Editor’s Note: The 2022 salmon season brings some limited opportunity to keep one wild coho salmon in the tidewater below Highway 101 (and down in the bay). But it also brings closure to the retention of wild (unclipped) Chinook salmon.
The Wilson River often is among the leaders for producing fall Chinook salmon, thanks to a combination of good rearing habitat, plenty of access to holding water, a long season and proximity to Portland, Oregon’s major population center. (The Wilson also has very good steelhead fishing.)
Like many northern Oregon coast rivers, October’s first big rains brings good numbers of fish into the Wilson River from Tillamook Bay. But while many of the state’s fall Chinook runs begin to decline in November, some years the Wilson’s run actually picks up steam.
The Wilson often cedes 1,000 to 2,000 fall Chinook in a season, and a fair bit more than that when the run is particularly strong. More often than not, the biggest month for harvest here is November while other rivers usually peak a month earlier.
In fact, at the Wilson it is not uncommon for anglers chasing the river’s excellent winter steelhead run to hook into chrome bright Chinook in December and later (although wild Chinook must be released beginning Jan. 1).
By the way, those runs similarly overlap on the Kilchis River, the Wilson’s neighbor to the north, but the salmon and steelhead fisheries on that little river are significantly smaller than in the Wilson.
On the Wilson River, look for the brightest Chinook in the river from Siskeyville down into tidewater. Tidewater itself will start seeing some fish in September, should be going good in October and will keep seeing new arrivals throughout the fall.
A good spot to get to tidewater is heading down from the Sollie Smith launch on Wilson Loop Road, on the edge of the town of Tillamook, or by motoring up from several launches in Tillamook Bay. Go slow and watch for shallow water and obstructions.
Above tidewater, try Blue Hole in the Ming Creek Access Area and the even larger Mills Bridge area. There also is access at Windy Bend (below the RV park), popularly known as the Guard Rail Hole. Mills Bridge to Sollie Smith is an excellent Chinook salmon drift for boaters.
When the river is higher, bright fish can be found well up in the system, but anglers fishing more than about 8 or 10 river miles above tidewater tend to catch more dark salmon the higher up they fish, said ODFW fish biologist Robert Bradley.
The Wilson’s spring Chinook salmon fishery is considerably smaller than at the Trask River, its neighbor immediately to the south, and is about to get even smaller because the ODFW has phased out the planting of spring Chinook smolts on the Wilson and moved those plantings over to the Trask.
The Trask already had been receiving twice as many spring salmon smolts, and biologists have evidence of additional straying of returning adult fish toward the Trask, Bradley said.
In fact, in many years the springer catch on the Wilson is below 100 fish. That said, the pressure is lighter during the spring season here, and there were some periods of decent fishing from late April through June.
Bradley said some straying into the Wilson may occur even after 2018, when the final class of five-year-old springers is expected. Also, the Wilson’s summer steelhead run shares the river in late spring and early summer, offering an additional opportunity to catch big fish.
For springers, stick to the lower river as you would for fall Chinook. The Blue Hole offers good access, and there’s a bunch of bank access at Mills Bridge.
Drift boaters may find late spring conditions difficult if they put in at Siskeyville, thanks to the “minefield” boulders below, although a raft or pontoon boat can get through to access a couple of holes in this stretch.
A better bet is drifting from Mills Bridge as far down as Sollie Smith at the head of tidewater.
Best River Levels
The Wilson River is usually in its best shape for fishing and floating if the river gauge reads above 4 feet but no higher than about 6 feet.
In higher and murky water, move well upstream or try plunking with some bait, which often is most productive when the gauge reads 6 to 7 feet and can be done up to 8 feet.
Read our Wilson River Fishing overview