You’d be hard pressed to find another example of a stunning river located so close to a major population center as the Sandy River provides. Rugged, wild, and in a state of constant change, the Sandy carves its way from Mt. Hood glaciers to its confluence with the Columbia River in Troutdale, Oregon, just a short jaunt east of Portland International Airport on Interstate 84.
In the late 1980’s, the Sandy was putting out a sport catch of winter steelhead that ranged from 6- to 10-thousand fish. Adding to that was a catch of 1- to 2-thousand summer steelhead. By 1997 winter steelhead catch had dropped to 563 fish, summers to the same level. Things were about to change.
Like much of Oregon, the Sandy has undergone many changes to its hatchery programs. In order to limit hatchery fish and wild fish co-mingling on the spawning grounds, all Sandy River steelhead releases have been moved from the upper watershed, down to the Sandy River Fish Hatchery on Cedar Creek, a tributary of the Sandy very near the town of Sandy, Oregon. In addition to the move, plant numbers have been scaled back to include about 165,000 winter steelhead on average and 75,000 summer steelhead. These are not impressive number for a river the size of the Sandy. The Sandy, however, does have a strong population of wild steelhead, and the changes in hatchery operations were taken to reinvigorate the wild population. If successful, and it will take many generations of fish to notice, these changes will be worth it. The wild steelhead on the Sandy are a special breed, indeed.
In light of changes in hatchery production and release sites, steelhead fishing in the Sandy River will focus on the area below Revenue Bridge to the river’s mouth. Above Revenue Bridge, the river enters a canyon, surrounded by mostly private land, that is virtually un-navigable by all but intense kayakers before emerging with some fishable water at Marmot Dam. Marmot provides an important bank access point for spring chinook anglers, although certainly stray hatchery steelhead and wild steelhead will be available in the area.
Cedar Creek Area
Revenue Bridge offers a nice stretch of water for bank angles, but be advised once you access the river, you must stay below the average high water mark as the land above is private. The first fishing spot of major importance working down the Sandy River is immediately adjacent the Sandy River Hatchery location at Cedar Creek. Trails from the hatchery will lead to a solid mile of accessible water. There are plenty of pockets to pick and a couple of great flats in this stretch before the river continues through private property and emerges at Dodge Park. Steelhead will concentrate at the mouth of Cedar Creek before moving up to the hatchery. Please note that Cedar Creek itself is closed to fishing.
Dodge Park has been the area of major bank fishing on the Sandy. Within the park itself are two very nice stretches of drift fishing water. Below the park and across the river is where the incredible Pipeline Hole, along with the Girl Scout Hole and others are located. The trail leading to these holes are opposite the park, and run through private property. At the present time, access is posted No Trespassing, and use of the trail is illegal. It is hoped that an agreement can be reached with the property owner, but for now the only way to reach the Pipeline Hole legally is by staying below the high water mark the whole way (suspect at best) or by boat. Boating below Dodge Park is ill advised.
Boating the stretch of river from Dodge Park to Oxbow Park is extremely dangerous. Primary to that statement is the first rapid below Dodge Park. It’s literally full of huge boulders. I’ve watched rescues from that spot on TV. I’ve seen sunken boats in the Pipeline Hole below. Some guides run this stretch of river in catarafts. Their knowledge and skill is well worth the investment in their service, and equally so is the beauty this segment offers. Be prepared to drift fish, or cast spinners or floats as there is no fishing from a floating device in this section of the Sandy River and above.
For many boaters, Oxbow Park is the highest point on the Sandy River, which is not a bad deal because the stretch of river between Oxbow Park and Dabney Park could consume years of an angler’s life. A great mix of water from long flats to succinct boulder pockets to picturesque tailouts. There is great bank access at the park itself, along with camping facilities for overnight stays. Dogs are not allowed in the park, even for those whose sole purpose is to launch a drift boat and leave the park, which is odd, but of importance for dog owners.
It’s a roughly seven to eight mile float between the Oxbow Park and Dabney Park. Recent rule changes on the river now permit angling from a boat once you are 200 feet below the launch at Oxbow, which means once you’ve left the hole the launch is on, you’re free to anchor and drift fish all you like. Past regulations prohibited fishing from a boat in the first mile of this drift (and the complete river above), so this change is a welcomed one to boaters.
From Dabney Park to Lewis and Clark is the lowest float on the river. As such, this section has some of the biggest, deepest water available. Roughly four miles in length, this stretch is open to powerboats and is perhaps best fished from one. There are significant runs for side-drifting and deep slots for plugs and diver/bait combinations.
Fishing Winter Steelhead
The Sandy fishes very well at river heights of 10-12 feet with opportunities above and below those levels. In the mid-1980’s the river produced over 10,000 winter steelhead to anglers. If we were ever to see numbers like that again, I’d fall out of my chair. In fact, with reduced plants of hatchery fish, it would be amazing to see a run of 10,000 fish, much less catch that high. Nevertheless, the Sandy offers a quality return of fish and should be on every steelheader’s to-do list, simply for its sheer beauty, challenging water, and exceptionally beautiful wild fish.
Everything works on the Sandy, as I guess you could say for all steelhead rivers. Drift fishing is certainly effective, but be prepared with lots of terminal rigging as this river can be very grabby. For colors, many times you can characterize a river by the dominant offering, be it pink, orange/red, or green. The Sandy is a pink river. Pink Corkies, pink yarn, pink jigs. When it comes to jigs, look for river levels under 10.5 feet and clear water for the best conditions. Side-drifting, like many rivers is becoming increasingly important in the lower reaches where boating is available. For plugs, #30 Hot Shots and Tadpollies excel in the long flats while Hot Shot SE’s and Wiggle Warts will reach deeper holding areas.
Recent transitions to wild broodstock in hatchery operations will offer a longer return to hatchery adults. (not just because they’re wild broodstock fish but because an effort is made to take spawners from a longer window of return) To be sure, steelhead enter the Sandy every month of the year. While December, and even late November, hold a feeling of being the “opener” for steelhead, it is the months of January, February and March that most reward effort.
The first good shot of summer steelhead will enter the Sandy in April. The run builds through May and peaks in June. The fish are there throughout the summer months, though water conditions can get muddy in the heat of the summer as heat can bring silt off the glacier on Mt. Hood.
In recent years, solid runs of spring chinook have overshadowed the summer steelhead fishery. Nevertheless, these are solid, gorgeous fish you fish on in water conditions that have them at their peak of aggression and fight.
Sand shrimp, small baits of eggs, spinners, plugs and jigs will all take summer steelhead on the Sandy. Just remember that hatchery operations have been relocated to Sandy Fish Hatchery on Cedar Creek and concentrate on water from this point on the river downstream.
The Sandy is not an overly large river, but it fishes much bigger than it actually is. Gearing up with longer rods in the 9- to 10-1/2 ft. range will assist in making long casts to distant slots and control presentations in demanding water.
Expect a lot on the Sandy River, from the beauty of the river to the quality of its fish. It is not a river that disappoints.