Wilson River Fishing

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The Wilson River is a real workhorse among northern Oregon coastal fishing streams.

The river often has very good runs of fall Chinook salmon, winter steelhead and sea-run cutthroat trout, plus some other fishing options.

On top of all that, it’s an easy drive out Highway 6 (Wilson River Highway) from the Portland area and has plenty of access points once you get there.

Here is a look at some of the best fishing options on the Wilson.

Salmon

Fall Chinook are king (and also known as kings!) among salmon here, where the kings tend to run thick-bodied and often later in the year than in many rivers.

The fall run often results in 2,000 or more Chinook getting tagged.

The action will begin in September, but as with many coastal rivers it’s really going to be better in October most years.

Unlike some river systems, the Wilson often is just as good in November and can even produce mint-bright salmon well into December, often to the surprise of early winter steelhead anglers.

By any comparison, the spring Chinook run in the Wilson is very small, with seasonal catches sometimes 100 fish or so.

These days, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife focuses its Tillamook County springer plants on the nearby Trask River and the slightly farther Nestucca River, the two places we suggest North Coast river anglers try to catch spring salmon.

Tillamook Bay also has a springer fishery, largely for those Trask fish, although it’s also significantly smaller than the fall run.

The best catches and brightest Chinook come from the lower sections of the Wilson, and the tidewater also puts out plenty of salmon, especially in the last weeks of summer and into early fall.

For lots more on this fishery, see our full report: Wilson River Chinook Salmon Fishing.

Unlike the Trask, where there is a hatchery run, the Wilson also does not have a run of fin-clipped coho salmon. (Coho also are known as silvers.)

That means most Wilson coho will be wild and would need to be released unharmed, barring a special opener for wild coho during a big run year.

Chum salmon also make a decent showing in the lower reaches of the Wilson River, but fishing for them specifically is not legal. Any that are caught must be immediately released unharmed.

If you want to fish for chums on a catch-and-release basis, there are short seasons in two other Tillamook Bay tributaries: Kilchis River and Miami River.

Steelhead

large wilson river steelhead
Photo by David Johnson’s Guide Service

The Wilson River has good opportunities for both winter and summer steelhead. Scratch that … the Wilson sometimes has EXCELLENT opportunities for winter steelhead and fair opportunities for summer steelhead.

The Wilson is simply one of the best producers of winter steelhead on the Oregon coast, despite the fact that it gets lots of angling pressure (but also has lots of elbow room thanks to its length and close proximity to plenty of publicly owned land).

A few years back, the Wilson’s annual catch topped 5,000 winter steelhead some years, although runs tend to be cyclical and other years will be half that.

Unlike salmon, steelhead stay bright longer and can be caught in great shape throughout the river, from just out of the salt near Tillamook up to the deadline in the upper reaches at the junction of the South Fork (and seasonally in the lower mile of the South Fork).

The length of this river gives anglers more options.

If the lower river is still too discolored following heavy rains, the upper reaches may be dropping into shape already.

If the upper river is too clear to make the steelhead comfortable enough to bite, anglers might do better to move down to the lower river.

Also, the calendar length of this fishery is impressive.

There are early arriving hatchery steelhead appearing around the holidays and early winter.

Then, another (and larger) wave of hatchery steelhead spawned from wild broodstock parents comes in with the native fish, usually arriving in the best numbers in mid- to late winter.

Summer steelhead make up a much smaller run than the winter fish, but they also face less pressure and they can be caught for a long stretch of time.

They first arrive in mid- to late spring (on the heels of the last winter steelhead) and stick around clear into fall.

Typically by mid-summer many of the summer steelhead are high up in the system, closer to where they were planted in the South Fork as smolts.

This also is where the water is a bit cooler and where these fish tend to naturalize like resident trout and feed while awaiting their spawning season in the fall.

Use stealthy fishing tactics, including longer casts and smaller baits and lures, especially when the water is crystal clear during the dry season.

Fishing in lower-light conditions also tends to improve your odds.

While other anglers are turning their attention to salmon, savvy summer steelheaders will hit the upper river again when the first decent rains hit in September or October, prompting these fish to become more aggressive again.

We have lots more about this topic here: Wilson River Steelhead Fishing.

Trout

The Wilson has very good populations of coastal cutthroat trout, both resident fish and sea-run cutts.

Fishing for the resident trout can be very good in the spring at the opener, both in the main river and open tributaries. Check the regulations for potential spots.

Sea-run cutthroat trout fishing is quite good here.

Look for sea-runs to appear in the Wilson’s tidewater section in mid- to late summer, where they can aggressively hit bait, lures and flies.

These fish will begin to move into the lower and middle section of the river itself in late summer and early fall, often before the fall salmon arrive.

They provide a fun fishery with a modest harvest opportunity at a time when fishing pressure upstream is light. (We’ve caught some nice ones well up into the river near Labor Day.)

Find more fishing spots in Tillamook County

Oregon Resources

ODFW trout stocking schedule
ODFW weekly recreation report and regulation updates
ODFW annual fishing regulations
National Weather Service forecasts