The Wilson River is close enough to Portland to attract plenty of anglers, but it has so much access along Highway 6 and a very good winter run of steelhead, along with a modest summer run, that help make up for the extra fishing pressure.
By the way, the Wilson also happens to be a very good Chinook salmon fishing river.
The entire main fork of the river, from the mouth to the mouth of the South Fork high in the system, is open for fin-clipped steelhead all year.
For winter-runs, the Little North Fork and the lower one mile of the South Fork also are open during the winter steelhead season but produce relatively few harvestable fish compared to the main river.
All steelhead with an intact adipose fin must be released unharmed throughout the Wilson River watershed.
Winter steelhead are the big steelhead run on the Wilson, often producing more than 3,000 fish in fair to good seasons.
An early segment of the run (an Alsea River strain long used in hatchery production) starts arriving after about Thanksgiving and are present in better numbers after the holidays.
The Wilson has a larger second winter run from a wild broodstock hatchery program, using unclipped wild fish to propagate a new generation of fin-marked hatchery fish available for harvest.
These fish with wild parents tend to return in high numbers in mid- and late winter, making their first good showing by mid-January, and along with earlier returning strains these fish stretch the Wilson’s winter steelhead season into March or later.
About 140,000 fin-clipped winter steelhead smolts are released in the Wilson every year. Of those, 40,000 are the earlier returning strain and the remainder (100,000) are from the broodstock run.
ODFW fish biologist Robert Bradley said the majority of smolts (75 percent) are planted at three locations in the lower river.
Siskeyville, near Milepost 8 on the highway (also known as the Wilson River Highway) is the highest of those lower-river release points. Winter fish also are released at Mills Bridge and Hughey Creek.
That emphasis results in the highest catches in the river from Siskeyville down to Tillamook, where drift boaters (including a number of fishing guides) account for a good portion of the catch.
The remainder (25 percent) of winter smolts are stocked well upriver in the South Fork.
Fish returning to that upper river release area pass through an area with excellent bank access because much of it is Tillamook State Forest open to the public.
Boating the upper river is hazardous, at best.
Summer-run fish generally make a modest showing by May or June and will be well-distributed, including in lower section of the river.
Summer steelhead fishing can be decent for a couple of months after the fish arrive and then tapers off when the water drops and warms in the second half of summer.
In the hotter months, summer steelheading is best in the upper river, from the forest center up to the confluence of South Fork with Devils Fork (just above the bridge near Elk Creek Campground).
In late September and through at least October, when most anglers are turning their attention to fall salmon, steelheading can be worthwhile again in cooler water, especially in the upper reaches where the fish waited out the warm water conditions.
The summer catch here hardly compares to the winter harvest or the bigger summer runs to the south in the Nestucca River, with roughly 400 to 600 summer-run keepers coming from the Wilson each season.
The annual summer steelhead smolt releases (at this writing) number about 30,000, all of which are released in the South Fork.
At the last update, ODFW was considering ending summer steelhead releases here. Bradley said some of the returning adults tend to stray to nearby rivers and maybe even to the Nestucca River, where they were originally hatched.
However, fishing pressure is relatively light and conditions pleasant — too pleasant some days, because the river is also popular with swimmers, so fish early and late.
Where to Catch Steelhead
The lower river is bordered by a lot of private property, but popular bank access points include Mills Bridge (behind the former Guide Shop and upstream to above the bridge), where there’s a long stretch of publicly owned bank as well as easy boat access.
Other lower river bank fishing access spots include Donaldson Bar off Olsen Road (where a property owner charges a parking fee) and off Highway 6 at Windy Bend (Guard Rail Hole below the RV park) and the Ming Creek Public Access (including Blue Hole) near Milepost 7 farther upriver.
This lower river is popular with drift boaters, with several launches and take-outs from Siskeyville to the head of tide at Sollie Smith on the Wilson Loop Road just outside Tillamook.
The upper river gets only a fourth of winter hatchery releases and lower overall catches during that season, but it’s easy to find places to fish from the bank and there are simply fewer anglers throughout the year up here, resulting in less competition.
The river from the Tillamook Forest Center (which itself has some good water) upstream to the forks also is the best water to work for summer steelhead after about mid-July, when the lower river gets pretty warm.
Just about any turn-out along Highway 6 is a short walk away from steelhead-holding water.
The South Fork itself is open just in its lower mile for the months of December through March, so anglers can target the portion of winter steelhead returning to the stream near where they were acclimated as smolts.
This lowest section of the South Fork, from the mouth up to a marker at the deadline, consists mostly of pocket water but could be worth exploring, Bradley said.
The area open to winter fishing keeps anglers below the prison camp farther up the road. The South Fork is closed during the prime summer steelhead months.
How to Catch Steelhead
Learn the methods that work best in Steelhead Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.
Best River Levels on the Wilson
For winter steelhead in particular (and sometimes the early weeks of summer steelhead season), the river is fishable a lower levels but often at its best for fishing when the river level gauge reads between 4 and 5.5 feet.
It’s also best for drift-boating the lower sections in that range.
In higher water, try bank fishing the upper river and maybe switching to plunking, which is best at levels of 6 to 7 feet and doable anywhere from 4.5 to 8 feet.
Another option: Move to one of the better small steelhead streams in the region, which often fish best when bigger rivers are high (but these little streams are not as good in dry spells).
Here’s how the Wilson looks right now:
Overview: Wilson River Fishing