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North Coast Steelheading - by Terry Otto

The author with a Wilson River broodstock hatchery steelhead, while Chris Sessions looks on. This one took a metallic blue Mag Lip just above the Donaldson gravel bar. Buzz Ramsey image.

 

A stiff, cold wind was driving rain in from the Pacific Ocean, as my host for the day, Buzz Ramsey, and myself huddled deeper into our heavy coats. We were pulling plugs on the lower miles of the Nestucca River on the Oregon coast, as we watched our rod tips for any sign of a hit. Our patience was rewarded when my rod slammed downward when a bright, fat winter steelhead latched itself onto the plug at the business end of my line. The next five minutes were exciting, as the silver bullet streaked back and forth in the stream, peeling line, and taking to the air in impressive, acrobatic leaps.

The hooks held, and eventually Buzz managed to net the rampaging steelhead. It was a chrome-bright, fresh, wild broodstock hatchery fish, which we were happy to add to the fish box. After we put the fish away, the cold, wet wind, which we had forgotten all about in the excitement, seemed to come back. We hurried to the landing a short distance below, thankful to reach the warmth of the truck. 

The rivers of Oregon’s North Coast are some of the most storied steelhead streams in the state, and they are ready to shine for the next couple months. These systems get good returns of wild run steelhead that arrive in force in February and March, and several of the streams have wild broodstock hatchery runs that return at the same time. 

While steelhead rivers along the Washington state coastline are struggling, and many have been shut down to steelheading this year, Oregon’s North Coast rivers are doing much better. Beaver State steelheaders have a number of different options from the Necanicum River near Gearhart, down to the Nestucca River, about 80 miles to the south. In between are rivers and creeks of all sizes that allow anglers to find fishable water whether the rivers are running high or low. 

Tillamook Bay Steel

The Tillamook Bay streams dominate these options, with five different rivers that feed the bay, and they all get good wild runs. The most popular system by far, and the largest, is the Wilson River, which also has the only hatchery run of steelhead in the bay. 

Anyone that has driven Oregon’s Highway 6 along the Wilson River during February and March has seen the drift boats and bank anglers working every reach of the stream. Luckily, though, the Wilson is a long system, and there is lots of room for anglers to spread out. Still, the lower holes, where the hottest steelhead lay, are usually crowded with anglers and guides hole-jumping in a morning fishing frenzy, as they try to find the most aggressive fish that are willing to pounce on the soft beads or small egg clusters that they bobber-dog down the river. 

 

Bob Rees with a fine Wilson River broodstock steelhead. These fish, the progeny of wild steelhead, are fish with real shoulders. Their line-burning runs and acrobatic leaps will put a smile on your face. Jim Martin image.

 

It can seem a little too intense for some anglers, but there are other ways to fish this wooly river that do not force anglers to try and beat everyone else to their favorite lay or rock. 

Oregon fishing guide Bob Rees takes a more relaxed approach when he chases Wilson River steel. In fact, you will rarely see him putting his drift boat in until mid-morning. His rods are not rigged up with the widely popular bobber-dogging setups. Instead, his gear is ready for a much older method for steelhead: pulling plugs. 

“What everyone is doing these days is bobber dogging or side drifting with small clusters of eggs and beads,” says Rees. “After 25 years of fishing the Wilson, I take a less aggressive approach. I wait for people to flog the water until 8:30 or 9 o’clock, and then I come in behind everyone and run plugs,” said Rees. “I love plug fishing, and I just don’t have an enjoyable experience being an aggressive hole-jumper.”

Rees also takes out a lot of inexperienced people, and the technique of pulling plugs is much less difficult for those anglers to learn. All they have to do is hold onto the rod.

“I have taken the more relaxed approach,” he adds, “coming in behind everybody, using a different strategy, and just doing my own thing. I get to fish water that everyone has gone through with their soft beads and their bait, and these fish are then seeing plugs, which they haven’t seen in the morning crowd. And, they respond very well.”

No one would argue that bobber-dogging is not a super-effective method for getting steelhead, on the North Coast or elsewhere, but there is something to be said for offering something different, something the fish haven’t seen.

Rees uses baits that are also old-school, including the X-11 Kwikfish in metallic red or blue, and the Black Pirate Luhr Jenson Hotshot, which is no longer available. Rees still has a handful of the Black Pirates left, but he rarely loses any. He tends to use 80-pound braided line, and no leader, when he runs the plugs. 

Why?

“Those steelhead are not line-shy when it comes to plugs,” said Rees, “and I can run those plugs in areas I couldn’t run with lighter line. If it gets stuck, I can pull it out. The hooks bend out and I get my plug back.”

He further explains that steelhead often lie beneath wood or brush, and he can back the plugs into those areas with confidence. 

Most of the time Rees can be found floating from the Siskeyville Launch down to Mills Bridge, but there a number of good drifts on the river. The highest put-in is at Mile Post Ten, but it is a rough launch, and the reach below lends itself to pontoon drifting, instead of a drift boat. Rees does not recommend it for novices. The next put-in is the Vanderzanden boat slide, a long wooden slide that takes confidence and experience to use. The Mill’s Bridge launch is below that, then comes the Donaldson’s gravel bar, a popular launch site, and the final take out is the Sollie Smith ramp. 

The most popular drifts are the lower two, and if you want to fish any of the best holes there first, you’ll need to be on the water before light. And, you’ll have plenty of company. Hence Rees’ hesitancy to fight that mess. 

Bank anglers will find miles of excellent access on Highway 6, which follows the river all the way up. There can be good fishing in the uppermost sections of the Wilson, and for hatchery fish, too. Clipped hatchery steelhead smolts are released from several sites, according to Mike Sinnott, the Assistant District Fish Biologist of ODFW’s North Coast Watershed District. He noted that many of the smolts are released all the way up at the South Fork Forest Camp.

 

While most anglers steelheading the coastal streams are bobber-dogging or side-drifting, older methods, such as jig and bobber, still find takers. It can be a good strategy, especially later in the day, to run offerings the fish have not yet seen. Bob Rees image.

 

“The South Fork release of winter steelhead smolts is 40K of the total 150K released into the Wilson River,” said Sinnott. “Other release sites are Siskeyville, Mills Bridge, and the Hughey Creek acclimation pond.” 

The Wilson River is the largest of the Tillamook Bay streams, so it is the slowest of the five to come back into shape following high-water events. That’s when it is time to target one of the other rivers. Rees firmly believes the Wilson River fishes best at the 6.3-foot stage. 

The next biggest river is the Trask. This is another system that offers plenty of bank access along the Trask River Road, and there are a couple launches for drift boaters, and pontoon anglers. This river no longer receives any stockings of hatchery steelhead, but the river sports the only hatchery in the bay, and that is where the Wilson-bound broodstock steelhead are raised. That draws a few hatchery strays to the system, and they do show up in the catch, but only a few. Still, the Trask has a great wild run of steelhead, and while it is never as crowded as the Wilson, it does get some attention. 

The most popular bank access point is the Dam Hole, at milepost seven. There is also good water at the Trask River Hatchery, but there are accessible holes all along the river. When the river is high, it can be floated, and there are five launch sites. From the top to bottom, they are the Stones Road Launch, the Peninsula Launch, Loren’s drift boat launch, the Lower Trask Launch, and the Carnahan City Park boat launch. 

There is a gauge on the Trask, and many anglers like to fish when it is running between 5.0 and 6.0 feet. 

The Kilchis River is smaller than the Trask, and it drops into condition much quicker. Rees explains that while it gets a strong return of fine wild steelhead, it gets little attention. “The Kilchis gets a real good run of wild fish,” said Rees, “and it has quite a bit of public access, mostly above the Logging Bridge. There’s a state forest road that parallels the river.”

You may not see another soul on this stream. “As much as anglers admire wild steelhead, if they don’t get to take a fish home, they lose interest.”

There is a three-day window when its best to fish the little river, once it begins to drop after rains. After that the stream drops too much and it becomes difficult to fish. 

There are two more streams that feed the bay, the Miami and the Tillamook. Both get small returns of wild steelhead, but there is almost no public access, and neither of them have fishing that compares with the Wilson, Trask, or Kilchis.

Nehalem River Chrome

About 15 miles north of Tillamook Bay is the Nehalem River system. The mainstem is a large river that sports big, wild steelhead from January through March. It’s a great wild run fishery, according to Rees. There is fair public access, but it is best fished from a boat because it is a big system. It fishes best when all other systems are low and clear.

 

Al Noraker caught this Wilson River steelhead while fishing plugs with Bob Rees. Rees loves to pull plugs on coastal rivers, and the steelhead, which have seen beads and bait all morning, often jump on them. Bob Rees image.

 

The only hatchery steelhead in the system are released into the north Fork Nehalem River from the Nehalem Hatchery located on that stream. For decades there was only an early-retuning stock used here, which Rees described in un-glowing terms. The fish don’t bite well, and most just blast through to the hatchery, while ignoring anglers’ offerings. 

However, there are changes in the works here, according to Sinnott. 

“The Nehalem hatchery on the North Fork Nehalem releases a total of 90K winter steelhead smolts into the North Fork,” he said. “We have transitioned 25K smolts of that release to wild broodstock hatchery fish which do tend to return later, late December through March. The remaining 65K smolts are still the traditional North Fork Nehalem stock which return late November through January; so that early component of the hatchery run won’t go away.”

That switch has already happened, and Sinnott said that this will be the first year that anglers will see a return of these late-run, broodstock steelhead. 

“Our experience on other basins in the district has been that the wild broodstock fish are more aggressive and therefore have a higher return to the angler, in addition to providing opportunity later into the run.”

There is access at the hatchery itself, where there is an ADA wheelchair accessible fishing dock. It’s a small stream and the water lends itself to drifting. Expect company if you go, for this may be the first year for this late-run fishery, but with all the online resources folks have these days, there are no secrets out there. 

Nestucca River broodstock steelhead

South of Tillamook Bay is one of the best steelhead rivers on the coast, the Nestucca. This rugged river offers a very strong run of late-returning wild broodstock hatchery steelhead, a strong wild run, and it offers great access along its entire length. There are multiple drifts of varying length, so anglers can drift this river for short, or longer, floats. 

The Nestucca River, about 30 miles south of Tillamook Bay, is another stream that has seen a change in stocks, with managers eliminating the early run of steelhead. This is the first year there are no early fish returning to the river. Instead, it is now only planted with hatchery progeny from wild broodstock. These late fish have been returning for many years, but only now has the early stock been retired. 

 

Fat and sassy. The broodstock hatchery stock now used for almost all North Coast steelhead plants are a high-quality fish. They bite better, and return in better numbers than the out-of-basin stocks used in the past. Bob Rees image.

 

It is a long system, with plenty of launches, take-outs, and bank access. Rees prefers the drift from the First Bridge down to the Three Rivers Launch, and he likes to float it when the river is running between seven and seven and a half feet. This is another system where bobber-dogging has become the preferred fishing method, with almost everyone fishing soft beads and eggs. It is a busy system, but not quite as crowded in the lower sections as is the case at the Wilson. When Rees fishes it, he fishes the same old-school technique of pulling plugs. 

Other methods that are popular here include fishing plastic worms in high water, sometimes rigged wacky-style below a bobber. Some bank anglers fish jigs as well. However, once the river drops the bobber-dogging method dominates, and soft beads are the preferred bait.

The upper Nestucca is technical water, and is favored by kayakers, but the water is doable if you are experienced. The lower sections level out some, offering a more relaxed float. The highest launching site is the Forth Bridge launch. The next one down is the First Bridge, then the Bixby launch, and the Farmer Creek launch, followed by the Three Rivers launch. The Clover Dale launch is popular for anglers fishing the lowest sections, and there are two take-outs in tide water, the Fisher’s Point and the Pacific City County boat ramps.

These are just a few of the many places where anglers can launch or take out, but they are the best known and used. Bank anglers will find lots of access along the Oregon Coast Highway, and there is some access in Pacific City. 

The strong hatchery run is joined by a robust wild run of steelhead, with both runs returning in the January to March timeline, with the peak fishing coming in March. 

 

Todd Staver caught this brute wild steelhead while fishing with Chris Vertopoulos on the North Coast. The winter steelheading on coastal streams will be picking up in February and peak in March. Chris Vertopoulos image.

 

Always keep in mind that the smaller rivers along the coast offer the best opportunity when the systems are swollen with rain, and as the rivers drop the larger rivers will come into their own. Also, the crowded systems will empty out some later in the day, and a late day float should still find steelhead in a biting mood. 

All of these streams offer the chance for bright, robust winter steelhead, the kind with shoulders. This is a result of the changing hatchery practices over the last couple decades, which are now producing the wild broodstock hatchery fish. They are big, brawling, battlers that will test your gear, and bring a huge smile to your face. If that’s not enough to draw you here, these systems offer stunning coastal vistas. Whether you like to bobber-dog, or like Rees, stick to old school methods, there is too much to like in these coastal waters. So, what are you waiting for? 

Guided Trips: Bob Rees’ Oregon Fishing Guide Service: 503-812-9036, https://www.theguidesforecast.com/bob-rees-fishing-guide-service/

Rees also publishes the website “The Guides Forecast”, which has offered weekly fishing reports and forecasts for Oregon for over 20 years. Terry Otto offers a southwest Washington fishing report and forecast as part of The Guides Forecast: https://www.theguidesforecast.com/