Sandy River Winter Steelhead

 Sandy River Winter Steelhead are big strong fish.

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Sandy River Winter Steelhead

Winter steelhead provide the most popular sport fishery on the Sandy River. The Sandy River has the most reliable and longest lasting Winter Steelhead run in the region. Some years more that 10,000 fish enter the river from November through May. (Runs in the 1970's and 1980's averaged 4,000 to 10,000 fish. Runs in the 1990's averaged about 1,000 - 3,000 fish. 2007 will probably produce a run of from 3,000 to 6,000 fish.  (Totals are wild and hatchery
combined).  These winter steelhead comprise three different runs and can weigh from four to thirty pounds.  Seven to twelve pound fish are average.  Most have spent two full years at sea. 
How To Catch Them Seasonal Changes Flies
Tackle Winter Clothing Wild Steelhead

How To Catch Them  More Pictures
The Sandy River and its winter steelhead have a reputation for being difficult for the fly angler. The winter weather and water conditions, as well as sexually developed fish, create some of the most demanding conditions that the angler will encounter all year. Sandy River winter steelhead are bottom hugging denizens of this cold, often rain swollen river. However, new developments in tackle and cold weather clothing and a superior understanding of the quarry have combined to make winter steelhead extremely

vulnerable to the fly rod angler.  Fly speed, pattern and depth are important. Because of their mating instincts, winter steelhead, especially the males, can be territorial and will attack a fly to drive it from their hold. Large flies dressed in steelhead spawning colors can bring jolting strikes. Fresh steelhead have an acute search image of the marine organisms that nurtured them. Flies dressed in the form of squid, shrimp or krill can trigger a feeding response. Steelhead will also consume spawn. Roe type flies can be deadly.

In any case the fly must be presented deep and slow. A custom floating line with interchangeable sinking tips will present the fly at different depths when covering large expanses of water. The angler controls the speed of the fly with mends to the floating portion of the line. Many different depths and speeds of water might be encountered in a single run. Line tips and flies are changed as necessary. The same latitude in presentation can be accomplished with a complete selection of factory made fly lines on extra reel spools.

Leaders attached to sinking tip lines are usually short and stout. Nymphing with a floating line, a long leader, a glo bug and lead weight can be very productive if fish are encountered in small water. Big flies fished on the swing are the choice of most experienced anglers.

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A long authoritative rod will help you control the line at all ranges. Single handed rods of 9 1/2 - 10 feet balanced with eight or nine weight fly lines are ideal when covering small and medium size water at ranges to forty feet.
Two handed fly rods of seven to nine weight give the best control of fly speed at all ranges. These ranges can extend beyond eighty feet. Rod lengths of thirteen to fifteen feet are most popular.

The angler who can cover the most water, the most efficiently always wins at steelheading. Even when runs are at peak, steelhead fly fishing will demand more than a casual approach.

Although a forty five minute drive from Portland International Air Port will put you on any stretch of water, the basic nature of the Sandy River is wild. It is a demanding river to wade, even at summer levels. Its water can be very cold for the majority of the year. A dunk can be extremely unpleasant and a wading staff and traction devices are highly recommended.

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Early November is Indian Summer in the Sandy River canyon. Days are mid-fifties and nights are in the forties. The first light rains of the fall season raise river levels and many summer steelhead and a few winter steelhead are available. The first wild winter steelhead are some of the most aggressive biters of the year.
November can be a most interesting month as

the angler may catch steelhead that have been in fresh water for six months or six days. Their form and color will vary greatly. Most are two salt fish from seven to twelve pounds.  

The winter run peaks during the the last two weeks in January through the first two weeks in March.  Winter steelhead are normally available in fishable numbers through April and occasional stragglers are caught as late as June.

Through the peak of the season water temperatures in the lower river can vary from 44 degrees to 35 degrees with 40 degrees average.  By late April water temperatures average around 50 degrees.

The best winter trips are by drifting part of  the lower 15 miles.

The upper watershed above Marmot Dam is closed to angling in the winter.

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Weather conditions demand that winter anglers pay special attention to how they dress. Not all days spent in search of winter steelhead will be frigid, but some can be. Polar Fleece underwear is required, with a couple of layers for really cold days. Heavy socks are mandatory. Insulated neoprene waders are a must. A heavy shirt with large breast pockets for carrying gear is handy. A neutral colored water proof wading jacket

made from breathable material can be the best friend you ever had. Neoprene gloves keep your hands warm and are thin enough to provide the dexterity for casting. Always wear a hat with a bill to shade your polarized glasses. Be prepared for rain any day of the year.

More information on how to dress for winter steelhead fishing.

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Sandy Candy Sandy Blue Silvnator, Black, Orange Bead
Red Rocket Silvnator, Flame Silvinator, Purple, Pink Bead


Flies that are easy to cast are essential in this game.  Flies that cast small, but fish large are ideal.  Our favorite winter steelhead flies are made from soft flowing material that collapses when pulled from the water and puffs up when submerged.  Marabou and rabbit strip are two key components on my fly tying bench.  These material breath with life when submerged.  Marabou drains out almost instantly when it leaves the water.  Even very large flies constructed from marabou are easy to cast. 

When the water is cold,  large flies will often move fish that small flies won't.

Sandy Candy
This fly evolved on the Sandy River during the winter of 1979-80. This dealdy fly has evolved through several variations, and is now tied on Pro tube solutions Flexitubes. It is a blend of marabou and sclappen in pink and orange mixture with gold flashabou is added.  It comes off as a pulsating glowing pinkish-orange living thing.  I like to present it with a sinking tip line, broadside dead drift.  In very cold water, it will often move fish when nothing else will.
Item Description Size Price To Top
12635 Sandy Candy Tube Fly size 4 hook 3 for $10.50

Red Rocket Tube Fly
The Red Rocket is proven in all conditions, but is best when the water is low and clear.  It can often be the most productive choice when the sun is bright.  When wet these flies are usually about 2.5" long and 1" in diameter. They present a large target..
Item Description Price To Top
9820 Red Rocket Steelhead Tube Fly
tied on lightweight soft plastic tubes
3 for $10.50

Sandy Blue Tube Fly
The Sandy Blue is very reliable during most flows and temperatures from Southern Oregon to Northern British Columbia.  It fishes best during cloud cover days.  
Item Description Price To Top
9818 Sandy Blue Steelhead Tube Fly
tied on lightweight soft plastic tubes
3 for $10.50

Silvanator Flame
This is a favorite early winter fly everywhere in the Pacific Northwest.  It seems to be most productive when the water is very cold.  Of course this is the condition that drives steelhead into deep water where a heavily weighted fly is most useful.

Item Description Size Price To Top
SIG2067 Silvnator, Flame 4 3 for $10.50

Silvinator, Black, Orange Bead
This is a have to have fly when fishing for steelhead any time of year, a moderized version of the Egg Sucking Leech.  It is especially productive on late winter, spring and early summer steelhead.  It fishes deep, but is easy to cast.
Item Description Size Price To Top
SIG2067 Silvnator, Black, Orange Bead 4 3 for $10.50

Silvinator, Purple, Pink Bead
This is a go to fly when the sun is bright or any time when the water is very clear.  
Item Description Size Price To Top
SIG1834 Silvinator, Purple, Pink Bead 4 3 for $10.50


The Marmot Dam fish ladder camera film has revealed that "sexually mature" steelhead can be in the river system from early November through early July. All of these fish are classed as winter steelhead. Tagging programs have shown that some of these fish may spend six months in the river before spawning and going back to the Ocean.

The largest and most vigorous run of wild endemic Sandy River steelhead enters the river from mid-January and continues through May. The majority of these fish have a two year fresh water and two year Ocean life cycle. However, some of these fish will stay at sea for three or four years and can be trophies from eighteen to thirty pounds. A forty year average is about 3000 of these beautiful fish spawning within the watershed . All are protected by "catch and release" regulations.

These wild winter fish are aggressive biters, but not risers. Low water temperatures and sexual maturity keeps the fish hugging the bottom. This same sexual maturity makes these fish very territorial. A big black or red fly fished deep and slow is often the answer. Polarized glasses are indispensable for spotting and stalking fish.

Spawning fish are most visible. The angler should not bother spawning fish and one should be careful not wade across redds. Pocket water or slots down stream from spawners may hold bright fish that will serve the sport much better.

More information on steelhead fly fishing.

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Sandy River photos by: Mark Bachmann - all rights reserved.

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