Oregon's Mid-Coast Steelhead Hotspots

Guides lay out their experience and tips to catch hatchery and wild chromers on the Siuslaw and Siletz rivers.

Drift boats give anglers access to the excellent water on the Siuslaw River.
Photo by Dean Finnerty.

A crisp, cool winter morning greeted us as I slid my 16-foot drift boat into the currents of Oregon's Siuslaw River. A size 30 blue-pirate Hot Shot dangled from each of my client's rods as I positioned the boat above the tailout.

Experience on this river told me that this particular tailout often holds several fresh-run winter steelhead.

As the plugs dug into the slightly off-colored water, I began backing the boat downriver toward the large boulder at the break, just above the rapids.

The staccato tapping of the rod tip was violently interrupted when the port side rod was nearly ripped from the rod holder.

"Fish on!" my client screamed. He reared back on the rod, sending this season's first winter chromer into the air some 70 feet downriver.

It's no accident that Oregon's central coast streams get so much attention each January and February. These rivers combine fantastic runs of hatchery and native winter steelhead with good access for bank and boat anglers alike.

These rivers also offer a wide variety of water types that anglers can cover with a plethora of successful techniques. Fly-fishing, pulling plugs, drift-fishing and bobber-and-jigs all have a place here. You can begin to understand this area's attraction. These rivers and small streams have it all!

SIUSLAW RIVER
Running nearly 100 miles from its headwaters just west of Cottage Grove, Oregon, the Siuslaw enters the Pacific Ocean at the city of Florence. This river offers a very diverse fishing experience for winter steelhead fishermen.

Boat-anglers have a distinct advantage because the Siuslaw has extremely brushy banks along its entire length. One of the most popular drifts is from Whittaker Creek to Wildcat Creek. On this section, there are times when it seems you can hop from boat to boat down the two-mile float and never get your feet wet.

There's a reason this section gets so much pressure -- the fishing is that good!

Most anglers anchor their drift boats close to the brushy shoreline and either drift-fish or use a bobber and jig. The Siuslaw is full of structure. Solid rock ledges and huge boulders make this one very snaggy river to fish, so plan on losing some tackle.

My clients do very well with fly rods, using strike-indicator nymphing strategies with the small yarn fly patterns that winter steelhead find so irresistible. We also do very well pulling a variety of different steelhead plugs, especially in runs where other boats aren't anchored up along the sides.

To find water like this, I often create my own drift-boat slides where I can get my boat in the water off the beaten path. It takes some extra effort to find these areas, but the results are well worth the effort.

If you're a bank-fisherman, a good area to explore is along Stagecoach Road, which runs along the Siuslaw's north bank from the boat launch at Wildcat Creek (also known as the Austa Launch) downriver to Camp Indiola.

Other popular drifts for boaters along the Siuslaw River include the run from Wildcat Creek to Linslaw Park and from Swisshome to Farnham Landing near the top end of tidewater.

When guide Bob Stockdall is fishing with clients on the Siuslaw, he spends a lot of time in his drift boat plying the waters from Linslaw Park down to the Swinging Bridge take-out.

"It's pretty unusual to see another boat on this section," he said.

The fishing is great, but don't miss the take-out. Many first-timers do.

There's a large bedrock shelf on the left side of the river with some willows on it, said Stockdall. On the right side of the river, across from the bedrock shelf is a channel 10 feet wide.

"That little channel is where the take-out is," he said, "and if you don't watch for it, you'll go right on past it."

Information is important, and it's a good idea to pay close attention to various Web sites that provide up-to-the-minute river information.

Flow Info
The U.S. Geological Service Web site shows many Oregon river flows. Check out the federal site at waterdata.usgs. gov./or/nwis/current?type=flow. From here, you can navigate to real-time water-flow data for more than 200 different river locations throughout Oregon.

What are the current river flows on the Siuslaw River? To check, visit this Web site and scroll down to the section on "Oregon Coastal Rivers."

Then locate the site titled "Siuslaw River near Mapleton, Oregon." Click on this site and you'll see the actual water level and flows in cubic feet per second (cfs), as well as a line graph that will give you the current trends.

Is the river going up? Holding steady? Dropping? It's all there.

For optimum fishing conditions on the Siuslaw, I look for flows at 7 cfs or below. This kind of information is invaluable to the winter steelhead fisherman who knows that a steady or dropping river will produce much better than a rising river.

The folks at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintain another excellent winter steelheading Web site. It provides the modern-day angler with 10-day predictions of temperature and precipitation, based on the same weather satellites that meteorologists use.

A great feature of this site is that you can check the prediction for the next few days, but also get glimpse more than a week into the future, which is very helpful in planning trips. Visit nwrfc.noaa.gov/weather/10_day.cgi.

SILETZ RIVER
Farther to the north, the Siletz River offers folks another great opportunity to connect with trophy fish. Each year, untold numbers of drift boats ply the waters around the large loop at the coastal town of Siletz, Ore.

By putting in at the Hee Hee Illahee launch on the south end of town, boaters can float some six plus miles of river and end up on the north side of town at the Mill Park boat launch.

By using this take-out, anglers don't even need a shuttle. A simple half-mile walk back through town puts them back at their rig.

Stockdall closely watches the river levels on the Siletz.

"When the gauge reads from 5.5 to 7 feet, I fish the run from Moonshine Park to the upper town launch," he said.

"Below 5 feet, I really like the run from Mill Park down to the Morgan boat launch."

The guide said this lower float has lots of really good water. "You don't have to pass up anything here. It's all really good, fishable water."

Stockdall prefers side-drifting the Siletz with his clients, and this lower float has some of the best side-drifting water on the central coast.

Another nice aspect of this float, especially for new drift-boaters, is the lack of technical water.

"There are no major water obstacles along this section of river," he said. "But if do-it-yourselfers want to float the upper sections on the Siletz, they'd better go with someone who's done it."

The float from Moonshine Park to Twin Bridges has some technical water, and you need to know where to go to get through it safely.

Twin Bridges launch, also known as the Logsden put-in, will put boaters on the river below the more difficult sections of white water.

Other effective techniques include drift-fishing from an anchored boat and pulling plugs. But far and away, side-drifting is the way to go.

"Ten- to 15-fish days are not uncommon on the Siletz for knowledgeable anglers," said the guide.

When fishing from the drift boat, I try to give my folks a little of all three techniques by having rods strung and ready to go with the proper tackle for side-drifting or pulling plugs.

When I encounter an area on the river where I can pull plugs without fouling up other anglers in the vicinity, I pull plugs. If I find I'm sharing the water with fishermen who are side-drifting, then we join them in their side-drifting efforts.

By paying attention to how others are fishing, I can avoid conflicts by using tactics that stay in harmony.

As an example, Stockdall said that most everyone who puts in at Moonshine Park side-drifts: "I wouldn't want to go up there and plan on pulling plugs or drift-fishing, because the other boaters would have to try to side-drift around me," he said.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel plant hatchery steelhead smolts in a small creek across the river near the boat launch at Moonshine Park.

Many hatchery steelhead return to this spot each January and February. That makes it an ideal spot to pick up a fish or two right off the bat.

"I row my boat on across the river from the boat launch and get to fishing," said the guide. "Most days, we can pick up a few fish before we even leave the put-in."

Bob Buckman, ODFW mid-coast district fish biologist, said the area around Moonshine Park offers great bank-fishing opportunities for winter steelhead fishermen.

"Each season, we see around 1,500 to 2,000 steelhead tagged by anglers here," he said.

Buckman also predicts another good season for winter steelhead this year on most central Oregon coastal rivers and streams.

"Recent years' runs have been good, and we see nothing to indicate it won't be another good season for winter steelhead on central coast streams," the biologist said.

Between the Siuslaw, Siletz and Alsea rivers, the ODFW annually plants more than 250,000 steelhead smolts at various locations on these rivers. Couple that with native stocks of steelhead, and you have a pretty decent fishery indeed.

The Yaquina River, situated between the Siuslaw and Siletz Rivers, also gets its share of winter steelhead attention, especially in its main tributary, Big Elk Creek.

There is no boat access on this river, so it's a bank-fishing-only show.

"There is mixed access on Big Elk Creek," said Buckman. "Some of it is U.S. Forest Service land, and some is owned by local timber companies. The rest is small private land where permission is required to access the river."

The Yaquina-Big Elk Creek fishery begins in December and continues through January, especially on the upper river near Deer Creek and Wolf Creek. Buckman said the deadline located at the bridge below Grant Creek would have fishable numbers of steelhead later in the season.

CREEKS, STREAMS
Anglers also should look into many of the other streams in the mid-coast area that support fishable numbers of winter steelhead.

"There are lots of dispersed opportunities for catch-and-release fishing on native winter steelhead in the mid-coast region," Buckman said.

These streams include the Salmon River just north of Lincoln City; Drift Creek, which is a tributary to the Siletz River; and the other Drift Creek, which is a tributary to the lower Alsea River.

Also check out the Yachats River near the town of Yachats; Tenmile Creek, located just south of the town of Yachats; Big Creek located just south of Tenmile Creek; and -- last but not least -- Cape Creek, just north of Sea Lion Caves north of the city of Florence, Ore., along State Highway 101.

All these small streams have good numbers of winter steelhead that begin arriving with high-water flows following winter storms, the biologist said.

As these rivers recede, fishing improves. For native winter steelhead, these small streams are almost entirely catch-and-release fishing.

A few fin-clipped hatchery strays will enter them as well. If you catch one, you can keep it.

All bank-fishing strategies work on these streams. "Spinners work great," Buckman said. "When anglers want some elbowroom and get away from the crowds, these small streams are the places to go."

This January and February, Oregon's central coast area offers anglers one of the best opportunities to score bright hatchery and native winter steelhead.

Whether you're fishing with your buddy from a drift boat, taking a trip with a knowledgeable area guide or fishing from the bank, chances are better than good that you'll find winter chrome on one of these central coast streams.

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