

Grande Ronde River steelhead being held by an angler.
Photo courtesy of Winding Waters River Expeditions.

Steelhead fishing is, far and away, the main attraction on the Grande Ronde.

Trout and bass work their way into the conversation with anglers experienced on the river, but the river’s legendary steelhead runs are what bring steelhead fishermen in from all over the Pacific Northwest.

Because the Grande Ronde is so far east (the lower river flows far into Washington clear to the Idaho border!), its steelhead run arrives much later than on most Oregon rivers.

Many years the runs are so strong here that ODFW typically offers a three-fish limit for hatchery steelhead.

In recent years, however, steelhead numbers have been on the decline both in the Snake River basin and the Pacific Northwest on the whole.

Due to this, some years the bag limits have been temporarily reduced, so check the state’s website for the most current harvest rules.

Lower runs here typically still mean fish arrive in worthwhile numbers. You just might have to work for them more than usual.

Also, steelhead runs are cyclical and the runs very well could be back during the next upturn.

Steelhead begin to work their way into the Grande Ronde starting in late September, and the run peaks in late October through November.

Steelhead remain in the river through early spring, and they can be targeted most of the winter.

Remember that the Grande Ronde doesn’t technically get a winter steelhead run, but summer steelhead fishing is a viable option in the winter months as weather conditions allow.

How to Catch Grande Ronde Steelhead

The Grande Ronde is a magnet for spey fly fishermen, but that doesn’t mean conventional techniques don’t work.

Bobber and jig techniques are very popular here, and they’re often a great tactic to persuade hesitant steelhead to bite.

Casting spinners and spoons is also productive, and drift fishing is always a popular way to catch steelhead just about anywhere.

For more information on methods, read our simple guide to steelhead fishing.

Where to Fish for Grande Ronde River Steelhead

Steelhead fishing happens along most stretches of the Grande Ronde, through the Oregon communities of Minam, Troy, and all the way down through Washington’s Asotin County to where it meets the Snake River in Idaho. 

Earlier in the season, steelhead can be found lower in the river, near the Washington state line.

As late fall approaches and heavier rains come along with it, steelhead begin to move upstream.

Much of the steelhead fishing in Oregon’s stretch of the Grande Ronde is focused from the state border to the confluence of the Wallowa River, a major tributary where most of the hatchery steelhead turn toward release sites.

Steelhead also continue farther up the Grande Ronde to La Grande and above, but most of these are wild fish that must be released. Only the occasional hatchery stray ventures into the upper river.

It’s always a good call to check with a fly shop before you head out to see where the most steelhead are at!

If you’re on the fence about planning a steelhead trip to the Grande Ronde, don’t hesitate: It’s a great opportunity for some remote steelhead fishing, and fish over 10 pounds are not uncommon!

More information: Steelhead Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips

Trout Fishing

An angler holding a trout caught at grande ronde river.
Photo courtesy of Winding Waters River Expeditions.

Odds are, if you’re not steelhead fishing on the Grande Ronde, you’re targeting trout.

In fact, the Grande Ronde is one of Northeast Oregon’s best trout waters, and though the trout fishing may not warrant a trip if you live hours away, it’s a great option for locals or travelers.

One of the most popular times of year to fish for trout on the Grande Ronde is in June, during the stonefly hatch.

Much like on other rivers, the stonefly hatch on the Grande Ronde works its way upriver throughout the month, and fly fishermen follow.

The stonefly hatch isn’t the only time to fish the Grande Ronde for trout, though.

The Minam Fly Shop notes that “September into early October is THE BEST time for trout fishing” on certain stretches of the Grande Ronde, and the biggest rainbows of the year are consistently caught during this time period.

Conventional fishing is also possible for trout on the Grande Ronde, and anglers use spinners effectively.

Bait is also allowed on the Grande Ronde, but make sure you’re only using bait if you’re planning to keep the trout: Catch-and-release mortality rates with bait are much higher than other methods.

Read up about effective trout fishing methods here.

Smallmouth Bass Fishing

Smallmouth bass fishing is a sometimes overlooked but fun fishery on the Grande Ronde.

Targeting smallmouth is mainly popular during the summer months, when the water is warmer and bass are more active.

During the fall and winter, bass become sluggish and, for the most part, aren’t worth targeting.

Topwater baits, Senko-style baits, spinners and spinnerbaits are all popular ways to target smallmouth on the Grande Ronde.

Fly fishermen have a blast with smallmouth as well, finding success with both poppers and streamers.

Smallmouth bass are most commonly targeted near Troy down to the mouth, on the lower and warmer stretches of the river.

June through September are the ideal months to target smallmouth on the Grande Ronde, and bass fishing is a great option when summer steelhead aren’t yet in the river and the trout are taking refuge from the summer heat.

Learn how to catch more bass with this easy to read guide.

Salmon Fishing

Unlike trout and steelhead fishing, salmon fishing on the Grande Ronde is very limited.

Some years back now, a pilot season for hatchery spring Chinook salmon was implemented on the Grande Ronde, but honestly success has been few and far between. Targeting any wild spring Chinook in the river is not allowed.

Since then, there hadn’t been much news of Grande Ronde salmon fishing until the fall of 2020, when the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife opened up a season for hatchery coho salmon during the first good return to a new hatchery coho program on the Lostine River, a tributary farther upriver.

Future coho fisheries are only likely during predicted strong run years, which the ODFW can predict based on tiny tags in some of the fish. The tags are detected at dams on the Snake River below the Grande Ronde confluence in Washington to calculate the size of this hatchery run.

So as with Chinook, you’ll have to watch for in-season announcements from ODFW when seasons during relatively good run years.

Not on the mainstream Grande Ronde itself but nearby, ODFW has opened lower Lookingglass Creek to some harvest of spring Chinook salmon during select years.

As with the runs described above, these Lookingglass seasons are special regulations enacted if the run size allows, so be sure to wait for an opening announcement and read special regulations before you fish for salmon here.

This tributary has a fish hatchery and joins the Grande Ronde at Palmer Junction about a half hour north of Elgin.

More information: Salmon Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips

Where is the Grande Ronde River?

A scenic view of grande ronde river.
Photo by Vichogue/Creative Commons, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Grande Ronde at Troy, near the Washington border, is a little more than a six-hour drive from Portland.

The upper river near La Grande, where most drivers would turn north off Interstate 84 to get to some of the river’s best waters, is about four hours from Portland.

The Grande Ronde is far enough east that the river is a shorter distance for anglers from Boise, Idaho, than it is for those driving in Oregon’s major population centers.

The Grande Ronde is one of Oregon’s treasures east of the Cascades, and it’s one of the few rivers in the high desert that offers steelhead fishing at all.

Big steelhead, feisty trout, and aggressive bass are all viable options depending on when you decide to head out to the river.

Don’t fret about the remote location – the Grande Ronde is a river worth fishing, and a multi-day float trip on some very lightly fished water is any angler’s dream.

And if even the Grande Ronde isn’t remote enough for you, you’ll learn about some of the same types of opportunities (plus more salmon and bull trout!) in our article about fishing the Imnaha River.

Find more fishing spots in Wallowa County

Find more fishing spots in Union County

Oregon Resources

ODFW Weekly Fishing Report
ODFW Trout Stocking Schedule
Oregon Fishing Regulations
National Weather Service

Carter Reschke is a freelance writer based in Oregon. Passionate about the outdoors, Carter is a fly fishing aficionado and spends his days on the river when he’s not writing.

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