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2014 Winter Steelhead Guide

General Overview | Northwest Zone | Southwest Zone | Willamette Zone | Central Zone & Northeast Zones | Oregon Fishing Regulations

Central and Northeast Zones

Winter fishing for summer steelhead

Fly Fishing
-Royalty Free Image-

Steelhead returning to rivers east of the Cascades are considered summer steelhead, based on when they first enter fresh water. (The exception is the Hood River, which gets Oregon’s easternmost run of “true” winter steelhead.) However, fishing for these fish continues well into the winter – qualifying them for inclusion into our Winter Steelhead Guide.

Central Zone

Angling Techniques

Anglers use a wide variety of techniques. Successful anglers cast sinking flies, spinners, spoons, or plugs, or drift fish with bait, artificial lures and jigs.

Hood River

Unlike most winter steelhead streams, the Hood River provides steelhead fishing opportunities for summer and winter run steelhead during the winter months.  Angler opportunity peaks, however, when the winter run steelhead begin returning in late winter.

As one of the easternmost populations of winter steelhead in the Columbia Basin, the Hood River run is later than most winter run populations.

Winter run steelhead typically start returning to the Hood River in late December and continue through May, with the peak of the run not occurring until April. The hatchery population is partially comprised from wild broodstock, so hatchery and wild fish return at nearly the same time. Fishing should be good in the Hood River, as approximately 50,000 winter steelhead smolts are released annually. 

Anglers on the Hood River have a unique opportunity to catch both winter and summer run steelhead on the same trip. Summer run steelhead have a very protracted run in the Hood River, and are present in the river throughout the year. While the winter run may be late in the Hood, anglers should not discount the opportunity to fish early in the season for early returning winter run fish, while also fishing for holdover summer run fish, or late into the winter run season, for the early returning summer run fish.

Unlike more traditional winter steelhead streams, the Hood is typically higher gradient, which tends to reduce the number of pools. Anglers should not overlook riffles with boulders, or pocket type water, where steelhead may be holding.

The Powerdale Dam, which was operated by PacifiCorps, was removed in the summer of 2010.  This dam removal has changed the dynamic of Hood River fishing, and allowed ODFW to open up much more of the river to fishing. Regulations allow fishing from the mouth of the river upstream to the confluence with the East Fork, and in the West Fork upstream to the angling deadline at Punchbowl Falls. Anglers should consult the current Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations for more information on the Hood River.

steelhead trout
- Oregon Fish and Wildlife-
While access is somewhat limited in the Hood River due to private property, all of the former PacifiCorps lands-- generally the lower 4 miles of the river -- are now owned and managed by the Columbia Land Trust and remain open to the public. Anglers can best access much of the lower Hood, at the former powerhouse access off of Hwy 35.  Anglers should note, however, that the access road to the former Powerdale Dam site on the west side of the river has been closed by a private landowner. Other upstream public access points include the Tucker Park, and the lands surrounding Punchbowl Falls. Angers need to obtain permission from landowners prior to crossing private lands to get the river.

Floating the Hood River is not recommended, due to the extremely dangerous boating conditions.

The Hood River is known for its erratic flow regime, and anglers should pay attention to the USGS flow information available online for optimum fishing conditions. In general, anglers will find best fishing on dropping flows following high water events.

Successful anglers on the Hood River traditionally drift fish with bait or artificials; however, anglers casting spinners or even flies will also catch fish.

Deschutes River

While the Deschutes River is famous for its summer run steelhead, good fishing opportunities exist well into the winter for summer run hatchery fish remaining in the river.

Deschutes steelhead typically don’t begin spawning until early spring and slowly migrating or holding fish provide anglers excellent opportunity throughout most of the winter.

While not as popular as the summer fishery, winter time steelhead anglers can be quite successful.  Anglers will find greater solitude than in the busy summer months, and the arid Deschutes River canyon can provide a welcome break from the typically wet winter steelhead fishing conditions found west of the Cascades.

The ODFW releases approximately 180,000 hatchery steelhead annually into the Deschutes from Round Butte Fish Hatchery.  Hatchery fish are released into the Deschutes, downstream from the base of PGE’s Pelton Dam at RM 100.  Somewhat unique to the Deschutes is the large number of fish from other hatcheries that often stay into the Deschutes for extended periods.

Good numbers of steelhead can be found throughout the river during the winter, but areas upstream from Sherars Falls generally offer some of the best late-season fishing.  Preliminary ODFW data suggests that this year’s returns may be slightly stronger than last year’s, providing good numbers of fish for ample winter-time opportunity.

Anglers will find fish in different locations in the Deschutes in winter than they may in the summer, due to cooler temperatures. Anglers should focus their efforts on softer water areas where fish will be holding, such as behind boulders or other obstructions, as fish will be less likely to move great distances to strike.

Large tracts of public land provide bank access, along with boat access throughout much of the river. Popular winter bank fishing areas on the Deschutes include the multiple sites along the east bank access road upstream from Maupin, Trout Creek campground area, and the Mecca Flat campground area.  Successful anglers typically cast spinners or plugs, or fish sinking flies for late season action.

ODFW conducts yearly summer steelhead population estimates for the Deschutes from the Sherars Falls Fish Trap. All fish captured at the Sherars Falls Trap are tagged to help estimate the run size.  Anglers are encouraged to contact the local ODFW district by phone at 541-296-4628, or through the ODFW web page if they catch any tagged steelhead in the Deschutes. Tag recoveries from anglers are used in developing the yearly population estimates.

Current catch data from the Sherars Falls Trap

Northeast Zone

The Imnaha River

The Imnaha River
-Oregon Fish and Wildlife-

Grande Ronde and Imnaha Rivers

Returns of hatchery and wild steelhead will be on par with the norm this year. While counts remain lower than normal at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, PIT tag detections indicate Northeast Oregon stocks are returning in relatively normal numbers. Wild and hatchery summer steelhead enter these eastern Oregon streams in late summer through spring and fishing for them can continue into the winter months whenever the weather and water conditions permit. Harvest is limited to three adipose fin-clipped hatchery fish per day.

The best fall and early winter fishing opportunities are in the lower reaches of the Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers. Public bank fishing access to both streams is generally good. The Troy area, on the lower Grande Ronde, contains substantial Bureau of Land Management and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife lands. The Imnaha River below Fence Creek boasts several points in US Forest Service ownership.

Water conditions often limit angler success during the winter months. Icing and high, turbid flows can affect fishing for much of the winter some years. Generally, flows below 2000 cfs on the Grande Ronde River and 500 cfs on the Imnaha River provide the best fishing.

Mid to late-winter offers fishing opportunities into the Wallowa River and middle reaches of the Imnaha River as fish push upstream. Public access is plentiful along the lower 20 miles of the Wallowa River. The reaches of the Imnaha River between the town of Imnaha and Fence Cr. are mostly private; however, Big Sheep Creek from the town of Imnaha to the confluence of Little Sheep Creek has fair access through Nature Conservancy lands and can provide some great late season action.

Anglers may also access the lower Wallowa and Grande Ronde Rivers by boat. Boat launch sites on the lower Grande Ronde River include Wildcat Creek Bridge (8 miles upstream of Troy), Mud Creek (6 miles upstream of Troy), Troy Bridge, and Redmond Bridge (2 miles downstream of Troy). A site on BLM property 1 mile upstream of the Oregon/Washington state line is often used as a launch by anglers licensed to fish in both states or as a take-out for those launching upstream. The lower Grande Ronde is passable for rafts and drift boats at all but the lowest winter flows.

Successful anglers use a variety of techniques. Casting flies, spinners and spoons, and drift fishing with bait are all effective during moderate temperature conditions. Many anglers use bobbers and bait or jigs as well. These techniques can be especially effective during cold weather to target fish holding in deeper, slower water. Popular baits include eggs, shrimp, and worms (night crawlers or scented rubber imitations). Darker colors such as black, purple and green are popular for flies, lures and jigs.

Anglers with more time on their hands and prepared for winter camping conditions, may want to boat from the Minam launch on the lower Wallowa River to the lower Grande Ronde take out sites. The trip will require several days through a reach with no road access and they will need to pay close attention to flow and weather conditions. Flow, measured at the Troy gage, of around 1,000 cfs is required for rafts and 1,500 cfs is needed for drift boats. If the weather turns cold, icing conditions can become a serious hazard for boaters. Anglers considering this float should be experienced boaters, be prepared for cold weather, and should pay close attention to weather and flow forecasts.

Anglers generally have their best success while flows are declining following a high flow event. During fall, look for rain in the forecast to bring flows up which prompts fish to move up the system.  Warm periods during winter and early spring will also increase flows and improve fishing. 

Expect catch rates near or below 10 hours per fish caught when the fishing is good. These catch rates can be hard to beat across the rest of the state. Catch rates generally drop-off with colder water conditions in late fall and early winter, then pick-up again in February and March, depending on weather conditions.

For further information contact the ODFW Enterprise District Office at (541) 426-3279.

John Day River

Any hatchery steelhead in the John Day River are strays from other streams and are found mostly in the lower portions of the river below Cottonwood Bridge. ODFW urges anglers to keep any hatchery fish they catch – thus removing them from the system before they spawn. These fish are small (4-6 pounds) and have been out of the ocean for over 6 months. They do not migrate like a typical summer steelhead but tend to hold in deep slow pools for weeks at a time. Once these preferred holes are located an angler can return to them day after day.

There are no hatchery fish released into the John Day River and approximately 90 to 95 percent of the winter steelhead caught in this basin are wild and must be released unharmed. There are 340 miles of river open to winter fishing but the best places to fish will vary as the fish move upstream during the season.

In October and November steelhead are only found in the lower 100 miles of the river. They are bright, fat and full of energy and can be caught on lures, plugs, bait and flies. The proportion of adipose fin-clipped hatchery fish is much higher in this section of the river – approximately 25 percent of the fish are stray hatchery fish that will later turn around and go back to the Columbia River. Access is limited to only three drive-to sites, Cottonwood Bridge (RM 40), Starvation Lane (RM 30) and Rock Creek (RM 20).

Steelhead numbers this year are expected to be around 7,000 to 8,000. This is lower than last year when 10,000 fish returned.

Once February arrives steelhead have migrated as far as Kimberly (RM 184) where good access is available along Hwy 19. From here, the fish head up the three major forks of the river and assume a more normal migration pattern. Water temperatures are still cold and high, muddy water frequently disrupts the fishery but between water events the fishing can be very productive. Once the ice breaks up in February, the fishery begins in earnest in the Middle and North Fork John Day Rivers. All along the river steelhead enter the tributaries in preparation to spawn. These tributaries are closed to protect spawners and fishermen are limited to fishing the main river and forks.

By December and January the fish have migrated up to Service Creek (RM 155) but cold water and ice limits their willingness to take lures, making bait a popular offering. Access is much more available along this stretch of river with numerous public land access points and boat launches from Bridge Creek at RM 135 to Service Creek at RM 185.

The steelhead fishery is open year-round below Kimberly but most fish are spawned out by April 15. Above Kimberly, the North and Middle forks are open up to Hwy 395 and the mainstem John Day River is open up to Indian Creek above the town of John Day.

steelhead trout
- Oregon Fish and Wildlife-

The season above Kimberly closes April 15. The best access for the February to April fishery is between Kimberly and Service Creek off of Hwy 19 onto scattered BLM and private lands. Always ask permission before fishing on private property. Primitive public boat ramps are found at Kimberly, Pine Tree, Shady Grove, Spray, Muleshoe Campground and Service Creek.

Anglers in the lower reaches have good success using typical steelhead fishing tactics; among the most popular are flies, small spinners, and drifting a small bait (prawns, nightcrawlers, or cluster eggs) with a small buoyant float and yarn. The most popular method for the upper river fishery is to use bait (night crawlers, cluster eggs, or prawns) and drift gear. Floats and marabou jigs are becoming more popular, particularly during low water conditions. Angler success is highly dependent upon river conditions.

For further information contact the ODFW John Day District Office (541) 575-1167.

Umatilla River

Wild and hatchery summer steelhead enter the Umatilla River from late August through April. Fishing should be good again this year with an expected return of approximately 3,300 steelhead. The total adult return will be comprised of 70 percent wild fish and 30 percent adipose fin-clipped hatchery fish that are available for harvest. The current steelhead return is off to a great start with early season return numbers and catch rates well ahead of normal.

Water conditions generally determine angler success. Bank fishing is generally best when river flow ranges from 300-600 cfs. Drift boaters usually prefer about 800 cfs to traverse shallow areas. Fishing success declines rapidly at flows greater than 1,000 cfs.. Up-to-date flow information

Current Threemile Dam fish return information

Access too much of the Umatilla River is via private land and anglers are reminded to always ask permission first. Several popular public access points are located in the Hermiston area. Riverfront Park provides a starting point to over two miles of Umatilla River frontage and anglers may access the entire three miles of river downstream from Three mile Dam. Fall returning fish tend to spend the fall and early winter months in the Hermiston area awaiting fall rain prior to migrating upstream to the Pendleton area. A successful fall fishery has developed at the mouth of the Umatilla River in September and October, with anglers using bobbers, jigs or bait.

Upriver fishing is concentrated from Pendleton downstream to the Barnhart area. Publicly-owned access is limited, but the City of Pendleton Parkway provides access to some good fishing holes and several landowners downstream of Pendleton have allowed anglers bank access at several points in past years. Always ask landowner’s for permission. The best fishing in this area typically occurs from January until the mid-April closure. Successful anglers cast flies, spinners and spoons, and drift fish with bait. During low flows many anglers utilize bobbers and bait or jigs.

For further information contact the ODFW Pendleton District Office (541) 276-2344.

Walla Walla River

The Walla Walla River supports a small but healthy run of summer steelhead. Fish begin entering the Oregon portion of the Walla Walla River beginning in February, with peak returns in March and April. While most of the steelhead returning to Oregon waters are wild, a small number (less than 10 percent) of hatchery strays also enter the river. Wild fish must be released but anglers can keep adipose fin-clipped hatchery fish. This year is expected to offer fair to good fishing. However, public access is very limited, with the best access within the City of Milton-Freewater. Successful fishing techniques include, fly fishing, casting spinners, bobber and jigs and drift fishing with bait.

For further information contact the ODFW Pendleton District Office at (541) 276-2344.

Snake River Zone

Snake River

Justin Botefuhr - steelhead
-Photo by Rick Hargrave-

The river is large and usually difficult to wade. Updated creel surveys are not available, but fishing is generally good from late October through early February just below the dam.  Good bank fishing is available directly below the dam and about a mile down at Stud Creek. Most anglers use either bobbers or drift fishing techniques. There is also a lot of fishing out of jet boats using lures, plugs and drift-fishing techniques. Ethical fishing is very important when boat and bank fishermen are in close quarters with each other. Please be respectful and when boat fishing, do not cast into holes being fished by bank anglers.  Also remember, barbless hooks are required on the Snake.

To provide additional fishing opportunities, 1,000 returning adult steelhead trapped below Hell’s Canyon Dam are re-released into Hells Canyon Reservoir. These fish are then considered trout over 20 inches and a Combined Angling Tag is not needed, but only one may be kept per day.

For further information contact the La Grande District Office at (541) 963-2138 and ask for Tim Bailey or Nadine Craft.

Columbia River Zone

Columbia River (John Day Dam to OR/WA State Line)

Large numbers of steelhead migrate up the Columbia River destined for spawning tributaries throughout the mid and upper Columbia and Snake River basins. Steelhead pass John Day Dam throughout the year, but the primary run is from June through October, with the peak usually in late September. Popular angling locations include the John Day Arm, and the forebay and tailraces at John Day and McNary Dams, at the Umatilla River mouth, and at the Irrigon Fish Hatchery.

A popular and unique fishery is the night fishery above McNary Dam, where steelhead angling is allowed 24 hours a day from Jan.1 –March 31 and June 16-Dec.31, anglers troll lighted plugs after sundown for best results.

While most fishing is from boats, bank anglers are successful at both dams and locations near the Oregon and Washington border. Bank anglers generally float bait with bobbers and a few plunk Spin-n-Glo, plugs, or spinners. Boat anglers pull plugs or float bait with bobbers. In most locations, the best fishing typically occurs from mid-October to late November, but can also be quite good at times in December and January.

At Irrigon Hatchery, early season steelhead fishing typically runs from mid-August to mid-October. Steelhead fishing near the hatchery is poor when spawning salmon are present from mid-October thru November. Fishing picks up again in December and continues through March.

For further information contact the ODFW Pendleton District Office at (541) 276-2344 or the John Day District Office at (541) 575-1167.


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