Fishing the Wallowa River

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Meandering its way through the Wallowa mountains, eventually joining forces with the Minam River and at last dumping into the Grande Ronde, the Wallowa River is one of Northeast Oregon’s most popular rivers.

Boasting impressive steelhead runs and some of the most underrated trout fishing in the state, the Wallowa River is a favorite for anglers all across Oregon.

The Wallowa River is just a stone’s throw away from Wallowa Lake and the Wallowa Mountains, making it a great choice for both summer vacationers and avid fishermen alike.

There’s nothing like fishing in one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful regions in the Pacific Northwest.

Steelhead Fishing

A scenic shot of the small but productive Wallowa River in northeastern Oregon.
Photo by Rick Obst/Creative Commons, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Historically, the Wallowa got a robust steelhead run, one of the best in Northeast Oregon.

Unfortunately, steelhead runs into Northeast Oregon have fallen on somewhat hard times recently.

The Wallowa steelhead harvests in the past few years (the ones we have data for) are in the 900 or 1,000 range, well below the thousands caught previously. The catches are often a bit higher below Minam State Park, but they also can be caught above.

The timing of the steelhead run on the Wallowa is just slightly later than that of the Grande Ronde; it’s a tributary of the Grande Ronde, and steelhead will often wait for higher river levels before venturing into the smaller Wallowa.

Steelhead begin to enter the Wallowa River in October, and steelhead generally hang around in the river all the way through the spring, though most fishermen turn their efforts to trout once spring rolls around.

Access for steelhead fishing on the Wallowa is superb.

Most of the river is public access, and the canyon stretch of the river, located on Highway 82 just south of the town of Joseph, is the most popular piece of water on the whole river.

Anglers find success with both fly fishing and conventional techniques.

This is smaller water, so gear such as lighter spinners and jigs work very well.

Spey fishing is a blast on the Wallowa as well, though the river is a bit small for 12-foot-plus spey rods – many fly anglers opt for a switch rod or shorter spey rod to have an easier time out on the water.

The Wallowa River can be so good for hatchery steelhead that ODFW typically offers a three-fish limit for them.

However, state biologists monitor the run forecasts and dam passage counts and will lower the limits when the steelhead numbers don’t justify the more generous harvest levels. So be sure to check the latest regulations before fishing.

Want to learn more about how to catch these fish? A good place to start is our Steelhead Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.

Trout Fishing

The Wallowa is arguably the best trout river in Northeast Oregon.

The fishing can be finicky and entirely reliable on weather and river flows, but when the Wallowa is fishing well, it can be spectacular.

As opposed to other rivers in the region, like the Grande Ronde and the Lostine, the Wallowa is a river that consistently produces large trout. Fish 18 inches and over are not uncommon, particularly in the canyon stretch of the river.

Most trout fishing pressure on the Wallowa is from fly fishermen, who take full advantage of the expansive public access and the exciting hatches that happen on the river.

In June, golden stoneflies hatch and call the river their home, while caddis fishing can be great in the fall.

Spring, early summer, and fall are the most productive times to fish the Wallowa.

The dog days of summer can be particularly brutal on the river, and low river flows combined with high water temperatures put a damper on fishing during the hottest months of the year.

Though the Wallowa River below Wallowa Lake is by far the most popular stretch to fish, the river above the lake is a hidden gem for locals.

Kokanee and large trout can be found where the river empties into the lake, and further upstream, trout are easily caught on euro-nymphing techniques in small, fast-moving water.

Learn more about catching these fish in our simple trout fishing how-to article.

Mountain Whitefish

Fly anglers often catch mountain whitefish in the Wallowa River, whether by intention or while fishing for trout.

Drifting small nymph patterns across the bottom of deep pools is often your best bet. Since whitefish often school in such spots, usually, if you catch one, you can catch several in the same spot.

Unlike many species, whitefish are often easier to catch in the winter, although they’ll bite year-round.

Where is the Wallowa River?

A scenic view of wallowa river.
Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

You can reach the Wallowa River in about four and a half hours from Portland and maybe 45 minutes out of La Grande.

That will bring you to the confluence of the Minam River, where you can then fish upstream into the canyon area (toward Wallowa Lake) or downriver toward the Grande Ronde.

The Wallowa River is absolutely worth the trek out to Northeast Oregon.

Not only do you get to fish a fantastic river, but the region itself is one of Oregon’s most beautiful regions. Endless hikes and fishing opportunities abound in the Wallowa region, so go check it out!

If you happen to find yourself in Northeast Oregon, don’t simply limit yourself to the Wallowa! There are plenty of other gems in the area; specifically, the Grande Ronde and Lostine Rivers are both great options to try if fishing the Wallowa doesn’t quite go your way.

Oregon Resources

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

Find more fishing spots in Wallowa County

Carter Reschke is a freelance writer based in Oregon. Passionate about the outdoors, Carter is a fly fishing aficionado and spends his days on the river when he’s not writing.

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