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 steelhead 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 or January alone before fishing tapers off somewhat by mid-winter.
In recent years, the better catches have often come in January over December, but as mentioned this is one of the rivers that can start producing just a handful steelhead as early as Thanksgiving and is usually going pretty good by Christmas.
The Nehalem Hatchery on Highway 53 offers the most popular bank fishing access in a few well-fished spots below the deadline.
Don’t expect to have any spots to yourself. If the hatchery phone line sounds promising, regulars here are known to arrive hours before daybreak to get the best casting locations.
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, private timber lands located just below the hatchery are not open to public access.
Old-timers like me remember fishing down there by looping down the rough road from above the hatchery and around downstream to the back side, but anglers don’t currently have that opportunity.
This serves as one of those examples where a private landowner had allowed access, but someone (not necessarily anglers in many cases) abused the privilege and everyone lost it.
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, but they are fairly limited.
Holes that everyone knows about tend to be packed during prime fishing times, because there are good numbers of fish and not all that many places to get to them.
Some holes are closely guarded secrets. Getting to know someone who knows someone who owns land along the North Fork is a good plan, if you can pull it off.
Some fin-clipped hatchery steelhead historically 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 hatchery fish aren’t all that high upriver, neither is the number of anglers. In other words, it’s not the best fillet-catching spot, but I’ve had some nice days up there when I didn’t want to fish shoulder-to-shoulder farther downriver.
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 North Fork Nehalem, from the hatchery down to near tidewater but, frankly, this is one best left to the experts.
The canyon below the hatchery has some great fishing water, but also several pretty tough rapids if you don’t know what you’re doing.
The North Fork’s annual release of fin-clipped winter steelhead smolts include a good many made at the hatchery, but some also have been released farther downstream in an effort to slow and spread out their upriver migration.
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.
In fact, the North Fork is on our list of best small rivers for winter steelhead fishing in Northwest Oregon.
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.