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Wondering About the Willamette In Winter?

Wondering About the Willamette In Winter?

A few consecutive days of warmer weather trigger micro-hatches of chironomids and baetis mayflies. Rainbows to 20 inches, wild cutthroat trout even steelhead rise to the occasion. That's when you'll want to be on this river. (January 2007)

Photo by David Paul Williams

Angler Steve Bohnmeyer knows fishing will only get better as the winter sun warms the Willamette River.

It was one of those bright, sunny winter days that compel anglers to emerge from their winter lairs and head for the nearest water with fishing gear in hand.

Stymied by zesty winds and deep swells, we shelved our saltwater plans for the day and turned our sights inland. January is too early for the March browns to hatch. But the sudden bump in water temperature, caused by a few hours of sun, hit the trout-feeding switch. We caught just enough fish to sand the rust off our catch-and-release skills and put smiles on our faces.

As the sun dropped behind the hills, it took the day's warmth with it. And we resolved to learn more about this river and its hard-fighting trout.


Oregon's Willamette Valley was the Promised Land for the pioneers crossing the continent on the Oregon Trail. Drawn by tales of rich soil, heavily forested mountains and sweet-water rivers, they settled into a broad, level valley blessed with a mild climate. The Coast Range protected the valley from the strong Pacific storms that lashed the coast. The Cascade Mountains shunted aside the cold air from the east. The southern end was buttressed by the Calapooya Mountains, while the mouth funneled into the Columbia River.

The Willamette River starts at river mile 187 south of Eugene where the Coast Fork meets the Middle Fork, then flows north towards the Columbia River. The Willamette Basin drains 12 percent of Oregon's landmass, but it's home to 70 percent of the state's population.


Population growth was not kind to the river. In the early 1900s, towns and industry dumped untreated wastes into the river in such quantities that by the 1930s, biologists declared that the river was dead.

After 30 years of cleanup efforts -- in large part due to the Willamette River Greenway Program -- the river was declared safe for swimming in 1972. In 1998, it was designated an American Heritage River.

Michael T. Williams, a niche guide and master fly-tier from Eugene, started fishing the Willamette River in 1958. He says the river's recovery is slow, in part due to ongoing road-building and logging operations on the mountain tributaries. Logging waste and silt enter the river during each high water. He said that the river is still healthier now than it has been in his lifetime.

Fifty years of reversing pollution and aggressive management policies have allowed anadromous and resident fish stocks to rebound. The lower reaches of the river, below Oregon City Falls, is a mixed-bag fishery, justifiably famous for its "June hogs" spring chinook, but lesser known for sturgeon and warm-water game fish.

As you move upstream, you'll see the river return to its roots -- a cold-water fishery filled with rainbow and cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish and burgeoning runs of steelhead.

Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife has even undertaken a program to restore bull trout populations in the river's upper tributaries. So far, the results have been mixed. Bull trout have been designated as endangered and protected throughout the river system.


The Willamette River bisects Springfield from Eugene, then continues through Eugene and north towards Santa Clara. It flows east of Junction City and along the west side of Harrisburg. Upstream, the Coast Fork meanders south, while the Middle Fork runs past Jasper and out of Dexter Reservoir.

The river flows through private agricultural and forestland, which calls into play different access rules for different parts of the river. On the Middle and Coast Forks, the public can access the stream up to the "ordinary high" waterline. The rule changes for the main stem, where the public can access up to the "ordinary low" waterline, making the main stem more of a float-fishery.

Boaters must be aware that the Willamette River constantly changes, as each high water creates new navigation hazards or alters pre-existing ones. Natural hazards like logjams, shoals, root wads and strainers are common. Between Springfield and Eugene, just above the Interstate 5 bridge, a diversion dam stretches across most of the river. Boaters should follow the shallow channel to the right to avoid treacherous currents caused by the diversion -- and the possibility of spilling over the dam itself.

Below Eugene, the river shallows and braids into channels, some of which are not navigable. Check with the Lane County Sheriff for current information and make your first run with someone who knows that stretch of water.


In Eugene, the average high temperature in January is 46 degrees, edging up to 51 degrees in February. Average January lows are 33 degrees. This means you can catch at least another forty winks before hauling out of your cozy bed, since the best fishing will be typically between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when warmer air temperatures have taken the overnight chill off the water.

A thermometer, used frequently to record water temperatures, will increase your odds. If the water is consistently running a cool 37 degrees, a warm sunny day may ramp it up to a balmy 39 degrees, and your fishing will improve. To take full advantage of the sun's warming rays, fish the water along the north bank which gets the most sunny exposure. The warmer water stimulates insect, minnow and other fish-food into more activity, which means the trout are not far behind.

In cold water, trout seek structure that breaks the current flow. Look for the deeper, slower current edges, large underwater rocks or smaller basketball-sized cobble that provide protection from current, but still let the fish forage on tidbits floating by.


If you go fishing for trout on the Willamette from the Highway 99 Bridge at Harrisburg or farther upstream, check the regulations before you head out. They are restrictive, and there are a lot of them.

The reach from Harrisburg to the mouth of the McKenzie River is open year 'round for catch-and-release fishing with artificial flies and lures. The section upstream from the McKenzie to the Coast Fork is open to catch-and-release from Jan. 1 through April 21, and again Nov. 1

through Dec. 31. Again, check the state Web site or updates or changes.

The special five-trout and 8-inch minimum size limit applies for the rest of the year. Those same rules apply to the Middle Fork up to Dexter Dam. There is one exception to the rules -- Alton Baker Park Canoe Canal in Eugene is open for trout and fin-clipped steelhead all year. Bait is permitted.


From The Banks

Spinning gear is pretty simple. A medium-action, 6 1/2-foot rod, a reel filled with 8-pound-test line and a spool of 4-pound tippet completes the package. Of course, fly rodders will need more.

Williams, the master fly-tier from Eugene, suggests carrying two rods to cover all opportunities. The main rod should be a 6-weight with sufficient backbone to handle a double-nymph, strike-indicator setup. Because winter trouting may present dry-fly opportunities, he also favors an 8 1/2-foot, 5-weight, a floating line, 9-foot leader tapered to 5x or smaller if necessary.

From A Boat

Wintertime, with its cool, sometimes unpleasant weather, is drift-boat time on the river. The high-sided, flat-bottomed boats really shine since they allow their occupants to stay dry, provide stable casting platforms and allow anglers to anchor or drift water that's not available to bank fishers. As the water warms, rafts, canoes, kayaks and pontoons have their place.


If you wade, wear neoprene waders, good felt-soled wading boots and plenty of fleece clothing. Dan Brock, who has fished the river for years, won't wade without strapping on Korkers sandals with their tungsten carbide spikes. He says the last thing you want to do in January is slip on slick bedrock and go swimming. You'll ruin your day and maybe ruin more than that.


In January and February, you'll get a few consecutive days of warm weather. That triggers micro-hatches of chironomids and baetis mayflies. These hatches occur in areas sheltered from the main current flow by rocks, logjams or other river structure. Often the trout rises are subtle and easily missed. Look for noses sticking out from foam lines and back eddies sucking down individual or even clumps of insects. When you spot them, drop anchor if you can safely do so, then start working the area with a dry fly or deer hair emerger.

Winter water temperatures make for sluggish trout with slowed metabolisms. They won't move far or fast to intercept your offering. Cool water means nymphs bounced along the bottom, streamers slowly drifted and sometimes a midge or blue winged-olive hatch.

The key is getting your fly or lure in front of the fish and keeping it there for as long as possible in order to tempt them to bite. Slow drifts and slow retrieves are the order of the day. If you think you are fishing slow but not getting any hits, fish slower yet.

Williams likes to fish the 8-mile section from Marshall Island Access to Harrisburg. At Marshall Island, the Oregon Park and Recreation Department has an improved boat launch with restroom facilities. The take-out ramp is operated by the City of Harrisburg.

Williams suggests fishing two flies under a strike indicator. He ties a heavy stonefly pattern, like the Brooks Stone, as the tail fly. Then he'll tie a smaller nymph off the dropper. Williams says a Prince Nymph or hare's ear in size 12 works well, though sometimes a flashier fly is just the ticket.

Winter fishing means rain and off-colored water so you should use dark-colored flies that present an obvious silhouette to the fish. Black and dark brown always show up well in murky water.

When selecting the fly size, keep in mind that the goal is to fish the nymph as close to the bottom as possible without constantly hanging up. In most cases, river flows will dictate what size fly to use so Williams carries Brooks Stone flies in sizes 2-6. He also likes the Riffle Dancer, an old subsurface nymph pattern tied on a size 4 hook with peacock herl and palmered brown hackle.

If you fish lures at this time of year, you only need remember one word -- slow. Most fishers cast and quickly retrieve the lure, then cast again. Maybe it's the caffeine from the two cups of double espresso while waiting for the weather to warm. Maybe it's from watching all those bass fishing shows on television. The fact is, trout are simply not going to move far nor will they move fast to intercept a fast-moving lure in cold water. Instead, try casting into a current seam. Allow the lure to drift with the current, then let it hold for several seconds in the current. The wobbling, diving or spinning action often will provoke a strike from a sluggish fish. Save your fast-moving lures for summer bass fishing.

For those who toss gear, Williams suggests several tried-and-true lures that have caught tons of fish over the years and still catch them. He likes the Luhr Jensen Krocodile in chrome, Luhr Jensen Super Duper in gold-red or Worden's yellow Rooster Tail. In fact, the largest resident Willamette River fish Williams ever hooked was a rainbow estimated at over 6 pounds. It took a yellow Rooster Tail, then did everything it could to try to break his light-weight spinning rod.

Not every fish in the river is that big, but there are many legitimate 20-inch rainbow that tip the scale at 4 pounds. A very healthy population of 14- to 17-inch trout swims this river as well. Should you land one of the big boys of 20 or more inches, know that Oregon classifies all rainbows that size as steelhead and only fin-clipped steelhead may be kept. The average trout is a foot long, according to the expert fly-tier. And that's not bad for a river flowing through a major metropolitan area.

Chris Daughters of the Caddis Fly shop in Eugene agrees there are 20-inch rainbows. He said there would be more big resident fish if they weren't so often caught on the egg baits used by salmon fishers working the same areas. He says cutthroats run a bit smaller than the rainbow but average between 10-13 inches.

For winter trout he favors small flies like the Pheasant Tail or olive-bodied soft hackle in 14-18. For mid-sized patterns, he favors golden stones or darker flies, including the black winter stonefly in sizes 8-12.

If you fish the "Town Run" or the area below Dexter Dam you stand a chance of hooking a steelhead. ODFW fish biologist Jeff Ziller has tinkered with summer steelhead stocks for several years to create a viable urban steelhead fishery. He trades Willamette River smolts for Santiam River smolts, acclimates the Santiam fish at various urban release spots, and then sends them out to sea. Instead of returning to their hatchery home, they seek their release points, then establish themselves in "steelheady lies" according to Brian Marz, owner of The McKenzie Angler. The Town Run is Island Park to Valley River.

Marz, who has caught bright steelhead every month of the year, says to be successful, you need to "choose your line system, based on the water flows." He makes a bold claim that at times, the Willamette River steelhead fishing surpasses the more famous Rogue and Umpqua

fisheries. Come equipped with a range of lines and weighted and unweighted flies.

Daughters of Caddis Fly will fish bright pink and purple MOAL patterns as well as the Ken Morris Trailer Trash series of bright flies. When the water is running between 1,500 and 3,000 CFS, the river is fishable. The river has a wild winter steelhead run, though "it's not talked about very much," Daughers said. All wild fish must be released.

Alton Baker Park Canoe Canal is quite a mouthful of a name. It's also quite an urban fishing gem. Located just across the river from the University of Oregon campus, a "student angler" could grab a rod, walk across the Autzen Foot Bridge, and catch a trout within 15 minutes of leaving the dorm room. ODFW stocks the canal with trout for a spring kid's fishing event, but as these events go, not all fish get caught. What makes the canal even more interesting is steelhead, both summer- and winter-run fish, venture up from the main stem river. Williams has caught and released steelhead amidst bicyclists, walkers and cars whizzing by on the Ferry Street Bridge overhead.

Rainbows to 20 inches, wild cutthroat trout, the possibility of a steelhead, all make the Willamette a wonderful fishing spot. And one of the best reasons to fish the Willamette River -- chances are, it's probably right in your backyard.


Michael T. Williams is at P.O. Box 11392, Eugene, OR 97440. Call him at (541) 513-7778

The McKenzie Angler, is located at 39297 McKenzie Highway, Walterville, OR 97489. Call them at (541) 736-1239

The Caddis Fly is located at 168 W. 6th Avenue, Eugene, OR 97401. Phone number is (541)342-7005

Willamette River Recreation Guide is detailed with information on river access, ramps and navigation hazards. Check it out at

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