Best Spring Chinook Salmon Fishing | Oregon’s Willamette Valley

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The spring Chinook salmon that power over Willamette Falls are bound for some of the best fishing tributaries in the Willamette Valley, including the North and South Santiams, the McKenzie and the Middle and Coast forks of the Willamette River.

These rivers have hatchery programs that produce some of the best springer runs within easy reach of most of Oregon’s larger cities.

Most of the rivers described below also host excellent summer steelhead runs that arrive at roughly the same time as the spring salmon and often strike similar baits and lures, greatly improving an angler’s odds of bringing a hard-fighting, delicious fish home to the dinner table.

Like nearly all Oregon spring Chinook salmon runs, these fisheries run in cycles, with up and down years.

Please also note that beginning in 2014, a Columbia River Basin endorsement (in addition to the usual license and harvest tag) is needed to fish for salmon, steelhead and sturgeon in the Willamette Valley and other waters that drain into the Columbia system.

Here are the best of the Willamette Valley’s spring Chinook fishing rivers (listed north to south):

North Santiam River

The North Santiam, which joins the South Fork near Jefferson after flowing down from Detroit Lake, is a moderately good (and occasionally very good) spring Chinook river.

While a few can show up in April, expect fishing to be best in May or June and often continue fairly well into early July before taping off later in the summer.

If a reasonable run is expected and harvest remains open for fin-clipped Chinook salmon through Aug. 15, the North Santiam is likely to produce 500 to 1,800 Chinook.

Boat launches are available throughout the fork from below the reservoirs to the lower river and on into the mainstem.

Bank access can be found at numerous parks, boat launches and bridges, with more frequent access in the forest lands upstream from Mehama and above Mill City, where Highway 22 runs close to the river.

Also read our overview article: Santiam River Fishing.

South Santiam River

Some years this is the most productive of the Santiam forks, capable of producing large numbers of spring Chinook like the nearly 3,000 tagged in 2010. Other years, more catch occurs on the North Fork.

Expect the first fish to arrive in April, but typically the most fish are kept in May, June and at least the first weeks of July before results start to fall off in late summer nearing the Aug. 31 closure.

Bank access is good near Sweet Home, including at Pleasant Valley Bridge, at Waterloo County Park and elsewhere off Highway 20 and other roads that parallel the river in the most productive few miles below Foster Dam, location of the hatchery.

Also read our overview article: Santiam River Fishing.

McKenzie River

This famous fly-fishing trout stream also has a very nice spring Chinook run.

The river produced more than 1,700 spring Chinook in a good 2010 season, nearly double the number of the year before when angling was fair at best.

Starting in 2014, average returns of hatchery-marked spring Chinook have tapered off in the McKenzie because ODFW has shifted some of its salmon smolt plants to the Coast Fork Willamette River (see below).

Indeed, in recent years the harvest of spring Chinook below the McKenzie’s Leaburg Dam have been about 600 per year. The reason for the shift is to reduce the impact on naturally reproducing Chinook in the McKenzie.

These springers are most often targeted in the several miles of river below Leaburg Dam, where the hatchery is located and where bait fishing is allowed.

Spring Chinook can be found on the McKenzie as early as April, but fishable numbers start building in May and the catches usually peak in June and early July. Decent fishing can continue into August.

For more on McKenzie River’s trout, steelhead and salmon fishing, click here.

Willamette River, Middle Fork

The Middle Fork Willamette can be the best of the lot when it comes to southern Willamette Valley spring Chinook salmon fishing.

In an excellent 2010 season, the river southeast of Springfield and Eugene gave up an impressive 4,900 springers, nearly three times the catch on the nearby McKenzie.

However, harvests in recent years have been much more modest, often below 1,000 fish.

Like the McKenzie, fishing improves throughout May and often peaks in June and early July. Decent catches can continue into August, although the fish will be darker.

The Middle Fork is primarily fished in the stretch below Dexter Dam, where there is a hatchery. This fork has fewer well-defined holes and is therefore less productive closer to Springfield, where the mainstem splits into the Middle and Coast forks.

Springers and summer steelhead tend to shoot through that lower section before hitting the brakes as they near the dam.

Look not only for spring Chinook and summer steelhead to crowd in below the dam, but also a large number of anglers. Make sure you read the regulations for a description of the open area below the dam.

You’ll find lower concentrations of fish but perhaps a little more elbow room if you fish just a bit downriver, in a few public access points off either Highway 58 (south side) or Pengra Road (north side).

You also can walk into holding water on the trails of Elijah Bristow State Park, off Highway 58 just below the dam, where the river divides into smaller channels with a few deeper holes.

For more on fishing in the Middle Fork Willamette, click here.

Willamette River, Coast Fork

This is the newest major spring chinook fishery in the Willamette Valley. This tributary flows through the towns of Cottage Grove and Creswell before joining the Middle Fork (to form the mainstem Willamette) just outside of Springfield.

Several years back, ODFW began releasing hatchery-produced spring Chinook smolts in the Coast Fork, using smolts that previously would have been planted in the McKenzie River, which unlike the Coast Fork has a naturally reproducing spring Chinook run, according to ODFW fish biologist Jeff Ziller.

The first age class produced by that switch started appearing in the Coast Fork in 2014 and now all age classes can be represented. Judging from harvest results in the last few years for which data is available, springer catches in this fork have remained low, often below 100 per year.

The smolts were planted in the Coast Fork in several locations, such as the Cottage Grove Speedway on the north side of Cottage Grove, at Saginaw Road a few miles north of Cottage Grove, in Creswell, and well downstream at the Highway 58 bridge.

Smolts also have been planted up at East Regional Park on the Row River on the southeast edge of Cottage Grove.

Try those planting spots for bank access, but Ziller expects anglers with small watercraft to quickly find good spots in a river with limited bank access due to private property.

We have more on trout and salmon fishing in the Coast Fork of the Willamette River. Click here.

The following Willamette Valley rivers produce smaller catches of spring Chinook:

  • Molalla River: A modest number of springers stray into this river not far above Willamette Falls. A dozen or two, up to a couple hundred, are caught in a year.
  • Santiam River (mainstem): There is far better odds of catching a spring Chinook in either fork, but a handful are landed in the short main river.
  • Willamette River (mainstem): Though not as productive as the major tributaries, this larger river can be a pretty decent option, especially for boaters who learn the key spots and fish early in the season (April and May), while good numbers of fish are still working their way up to the smaller rivers where they were released as smolts. Popular spots include holding water near the mouths of major tributaries. Bank anglers can find access, but modest success, in parks and other public lands.

Also on this website, more articles about spring chinook fishing around Oregon:

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Oregon Resources

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