While much of Oregon’s focus on spring chinook salmon is in the Columbia and Willamette rivers closer to Portland, plenty of these hard-fighting and incredible-tasting fish make it to the state’s drier side, where they can be caught in key tributary streams of Central and Northeast Oregon.
As is the case with many salmon runs, seasons for these spring salmon fisheries are set according to run forecasts that are typically not completed by the time the annual sport regulations booklet is printed each year. In fact, chinook salmon fishing in some areas is prohibited under regular regulations and only allowed under special regulations set later, when the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife determines there will be enough fish to support a sport harvest as well as protect wild runs and/or provide enough salmon eggs for hatchery operations.
Generally, these fisheries (when open) allow only the harvest of fin-clipped chinook salmon spawned in hatcheries and released into these systems. Most will allow harvest of two fin-clipped adults, and additional jack salmon may be allowed. Some of these rivers have had times when only jack salmon could be harvested, but this will be announced ahead of time.
The best advice we can give is to consult the ODFW website for up-to-date regulations for the river you want to fish.
Ideally, you should check the chinook counts at the nearest Columbia or Snake river dam, which you can find here. Look for counts for several days into the thousands, maybe even ten thousands on the Columbia, before there will be significant numbers of fish arriving in your area. That is likely to begin the second half of April into early May for the lower dams on the Columbia and most likely into May for the Snake River tributaries.
The mainstem Columbia between Oregon and Washington also offers a spring chinook fishery each spring. Typically, the highest catches in the big river are made by boat anglers, often in The Dalles or John Day pools.
The following rivers, listed west to east, are Oregon’s major spring chinook tributary fisheries located east of the Cascade Mountains. Unlike the Columbia, these all have significant bank fisheries, and some areas are only suited to bank fishing.
Even though it’s just an hour east of Portland, this river is often overlooked but sports a pretty good run of spring chinook.
Hood River, which flows into the Columbia River at the town of the same name, runs cold with melting glacier water off Mount Hood. It also supports runs of summer and winter steelhead that overlap with the spring chinook runs.
Anglers land a few hundred spring chinook out of Hood River in a typical season, with the best catches coming in May and June. (The 2014 season, as an example, was open from April 15 through the end of June, but few fish are caught in the first weeks of the season.) While that’s not as many salmon as often landed from the far more famous Deschutes River to the east, Hood River also isn’t as crowded as the Big D. There is good access and pretty good success rates.
When a fishery is allowed, the mainstem Hood River is open up to the forks. Fishing also may be allowed in a short section of the very lower end of the West Fork, starting 200 feet below Punchbowl Falls, which is not far above the confluence with the East Fork. (The entire East Fork is typically closed to salmon fishing.)
There are access points to the river bank along Highway 35 in the lower reaches and the Dee Highway (Hwy. 281) farther upstream.
Central Oregon’s most famous fishing river is better known for its redside rainbow trout and summer steelhead, but it can be a very nice fishery for salmon, including spring and fall chinook and the fall run of coho.
As long as the spring chinook run looks promising, ODFW typically sets a season that in years past has started in mid-April. If you go then, you’ll probably beat most of the fish there. Historically, the largest numbers of spring chinook are tagged in May and into early June. (The run timing can coincide fairly close to the Deschutes’ famous salmonfly hatch, making for a nice double opportunity.) Usually salmon fishing tapers way off before the end of July, when the spring season typically runs straight into the fall chinook season on Aug. 1. But it’s far better to fish earlier for springers and hold off awhile for fall chinook.
By far, the best place to catch spring chinook on the Deschutes River is below the deadline near Sherars Falls, because that’s where the fish will stack up. You’ll find the falls near the Highway 216 bridge, downstream (north) of Maupin. There is good bank access. And let’s be honest, you won’t be the only angler there when the salmon are in.
Bait fishing is allowed only in the roughly three miles of river from Sherars downstream to the upper railroad trestle. Bait angling is typically the most effective salmon strategy, and the rest of the lower Deschutes is strictly an artificial lure and fly fishery.
For an overview of fishing in this river: Deschutes River Fishing.
The Umatilla River has a regular spring chinook salmon season and can offer a decent fishery some years, producing hundreds of fish. But the most productive areas can be different year to year. Some years, catch results have been better below Three-Mile Dam (located between Hermiston and the mouth at the Columbia River) while other seasons have shown more harvests well upriver above Nolin.
Look for the best fishing in the Umatilla in May, after the mid-April opener. Check your regulations because current regulations close the river below the dam in early June while the upper stretch is open through the end of June.
This is a tributary that enters the Grand Ronde River at Palmer Junction, and is commonly fished near the hatchery reached by following the signs north out of Elgin. There is a fishing deadline at Jarboe Creek, and there also is access from private timberlands bordering the stream down to Mose Creek Lane Bridge, the lower deadline near the Grand Ronde.
Note that only artificial lures and flies are allowed in this creek, even for salmon fishing, due to the presence of protected bull trout. Remember that those soft molded plastic baits fall under the definition of bait, so no soft artificial salmon eggs and roe are allowed.
Watch for a determination of whether fishing will be allowed to be released early in the spring. If fishing is permitted, you would typically expect the largest number of fish to start arriving in late May or early June. Fishing can hold up into July if allowed to stay open.
This far northeastern Oregon river can be very good for spring chinook when good runs come up the Snake River. When runs taper off, fishing is usually not allowed. The decision is usually made in the spring but this fishery has been delayed or closed early when the returns are marginal.
In recent years the area open to fishing has been quite large, from the mouth upriver 45 miles to Summit Creek Bridge. However, a good bit of that river flows through private lands, so look for limited public access or ask landowners for permission to cross their property to reach the river.
More East Side Springers
In 2014, ODFW piloted a short fishery for hatchery marked spring chinook on the lower Grand Ronde River, where previously these fish had been off-limits. Watch ODFW news releases for the possibility of open days here.
Other rivers and streams east of the mountains have small catches of spring chinook reported to ODFW. A list of these would include Fifteen Mile Creek (near The Dalles) and the John Day, Powder (sometimes stocked with excess hatchery returnees), Walla Walla, Wallowa and Weneha rivers. Consult your regulations.
Also on this website, more articles about spring chinook fishing around Oregon:
- Best Spring Chinook Salmon Fishing Near Portland
- The Willamette Valley’s Best Spring Chinook Salmon Fishing Rivers
- Best Spring Chinook Fishing on the Oregon Coast