Tualatin River Fishing: Complete Angler’s Guide

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The Tualatin River meanders through farmland and suburbia west of Portland, almost invisible to many anglers in the region.

While not a salmon and steelhead powerhouse by any stretch, the Tualatin River can offer fair to sometimes very good fishing for anglers like me who live close by. We can catch bass, catfish, panfish and, in the upper reaches, native cutthroat trout.

The lower Tualatin River, from about Hillsboro to the mouth where it joins the Willamette River at West Linn, is perfectly suited to kayak or canoe fishing.

There are multiple launches in this long stretch, so you can put in at one and take out downstream, or the summer and early fall current is typically slow enough that you can paddle upriver and fish your way back down to where you’ve launched.

While there is tons of private property along the river’s banks, both in suburbia and farm country, there also are quite a few parks, especially from Hillsboro to the mouth.

Check out the rules for shore fishing at your local park. They aren’t always clear. Definitely don’t fish on docks or banks if it’s posted as prohibited. The docks at kayak and canoe launch areas are for boaters, so give them a wide berth when fishing nearby.

Let’s take a look at some of the major fishing opportunities.

Tualatin River Bass Fishing

The Tualatin River is home to two types of black bass, smallmouth and largemouth bass.

Both of these black bass types live throughout the lower sections of the river, with good numbers around Tigard, Tualatin, West Linn, and elsewhere.

Smallmouth bass are dogged fighters and probably the most common species in the river as a whole, but largemouths can grow bigger.

Smallmouths prefer rockier habitats and often like a bit of current, so look for spots where the slow river speeds up just a bit and turns from silt to rock bottom, and you’re likely to find smallies nearby.

There definitely isn’t as much rocky structure in the mostly soft-bottomed Tualatin River as you’d find elsewhere, including in the mainstem of the Willamette River, but you’re likely to find smallmouths where you do find rocks.

If there’s much current, look for smallmouths to duck behind rocks, logs, bends, or other breaks in the flow, where they can dart out and ambush passing prey.

Largemouth bass usually like quieter waters than smallmouths. Look for deeper pools, especially around bends, log jams, docks, aquatic weed beds, and overhanging shoreline trees and shrubs.

There is no shortage of those types of habitats in the Tualatin, although this river often looks bassier for largemouths than it actually is. It’s still really fun to fish all that structure.

Both species feed on the river’s numerous crayfish and smaller fish (of which there are many species). In its heyday, the Tualatin River was absolutely stuffed with crayfish, to the point there were commercial fisheries. The city of Tualatin hosts a festival celebrating these little freshwater lobsters, which are still quite common in the river system.

I especially like crayfish imitations for smallmouth, including soft plastic grubs, crawdad-patterned crankbaits, and even a reddish or brownish Rooster Tail spinner.

The above baits will also catch largemouth bass, as will your full arsenal of finesse soft plastics, crankbaits, swimbaits, jigs, and more. Weedless presentations can help you save lures amid underwater hazards, especially the ever-present submerged logs.

Especially near dawn or dusk in the summer, try a topwater frog, Whopper Plopper or other floating lure over the tops of submerged logs or along aquatic weed edges or brushy overhangs. You might be treated with some giant blowups.

Less technically minded anglers can catch both bass species simply drifting a nightcrawler with little to no weight or fished beneath a bobber.

Catfish Fishing

Speaking of nightcrawlers, that’s one of the top baits for catfish, although when fishing a nightcrawler you are inviting bass, panfish, and all other manner of species to your hook.

Several species of catfish call the Tualatin River home.

The most prized species are channel catfish in the lower stretches of the Tualatin River. The Willamette River has seen an increase recently in channel cat populations, and these current-loving fish have easy access to this major tributary.

As with all warmer waters in this area, the Tualatin also holds brown bullheads and a more unusual cousin, the white catfish.

In fact, the state record white catfish was caught in this river, but I personally haven’t caught or seen one myself.

If you really want to focus on catching catfish, I recommend using cut baits such as pieces of raw fish or crayfish tails, and saltwater shrimp or prawns. Keep the skin or bellies of other fish you catch or buy, and you’re in business. Shellfish or oily saltwater fish like tuna or mackerel can sometimes be found on clearance at the grocery store fish counter.

Some anglers also are fond of commercially prepared “stink baits” that come in a jar, and even a piece of hot dog can be effective. Really, catfish aren’t that choosy.

Using just enough weight to hold near the bottom, let your bait settle into a deeper pool, especially below a shallower area or in a river bend where catfish wait for food to drift to them.

Catfish fishing is typically best in lower-light conditions, but keep safety in mind when fishing late. I also fairly often catch catfish in broad daylight, though often in the deepest water I can cast into.

Crappie and Panfish

The Tualatin River is home to a variety of panfish species, with crappie a favorite.

Look for schools of crappie in quiet areas, out of the main river flow, and around plenty of structure or shade, including submerged logs and under docks.

Fishing with live minnows or any type of live fish is prohibited in Oregon, so crappie jigs are the next best bet when it comes to catching crappie.

You can fish them straight down in deeper water or along the edge of a dock, but in many instances, you’ll need a bobber to work them among likely holding habitats like snaggy logs.

Set the bobber so the jig will reach down into the hiding areas but not drag across the bottom or through the worst of the hangups. Still, expect to lose some jigs.

Small fish-imitating lures also work well for crappie, including crankbaits that are only about an inch in length. I’ve also had luck on white or yellow Rooster Tails fished along bridges and docks to elicit quick reaction strikes.

Again, bear in mind that the Tualatin River is a snag-filled place, so only fish lures you’re prepared to lose. Donating those $10 cranks to the side of a sunken log hurts a little.

Other panfish you might catch while fishing in the Tualatin include bluegill, yellow perch, pumpkinseed sunfish, and warmouth.

Trout Fishing

While trout move into parts of the river during various seasons, they are more permanent residents of the mainstem in its upper reaches.

Cutthroat trout are the dominant trout species here, although fish surveys through the years also have noted rainbow trout (or juvenile steelhead).

I would focus trout fishing above the Forest Grove area, where the Tualatin River runs colder than it does from Hillsboro to the mouth.

It’s open all year, with a modest harvest of two trout (8-inch minimum size) from late May through October. The river above the Highway 47 bridge in the Gaston area south of Forest Grove is restricted to artificial flies and lures.

Be sure to go over the regulations yourself for updates.

The summer flow is augmented by colder water released from Henry Hagg Lake and Barney Reservoir, impoundments built to provide irrigation and drinking water but also help the entire river stay cooler during the hottest months.

When fishing with artificials, Rooster Tails and other small spinners have worked well for me, but you’re likely to lose some along the way.

Woolly buggers and similar streamers can work really well, as they resemble tiny crayfish or other forage that make up a cutthroat trout’s diet.

The bigger challenge is limited access because much of the river flows through private property.

Try bridge crossings or similar spots to avoid crossing private land, or get a landowner’s permission. The few spots with good public access will likely get fished pretty hard at dawn on opening day and then be tough into summer.

Higher up, the river is more of a creek but flows through state forest lands that are more accessible, especially above the tiny community of Cherry Grove.

I’ve talked to anglers who’ve beaten the brush in the very upper reaches to catch and release cutthroats from beaver ponds and other pools in the small stream. While I’ve done much the same on Tualatin’s tributaries (especially East Fork Dairy Creek, where I live as a teenager), I haven’t personally fished the far upper reaches of the Tualatin in the same way myself.

Speaking of tributaries, Gales, Dairy, McKay and Scoggins creeks, among a few others, also have populations of cutthroat trout.

Salmon and Steelhead

The Tualatin River has, at least in my lifetime, never been a great salmon and steelhead fishery.

There have been times that anglers have been able to catch hatchery coho in the Forest Grove area each fall, but the numbers were modest at best and pretty much nonexistent these days, according to catch statistics.

Though, technically, the river below the bridge at Gaston has a coho season from August through October, you can do better elsewhere.

As a teenager on East Dairy Creek, we would see the occasional steelhead (closed) or salmon pass through. The salmon were usually in pretty tough shape (or already dead) by the time we saw them that far up the watershed.

Again, I wouldn’t recommend salmon fishing in the Tualatin River system these days. Head to the coastal rivers like the Wilson River, Trask River or Nestucca River, or go east to colder Cascade streams like the Clackamas River or Sandy River.

Other Tualatin River Fish

You might catch other fish while targeting the most popular gamefish.

Two of the most likely in the lower river are northern pikeminnows and common carp.

Pikeminnows are easy to catch on nightcrawlers and other natural baits and also quite will hit soft plastics and other bass lures.

While these fish get a bad rap in dammed systems such as the Columbia River. In the Columbia, they sit below dams and gobble salmon and steelhead smolts. There’s a pikeminnow sport reward program in the Columbia, but not in the Tualatin.

Northern pikeminnow (oldtimers called them squawfish) is a native species in the Tualatin and part of nature’s balancing act in a healthy river system.

And they’re pretty fun to catch.

What’s more fun to catch? Common carp.

These oversized, uglified cousins of the goldfish are superb fighters when hooked, to the point that they get compared favorably to tarpon and fly anglers around the world spend their days trying for these “sewer salmon.”

Easier than catching carp on a fly, though, is baiting a hook with dough balls, canned corn, nightcrawlers or even commercially sold “bollies.”

I personally don’t recommend eating carp, but some people do. Either way, if you’re just itching for a fight, these are your match. Be aware that carp have a habit of breaking lightweight rods and reels.

Tualatin River Access

A kayaker paddles along the placid lower Tualatin River upstream from Cook Park in Tigard, with dense trees on either shoreline.
Photo by Eric Apalategui

The Tualatin River is primarily accessible at parks and other public lands along its path, as well as at some public bridge crossings.

The main area you can paddle with a kayak or canoe is from Rood Bridge Park in Hillsboro to the mouth at West Linn. That’s a long stretch, so you’ll need to plan your paddle from one launch to the next.

I’ve kayaked around the Cook Park area in Tigard, and there are some nice launching or landing spots downriver from there at Tualatin Community Park and Brown’s Ferry.

This entire area is good for warmwater species, including bass and catfish, although beware of shallow but passable water between Cook and Tualatin Community parks (near the footbridge at the mouth of Fanno Creek).

There are a couple of hazards in the lower stream, including the impassable Lake Oswego Diversion Dam roughly a half mile below the I-205 Bridge. There’s also a shallow, rocky section about a mile upstream from the mouth that can be tough to get past.

Willamette Park in West Linn has excellent access to the lowest mile or so of the Tualatin as well as to the Willamette River, which offers similar types of fishing in a bigger package.

Bank fishing is available at all of the spots mentioned above, as well as several other parks along the river bank.

A Google Map will serve you well for the general lay of the land, and this Tualatin Riverkeepers map is excellent for those who want to paddle or just find a park while avoiding major water hazards. This organization also offers modestly priced kayak rentals at Cook and Brown’s Ferry parks.

Tualatin River Fishing Regulations

The river is open to fishing year-round. However, you can only keep trout from May 22 through October 31. The daily limit is two trout of at least 8 inches in length. You may catch and release trout from November to May 21.

Fishing with bait is always allowed from the Highway 47 bridge near Gaston to the mouth near West Linn.

Above that Highway 47 bridge, only artificial lures and flies may be used. Bait-fishing is prohibited in this uppermost section all year.

The river is open to coho salmon from August 1 through October 31, though reported harvests in recent years have been nonexistent.

Always double-check for regulation updates. Also use the link below for zone and regional rules that also would apply to the Tualatin River.

Are Tualatin River Fish Safe to Eat?

While the Tualatin River gets a bad rap, the Oregon Health Authority has not issued any fish consumption advisories specific to this or most Willamette River tributaries, unlike multiple warnings it has for the Willamette River.

(Though we’d note that the lower Tualatin is likely to share some fish populations with the Willamette River above Willamette Falls, where there is a consumption advisory due to naturally occurring mercury upriver in the Willamette Valley.)

Also, there’s a statewide advisory to limit the number of meals of bass consumed, no matter where they are caught.

See the Oregon Health Authority’s Fish and Shellfish Consumption webpage for details.

The river also is generally considered safe for swimming and other body contact activities, although, like any body of water, it might be subject to occasional warnings due to toxic algae blooms in warm weather or perhaps other issues.

Does that mean the Tualatin is perfectly clean? Of course not, because it drains a vast area of rich (and fertilized) farmland as well as multiple suburbs where residents spray their yards, drip their motor oils, and so forth.

The most notable impact is that the Tualatin is exceptionally fertile (maybe too much so) for aquatic vegetation that thrives on the extra nutrients.

Oregon Resources

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