A Tale of Two Rivers

Close proximity to dense populations put thousands of anglers onto two systems each winter in search of Steel.  Increased competition can lead to a decrease in success rates.  However, with the number of Winter Steelhead returning to the Sandy and Clackamas rivers this year, you better have your hatchery cards ready.  Though they are separated by only a few miles, the fish can relate to completely different bottom structures.  Knowing where to target winter chrome will put your baits in front of more fish and give you the opportunity to scratch out limits on these two highly pressured, urban rivers East of Portland.

First, the Numbers:
Rumors have been circulating regarding both the Cedar Creek and Eagle Creek Hatcheries on the reducing production of Winter Steelhead.  This cannot be further from the truth.  Portland General Electric (PGE) has spent countless dollars updating and improving the Cedar Creek Hatchery in recent years and continues to do so with additions of new holding, collection and spawning centers.  A new UV water treatment system will be added as well.  PGE would not become this heavily invested into the Cedar Creek hatchery if it had a shortened life span.  The Eagle Creek hatchery is federally funded and then supplemented with state monies that have seen no unordinary reductions.

Yes, the Broodstock program has ceased on the Sandy, but this is for good reason.  The purpose of a Broodstock program is to combine genes of both native and hatchery fish over the course of 8-10 years to create genetic integrity in the entire run of fish.  This will not only make for a stronger return, but also ensures that when a native fish spawns incidentally with a hatchery raised fish, there will be little to no genetic difference.

Each year, goals of 160,000 smolts for the Sandy and 115,000 smolts for the Clackamas are put forth for the hatcheries involved in raising our Winter Steelhead.  After the initial spawns at Cedar and Eagle Creek Hatcheries, the eggs are sent to the Oak Springs Hatchery for the first few months of their lives.  This is because Oak Springs hatchery has access to pathogen free water at a consistent temperature of 54 degrees allowing the fish to grow quickly and remain healthy.  From here, they are once again moved to Bonneville hatchery to be raised to a size of roughly 5 inches.  At this point, the fish are returned to their rivers of origin to be acclimated for 3 weeks and then released.  The Sandy River has one acclimation site at Cedar Creek.  The Clackamas has 5 different locations the young Steelies are released from.  The purpose of having more than one acclimation site is to spread the fish throughout the system for the entire season, giving anglers a better opportunity for success!  The goals of 160,000 and 115,000 smolts have been reached every year for several years running ensuring us anglers consistent returns today and for many seasons to come!

The Breakdown:
Steelies began to show just before Christmas this season on both the Sandy and Clackamas Rivers.  If past years are an indicator, expect BIG pushes of fish this month into each system.  This push of mostly hatchery fish will last through roughly the 1st week of February.  Come the beginning of March, there will be one last influx of fish comprised of mostly late returning Natives.
To effectively target chromers on the Sandy and Clackamas, a careful dissection of each drainage is necessary.  The best way to accomplish this breakdown is to discuss the Where and How to fish the rivers based upon Water Levels.  Brandon Glass from Team Hook-Up has become a very consistent guide on both systems regardless of conditions.   He and his father Jack have several decades of experience on the Clackamas River and a combined 75+ years fishing the Sandy.  Brandon is an excellent resource to utilize when putting together a plan of attack for targeting winter Steelhead on these rivers.

High Water Conditions:  11.0’+ at Bull Run Gauge.     14.0’+ at Estacada Gauge
Where:  Dabney Park upstream to Cedar Creek.     Carver Park Upriver to McIver Park.

High water is one of Brandon’s favorite times to target Steelhead.  He believes that higher water concentrates the fish into smaller areas.  “Most people think high water gives Steelhead more room to spread out when in fact it pushes all of the fish in the river to the edges” says Brandon.  With more sediment in the river fish seek refuge in the slower water that will be cleaner and easier for their gills to filter out the oxygen.  Bank anglers can find great access at Dabney Park, Oxbow Park, Dodge Park and Cedar Creek hatchery on the Sandy.  Clackamas bank spots include Carver Park, Barton Park, Bonnie Lure State Park and McIver Park for high water conditions.  The best areas to fish from a boat will be Oxbow to Dabney Park on the Sandy.  Dodge Park to Oxbow is another great drift yet can be very technical and is best suited for those with rafts or pontoon boats and years of experience.  Keep in mind too that no motors are allowed above Dabney State Park.  For the Clackamas, boaters should focus on the drifts immediately above and below Barton Park.

How:  Bank- plunk     Boat- back troll

Bank bound anglers should focus on casting close to shore on the first soft seam off of the bank on the inside corners of the river.  Utilize Spin ‘N Glows the size of your thumbnail in contrasting fluorescent colors with either eggs or sand shrimp for bait.  For the boat anglers, a slower presentation is needed.  “Slowly back trolling diver and bait or dark colored plugs” is what Brandon strongly suggests targeting the same slower inside seams close to the bank.  Do not be afraid to fish waters of only 2-5’ in depth.

Perfect Water Levels:  9.8’ – 10.8’ at Bull Run Gauge.     12.5’-13.5’ at Estacada Gauge.
Where:  System Wide on both Rivers.

This time of year under perfect river conditions, Steelhead will be spread throughout the entire river.  Brandon suggests searching in “areas of 3’-7’ of water.”  He also states that it is important to determine if the fish are moving or holding.  “If you see or hear of fish caught in the main current, the fish are moving…if they are found in slower water or tailouts, they are holding.”  Knowing where the fish are in the hole will help you put together a pattern that can be replicated and make for consistent limits!

How:  Bank- plunk, spinners, drift fish and jigs.     Boat- side drift, back-troll, jigs and drift fish.  

Every technique imaginable will work under these conditions.  The trend as of late has been side-drifting from a boat.  This technique is very effective because it covers long expanses of water quickly.  But don’t think it is regulated to just boats.  The bank bound anglers are putting their own twist into this technique by walking at the speed of the current to create the same presentation as if they were in a boat!  Drift boat anglers should back-troll under these conditions, especially when the fish are found to be moving.  Bobber and jig will begin to work well at these levels too, so be sure to keep it in your arsenal.  For the bank anglers, plunking off the main seams will continue to work but don’t forget to start throwing spoons and spinners if the fish are found to be holding.  The final technique to be considered is the lost art of drift fishing.  These water levels are ideal for slowly drifting a small bait of eggs, sand shrimp or even a pink worm to an awaiting chrom

Low Water Conditions:  9.5’ and below at Bull Run Gauge.     12.5’ and below at Estacada Gauge.

Where:  Oxbow Park downstream to the river mouth.        Barton Park downriver to Clackamette Park.

Every year we seem to experience at least a one week period of low water conditions for winter Steelhead.  This can draw many fish back downstream and congregate them lower in the system.  However, lower water means tougher conditions to catch fish.  Cooler temperatures and clear water makes for sluggish, spooky Steelies.  But Brandon has a secret:  “as the water temperature dips in low, clear water, look for the fish to be sitting on top of sand in slower water…” when fishing the Sandy River.  Sand bottoms will remain warmer than rocky bottom areas of a river.  On the Clackamas, “avoid fishing clay bottoms and target cobble stone the size of a baseball or smaller” suggests Brandon.  Always remember, slower water remains warmer than the rapids at the heads of the holes unless outside temperatures are well below freezing.

How:  Bank- spinners, spoons, and jigs     Boat- jigs and side drifting
Bank anglers have the advantage during low water conditions.  Boats have a tendency of creating too much noise coming in to a hole.  During this stretch of the season, bank anglers should focus on using spinners and spoons.  Swinging the lures through the main current and keeping them in contact with the bottom is going to be one of your better techniques.  For both boat and bank anglers, jigs are a priority when the water is low and clear. This technique gives a natural, quiet presentation that the uneasy fish will react to well.  Pink Worms have proven they are much better than a passing trend.  Low clear water caters to a small 3-4 inch pink worm on a light jig head under a bobber or used in place of bait with a side drifting or standard drift fishing set-up.

Brandon Glass of Team Hook-Up can be reached at (503) 260-8285 or at www.hookupguideservice.com