Sandy River Winter Steelhead

Sandy River Winter Steelhead in Oregon, USA.

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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. Average runs from 2000 to 2014 are probably 3,000 to 6,000 fish, but no counting facility remains sinse the removal of Marmot Dam in 2007.  (Totals are wild and hatchery combined). Runs flucuate from year to year as does run timeing.  These winter steelhead comprise at least three different genetic backgrounds. Steelhead from the Sandy can weigh from four to thirty pounds.  Seven to eleven pound fish are average.  Most have spent at least two full years at sea. 
How To Catch Them
Prior to 1990 the Sandy River and its winter steelhead had 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. Since the early 1990's, most fly anglers now use two-hand fly rods so that large expanses of water can be covered more efficiently, and wither steelhead are much easier to catch with flies. 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.
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.
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 Airport 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.
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, although 30 miles of the river is open to angling during the winter.
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. Fleece underwear is required, with a couple of layers for really cold days. Heavy socks are mandatory. Insulated neoprene, and breatable boot-foot waders are popular. 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.
Winter steelhead flies vary widely in size and color, but the most popular are tube or shank flies that range from 2-inches to 4-inches long. Bright colored flies are most popular during December and January. Darker patterns are more popular the rest of the year. Red can be a popular base color any time of year, but so can black. for the most complet selection of winter steelhead flies to be found anywhere, check out our Winter Steelhead Fly Directory!

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