September 29, 2010
Sure, it can get crowded. Yup, everyone knows about it. But if you're anywhere near Portland and you need a steelhead fix, the Clackamas River is where it's at. Here's how to catch these big winter-run fish. (February 2007)
Hatchery fish run from 8 pounds to more than 12 pounds on the Clackamas River in February. Then March brings a whole new run of big natives.
Photo by Photo by Richard T. Grost.
Want to nail a big, fat winter steelhead, but don't have a ton of time? You are in luck if you live anywhere near Portland, Ore., because the Clackamas River is at your doorstep.
Got a jet sled that needs some winter exercise, just to make sure the motor runs right? The lower river is your game. Got a drift-boat and you need to get some workweek kinks out of your neck and shoulders? The river is open to you as well.
No boat? No problem! The river has plenty of access for boatless anglers.
Yes, the Clackamas -- known to its fans as "the Clack" -- heads on Olallie Butte in the Cascade Mountains, then drops 6,000 feet in 80 miles to join the Willamette River near Gladstone. In 1988, its upper 47 miles from Big Springs to Big Cliff were designated a National Wild and Scenic River because of their outstanding recreation, wildlife, historic, vegetation and fish resources.
This wilderness river runs through a canyon, its deep walls covered with dense forest, bearing protruding basalt crags. Above Estacada, the river is slowed by two water-supply dams that create fishing opportunities for resident trout, then flows past numerous state and county parks and boat launches to its Willamette River confluence. Just below Estacada, you'll find River Mill Dam with its newly updated fish ladder.
Between Gladstone and Estacada, you can get to the river from roads off Oregon Route 224. Above Estacada, O.R. 224 -- also known as the Clackamas Highway -- passes along the northeast side of North Fork Reservoir, then follows every twist and turn of the river for miles. Through much map-reading, made more difficult by rubbernecking at the spectacular scenery, it's possible to end up at Olallie Lake, near the river's source.
GOOD AND WET
The arrival of the notoriously wet late-November Oregon weather heralds the winter steelhead into the Clackamas. Each new Pacific storm brings rain and flushes new fish into the system until January flips into February. Hatchery fish run 8 to 12 pounds, with a few larger bucks.
But don't stop fishing just yet. Another run of native winter fish shows in March and extends the winter-run season. Bigger than the hatchery fish, these late-run fish sometimes reach the tackle-busting high teens. Steelhead fanatics can fish from the mouth up to Highway 211 bridge. This section of the river is open for adipose fin-clipped steelhead the entire year.
Fishing regulations, particularly those designed to ensure the survival of anadromous fish runs, often change at a moment's notice. Check the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife Web site at dfw.state.or.us for any last-minute changes.
The three dams have seriously impacted wild steelhead, coho and spring chinook runs, but efforts are being made to protect and restore those runs and provide additional fishing opportunities on the lower river. Portland Gas & Electric, operator of the three dams, instituted a fish- recycling program at their North Fork Reservoir where they trap and separate wild fish from hatchery fish.
Hatchery fish are trucked 18 miles downstream and returned to the river, but not before they get their tails clipped. That ensures the recycled fish don't get counted a second time if they survive the upriver gauntlet again. The wild fish continue their migration to upper-river spawning beds without competition from --or mixing with -- hatchery fish.
Focus your fishing efforts on the lower river from River Mill Dam just below Estacada to the mouth. Pay particular attention to the Eagle Creek tributary, home of the Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery, which produces the bulk of hatchery smolts released below River Mill Dam.
The Clack is subject to wildly varied river flows, from 33,000 to 800 cfs. That can make fishing difficult at best. Eagle Creek tends to drop and clear faster than the main stem, which makes Eagle a good option when the river is out of sorts.
For updates on flows, call the PG&E Fish Line at (503) 464-7474. Historically the river has fished best at flows between 13 and 10 feet. At the bottom end of that range, jet-boat operators may find they are making unwelcome contact with gravel bars. At lower-water levels, most experienced Clack fishers concentrate on the lower river below Eagle Creek.
Spending time on the lower river works out for both boat and bank anglers. On the lower river there are seven boat launches, beginning with Clackamette Park on Clackamette Drive in Oregon City. This makes a great base camp if you plan to fish for a few days. The ramp can handle both drift-boats and powerboats, plus there are 39 RV spaces available on a first-come, first-served basis. Check out oregoncityparks.org/parks.
Three miles upstream is the Riverside launch, which provides a short float, but is used mainly by spring chinook fishers.
The next launch is the Carver ramp located on the south shore upstream from the Carver Bridge. Carver gets the most use of any ramp on the river -- and there are good reasons for that: It accesses the most productive jet-boat water, has the longest runs on the river and has the fewest houses.
On a heavily used urban river where side-drifting has become the fishing technique of choice among jet-boaters, fewer houses means fewer boater-homeowner interactions.
Carver provides myriad options for jet-boaters who can run upstream to Barton Park, drift back down to take out at Carver, run down to Riverside or go the full 8 miles to Clackamette Park. The run between Carver and Clackamette contains Class II rapids.
Continuing on upstream, the next boat access spot is Barton Park on the river's north shore, favored by drift-boaters. The 5.5-mile Class II water from Barton to Carver gets the most use as the downstream drifters run into the upstream jet-boaters at a time when the river changes character.
The steelhead-holding runs and riffles are more compact, concentrating both the fish as well as the fishers into smaller areas. Courtesy is always at a premium here.
Barton Park -- operated by Clackamas County Parks,
whose Web site is at www.co.clackamas.or.us/dtd/parks -- also offers camping. But it's closed from Nov. 1 until May 1, making it more useful as a base camp for summer steelheaders.
Above Barton, the river bends south. The next launch, Feldheimer, is on the west bank. Nothing more than a gravel access too shallow for jet boats, Feldheimer is capable of handling drift boats. The river has again changed complexion slightly, with its runs and holding areas becoming shallower and still more compact. Steelhead seem to transition through this area quickly, so it's difficult to count on fish being consistently in the logical holding areas.
Historically, the best run is the long glide beginning upstream, then running in front of -- and downstream of -- the launch. For those wanting water-borne access to the mouth of Eagle Creek for a chance at all those hatchery fish heading for home, this is the launch.
The last two access spots are both in McIver Park. The lower launch is only a short distance above Feldheimer, but does offer a gorgeous run immediately in front of the launch for non-power boats only.
The upper put-in gets mixed boating reviews. Some say it puts boats into the most dangerous rapid on the whole river, yet others rate the run as only a Class II-plus. They agree that the first hazard is what whitewater enthusiasts refer to as a "hole."
The second hazard is known as the Minefield, where precise boat maneuvering is required to avoid damaging a hard-sided boat. This section has the steepest gradient of the river so far. It's not a place to learn boating skills. Run it only with a boat driver who has navigated it before.
It's possible to run the couple of miles of river upstream from River Mill Dam, but only if you are a highly experienced whitewater boater able to handle Class III and IV rapids. Make sure you read the regulations, as this section has a different season and steelhead cannot be targeted above the Highway 211 bridge.
With the caveat that rivers always change, holding areas always change and private property access always changes, here are some bank fishing spots.
McIver Park, on the river's west shore, provides some of the best bank fishing access on the river Here, the angler willing to walk can hike upstream all the way to River Mill Dam. If you enjoy the circus-like atmosphere that attends the steelhead hatchery intake, head downstream from the upper launch. Bring your own rock. (To learn more, log on to oregonstateparks.org/park_142.php.)
The areas around each of the other boat launches provide bank-fishing opportunities in one form or another. At Barton Park, for example, there are several fishable chunks of water both above and below the boat ramp. Get there early so you can get the holes before the boaters stake them out.
Or if you are willing to walk a bit -- a process that cuts way down on the competition -- park off Bakers Ferry Road on the west side of the bridge across the river and hike downstream to access another fine drift.
At Carver, bank-fishers working the mouth of Clear Creek take a few fish during high water. Further down from Carver is Stevens, a popular bank-fishing area one mile below Rock Creek, which enters the river from the north. The next bank access is Coffey's Drift, just a short riffle below Stevens. At the Riverside ramp, fishing is best for plunkers at high-water conditions.
Continuing on downstream below Riverside, bank-fishers like High Rocks, accessed from the south bank. The next good bank spot is Cross Park. Come in from the north shore below the old Park Rock Bridge. Another landmark to help locate Cross Park is the Interstate 205 bridge above this drift.
Finally, at the mouth there is Clackamette Park, where you'll have plenty of company plunking for fish.
Back upstream, Eagle Creek offers great fishing on a smaller stream, plus it clears much faster after a hard Oregon rain than does the Clack. Experts say that in fishing, as in life, timing is everything. The time to hit Eagle Creek is within 48 hours after the rain stops or slows to a drizzle.
Steelhead start to fill the creek in December. But for the best Eagle Creek fishing, mark your calendar for January and February.
Eagle Creek runs into the Clackamas at Bonnie Lure State Recreation Area, a day-use area with plenty of room for bank anglers to try for large numbers of hatchery fish nosing back to home. (To learn more, go to www.oregonstateparks.org/park_140.php.) Other fishing-catching spots on the creek include the Eagle Fern Park (co.clackamas.or.us/dtd/parks/info/eagl.htm), and the run below the Eagle Creek hatchery on Southeast Rainbow Road, east of Estacada.
Be willing to explore the paths and trails along the creek to find out-of-the-way riffles, runs and drifts.
Just as the Clack can be divided into jet-boat and drift-boat sections, it can also be divided by fishing technique.
The upper river, from River Mill Dam down to Carver, is friendly to flyfishers because of the more compact nature of its holding water. It is easier for flyfishers to probe likely holding spots on the upper river. It's easier to wade, and there is more room to single-handers to accomplish a backcast without interference from streamside vegetation.
The stretch from Feldheimer to Barton has good fly-friendly water, which continues up Eagle Creek as well.
Traditional steelhead fly-fishing technique involves casting across the current and letting the fly swing down and across. In winter, the tool of choice has been a heavily weighted fly or a sinking line in order to get the fly down to the bottom-hugging steelhead.
That system certainly catches a ton of fish, but doesn't work in certain water conditions such as small streams or when fish hold in narrow slots, hug the bank, or hang under ledges. For these conditions, often found on the Clack and almost exclusively found on Eagle Creek, fly-fishers need to change their tactics to catch fish.
Traditionalists will brand me a heretic, but if you want to catch fish that don't give a rip about tradition, put away your sinking line, take out the floater, add a long leader, and then attach a strike indicator. Now you can dead-drift a heavily weighted nymph in, around and through pocket water where the fish are. Some fishers use corkies, pinned on the leader with a toothpick, as a strike indicator. Others prefer polypropylene yarn dressed with floatant.
Stoneflies and other big nymphs, caddis and salmon eggs are the best patterns. Try Teeny Nymphs in black or brown, Prince Nymphs, Green Rock Worms and Glo-Bugs. When the river conditions dictate using a traditional wet-fly swing, use the Articulated Leech, Egg-Sucking Leech, and a prawn imitation like a General Practitioner.
It's OK to use bait
throughout the river sections that are open to winter steelheading, according to the current regulations. Popular baits for the Clack include egg clusters and sand shrimp, both of which seem to produce best in the low-light conditions of early morning. "Do what the other guy is doing" is often the rule of the day, but it amazes me how few bait-fishing steelheaders use night crawlers, particularly in off-colored water.
Gear fishers have the whole panoply of tricks available. They can pull plugs, run diver-bait combinations, drift jigs, toss spinners, plunk corkies and yarn. Sometimes the biggest challenge is first deciding what to use and then fishing it effectively, rather than changing rigging after a few minutes of no fish. The key to catching fish is fishing with confidence.
To help narrow your gear choices, the favorite plug colors include green and blue Pirates made by Luhr Jensen or something that combines chrome and fluorescent colors. Smaller plugs work better than bigger ones.
If you use Kwikfish, sizes 13 and 14 catch more fish than the larger ones. If you previously wrapped them with shrimp, sardines or other bait, make sure you wash them thoroughly to remove the old-bait stink before using them again. Steelhead, unlike catfish, are repelled by strong smells.
Jigs fished under a float are becoming more popular on the river for two reasons:
€¢ First, they're easier to fish than many other methods, and
€¢ Second, they flat-out catch fish.
Use the lightest jig for the water conditions, either an 1/8- or 1/4-ounce, in bright pink, red or pink and white.
Since the Clackamas regs allow bait, some fishers tip the jig with sand shrimp or eggs. For low-water conditions, switch to black or white jigs.
Spinners are accounting for more winter fish on the Clack and elsewhere. The key is to fish them slow and deep. Cast upstream and let the spinner tumble towards the fish, the blade barely turning through the fish-holding water. You want to maximize the time that the spinner stays in front of the fish. So give it a slow retrieve, one clearly at odds with the triple shot of espresso you consumed on the way to the river.
In low water, minimize the amount of flash in the spinner by using a brass blade or even a black one. The deeper runs call for more flash and deep runs. Dark water requires even more flash, like a polished silver blade. Under normal conditions, red, orange and pink blades predominate.
Whatever your gear selection, note a consistency of color under certain water conditions. Low water calls for dark color and minimal flash. Normal water means red, pink or orange. Dark water needs flash to gain the attention of the fish.
The Clackamas produces high-quality winter steelhead fishing for months on end. Sure, it is an urban river. Sure, it can get crowded. But it all happens within 40 minutes of Oregon's most populous city, providing you with a steelheading fix on short notice.