NOTE: In recent years, the Willamette River and its tributaries have suffered from very poor runs of summer steelhead, so the descriptions of numbers of fish caught in this article aren’t reflective of catch rates at the moment. Steelhead runs are cyclical and we’re hoping, with the help of management and environmental factors, future returns are closer to the great runs that used to return up the Willamette.
The Willamette River flows through Oregon’s biggest cities, carrying with it what has historically been one of Oregon’s richest summer steelhead runs.
The Willamette run is largely comprised of an impressive contingent of hatchery summer steelhead bound for the valley’s largest tributaries near Salem and Eugene.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife allows anglers to keep three adult steelhead in the system above Willamette Falls, in addition to salmon limits.
The first handful of these fish power over Willamette Falls in the late winter and early spring, but generally speaking it will be May before enough summer steelhead have muscled their way over Willamette Falls and southward into the valley before anglers should get too excited about fishing for them.
The rivers on this list also host hatchery spring Chinook salmon runs that overlap the summer steelhead runs.
Both big anadromous fish often strike similar baits and lures, although the salmon are more often fished with natural baits and larger offerings and in deeper pools, while the steelhead are more aggressive toward jigs, spinners and flies.
Most years, the rivers listed below start to fish well for summer steelhead sometimes in May through much of July, and often into August.
June is almost always good in any of them, and all will continue to produce at least modest catches of summer steelhead (still in fairly good eating shape) until at least October, although fishing pressure falls off after mid-summer as anglers head to the coast for fall salmon.
Note that these Willamette Valley rivers are subject to Oregon’s new Columbia River Basin endorsement, in addition to typical license and tag requirements.
For the valley’s best summer steelhead fishing, check out these rivers (listed alphabetically):
The McKenzie is one of Oregon’s favorite fly fishing streams for wild redside and stocked rainbow trout, plus native cutthroat trout, but it also has excellent late spring and summer fishing for summer steelhead (and springers).
Some years, anglers tag well over 2,000 per season, while down years are below 1,000. Runs have been down in recent years but steelhead are cyclical and the numbers are likely to improve at some point.
The McKenzie’s steelhead primarily are fished from the mouth up to Leaburg Dam, where they come back to the Leaburg Hatchery near the community of the same name along Highway 126 east of Springfield.
There also is a modest fishery for summer steelhead above Leaburg up to the Forest Glen boat ramp, although fish numbers tend to be better below about Helfrich Landing.
A few go well up and turn into lower Blue River, where they also may be caught.
Anglers can keep steelhead over 24 inches all year, whether or not they have a clipped adipose fin. Additional rules apply to the upper river, where relatively few steelhead are caught. Check current regulations before fishing.
Steelhead move through the lower river quickly, and while boat access is good in the lower reaches there is a lot of private property that restricts bank access to a handful of spots.
More steelhead are caught from Hendricks Bridge upriver to Leaburg, due to both better access and the simple fact that the fish linger as they near the hatchery.
While the heaviest action is during the early summer, it’s not unusual for anglers to land summer steelhead near Leaburg throughout the fall.
There is a wayside near Hendricks and a number of places to get to river both from Highway 126 on the north side and from Deerhorn Road on the south side.
You’ll find pull-outs as well as parks such as the Eugene Water & Electric Board’s Lloyd Knox Park near the hatchery and Deerhorn County Park a little ways downstream.
Drift boat anglers will find good launches and take-outs at Leaburg, Deerhorn County Park, Hendricks Bridge and a few other spots on this section of the river. Additional launches are available farther downstream.
North Santiam River
The North Santiam isn’t always the summer steelhead factory that its southerly twin usually is, but still anglers in recent years have harvested some 700 to 1,500 summer fish.
Steelhead fishing here begins at the forks near the town of Jefferson (northeast of Albany) and runs up to Big Cliff Dam, near Highway 22 between Mill City and Detroit.
Highway 22 periodically comes close to the North Santiam from Stayton (an easy drive from Salem) to the verdant forests above Mill City, below the two dams downstream from Detroit Reservoir, a large impoundment that boasts one of the state’s most popular camping destinations and rainbow trout fisheries.
Steelhead fishing can be good through the lower reaches of this river from late spring into early summer.
However, once the hot weather and low-water conditions arrive with mid-summer (and sometimes continue into early fall), anglers do best to focus on the cooler upper reaches.
Among other places, there is river access at North Santiam State Park and Fishermens Bend below Mill City, Minto and Packsaddle county parks above Gates and some Santiam State Forest public lands around Niagara.
Also read our overview article: Santiam River Fishing.
South Santiam River
Usually at or near the top summer steelhead producer in the Willamette Valley, and one of the best anywhere in Oregon, the South Fork of the Santiam system can put out 2,000 to 4,000 or more of the great game fish in a typical year, and catches have been even higher.
However, recent seasons have been tougher on these fish and the anglers that chase them.
Like neighboring rivers, you have a shot at catching a summer steelhead here in early spring, but your odds will improve in May and peak fishing is typically in June and July. August and September can still be quite good here for steelhead.
The South Santiam’s fishery runs from where the mainstem forks into the North and South northeast of Albany up to Foster Dam just above Sweet Home. Highway 20 and a number of smaller roads off it are used to get to the river.
Hatchery summer steelhead are regularly collected near the dam, where there is good access (but often crowded conditions) at Wiley Creek Park.
Since there are nearly always plenty of fish in this run for brood stock purposes, the ODFW hatchery staff here is generous about “recycling” extra summer steelhead downriver to give anglers additional chances to catch them, boosting the river’s overall catch.
These recycled fish are trucked to boat launches at Pleasant Valley Bridge in Sweet Home and farther downstream at Waterloo County Park, where there is very good bank access a few miles upstream from Lebanon.
That fish recycling practice helps make the stretch from below Foster Reservoir down to Waterloo the best on the river.
Other access points can be found at boat launches, bridges and pull-outs along Highway 20 and several smaller roads that follow different sections of this river.
Also read our overview article: Santiam River Fishing.
There is a very modest summer steelhead fishery in the mainstem Santiam River, from where it enters the Willamette River between Independence and Albany up to the forks. There are a few bank access points and launches, but most anglers would do better to spend their fishing time learning more productive water higher up on the forks.
Willamette River, Mainstem
The big river can be a little harder to fish than the tributaries, especially for bank anglers or new arrivals, due to the fact that there is a lot more water to figure out and limited access through the farmlands that dominate the valley.
Annual catches are sometimes under 1,000 and sometimes closer to 2,000, depending on the strength of the run.
Early anglers, particularly boaters, can find fish staging near the mouths of the major summer steelhead-producing tributaries (Santiam, McKenzie and Middle Fork Willamette), as well as some additional productive water.
April can be better here than in some of the tribs. May is usually the peak below Eugene, and while much of the action moves into smaller rivers as the season progresses, decent fishing can continue in the mainstem into June and early July.
Also, ODFW releases summer steelhead smolts right in Eugene, and adult fish resulting from that “town run” tend to linger in the city through the fall months, giving even anglers without a car a fair shot at a summer steelhead throughout the year’s best weather.
On rare occasions, these big summer-run steelhead will turn up into Alton Baker Canal in Eugene, giving people fishing for pan-sized stocked rainbow a real thrill.
For more about mainstem fishing, read Willamette River Fishing.
Willamette River, Middle Fork
If any Willamette Valley tributary can rival the South Santiam for summer steelhead, this is the one. Farther up, the Middle Fork also has good fisheries for trout.
Like the South Santiam, the Middle Fork produced just shy of 6,000 fin-clipped summer steelhead in 2010 (an exceptionally good year). Even in average years, it typically yields 2,000 or more summer steelhead, but in more recent years the catches aren’t nearly so impressive.
A handful of steelhead start arriving in April. May can be very good some years, but look to June and into July for reliably excellent fishing. Decent sport fishing holds up until about October.
The Willamette splits into the Middle Fork and Coast Fork near I-5 just south of Eugene and Springfield, and nearly all the summer steelhead mostly turn up the Middle Fork and head up to the foot of Dexter Dam.
For steelhead, the Coast Fork gets a few hatchery strays but isn’t planted with steelhead smolts like it is with spring Chinook.
Summer steelhead on the Middle Fork Willamette River are found from the fork on up to the dam, but most will be caught in the first few miles below Dexter. Lower down, access is tougher and good holding water is hard to identify.
Within the best section, there is access below the dam (see regulations for a description of the open area), where fish and anglers congregate, and from several points reached off Highway 58 on the south side of the river or Pengra Road on the north.
Another plan is to walk the trails through Elijah Bristow State Park to get to some fishing spots in this productive stretch.
For many more summer and winter steelhead fishing hot spots:
Return to Oregon Steelhead fishing page