by Andy Schneider
Having a quality Winter Steelhead fishery close to home, is a luxury that many of us forget we have. If you live in Tillamook, you have many options: The Kilches, Wilson, Trask and Nestucca. If you live in Newport, you have: The Alsea and Siletz rivers. If you live in Longview, you have: The NF Lewis, EF Lewis, Kalama and the Cowlitz. If you live in Portland, you have: The Sandy, Willamette, Eagle Creek and the Clackamas. No matter where you are in the Metro area, you throw a rock in any direction and you'll hit a stream with some Winter Steelhead in it. Sometimes it's tempting to travel into someone else's backyard to catch Steelhead, but don't overlook the rivers flowing through our backyard first.
Watch Clackamas flows on where to go.
While the Clackamas is a very long river, over 80-miles, we only fish the lower 25-miles of river. Even with three quarters of the river not even in the equation for Winter Steelhead angler, it still can be daunting to try and figure out. But there simple rule to follow on the Clackamas, so you can plan your trip accordingly; the higher the flows, the lower you go. When the Clackamas is at 15-feet and above, it's not very fishable from any boat. Though plunking can be very effective in these higher flows. Concentrate your plunking either at Meldrum Bar Park or Riverside Park. Yes, Meldrum is technically the Willamette, but you targeting and catching Clackamas bound Steelhead that have already pulled into the Clackamas's River plume. Barton to Carver Steelhead:
When the Clackamas does drop below 15-feet look to hit the lower river from Carver to Riverside. Not only does this section of river fish well during higher flows, this is where fresh Steelhead will be just after a freshet. Side drifting is going to be one of the best techniques for getting freshly arriving fish to bite. Eggs should be your top bait, followed closely with a Yarnie and a pink worm as an alternative. Larger and brighter baits don't seem to shy Clackamas Steelhead, especially in higher water flows. When the river's flows are higher, look to the opposite banks for Steelhead getting away from heavy flows. While just about every piece of water from Carver to Riverside has a defined "fish holding slot", sometimes the cobblestoned shore with a gradual slope, on the opposite bank of the deeper and faster water is more productive.
The Clackamas doesn't really drop into "Perfect Shape" until it's in the 13-foot range and when it does, don't expect it to be a secret. You can expect the majority of angling pressure from Barton to Carver when the river is in shape. Barton to Carver has to be one of the most productive stretches of water on the entire Clackamas, but for good reason; many fish get caught here. There is a lot of holding water in this stretch that is easy to read and fish a variety of techniques through. If you want to pull plugs all day, you can easily do that from the Barton boat ramp to the Carver boat ramp. If you wanted to side drift, you can make your first cast directly at the Barton ramp and make your last cast just before you pull into the Carver boat ramp. There is also plenty of water in between the two ramps for drift fishing, bobber and jig fishing and even spey fishing.
When the Clackamas starts to drop below 12-feet and get low and clear, drift boaters get a lot less competition from jet boaters. When the river starts getting low, a drift from Feldheimer's to Barton will be (almost certainly) jet boat free. Concentrate your effort, especially early in the season, from the mouth of Eagle Creek to Barton to intercept Eagle Creek bound Steelhead. When the Clackamas gets clear, bobber and jig is the most productive technique to deploy. A 1/4-ounce peach jig fished in this stretch, will get results. When moving down the river, have your front seater cast their jig and "Bobber Dog" down the river. "Bobber Dogging" is very similar to side drifting, but using a bobber and jig. Set your jig so it's within a foot of the bottom and keep the boat at the same speed, parallel to the bobber.
The Clackamas usually maintains a water temperature of 42- to 45-degrees all winter long. Though there is always a cold stretch that will plummet water temperatures into the thirties. When the river gets this cold, Steelhead can still be caught, you just need to change tactics a little. Slowly back trolling plugs will still yield results in the Clackamas, even in the coldest of winter days. The colder the water, the slower you will need to back troll your plugs. Concentrate your effort where water currents are a little slower, but still offers good depth. K11X KwikFish and 3.5 MagLips in metallic red, fluorescent red, blue pirate, green pirate and blue scale are the lures and colors to use to tie into a cold water Clackamas Winter Steelhead. Brenda Skinner fighting a Native Steelhead caught on a plug:
One of the biggest advantages of fishing the Clackamas is that its close to home. A trip to the coast can be a big investment in time, gas and shuttle and parking fees, but a trip to the Clackamas can be as simple as a 25-minute drive from downtown to the river and burning less than 20-bucks in fuel (round trip) and no need for a shuttle, just have your buddy meet you at the ramp. While the Clackamas is "urban river" flowing next to a large population, it's anything but that when you step to it's banks or drift quietly down river. The Clackamas is a green water jewel flowing through our own backyard, offering anglers a refuge from their busy lives, all just minutes away.Oliver awaiting crew at Carver: