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Winter Steelhead Fishing in the Sandy River

Winter Steelhead Fishing in the Sandy River

Credit: Grant McOmie, KGW News

A steelhead caught in the Sandy River

by Grant McOmie

Bio | Email | Follow: @KGWNews

Posted on January 8, 2010 at 4:09 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 3:56 AM


A fishing trip on the Sandy River with longtime guide Jack Glass starts with a boat ride that is fast and certain.

As we sped upriver from Jack’s river front home – not far from Lewis and Clark State Park boat ramp that’s located a stone’s throw upstream from its confluence with the mighty Columbia River – Jack told me that he had been prowling the Sandy River since a boy.

Now, some forty-plus years later, he knows the water well, especially the nooks and crannies where the steelhead swim:

“I think we’re in for a really good return of fish this year – especially in late January and February – all the signs point to it.”

The “signs” that Jack regards so well include a “bumper crop” of younger steelhead that appeared a year ago and often herald a much larger run the following season – plus, a huge return of Coho salmon had appeared in the Sandy River this past fall fishing season.

I joined Jack and state fishery biologist Todd Alsbury on a recent bone-chilling morning.

Daylight found us motoring through a dense fog bank that loomed over the water and reduced visibility to little more than a few hundred feet.

Alsbury had taken a rare morning off from his normal duties to join our crew for a morning of casting and exploring the lower reaches of the Sandy River.

As we rounded a bend in the river, Jack slowed the boat: “Ah, this spot here is what we call ‘Powerline Drift,’ noted Glass. “A real sweet steelhead spot – kind of shallow with a little bit of an island, but an all gravel bottom – perfect spot to intercept a steelhead.”

Steelhead are ocean-going rainbow trout that can reach twenty pounds or more!

Anglers prize them for strength, stamina and endurance – there’s simply no finer fish on hook and line.

Many devotees call them the “Street fighters” of the anadromous fish world because they often travel the furthest and endure the harshest environmental conditions in order to reach their spawning areas that are located high in the watershed.

We cast small egg clusters matched with small, colorful and buoyant lures called “cheaters” and also four-inch long pink worms on four-foot leaders with a small amount of lead weight.

Glass likes to employ a fishing technique called “side-drifting.”

“We use a spinning rod and reel, cast close to shore and then drift along the bank in the boat. We really use the boat to present our baits. The more water you cover the more chances you have of presenting it to more fish, so this method of moving downstream presents your gear to more and more fish. That adds up to more catching!

I asked Jack how I ‘d know if I hooked up with a steelhead.

“Oh, don’t worry about that, Grant,” noted Glass with a chuckle. “These fish give you little choice – a steelhead will grab that bait pretty hard – you just need to remember to hang on to that rod.”

There are few fish species that drive sport fishermen wilder than the pursuit of winter steelhead. The ocean-going trout can be hard to catch and anglers will often go the extra mile to catch one.

Our challenge was a bit of an endurance test as the morning’s temperature hovered near freezing and the raindrops grew larger and louder, sometimes seeming to “pop” when they hit the river.

Suddenly, I heard the unmistakable sound of Todd’s spinning reel drag. It "zippp-zippp-zipped" the drag as monofilament line played out - he had hooked a feisty steelhead.

“There he is! Good job Todd,” exclaimed Glass.

The fish rushed up and down the stretch of river that Glass had chosen for us. Todd held the rod tip high as the reel's drag applied just the right amount of pressure and the fifteen-pound test line held tight.

He soon had the fish under control and near the boat. Jack slipped the net under the fish and brought it aboard. It was a dandy eight-pound hatchery steelhead.

How could Alsbury tell the fish was born in a hatchery?

"All of the hatchery fish have their adipose fins (a smallish, half-moon shaped fin located between the dorsal fin and the tail) clipped before they're released from the hatchery as babies,” explained Alsbury. “So look back by the tail and you can see this fish doesn’t have one – so it’s a hatchery male steelhead and it's absolutely gorgeous."

At about that time, Jack’s son, Brandon Glass, arrived on the scene in his look-alike jet boat with a crew of three fishermen on-board. Each of the anglers wore mile-wide smiles. It was obvious that they had already experienced a great morning of fishing.

Brandon reached into an on board aerated tank and lifted up what seemed a giant silvery fish – it was a fresh and wild winter steelhead that looked to be nearly 20 pounds.

“Oh boy,” cried Jack “You guys have been busy.”

In fact, Brandon had two wild fish in his boat. Normally, anglers are allowed to keep only the hatchery steelhead, but the father-son team participate in a unique program that allows them to keep wild fish alive in a huge aerated holding tank on the family homestead’s property.

The Sandy River Broodstock Program is now eight fishing seasons old and offers participants a true “hands-on” experience to catch wild fish so to build a fishery future.

The “hands-on” opportunity means to capture and spawn 18 pairs of steelhead; a small percentage of the wild fish that will replenish the genetics of the hatchery run salmon.

That’s where Brandon and his dad come in – you see, they’re out on the river each day, often with their angling clients trying to catch “broodstock” wild steelhead so to keep a steelhead sport fishing future alive.

It’s a “hook and line” capture program that supports the genetics of the hatchery fish.

Biologist Alsbury explained: “At one time, the Sandy River had huge runs of steelhead because it was heavily planted with fish from other river basins. Well, that was wrong! We’re correcting that mistake now by using only native Sandy River steelhead for all future runs – we just need to get our hands on the fish.”

The wild fish will be the broodstock parents for a new generation of baby fish.

When an angler hooks a wild steelhead, Jack or Brandon carefully scoops the fish out of the river with a net and places it into a specially designed aerated holding tank on-board his boat.

Then it’s a quick boat trip to the family homestead that’s perched about the river.

From there they quickly carry each wild steelhead across a mooring dock, up a forty-foot wooden ramp and deposit the fish into the large tank.

Jack Glass added,  “We really can have a harvestable fish run and still protect the protected wild stocks which we all recognize as very important.”

Brandon noted that the program is important because it will keep sport fishermen casting on the Sandy River.

“Anglers understand the importance of this and what it’s going to give to our future.
They love it and I think it’s great – we can take a nice picture of the fish and we know we’re doing something good for the river system.”

As we continued our fishing trip, Jack told me that the Sandy River offers good bank access for anglers too. That’s especially true at parklands like Dabney State Recreation Area and Oxbow Regional Park – and even further upriver.

Jack insisted that boaters should practice good sportsmanship and allow bank fishermen plenty of elbowroom.

I wondered aloud how an angler knows when the river is prime to cast and catch fish.

“I watch the freezing level at Mt Hood,” said Glass. “If it’s 4,000 feet and higher, say 5 to 7 thousand feet and raining all day, the river’s going to blow out – but if it’s 4,000 feet or lower, it can rain all day and the river will hold it’s color. For the anglers that want to come out here, I always tell them to look at that – then you’ll know if the river’s going to be in shape.”

The Sandy River is born high in the glaciers of Mt Hood and it is a river that keeps boaters on their toes because river safety is critical

“Quite often there are trees that come down because of wind storms or freezing weather conditions,” explained Glass. “They can even block entire channels, so you’ve got to be aware all of the time whether you drift or jet boat the river.”

He added that folks who choose to ride with him play it safe by wearing inflatable PFD’s throughout their trip. The PFD’s are so lightweight; you hardly know you’re even wearing one.

Alsbury added that the best of the winter steelhead season is yet to come; up to four thousand hatchery steelhead and 2,000 wild steelhead return to the Sandy River. The run peaks in late February and early March and it continues into early May.

Most of all, the Sandy River, like the nearby Clackamas River, are urban streams that seem a million miles away from city noise and hubbub. Yet, each stream is just thirty minutes from downtown Portland.

“Quite often, you’re going through heavy traffic to get out to these rivers and then you get out here and you forget all about that,” confided Todd. “It’s so nice to live close to Portland, but then you’re able to access some of the best steelhead fishing in the state.”

Within moments of Todd’s comments, Jack’s rod doubled over and throbbed with the pulsing fight of an eight-pound, nickel-plated steelhead.

“Ohhhh, nice oh man it’s gorgeous,” Jack yelled, as monofilament screamed off his reel. “I’ve got a real barn-burner on my hands.”

Todd smiled, I laughed and Jack seemed a bit nervous. He did not want to lose this fish.

“Boy Jack, that rod tip just buried,” I said. “I watched that fish hit it once and then hit it again - and BOOM: – fish on.”

And within moments, Jack played his fish well and it was within Todd’s reach with the net.

Sensing his excitement and with my tongue firmly planted in my right cheek, I asked Jack, “Do you ever get tired of catching steelhead?”

“Ohhhh – are you kidding?” he bellowed. “Nooooo – I get excited everytime – can’t you see my knees shaking. That’s why we’re out here winter steelhead fishing – you just never know – that next one could be a really big one or a great fighter. It’s such a neat thing to enjoy this. I love it!”

Local licensed anglers also have a chance to assist in “hook and line” steelhead capture program during an upcoming “Fish-A-Long” trips sponsored by the Sandy River Chapter of the Northwest Steelheaders. If you’d like more information about how you can participate, contact Jeff Stoeger, 503-282 4830.