Portland is a vibrant city with a Northwest culture that is surrounded by world-class fishing. The area’s rivers support unlimited angling opportunities, and some of the best fishing is within the city limits itself and the greater metropolitan area. It is also an excellent jumping off point for the Oregon Coast, the magnificent Columbia River Gorge, and even southwest Washington, while providing all the services and activities that a big city offers.
There’s always something to do in Portland, in fact it can be hard to choose from all the options. For those with a love of the outdoors, or for those that prefer urban diversions, there is no lack of entertainment.
Salmon and steelhead can be found in most of the rivers within the Portland area, and sturgeon lurk in the depths of the two big waters, the Columbia and the Willamette Rivers. There is something to fish for almost every month of the year, all within a short drive from the city center.
Although I tend to do lots of traveling to stay on top of fish, living as a fishing guide in the Portland area is pretty amazing.
Three salmon species can be found locally in Portland’s waters. The Chinook salmon is sometimes called the king salmon, and they truly are the kings of the salmon species. The most prized of the salmon species, and the largest, Chinook run from 15 to 30 pounds on average, with larger specimens approaching 50 pounds. The spring run Chinook, or springers as they are often called, average a little smaller but are the tops of the local salmon as table fare. Known as finicky biters, once hooked a king salmon can burn off incredible amounts of line in a single burst of speed.
Coho, or silvers as they are sometimes called, run from 6 to 12 pounds on average, and tend to be found closer to the surface. A little easier to hook than the Chinook, they jump more often, and offer a great fight. Kings and silvers are often found schooled together in the fall.
Sockeye salmon, also known as red salmon, run about 3 to 6 pounds and are well-known for their delicious bright red fillets and scrappy fighting. Often caught by summer steelhead anglers, these fish are chrome bright and scrappy as they cruise through Portland, and are in excellent shape for the table.
While similar to salmon in taste and appearance, steelhead are actually ocean-run rainbow trout, and are storied for their fighting ability and fine table fare. Two separate runs find their way to local rivers, the winter and summer run. Summer run steelhead tend to run from 6 to 12 pounds, with a few larger fish topping 18 pounds. Winter run steelhead average from 8 to 12 pounds, with a few topping 20 pounds caught each year. While not as numerous as salmon, steelhead tend to be a bit easier to hook, but are fantastic jumpers and can be difficult to land.
Sturgeon are often described as prehistoric, and have changed little in the last million years. Lacking scales but packing razor-sharp plates along their sides, they certainly look prehistoric. They have a suction-type mouth, and a long, shark-like tail. Long-lived bottom feeders, they often reach ages of 150 years, and lengths that exceed 12 feet. They are classified as shakers when young, and referred to as keepers when they reach sizes of 43 to 60 inches. Once they reach spawning size, over 60 inches, they are referred to as oversize sturgeon. Wrestling with these fresh water giants is a true challenge, and can test the mettle of any angler.
While tasty, sturgeon retention is limited in local waters to a few short seasons, and all oversize sturgeon must be released unharmed.
Winter steelhead get the New Year’s fishing going in the Portland area, and start to show in local rivers in early January. Numbers rise until they peak in March, but winter fish can be caught into April. Spring Chinook start to enter the Columbia in late February, and their numbers build until the peak in late April. By May the springers have moved into the tributary rivers and the fishing slows in June.
In the summer months the summer steelhead begin to arrive, and by June they are being caught in the Columbia and the tributaries. The run stretches through August into September, when the largest summers of the year show up. These fish, called the “B-run,” average about 12 pounds and can top 18 pounds. In late June the sockeye start to arrive and that run lasts through early July.
Summer run Chinook arrive in early July and migrate through the Columbia until August, when they are followed by the fall run. The largest of the Columbia’s Chinook runs, they provide a fishery from the middle of August through September.
There are two runs of coho salmon, an early and a late run. Early runs start in mid-September and run through October. Late run silvers start to arrive in mid-October and run through November. The majority of the late coho runs return to Washington rivers.
This historic river is enjoying a salmon rejuvenation, and recent salmon runs have been impressive. Good ocean conditions and recent boosts from tribal entities in the upper Columbia have fueled these runs, which are expected to continue to be strong for the next couple years at least. In 2014 both fall Chinook and coho runs that entered the Columbia River numbered around one million fish each. Spring Chinook runs have numbered from 200,000 to 400,000 in recent years.
Summer run Chinook were once the most populous run in the Columbia, but they were decimated by early salmon canneries. Current returns of summer Chinook in the Columbia number less than 100,000 adults in most years, but recent efforts by Washington State fisheries and the Native North American tribal fisheries are working to boost those returns. In future years this run will be much larger, and offer more angling opportunity.
Few winter steelhead are caught in the Columbia River itself, but summer steelhead and sockeye are often caught together, and provide a very popular fishery.
Sturgeon can be caught throughout the Columbia, from the estuary to the Gorge, but the best action for oversize sturgeon takes place below the Bonneville Dam in May.
The Columbia is a broad river with tricky currents, and it requires a substantial boat to fish it safely. It is also an incredibly scenic river, especially where it flows through the rugged canyon of the Columbia River Gorge. In Portland the Columbia passes by homes and industrial sections before flowing through the wild vistas of the Coast Range. Quaint, picturesque towns like Cathlamet or St Helens can be found along the lower river on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
The Columbia River estuary is wide and wild, and it’s a great place to intercept sturgeon in the summer, and salmon in the fall. The town of Astoria overlooks the Columbia here, has undergone a renaissance in recent years. Once a rustic fishing town, it now boasts quaint shops, sea food restaurants, quality lodgings, museums, and plenty of history.
The rugged beauty of the Oregon coast is only an hour’s drive west from downtown Portland, and once there visitors will find beautiful ocean beaches, rocky headlands, scenic bays, and terrific fishing. Highway 101 follows the coastline offering ocean vistas and views of the Coast Range Mountains, with shops, restaurants, resorts, and lodging available along its entire route.
Oregon’s north coast rivers teem with salmon and steelhead runs, where an angler can fish while surrounded by primordial, mossy coastal forests, waterfalls, and misty mountain views.
Columbia River Gorge
To the east is the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, also within an hour’s drive from the heart of the city. Here you can visit historic sites, waterfalls, and parks while enjoying the rugged cliffs, waterfalls, and views of the country’s only National Scenic Area.
Besides the fishing, there are paddle-boat cruises available, scenic hikes, windsurfing, and more.
Named the “Quicksand River” by Lewis and Clark, the Sandy River empties into the Columbia just east of Metropolitan Portland, near the town of Troutdale. Its source is high in the glacier fields along the flanks of Mt Hood, and the white capped mountain overlooks the river as it winds through the rugged headwaters to the runs and pools below. Cold glacial water keeps the fish biting, and nourishes the runs of salmon and steelhead that the Sandy is so well known for.
Cascade Mountain scenery surrounds anglers on the Sandy in the upper reaches, while the lower sections wind through stately bank-side homes. Sheer cliffs often drop straight into the river’s edge, and in the deep pools salmon lurk. Steelhead are found in the faster water of the runs and glides.
There are populations of winter steelhead, spring Chinook, fall Chinook and coho salmon in the Sandy but the most popular fisheries are the steelhead and spring Chinook.
The most popular drifts are from Oxbow Park to Dabney Park. Jet boats are allowed from Dabney down to the mouth. Here is a take-out at Lewis and Clark State Park.
The Clackamas River starts as a classic Cascade Mountain stream, and winds its way west before eventually emptying into the Willamette River in Oregon City. The river has a rich Northwest history, and has been drawing sport fishermen, some of them famous, to its banks for over a hundred years. The clear running river has strong runs of spring Chinook salmon, winter and summer steelhead, and coho salmon. While it is a wild running river in its upper reaches, the lower Clackamas is marked by deep pools between soft glides and riffles. The middle section has a series of hydroelectric dams and trout lakes.
It takes a seasoned hand to navigate the Clackamas, but a boat is really the only way to fish this river. It allows you to access some of the better holes, and the rewards are worth it. The Clackamas has a knack for producing trophy class wild winter steelhead; with a few over 20 pounds caught most years.
The most popular drifts are from Barton Park to Carver Park, although some anglers drift from Milo McIver Park down to Barton. The Clackamette boat ramp is located at the mouth of the Clackamas River in Oregon City.