The Clackamas River has a special place in my heart. Not only is it the place where I caught my very first steelhead, but to this day it’s a place where only a couple hours of free time can have me hooked-up with quality steelhead. The Clack is my local river, and although it has its ups and downs, it is a river that can produce exceptional fishing.
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Productivity on the river is largely a function of hatchery fish. The Clackamas has three dams on its main stem that have for the most part decimated wild steelhead, spring chinook and silver salmon. On the steelhead, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife indicates current planting numbers are in the neighborhood of 310,000 winter steelhead smolts and 175,000 summer steelhead smolts. Use a 1% return rate on these plant numbers to get a feel for the fishery and 3,100 winter steelhead and 1,750 summer steelhead would be considered a good return, with significantly more fish not out of the question. All hatchery programs have been restricted to the lower river in recent years to keep hatchery adults from mixing with wild fish on upper-river spawning beds. Target water on the Clackamas is found from River Mill Dam downstream, including the Eagle Creek tributary.
For detailed maps of over 30 rivers in Oregon, check out
“Oregon River Maps and Fishing Guide” at www.amatobooks.com
Clackamette and Riverside
There are seven boat launches on the lower river, four of which are suitable for jet boat use. These launches are important, as much of the river is inaccessible to the bank angler. Clackamette Park is the lowest launch, located at the Clackamas’ confluence with the Willamette River. Three miles or so upstream is the launch at Riverside Park. In this lower stretch there is good bank access at High Rocks and Cross Park, just below the I-205 bridge. You’ll find an excellent riffle, along with a couple of long, deep runs. At Riverside Park itself, fishing is best for plunkers under high water conditions. For the boating angler, this water is much more important to the spring chinook fishery than it is for steelhead.
The next launch above Riverside Park is the ramp at Carver. This is the most heavily used ramp on the river, and for good reason. Carver is centrally located in the most productive jet boat water. From Carver downstream to Riverside Park is where the best side-drifting water lies. It is home to the longest runs on the river, and the least houses, as side-drifting is a new endeavor on the Clackamas and homeowners are less than enthused with its introduction (more on that later). Under high water conditions, there are usually a few steelhead caught in the park immediately below the mouth of Clear Creek. Other than that, bank fishing opportunities are minimal.
Above Carver, the complexion of the river changes. The runs and riffles become more compact, albeit only slightly, and there is much more character and definition to the holding water. This continues to Barton Park, the next launch upstream from Carver. The Barton to Carver stretch is the most popular float on the river for drift boats. With access for jet boats coming upstream from Carver, this section is also the most crowded portion of the river. You’ll find numerous pieces of picture-perfect steelhead water, as with the Carver to Riverside stretch, but the spots are smaller and more compact. Bank fishing at Barton consists of a couple of nice pieces of water immediately above and below the launch ramp. Adventuresome anglers can park on the west side of the bridge crossing the river and hike downstream to access another quality drift.
Clackamette, Riverside, Carver and Barton make up the four launches suitable for jet boat use. Above Barton the remaining three launches are much better suited to drift boats.
Feldheimer is the next launch above Barton. No more than a gravel access to the water, the launch is not deep enough to handle jet boats. Overall, the drift is characterized by much shallower and again more compact pieces of holding water than downstream drifts. There are numerous braids and shallow bars, yet while this stretch appears to contain excellent steelhead water, the fish seem to transition through it rather quickly, leaving consistent success difficult to achieve. Some of the best water in the area is the long run immediately in front of, above and below the launch itself. For the jet boater, the first significant riffle above Barton Park will cease jet boat operations in this stretch under low water conditions.
There are two boat launches in McIver Park, upper and lower. The lower launch is only a short distance above Feldheimer. There is a beautiful run immediately in front of the launch, but the drift offers little else in terms of great quality water. The upper launch at McIver is interestingly placed, as it is immediately above the most dangerous rapid on the whole river. I’m going to say it very plainly, do not attempt to float this rapid without extensive experience at reading water and piloting boats. Every year I watch as inexperienced oarsmen fill their drift boats to the gunnels in this very tricky piece of water. If the first rapid is not enough, just a short distance down river is the minefield. Shallow and studded with rock as its name implies, the minefield requires pinpoint maneuvering or you will do immense damage to your boat.
While not well positioned for boating anglers, McIver Park does offer some of the best bank fishing opportunity on the river. The angler willing to walk a bit can access great water above the upper launch that terminates at Rivermill Dam. The hatchery intake is located just below the launch at Dog Creek and the usual hatchery circus (although this is a tight area) can be found there. In the direction of the lower launch there are a few good buckets available to the bank angler willing to seek them out.
Fishing Winter Steelhead
The Clackamas River is in a period of change. Traditionally, the Clackamas is drift fishing, plug, and diver/bait show. These slower approaches kept the river quiet overall, as anglers thoroughly worked each piece of potential holding water before moving on. In recent years, side-drifting has come strong to the Clack. Confrontations have occurred, as a stick-and-move approach collides with a slower pace. At best the runs on the Clackamas are medium length, and there is a bit of distance between them. The noise, boat wakes, and general pace on the river have all increased. I’m not going to say this is a bad thing, as change is inevitable. I call attention to the situation only to help deter possible bad experiences. The Clackamas needs an extra dose of courtesy and patience as different fishing techniques learn to co-exist with one another. Generally, jet boat operators on the river run at minimum plane, and often off of plane when traveling downstream. There are many blind corners, and as a river so close to a metro area, quite a bit of traffic.
Much of the current winter steelhead plant in the Clackamas consists of “wild broodstock” derived smolts which in effect spreads the return of these fish over the December, January, February and March time period. This is in stark contrast to the short but furious return of Big Creek stock winter steelhead in the past. To consistently score with steelhead today, you have to cover some water and find them. Fortunately, planting locations offer great ideas on where to look. Of the 310,000 winter steelhead released on the Clackamas in 2003, 150,000 were released from Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery on Eagle Creek, 115,000 were released from Clackamas Hatchery at McIver State Park, and 45,000 were released from Cassidy Acclimation Pond, a release site on private property maybe 1.5 miles below Barton Park. With this in mind, concentrating fishing efforts in the early season from the area of Cassidy Pond and below will offer a shot at the river’s complete return of fish.
Ideal water heights on the Clackamas are between 10- and 13-feet, although levels below 12-feet require extreme caution when operating jet boats.. The lower end of the spectrum will favor drift boats, as the gravel bars above Carver can become challenging in a jet boat. The river lends itself to easy fishing with plugs and diver/bait combinations. Top plug combinations include blue and green pirates, along with the bright fluorescent colors in combination with chrome. In lower water, top jig colors are pink, alone or in combination with white or black.
The Clackamas once had a summer steelhead fishery beyond compare. Miles upon miles of the upper watershed (above Estacada and North Fork Reservoir) offered excellent fishing in glorious surroundings. The program was halted in the late 1990’s and currently all summer steelhead are released from Clackamas Fish Hatchery at McIver Park.
Clackamas summer steelhead begin to show in the month of April, right along with spring chinook and late winter steelhead. These are beautiful fish at this time, bright, aggressive and fierce fighters. The run continues well into the summer, but the best fishing throughout the river is up until the river drops to summer levels in mid to late June. Hatchery fish are recycled through the system to offer extra opportunities to catch them and they will respond well to eggs, shrimp, plugs, jigs and spinners. When the river hits a low summer level, fishing effort concentrates in the McIver Park area where cool upriver water is most available. To be sure, there are steelhead available all summer long on the Clackamas for those willing make the effort.
The Clackamas is an outstanding metro area river. Crowded? Yes. Has its problems? Yes. But in the light of a crisp morning there’s no denying the Clack is a beautiful place. So close to where I live that it is easily taken for granted,shoved aside for more distant locals, yet push come to shove there are few places I’d trade for.