If you didn’t know better, you might be surprised at how good salmon and steelhead fishing can be in the Sandy River, despite it being so close to Portland.
The Sandy begins on snowy Mount Hood, but the best areas to catch the big fish are near where it flows past the cities of Sandy, Gresham and Troutdale on its way to the Columbia River.
This lower section is just east of Portland and an easy drive from anywhere in the metropolitan area.
The river system also has a few smaller fisheries, including some tributary trout and a rare (but celebrated when it happens) opening for smelt.
Note that the river’s name comes from its sometimes-silty appearance.
This cloudiness arrives as glaciers and snow melt off Mount Hood, typically beginning in the spring and continuing throughout the warm months.
It doesn’t seem to bother the salmon and steelhead, who must appreciate the infusion of colder water, but it’s less ideal for trout.
Sandy River Salmon Fishing
The Sandy River has two runs of Chinook salmon as well as a run of coho salmon. Salmon must be fin-clipped hatchery products to keep. Check the regulations for more details.
Spring Chinook salmon can be a nice fishery here some years, when the runs are good, and fishing here can stretch longer on the calendar than on the big rivers.
In low-run years, the catches here might only be about a hundred or so springers. Other years it has been closer to 1,000.
Usually the fishing ramps up in May and continues good in June and July, although some are caught clear into early fall. However, the quality of salmon deteriorates after they are in fresh water for some months.
For much more on this fishery, read our article Sandy River Spring Chinook Salmon Fishing.
Fall Chinook salmon also return here, but honestly this is not the place to chase them.
In the Portland area, stick to the Columbia River or head to the north or central coast.
Most of the fall Chinook aren’t in prime shape once they hit the Sandy, and there also are areas set aside to protect spawning salmon.
But if you come to the Sandy in the fall looking for salmon to catch, you are still in luck.
The fishing for coho salmon, also locally known as silvers, can be quite decent in the fall months. Coho have the reputation of being poor biters in fresh water, but the Sandy nevertheless tends to put out the fish during good run years.
There have been some good run years in which anglers harvested nearly 4,000 coho from the Sandy, with most of those coming from the river section between the mouth and Revenue Bridge, including the productive but very popular fishery near the hatchery on Cedar Creek, near Sandy.
In other years with more modest returns, the catch is counted in the hundreds rather than thousands.
For more on fishing for silvers in the Sandy and other nearby waters, read: Best Coho Salmon Fishing Near Portland.
Sandy River Steelhead Fishing
Steelhead seasons are when you’ll find us on the Sandy most often.
The summer runs start showing up in the early spring, overlapping with the wild winter steelhead also in the river at that time.
However, the summer fish tend to be present in the best numbers starting in late spring (May and June), and fishing can be quite worthwhile throughout July, August, September, and often October.
The catches of summer steelhead can vary widely season to season, from a few hundred one year to more than 1,000 another year, depending largely on how robust the run is but also on water conditions.
Just as the summer steelhead fishing starts to fade out, the first winter steelhead start coming in.
The winter run is the larger of the two runs. During some years on the Sandy, the catch rates will be more than 1,000 in a single month and a few thousand for the season is very common.
The hatchery segment of the winter run tends to begin arriving in December, but January and February often produce better results.
Speaking from experience, fishing can be excellent on Super Bowl Sunday if the water conditions are better than the football conditions.
March can be quite good, but by late winter and early spring many of the steelhead here are wild fish.
These steelhead without clipped adipose fins must be released unharmed, but they can run quite large and put up an amazing fight, plus fishing pressure falls off when the hatchery run fades.
For much more on this topic, read our article: Steelhead Fishing in the Sandy River.
Sandy River Trout Fishing
The Sandy isn’t known as a great trout stream, due in part to the glacial silt present during trout fishing season.
The Sandy River is not planted with hatchery trout, but some fin-clipped rainbow “trout” here are hatchery steelhead smolts that haven’t gone to sea and may be kept as part of the trout limit.
However, these smolts may be small for eating and are probably best released unharmed to let them migrate to the ocean and have a shot at returning as a big steelhead.
Several of the tributaries run clearer.
We suggest you focus your trout-fishing effort on the Salmon River, which is crystal clear and enters the Sandy River between the communities of Sandy and Rhododendron.
At this writing, there is a modest harvest opportunity for trout caught in the Salmon River above Final Falls, although you should check the most current regulations before fishing.
Sandy River Smelt
The Sandy River is the best smelt-dipping river in Oregon. Unfortunately, that sounds better than the reality, which is that catching smelt is banned by permanent regulation in the river.
The only time this changes is when a such big run comes into the Columbia and heads toward the Sandy River that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife determines that recreational fishing for these silvery critters won’t significantly impact the species.
As of this writing, the most recent times the state opened smelt fishing in the Sandy was in 2013 and 2014, when anglers wielding long-handled nets were able to score limits in their buckets.
Watch the ODFW website and local media in late winter for breaking news of a future opening.
Other Sandy River Fish Species
Other game fish that are known to sometimes head up into the Sandy River include shad and sturgeon.
American shad, a non-native species, have been reported caught in the very lower river, close to the mouth at the Columbia River.
Unlike the Columbia right downstream, or the Willamette River a short drive west, the Sandy is not considered a prime shad-fishing destination.
For more on this type of fishing, read: Shad Fishing in Oregon and Washington.
Quite a few people also have reported sturgeon well up into the Sandy River, but please note that even fishing for these behemoths on a catch-and-release basis is strictly prohibited in the Sandy River.