The Sandy River has just about everything going for it as a steelhead stream – it’s close to home for anyone in the greater Portland metropolitan area, it has plenty of access, and it often remains fishable when other rivers blow out of shape.
Most of all, it has strong runs of hatchery steelhead for the table and big natives for catch-and-release fishing.
The river is truly a year-round fishery for steelhead.
The winter run generally far exceeds the summer run for numbers of fish going home for dinner, but the summer fishery can offer a pleasant experience in good weather.
The Sandy, which begins on Mount Hood and drains into the Columbia River near Troutdale, passing near Gresham along the way, also is known among recreational anglers for good runs of spring Chinook and fall coho salmon. (Find an overview of Sandy River fishing opportunities here.)
Sandy River Fishing Regulations
The Sandy River is in the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Willamette Zone. The daily limit currently is three salmon or steelhead in any combination.
All steelhead and salmon must have a clipped adipose fin – marking them as a hatchery reared fish – to retain in the main river below the mouth of the Salmon River.
Fishing for these species is prohibited in the Sandy and its tributaries upriver from the Salmon River mouth.
Most of this long, fishable section of the Sandy is open all year for clipped steelhead and coho.
Consult the ODFW’s Web site or current Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations booklet for bag limits and tackle restrictions in the upper river, an annual salmon-spawning closure at Oxbow Park and the possibility of rule changes.
The Sandy is closed to angling from a boat upriver from a point just below the ramp at Oxbow. If you know the river, it is possible to use drift boats and rafts to travel to good holes upstream from this area, but you must get out to fish.
Best Time to Fish for Sandy River Steelhead
The Sandy’s winter steelhead appear in the highest numbers from about the middle of December through March.
Usually by Christmas, you can expect a good number of hatchery fish and the first fish in a wild run that builds into mid-winter.
Some of the largest natives (must be released) arrive from late January through the end of winter, accompanied by good catches of fin-clipped steelies.
Later in the season, especially in March, the steelhead population will be a hodge-podge of spawned-out hatchery fish running downriver, late-arriving winter fish and the first summer steelhead. There may also be a few early spring Chinook.
If you target summer steelhead, they typically are caught in the best numbers in about May and June, often along with spring Chinook.
Note that the Sandy River is often milky during the warm months because its headwaters are fed by the melting snow and glacial ice on Mount Hood.
While most steelhead of both runs are caught from the mouth to Revenue Bridge, the less-fished section of river from the bridge up to the mouth of the Salmon River offers small catches of steelhead, usually peaking in mid- to late winter and again in the mid-summer summer months of July and August.
Where to Find Sandy River Steelhead
Bank access is fairly good on the Sandy. Good starting points are Dodge, Oxbow, Dabney and Lewis and Clark parks, as well as several other public access points.
After the runs have been going for a while, the Dodge to Oxbow stretch remains good and there is walk-in access in the upper river near Cedar Creek Hatchery, Revenue Bridge, the old Marmot Dam site and on upriver to the mouth of the Salmon River.
These upper-river locations also remain fair bets into the warm months as summer steelhead numbers build.
For boaters, the three lower parks (Oxbow to Lewis and Clark near Interstate 84) have good ramps that offer access to excellent winter steelhead water in the lower river, with modest opportunity for summer steelhead in the spring.
Farther upstream, the 7.5 miles of river from Dodge Park down to Dabney Park is best-suited for technically skilled boaters. While it can be done with a drift boat, a raft is a safer option. It’s probably best to first learn this section with someone who knows the water.
Once you’re on the Sandy, look for water in the 3- to 7-foot depths with some current for a lot of your steelhead fishing, especially in the winter, but also try down in the deeper pools when water conditions get quite low.
Local Expert Fishing Tips For Sandy River Steelhead
In the upper river, where even anglers traveling by drift boat must step out to fish, most of the usual bank techniques will catch fish. Drift fishing, the old standby, catches plenty of fish on the Sandy and is one of the better ways to go in medium to high water levels.
Jack Glass of Team Hook-Up Guide Service often prefers to tempt winter fish with either salmon roe, a sand shrimp or a pink rubber worm on the hook. He suggests using a slinky or pencil lead weight to make your offering bounce along the bottom in likely holding water. A 3- to 4-foot leader is best.
Glass also uses a lot of jigs, especially as river flows drop to medium and low flows. He likes jigs from First Bite Tackle and Beau Mac, especially in pink and white colors for winter fishing, floating beneath a bobber.
For lures, Glass suggests throwing a Steelie spoon, a Vibrax Blue Fox or one of the spinners from local R & B Lures.
Glass likes R & B’s matte silver finish accented with black or green for much of his winter spinner fishing.
If the water gets low in winter, or potentially for summer fishing, sometimes a more subtle approach to spinners and spoons is good, with brass or nickel finishes and green or black trim.
However, in this river summer water clarity can be low due to glacial silt, so keep your presentations reasonably visible.
In high water most associated with the winter runs, whether on shore or anchored in a boat, plunking might be your best option.
Glass rigs up with a three-way swivel. On a 12-inch dropper line he ties a 4- to 6-ounce pyramid sinker. Then he uses about three feet of leader off the other end of the swivel that goes to a No. 4 or 6 Spin N Glo. To the hook he adds either a sand shrimp or roe.
Remember, even in high flows, steelhead most often travel in 3 to 7 feet of water, which might be only 10 to 20 feet from shore. Don’t make the mistake of repeatedly plunking beyond the fish.
A Final Steelhead Secret
Add some attraction to your bobber-and-jig by threading on a piece of pink rubber worm. Glass’s favorite is the Berkley PowerBait worm in the bubble gum flavor. He hangs 4 inches of worm off the jig hook in lower water but increases it to 6 inches when the flows are higher.
For links to much more steelhead fishing info, start with Best Steelhead Fishing in Oregon.
For regulation information, always consult the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.