When rain fills the rivers, Willamette Valley anglers can find good steelhead fishing close to home on these two robust flows.
Photo by Dave Kilhefner
By Gary Lewis
Swollen by winter rain, running green and a foot higher than normal, the Clackamas was loaded with steelhead. Upstream, Eagle Creek, one of the river's major tributaries, was dropping faster than the main river. I fished a narrow stretch where water swirled around a boulder and entered a deep channel between two rock ledges. Downstream, an angler played a steelhead, brought it to the bank and released it as I watched.
I broke off my sand shrimp rigging and tied on the first of several spinners. The turbulent water required something heavy with a free-spinning blade that would provide more action tumbling downstream. Standing almost at the tailout, I cast up and across, letting the lure sink. Bringing it back at about the speed of the current, I felt it tumbling, bumping the bottom. A fish took my homemade silver-bladed spinner, breaking the line after a brief battle, and I retreated downstream.
After a half-hour I worked up to the hole again, this time using a homemade brass and green spinner. My lure stopped and I raised the rod, setting the hook. The fish shook its head and then ran back and forth in the hole, coming to the surface where I could see the hook-jawed native male. He had a broad rainbow stripe. After a five-minute battle, he allowed me to reach down and slip the hook out of his jaw. I lifted him out for a picture, then carefully let him go to help father another generation.
With over two months before the end of the run, there is ample opportunity for Oregon anglers to pursue winter steelhead. Two Willamette River tributaries that are safe bets now for good numbers of fish are the Clackamas drainage, including Eagle Creek, and the North Santiam. For hatchery and wild fish, head to the Clackamas. To try your hand at catching natives, go to the North Santiam.
CLACKAMAS RIVER Winter steelhead start running up the Clackamas in late November. Fishing peaks by mid-January, with good catches of bright hatchery fish from the mouth upstream to McIver Park. Good fishing for winter-runs continues through March for late-arriving wild fish.
Spend your time in the lower Clackamas for best success early in January. If you're a bank angler, the best access is at Clackamette Park, Riverside Park, Coffey's Drift, the Carver Boat Ramp, Barton Park, Bonnie Lure at the mouth of Eagle Creek, and at McIver Park.
For up-to-date stream flows, call the PG&E Fish Line at (503) 464-7474. When the water is low, the lower river drifts will be more productive. Try running plugs in the river between Carver and Riverside. Later in the month, drift from Barton to Carver or McIver Park to Barton and be prepared to side-drift bait or pull plugs.
Winter rain can change the way the game is played when the water is high and muddy. Go upstream to find easier fishing, or change your tactics. Silted water sends steelhead to the shore where they seek shelter from the current. Fish close to the bank and in slack water when the water is high and brown.
As long as you're fishing the Clack, think about fishing Eagle Creek, too. Eagle Creek begins in the foothills of the Cascades and flows west toward its junction with the Clackamas at Bonnie Lure State Park. Private lands limit access, but there is plenty of room for the public. Access points include the run below the hatchery, Eagle Fern Park and at Bonnie Lure. You'll find steelhead in Eagle Creek by the end of December. Fishing really improves in January.
Steelhead follow the path of least resistance upstream. An underwater path along a bank or high cliff is often where you'll find the most steelhead. When exploring new water, fish these slots first. Look for seams in the water, and foam lines, indicating the transitions of swift and slow water. Such places allow steelhead to travel with fewer obstacles.
Holding water consists of any place where several fish can take refuge. It might be a deep pool downstream from a riffle. It might be the pillow of water in front of a boulder. It might be the calm in the downstream shadow of a boulder. It might be a pool below a fallen tree. It will be a place where the fish can feel reasonably comfortable and secure from predators.
Steelhead strike out of aggression, defensiveness, curiosity, hunger and sexual impulses. Subconsciously or consciously, successful anglers employ the techniques that trigger strikes based on what fish are vulnerable to. Drifting Corkies and yarn or bait accounts for most of the fish taken by Clackamas River steelheaders, but spinner, jig and fly-fishing is becoming more popular among winter anglers.
To effectively take a winter steelhead with a spinner, fish it deep and slow. Red, orange and pink are my first choices in winter colors. Use a French-bladed spinner with colored beads and accent tape on the blade.
Low water calls for different tactics. Switch to black or blue when the water is clear. Approach the fish from behind so that the fish is quartering away. Cast upstream and let the lure tumble a little with the retrieve. Keep it just barely spinning and work the spinner to force the fish into taking it or backing off.
In low water, you can often spot the fish if you know what to look for. Wear polarized glasses to cut the glare. Look for parts of the fish, a tail waving in the current, a long shadow over a gravel bottom, or the flash of chrome when it turns on its side. If you can spot the fish, you have a good chance of provoking a strike if you plan your stalk to approach from behind.
Big fish like their space. Let a flashy intruder into their comfort zone and they will react in one of three ways. One, pretend it doesn't exist. Two, run away from it. Or three, destroy it. The only way a big fish can kill a smaller creature is to crush it in his mouth. This is the response the fisherman wants - to provoke a strike before the fish spook.
There should be a variety of spinners in your box. Start with the minimum flash that you believe is necessary to move a fish into striking. In low water, that might be a tarnished brass or black-bladed lure. In deeper water, that might mean a shiny brass blade or even a silver-plated lure in a muddy river. It is a fine line between enough shine to make them chase it and so much that it spooks them.
I believe you can aggravate fish into striking. That is why you can cast to holding fish for an hour, then switch to something flashy and one will streak from across the run to smash it.
Maximize the time that the spinner is in f
ront of the fish. That means a tantalizingly slow retrieve that's just fast enough to make the blade spin. Rarely will a fish take a spinner that doesn't spin. In the case of fish holding in a riffle, cast from downstream and bring the spinner straight toward them, just above the speed of the water. They will have no choice but to hit it or get out of the way.
Another technique popular on the Clackamas and Eagle Creek is float fishing. Using a jig under a float allows you to present your lure at a controlled depth to holding fish, maximizing your effectiveness with each cast.
Start with a 1/8-ounce jig tied to the main line with a balsa float positioned above it. Adjust the float so the jig runs at or above the level of the fish. Best bet is to set the jig to run 18 to 24 inches off the bottom. The float keeps the jig suspended so the angler loses less gear. When the fish takes the lure, the drifting float stops, sinks or runs upstream. All the fisherman has to do is set the hook and hold on.
Keep an assortment of 1/8- and 1/4-ounce jigs in red, hot pink and pink/white for winter steelhead. Tipping the jig with sand shrimp or eggs will help to tip the odds in your favor.
When drifting a jig, if the float seems to bounce, it means your line is too long and the jig is ticking on the bottom. Shorten your line so that the jig is delivered at or a little above the level of the holding fish.
Besides being a technique that is easy to master, jig fishing is easier on the fish than many other methods. The fish elevates to take the lure, and is usually hooked in the roof or the corner of the mouth, allowing for a quick release if the fish must be returned to the river.
Jim Bradford of The Fly Box (541-388-3330) recommends fishing big leech and prawn patterns on the Clackamas. His favorite patterns include the Articulated Leech, Egg-Sucking Leech and the General Practitioner. He likes to cover the water with a sink-tip line and the classic steelhead swing technique: Cast quartering downstream, throw an upstream mend, then hold your rod low, allowing the fly to swing through holding water. Take two steps downstream and do it again, all the way to the end of the run.
When probing pocket water with your fly, consider switching tactics and tying up with a weighted fly like the Steelhead Pheasant Tail, Green Rock Worm or an egg pattern. Rig an indicator float high enough to allow the fly to drift downstream at the level of holding steelhead.
NORTH SANTIAM RIVER The North Fork of the Santiam heads in the Willamette National Forest and flows west to its confluence with the South Fork near Jefferson close to Interstate 5. Big Cliff Dam, which holds Detroit Reservoir, is the upper limit of the steelhead fishery. The North Fork used to have a hatchery winter steelhead run, but today's winter fish are all wild since the hatchery program was discontinued in the late '90s.
Winter steelhead begin to enter the river in December. Fish will be in the river from January through April. But unlike the Clackamas, the North Fork Santiam's winter steelhead run is short. For your best chances, timing is important.
Derek Fergus fishes the North Santiam throughout the year and is working on a book about fly-fishing for steelhead. Much of his research is done on the North Santiam. For best success, Fergus recommends that anglers pay attention to fish counts over Willamette Falls (www.dfr.state.or.us), and focus on the lower river until mid-March. When large numbers of fish go over Willamette Falls, plan to meet them on the river 10 to 15 days later.
Because bank access is limited, the North Santiam is best fished from a boat. In January, fish the Stayton to Jefferson drift. Later in the run, try Mehama to Stayton and Packsaddle to Fisherman's Bend Park. For bank access, try the Jefferson Boat Ramp, Green's Bridge, Stayton Bridge (north side of river), John Neal County Park, North Santiam State Park and Fisherman's Bend.
Concentrate on fishing classic steelhead water between two and six feet deep that moves at the speed of a fast walk. Pay particular attention to soft inside seams and slow tailouts over pebble beds. Make sure you have felt on the bottoms of your wading boots. Winter wading on this river's smooth boulders can be tricky.
Fly anglers will do best swinging Articulated Leeches with high-density sink tip lines to reach the bottom fast. In this way you can present your fly to every fish in the run.
Fergus fishes a fly he calls the Mother of all Leeches. Made from a strip of rabbit fur, this fly is four to six inches long with a No. 4 or No. 6 stinger hook that extends beyond the end of the rabbit strip. The stinger hook translates short strikes into more hookups.
Jerry Wetherbee with The Fly Box in Bend fishes the North Santiam for both winter and summer steelhead. He prefers fishing leech patterns as well, but he has also caught Santiam fish with patterns like the Skykomish Sunrise, Orange General Practitioner, Babine Special and Polar Shrimp. If he's not swinging flies, he enjoys drifting Corkies and yarn.
"Use brighter colors in the winter," he said. "Flame red, fluorescent orange, the clown pattern, fluorescent green, pink, and even blue are good choices. I like to fish a No. 11 - nothing big. I often add yarn, first in matching colors, then in contrasting colors."
Tie leaders to present the bait at the level where fish hold. Wetherbee recommends a 24- to 48-inch leader in 10-pound test. "Some of these winter fish get big," he said. "Every year I hear of someone taking a fish that weighed over 20 pounds." Use shorter leaders when water is dirty, longer when water is clearer. Start with a No. 4 to 1/0 bait hook and tie an egg loop knot to secure the yarn.
Slide a Corky on the leader then tie the leader to a barrel swivel. Use pre-tied slinkies or pencil lead for weight.
The same rigging can be used, with or without the cork float, when fishing with bait. Sand shrimp works well if you can find them. Cured steelhead or salmon roe runs a close second.
Cast upstream and pick up the slack. Hold the rod tip at 11 o'clock. Use enough weight that it bounces along the bottom, transmitting a tap-tap-tap to the rod tip. When the bite comes, it is often a soft mouthing of the bait that stops the ticking of the weight, or a quick pull on your line.
When side-drifting from a boat, use a similar rigging. Run your bait in the seam that separates the riffle from the slack water or eddy. The person running the boat should keep the boat moving at the speed of the drifting baits. This method holds the bait in productive water for a longer period of time.
Timing is important. Pay attention to the fish passage report and fish where the fish are. On the river, whatever method you use, maximize the time your lure, fly or bait is in front of steelhead by using enough weight or switching tactics when necessary.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION Many Oregon waters are home to hatchery-raised steelhead and natives. It's easy to tell them apart if you know what to look for.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife removes the adipose fin (the small fatty fin located between dorsal fin and tail) to help anglers differentiate between wild and hatchery fish. See the 2004 Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations for more information.
EDITOR'S NOTE: For a signed copy of Gary Lewis' latest book, Freshwater Fishing - Oregon and Washington, send $23 (includes shipping and handling) to Gary Lewis Outdoors, P.O. Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709 or visit www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.
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