Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Eighty-five



Oregon's North Santiam River

By Peter B. Hiatt, Sisters, Oregon


Fishing with friends is the best! Today three of us from FAOL got together and did some steelhead/salmon fishing on Oregon's North Santiam River. Gray Ghost (Ray), halcyon (Bruce) and I (Whopper Bubba) wet some lines in the middle of the steelhead/salmon run. Bruce has just moved from North Carolina and getting partially unpacked was excuse enough to go fishing. Everyone knows a stiff back is cured by fly casting.

The Willamette Valley is the site of Oregon's main population center from Portland to Eugene. The Willamette River flows North and enters the Columbia near Portland. The North Santiam is a tributary of the Willamette rising from the West slope of the ascade Mountain Range and captured by Detroit Dam (which has a fishery of rainbows, cutthroats, and Atlantic salmon). The dam has no fish ladder. The river flow as regulated by the dam has a level variance of about three feet over the year. There is both a Spring and Fall run of Chinook in the lower river, and a Summer and Winter run of steelhead. The Summer steelhead start arriving in late May and some do not spawn until the next Summer. That gives the river year around steelhead fishing.

Year around steelhead fishing! Our Fish and Game Department has done a marvelous job of increasing the number and quality of runs in many Oregon rivers. There are many more important runs of Summer steelhead than when I started 40 years ago. F&G has also started a WINTER run of Chinook salmon on the coast, and that fishery is expanding. I would not hesitate to recommend to other fisheries across the world that this is a significant improvement. It really is a blessing for fishermen and local businesses.

There is a lot of concern these days about native fish. In Oregon, as a general rule one cannot keep native steelhead or Coho salmon. Kings have mixed rules with keeping them not allowed on the North Santiam River. Many runs of fish are the largest the last few years than any time back to 1932 when counting began of fish going over the Bonneville Dam. Other runs are in need of more help. This does not mean that our Fish & Game Department has its act together in all cases, but it is trying.

The F&G got very bad press several years ago by clubbing to death many thousands of hatchery Coho salmon even when regulations imposed harsh rules on sportsmen catching them in that particular river. Evidently, the state could not be in competition with private industry (by selling or giving the fish to the needy) and they felt this was the best option. There was a public outcry when the wastage was seen on TV, and the F&G has attempted since then to be more responsible to the public. Adipose fin-clipped steelhead and salmon may be kept.

When the run is exceptionally large, as this year, the bag is often increased in certain rivers. Trout may not be kept in this river as Fish & Game wants to protect smolts. The hatchery on the North Santiam now traps all hatchery fish and keeps recycling them downstream to run upstream again. One other river traps their hatchery steelhead and plants them in a local lake providing some fantastic fishing experiences. These efforts provide more chances for fishermen. This may all seem strange to Great Lakes fishermen and even Fish & Game biologists. The current thought in the Northwest is to keep the runs of wild and hatchery fish separate. This is too great a subject to go in to detail in this article. The bottom line is that the hatchery fish are for the sportsmen and not allowed to spawn outside the hatchery unless they spawn downstream from the hatchery. The hatchery fish are not allowed to spawn above the hatchery on the North Santiam. We either catch and eat them or they go to waste.

Being close to major population centers means less public water than on the East side of the mountains. However, there are numerous parks in close proximity and with the help of local knowledge, there is a lot of open water to fish. I was actually surprised to see other fishermen on a Wednesday, but they were only a couple in number.

We started fishing mid-morning and discovered we should have brought more weighted flies. The water is swifter than it looks and a weighted fly is a real help. We found the river quite clear and both fresh fish and spawners were jumping. The area we fished included an upper flat area with some protective structure, followed by long riffles dropping into a deeper area with large rocks and a deep and long runout with a great deal of wadable area. Lots of variety. Leeches are always popular in black, purple, and olive colors. GG had a hit on an egg sucking leech. The fish left halcyon alone. They probably were transfixed by his beautiful casting. Bruce can really fling a line. The water was coolish and the day warmish. GG and halcyon found the same nice hole as they waded. It was one of those surprises that gets deeper the closer to shore you go. GG cooled off the most, but kept his cap dry.

The run is large both in number and average size this year with 12 pounds being about the average steelhead. I switched to a Pete's Red & Black which has produced most of my steelhead in this river after I started using the fly last year. The marabou gives it life and a leech like appearance and red is never out of place on a steelhead fly. I was rewarded with a 27 incher. It was an exceedingly bright fish with no adipose fin so was a keeper. I was using a Gatti 10 foot 8 wt. and a Martin Model 72 Multiplier reel. I get serious about steelhead. I missed a good strike and all too soon, it was time to head on home.

We have an Oregon Fish-In this July 24-27, 2003 on the Metolius River, and we will probably take a day for the hour trip over to the North Santiam for steelhead for anyone who wants to join us. ~ PBH


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