The Sandy River and its Tributaries
The Sandy River in northwestern Oregon is our home water, and is undoubtedly one of the best maintained urban rivers in the world. Our operation, The Fly Fishing Shop Outfitters, Inc. is located in the Sandy River basin 35 miles from the mouth of the river. Recent management emphasis has been to maintain many parts of the Sandy drainage in a wild condition conducive to rehabilitating its diverse populations of native salmonids. All wild fish within the basin are catch and release. There is evidence that wild fish populations are increasing; the future looks good.
The Sandy River originates high on the slopes of Mt. Hood, an 11,200' volcano located about fifty miles east of Portland, Oregon. The headwaters of the Sandy River are beneath Reid and Sandy Glaciers at 6000 feet elevation. From here the river flows due west past The Fly Fishing Shop in the village of Welches, located in the Hoodland Corridor. Fifteen miles west of us, the river then turns north and flows another twenty miles to enter the Columbia River at sea level.
The river flows through a rugged canyon. The deep clear pools and clean, gray gravel bars are often shaded by tall trees. As the river leaves the steep slope of the mountain, it crosses recent volcanic mud-flows and the gradient decreases. The mellowing currents allow smaller gravel to collect. These deposits form an ever-shifting layer, lying loosely over a mantle of hard basalt. Much of the water in the river travels through this aquifer providing maximum oxygenation for the spawn of anadromous fish. The Sandy River basin contains vast areas of spawning gravel for salmon and steelhead.
Wild steelhead return to the Sandy River every month of the year. Hatchery steelhead are available approximately eleven months each year. Chinook salmon are available in reasonable condition and catchable numbers six months of the year. Coho runs can be prodigious in September and October. The Sandy River has gained a reputation among fly fishing enthusiasts as a very demanding arena to test the best of skills. However, it has very high quality steelhead, especially during the winter months.
This river's geographic location, topography and geologic history make it the perfect factory for large, strong fish that return ocean bright. A careful blending of both hatchery and endemic stocks bring bright steelhead year-round. At least five genetically different races of steelhead ascend the Sandy River each year.
This steelhead fishery is combined with the added bonus of Chinook and coho salmon and a budding resident trout fishery. In the 1970's and 1980's, runs of steelhead and coho were heralded as the highest percentage of hatchery returns in the world. In 1980, nearly 20,000 steelhead returned to the watershed. During the 1990's runs plummeted. Wild fish nearly disappeared. The Federal Endangered Species Act intervened. Basin management shifted drastically from total hatchery involvement to a concerted effort to resurrect wild populations. Much of what happens to steelhead populations occurs when they are in the Ocean, which is beyond the scope of management.
Debates on how our fisheries are to be managed can be fierce. Long-term battle lines have been drawn between anglers who want to kill all the fish NOW, and anglers who want to save some for future generations. However, most of the people in the area do believe that the river should be left to its natural flow. The canyon's residents have fiercely guarded the Sandy River's ecology. Nowhere else in the world does such a wild and scenic steelhead river flow through such a densely populated area.
Geology and History
The Sandy River flows into a population center of 1.5 million people, yet its personality remains wild. It is located halfway between the North Pole and the equator, giving this region the perfect climate for trout, salmon and steelhead fly fishing every month of the year.
12 million years ago, volcanic activity began building the backbone of the present-day Cascade Range, giving it much of its height. Ten million years later, the modern-day Sandy River cut its present course. The river is a geological product of some of the most dramatic forces on Earth. Her changeable personality is one of tectonic stress, explosive volcanism, glaciations, torrential rainfall, the afternoon sun, and the disintegration and regeneration of huge conifer forests.
700,000 years ago, Mt. Hood was born. Rising 11,250’, it is a live volcano and the most photographed mountain in the Pacific Northwest. During the past 100,000 years, successive lahars (destructive mud flows on the slopes of a volcano) have transformed the lower Sandy River Canyon with layers of volcanic sand, some of which may have reached as much as 200’ deep. The mountain has been subject to two major eruptive periods in the past 2,500 years which gives the Sandy River much of its personality. A lahar from the Old Maid Event eruption buried the Sandy River channel under 26’ of volcanic ash in the 1790’s. Pictured below is the lahar and buried forest that supports Oxbow Park.
During the Ice Age 18,000-29,000 years ago, Mt. Hood glaciers extended all the way down the river valley to the present-day town of Brightwood. Today, the Sandy River heads at 6,000’ elevation on the west and southwest side of Mt. Hood, in the Rheid and Sandy Glaciers. The river falls those 6,000’ to sea level in just 55 miles. Most of this elevation change is in the first 17 miles. The Fly Fishing Shop in Welches is at 1,250’ in elevation.
The Sandy River has greatly impacted the flow of the Columbia River by forming many islands. In 1805, this delta constricted the Columbia to a narrow channel on the north side. Every summer from around July 4 through October 15 the Sandy river turns white with silt from the melting glaciers on Mt. Hood. The Sandy Basin receives an average of 100” of precipitation per year. Most of this precipitation comes November through April.
The Sam Barlow Party built a road from Tygh Valley to Oregon City in 1846. This became known as the Barlow Trial, which passed through the Sandy River Basin, and what eventually became known as the town of Sandy. Here, a covered wagon is being lowered down Laurel Hill on the south side of Mt. Hood. Some trees still showed rope burns 150 years later.
Fish hatcheries at this location operated here in the upper sandy river basin from 1889-1906. Pictured above is the final salmon hatchery on Salmon River, located at the mouth of South Boulder Creek. This photo was taken in 1904. Records indicate that prior to 1904, this hatchery had taken as high as 2.7 million Chinook eggs. Records also indicate that there were Chinooks spawning in the Salmon River as early as July 15, and that they continued through November. According to egg take records, most fish averaged 14-20 pounds, but November fish averaged 30-35 pounds. No fish returned to the hatchery in 1905 and 1906 and the hatchery was shut down. The hatchery manager blamed logging and dam building in the lower canyon as the main problem, but commercial fishing on the Columbia River had to also have a negative impact.
Finally, in 1911 a wood crib dam was successfully installed, which diverted water through a series of flumes and tunnels to a power facility on the Bull Run 11.5 miles downstream. This was called Marmot Dam. It obtained a 50-year license in 1920. This license allowed the power company to effectively dry up 11.5 miles of the Sandy River bed July-October every year for 50 years.
Marmot Dam was rebuilt in 1989. Then PGE gave up the license in 2004. Giant machines devoured Marmot Dam a bucket load at a time in July 2007. By January of 2007, little evidence of Marmot dam remained. Now ten years later the area has been turned into a natural area. One small BLM campground has been built at the old dam site.
The upper Sandy River basin is managed as a wild fish sanctuary. This is an important step in rebuilding our wild trout populations. Rainbow and cutthroat trout are native to this river system in both their resident and anadromous forms. These wild stocks are present, and populations appear to be getting denser each year, but are probably lower than basin capacity.
No one knows what the historic populations were. For many years, the state planted many catchable size trout in the easily accessible waters. Bag limits were kept high with no protection for wild fish. Management policies changed in 1997 when wild trout were deemed valuable, and endangered. Trout are no longer planted in any streams within the watershed and wild trout are protected year-round. Our wild trout are beautiful to look at (wild cutthroat above and wild rainbow below). Either of these two fish might go to the Ocean, or not.
The upper basin is closed to all fishing from November 1 to the last Friday in May. This part of the basin is open from the last Saturday in May to October 31st as a catch and release fishery with flies and artificial lures. Eastern brook trout which are regarded as an invasive species, may be harvested with no bag limits. Very few Eastern Brook Trout remain in any streams within the basin. During the 1950's, 1960's,a 1970's woody debris was intentionally removed from stream channels with the thought that this would make migration easier for fish. By 1990 it was realized that this was a mistake, and since then there have been many projects to restore habitat in the nature of what it would be without man's interference. Much time and money has been spent on these projects. It appears that this plan is working, and wild fish populations are recovering.
It was predicted that with the current methods of stream management management, that wild trout populations would rebound rather quickly, but this hasn't been the case. Wild trout populations within the basin are recovering, but it took more time than was first expected. However, in the past four years the trends prove that it was worth the wait.
Winter steelhead provide the most popular sport fishing on the Sandy River. The Sandy has the most reliable and longest lasting winter steelhead run in the region. Some years, more than 10,000 fish enter the river from November through May. Runs in the 1970's and 1980's averaged 4,000 - 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 - 6,000 fish, but no counting facility remains since the removal of Marmot Dam in 2007. These totals are wild and hatchery combined. Runs fluctuate from year to year as does run timing. These winter steelhead comprise at least three different genetic backgrounds. Steelhead from the Sandy can weigh from less than four to nearly thirty pounds. Seven to eleven-pound fish are average. Most have spent at least two full years at sea.
Early November is frequently 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 last two weeks in January through the first half of 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 being the 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.
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 winter 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 to 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.
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.
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 breathable boot-foot waders are popular. A heavy shirt with large breast pockets for carrying gear is handy. A neutral colored waterproof 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
Winter steelhead flies vary widely in size and color, but the most popular are tube or shank flies that range from 2 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 complete selection of winter steelhead flies to be found anywhere, check out our Winter Steelhead Flies!
Summer Steelhead are sexually immature fish that enter fresh water April through October but do not spawn until the following winter or spring. They come from the sea with enough fat reserves to survive in their home river for the entire summer without eating, sometimes for as long as eight months. With all of their reserve energy, summer steelhead are the prima donna fish of the West Coast. They are sleek and beautiful beyond words. Because of the weather and water conditions, summer steelhead are often pretty aggressive and take flies easily.
Wild summer steelhead populations in the Sandy River are small. From evaluation of fish ladder camera pictures during the 1980's and 1990's, there is a group that enters the Sandy River in May. Nearly all the September and October fish are wild. Total run size is thought to be less than 300 fish. These fish are protected by catch and release regulations.
The majority of the Sandy River summer steelhead are of hatchery origin. Most enter the river from April through August. All hatchery fish are adipose fin marked. Two hatchery steelhead may be killed each day, with four in possession. Gear restrictions and fishing methods vary by river section. Please consult your synopsis.
All summer steelhead are nickel and gun metal bright when they enter the river and are some of the finest steelhead on the planet. The run peaks in July and averages over two thousand fish annually. Historically, runs have fluctuated between 1600 to 4500 fish annually.
Hot weather comes to the Hoodland Corridor by mid-July. The glaciers on Mt. Hood begin to melt, often turning the Sandy River white for weeks on end. This turbid flow continues intermittently into September.
This coloration of the water moves fish and the days just prior to a warm weather trend can be incredibly productive. Summer steelhead use this clouded water for cover and often seek mild flows close to the shore during early morning hours. There is nothing quite like a steelhead taking a fly from the surface.
All manner of flies and presentations will catch these summer steelhead. Riffle hitched waking flies are popular on the larger water, bringing strikes early and late in the day. Water temperatures above 47 degrees have proven to be most reliable for floating line fishing. Sinking tip lines and weighted flies have proven to be most effective during strong light hours.
Nearly all the flies listed in both our Winter Steelhead Flies and Summer Steelhead Flies categories can work on Sandy River summer steelhead. Choice of fly is dependent on water level, temperature and color.
Historically the Sandy River basin was noted for its huge Chinook runs. In the 1850's Chinooks came in large numbers nearly year-round. In those days, steelhead were regarded as an incidental nuisance. By 1915 these prolific Chinook runs were decimated by logging, barrier dams, and commercial and hatchery harvest. From 1900 to 1970 these runs had dropped to the low hundreds.
Starting in 1970, the tide started to turn. Political change in the community fostered water flow improvements at existing dams and riparian zone stabilization. New hatchery technology resulted in producing basin compatible brood stock. Escapement has allowed spawn to reseed the basin with enough eggs to produce naturally reared fish in numbers large enough to maintain a viable self-perpetuating wild population. Recent years have shown an ever-increasing wild population and steady return of fish to the Cedar Creek hatchery. The hatchery is located at about river mile twenty and supplies a very good sport fishery in the lower basin. Recently Chinook management is largely centered on both wild spring and wild fall fish and the segregation of hatchery fish.
Spring Chinook are much like summer steelhead in that they enter the river months before spawning. Pound for pound they are the strongest salmonid. They are 2, 3 and 4 salt fish that average fourteen to twenty-five pounds, but some may exceed forty five pounds. Some years, thirty pounders are fairly common. All enter the river ocean-bright and beautiful. They have enough fat reserves to sustain them until they spawn in September.
Spring Chinook are sometimes caught in mid-February; however they are still rare through March. During warmer water periods in April, small bursts of fish enter the river in fishable numbers. May brings a steady parade. The run peaks in June and trails off in July. By August these fish have lost much of their weight, are colored and often spotted with fungus.
Chinooks are fish that hide from the light. Best fishing is early and late. During mid-day, they often quit moving and occupy deep holes under fast water were they are nearly impossible to reach with existing fly fishing techniques. However, sight fishing in some pools is productive with very fast sinking lines even at noon.
Chinooks are more territorial while moving and are easier to get at when they are moving in water of moderate depth. Fast sinking lines are still most useful. The angler should be prepared to fish at depths between four and twelve feet. The fly should fish much slower than the current. Be prepared to lose some gear. Chinooks like big bottom structure. Spey tackle used for winter steelhead is appropriate for spring Chinooks. During high-water run-off periods, Chinooks can be encountered in water of moderate depths.
These fish are much larger on average than steelhead and demand heavier tackle. Single hand rods from nine to ten weight are most useful. Eight weight rods are too light. Seven to nine weight Spey rods capable of throwing fast sinking tips are handy on most water. Wind is usually not a factor while casting on the Sandy River.
Large flies are the norm. Sizes #2 to #2/0 are most often used. Fly size averages 2" to 4". Some of these flies should be weighted. Marabou or rabbit strip flies are most popular in black, red, purple, orange and pink. Blue and chartreuse also works at times. All colors can be combined with liberal amounts of Flashabou or Krystal Flash. Shrimp, squid and marine bait fish patterns are all proven.
Salt water reels with disk drags and a capacity of 200 yards of thirty-pound test backing should be considered. Fifteen to twenty-pound test abrasion resistant tippet is required. Battles may last over an hour, with half an hour average. During this period, the angler can expect to traverse many yards of river bank.
At the present time, spring Chinook are actively pursued by only a few fly fishermen. These fish require specialized tackle and skills and the ability to be adaptable. They are, however, as easy to catch as winter steelhead, tarpon and permit and nearly as fast and strong. These fish and their parent river are world-class and should deserve your consideration.
Both hatchery and wild coho salmon are present in the Sandy River basin. Currently, 300,000 coho smolts are released at Cedar Creek Hatchery into the Sandy River. Estimated coho returns to the Sandy River vary wildly from year to year and from agency to agency. Estimated runs are from 2,000 to 10,000 fish with most being hatchery fish and about 1,500 wild fish.
The average Sandy River coho is 6-9 pounds, but some years fish in the 12 to 15-pound range are fairly common.
How well these fish bite is dependent on the climate of a particular year. Years that bring enough rain to raise the Sandy River in early September and continue to keep water levels high through October can produce spectacular fishing for very bright, aggressive coho in the Sandy River. Drought years that don't raise water levels until November produce coho runs that enter the Sandy River in dark colored, poor condition, with all the feeding aggression having been expended while the fish were pooled in the Columbia River waiting for the Sandy River water levels to rise.
Wild coho salmon prefer small, low gradient streams for spawning and rearing habitat. Many of these types of streams are available within the Sandy River watershed.