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Steelheading The Sandy River

Steelheading The Sandy River

Recent changes in management mean a bright future for this legendary Oregon river and its storied run of winter steelhead. (January 2006)

Photo by Paul Updike

The small bobber floated down the Sandy River, with the tiny pink jig fixed below it at about 7 feet deep. The float followed the current, arcing around an outcrop of rock protruding into the river, when suddenly it disappeared under the surface. Swinging the rod back, I felt the line go tight, and I could feel a big fish shaking its head. Too quick, the line relaxed and the float regained the surface. I reeled in the line dejectedly, my heart still pounding from the adrenalin rush that always accompanies a steelhead strike. The little jig's hook was bent, but I knew the fish had not been on long enough to really disturb it, so I sat down to give the spot a rest.

After about 10 minutes, I tried drifting a pink corky tipped with pink and chartreuse yarn through the slot where the fish lay. On the first pass I felt a hit, and sent the hook home. It took only a few seconds for me to realize I was hooked to a monster steelhead, much bigger than the average 8- to 10-pound winter fish that the Sandy River offers. It was almost another 20 minutes before I saw the big buck, and another five minutes passed before I landed him.

The giant male never jumped; instead he preferred to bull downstream, with me hopping over the rocks like a madman as I tried to keep up with him. Later I pulled the giant wild winter steelhead into a calm backwater, and slipped the bait out of his mouth. I measured the fish, which I estimated at nearly 20 pounds. He was 39 inches long, my biggest winter steelhead ever!

Big, wild winter metalheads like this one are caught every year on the Sandy River, one of Oregon's most famous steelhead rivers. However, the hatchery segment of the run receives the most attention, and that segment has changed drastically since the late 1990s. The river's reputation had suffered for years, with declines in both the wild and hatchery runs. As a result, fisheries managers were already making changes to the Sandy management plan when it was announced that Marmot Dam, a fixture on the river since 1914, was going to be decommissioned. The dam will be removed in 2007.

Hatchery plantings above Marmot Dam had already been curtailed, and the river and tributaries above the dam had been closed to steelhead and salmon angling to protect the wild runs in the river, a move that was unpopular with anglers. More importantly, the dam provided a sorting facility: Hatchery fish were removed, and wild fish were passed to spawn in the upper watershed. Without the dam to sort the fish, managers feared that there would be too much interaction between the hatchery-produced Big Creek fish and the wild spawners, diluting the genetic strength of the river's native steelhead. For this reason, hatchery plantings of the Big Creek stock of winter fish, used heavily in Oregon for years, were phased out, and native broodstock were used to produce a hatchery strain of in-basin origin.

Since the Sandy's native steelhead stock arrives later than other stocks, the popular December fishery came to an end along with the river's traditional Thanksgiving Day season opener. The run now starts in mid-January and peaks in March. The first returns of the broodstock fish, in 2003, were promising. The 2004 run was even better, and fishermen enjoyed one of the best steelhead runs in modern times on the Sandy River.


Then came the dry winter of 2005, and along with it, a much poorer run of winter steelhead. Were the poor returns the result of the low water, or was some other factor to blame? Many fishermen wondered if the steelhead, sensing the poor river conditions, had simply waited out in the salt water, to return in 2006. That scenario, however, is unlikely.

Todd Allsberry, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, has another explanation: "While steelhead are not incapable of holding off a year, there is no evidence to show that happens," says Allsberry. "Instead, I think the lower returns are more indicative of conditions in the ocean instead of the conditions in the rivers. There has been a big shift in ocean conditions, with a decline in the upwelling of cold water that helps steelhead survival, and that appears to be to blame for the poor returns."

Todd also doesn't believe last year's low numbers were the fault of the new broodstock program, another claim made by sport anglers. "They are a higher quality fish for this system than the Big Creek stock," notes Allsberry, "and the decline is more an indication of the poor conditions that exist overall. I think we'll see a rebound in the 2006 run, but we may be in for a few years of lower returns if the conditions remain tough. Don't give up on this fishery because of a few low runs. The future of the Sandy's winter steelhead run is promising."


It's 18 miles from the mouth of the Sandy River to its confluence with the Bull Run, and all of those miles can be fished from a boat. However, powerboats are allowed up only to Dabney Park, and the reach can be fished with a sled fairly easily. Above Dabney, motors are not allowed.

The lower Sandy River is fairly low-gradient, and is composed of gentle riffles and long, deep, slow-moving pools. There are also some good stretches of drift water. The float from Dabney down to the take-out at the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area is the least difficult, and includes about four river miles, all with good fishing water.

The next place to put in is up at Oxbow Park, and the drift down to Dabney from there is about six miles. Some anglers will try the drift from Dodge Park down to Oxbow, but this reach contains a lot of technical water. It is not advised for beginners.

Starting in 2005, fishermen have been able to fish from their boats in the first three miles of the river below Oxbow Park. These reaches include some of the best holding water for steelhead on the river. In the past, anglers were forced to fish from the bank instead of from their boats, until they reached the power lines about one mile below the park. That restriction was lifted, thanks to the efforts of salmon, steelhead and walleye guide Jack Glass. He has been fishing the Sandy for over 30 years, and guiding there for over two decades. In addition to his renown as a respected guide on the Sandy, he's also known as a tireless advocate for the rights of fishermen, and a champion of responsible fisheries management on the Sandy River. His efforts to open the three miles below Oxbow to fishing from the boat came after he noticed a drop in shore-angling activity in the park, which was the original reason cited for the restriction. In the past, bank angler and boat angler conflicts would have been a problem, but as shore fishermen have shifted their efforts farther upstream, Glass pressed for the rules to change, and won.

Following the first winter steelhead season under the new regulations, Glass had lots of good things to say. "It was a huge success," he said. "There were very few conflicts between boat and shore fishermen. It's very rewarding to expand opportunities instead of taking them away, a trend we have seen too often in the past."

There is a lot of drift water in the reach, as well as long glides and runs -- perfect steelhead water. Although last year's return was poor, Jack's clients took a good numbers of fish in this reach. "The water was lower than normal all year, and that made the bite tough," notes Glass. "We used light lines, including 8-pound-test Stren fluorocarbon leaders, and fished with low-water methods, such as jig and bobber, or casting spinners.

"We did well with Blue Fox in sizes three and four. If we get more normal flows this year, I'll switch to drifting baits such as the pink bubble-gum worms, or Corkies with salmon eggs or sand shrimp."

Glass makes his home along the banks of the lower river, which helps him keep a good finger on the pulse of the stream. In higher flows, the lower holes can be killer, although the river will receive a fair amount of pressure. Some bank anglers like to plunk for the migrating winter fish near Lewis and Clark and in the first few holes above there. A Spin 'n Glo is the offering of choice, often baited with sand shrimp. Boat fishermen often fish by pulling plugs, a method that Jack Glass also likes to use when fishing low on the system. The lower Sandy's long, narrow pools are perfect for the technique. Some of his favorite plugs include Hot Shots in sizes 30 to 60. Metallic pink, flame orange and the Blue Pirate are some of his favorites. "In cloudy water or under overcast skies," adds Glass, "I also like to use the Cop Car pattern."


The upper Sandy River is usually considered to be that part of the stream above the confluence of the Bull Run and Sandy Rivers, and steelhead fishing is currently limited to the river below Marmot Dam. If the river is opened to the mouth of the Salmon River, one thing is sure: After the removal of Marmot Dam, there will be no water diverted into Roslyn Lake, and the Sandy River will carry more water in all seasons of the year. That will make it more difficult for wading fishermen to cross the upper Sandy, forcing anglers to use pontoons and other small boats to reach some of the water now easily reached by wading fishermen. The river doubtless will fish differently as well, with the changes in the flow. These will be more apparent in the upper river, and will undoubtedly bring better fishing in general. The fishing in the upper system is often poor due to very low flows, and the extra water carried by the river should lessen the negative impacts of dry years on the steelhead run.

Up higher, the Sandy River's character changes and the river has more swift flows. The glides, runs and shallow, boulder-strewn holes are classic steelhead water, and there are a few deep holes mixed in. The first good hole is at Dodge Park, where steelhead rest after a long climb through white water from the Pipeline Hole, another good steelhead spot. Above Dodge Park fishermen can hike a few miles along the river, and there are some good spots to fish as well.

The Cedar Creek area, located below the state salmon hatchery just north of the town of Sandy, is one of the most popular areas along the upper Sandy. The reach has loads of classic steelhead water, and it is also the location for most of the smolt releases. That means fish pile up in the holes below the mouth of Cedar Creek as they stage for their run up the creek to the hatchery. This fact is well known, and anglers can expect to find considerable fishing pressure here when the runs are good. Most fishermen cross the river just below the mouth of the creek, and fish the mile or more below that is accessible. This will be harder to do when the dam is removed, and the river carries more flow. There is good water above the creek as well, and access for about a mile.

The upper Sandy fishes well with drift methods, including Corkies with yarn or bait. Hardware lovers will find plenty of spots to fish stamped brass, and most of the well-known steelhead baits will work. Try Blue and Green Stee-Lees, or Blue Fox Vibrax in sizes 3 and 4. The R & B Spinners, available at Jack's Snack and Tackle in Troutdale, proved very effective on last year's run. In low water conditions, try jig and bobber.

The Sandy has some good fly-fishing water, in both the upper and lower river. In low water, the long rods actually lend anglers an advantage. Popular offerings include the single-egg pattern, and the egg-sucking leech. Also effective are the green-butt skunks.


For the wild steelhead fanatic, it would be hard to beat the water from Marmot Dam down to Cedar Creek. This reach is above the hatchery release site, and sees little hatchery straying. The wild steelhead will outnumber the hatchery fish 5 to 1 in this water, so for the angler wanting one of those 20-pound-plus, rod-busting wild winter steelhead, this is the place to be!

There is an excellent drift for about 1/2-mile below the Marmot Dam, and the hole just below that is aptly named the Slaughter Hole.

In recent years, the wild segment of the winter steelhead run has shown signs of rebounding. Even with last year's low water, the wild return was at about 1,000 fish. While this is better, managers such as Allsberry believe the run will not be fully restored until the returns number 2,000 to 3,000 fish.

The Sandy River is a navigable river, and anglers can fish freely along its banks. However, only the area below the normal high-water mark is public. If you are crossing someone's lawn or property to access the river, you are trespassing. Please do your part to promote good relations between landowners and fishermen, and stay out of posted property. The future of fishing access, on the Sandy and elsewhere, depends on it.


Anglers wishing to fish the Sandy would do well to book a trip on the river with a good guide, and there are none better than Jack Glass (503) 666-5370. He is freely open with the tactics he uses to take winter steelhead, and a fisherman can learn a lot by spending a day on the water with him. Glass can also be heard every Saturday from 6-7 a.m. on the Outback Angler Hour on AM 1080.

For the most recent conditions and reports from the lower river, as well as tackle and bait, contact Rob Brown at Jack's Snack and Tackle in Troutdale near Glen Otto Park, at (503) 665-2257. For upper river reports, as well as fresh bait and tackle, contact The Reel Tackle Shop in Sandy at (503) 668-5791.

Many hotels are available in Troutdale, as well as restaurants and a couple of good brew pubs to wet your whistle after a day on the water. The town of Sandy also offers restaurants and a hotel.

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