By Terry Otto
At a glance
What: Eagle Creek winter steelhead.
When: Peak of this Clackamas tributary fishery is in February, but it fishes well from January into March.
Where: Three best access spots for bank anglers include Bonnie Lure State Park, Eagle Fern County Park and just below the Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery.
How: This is classic small-stream steelheading, so pack a mix of small jigs, bobbers, spoons and spinners.
Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery
CLACKAMAS, Ore. — The simple movement of a fish’s tail caught my attention as I passed by a downed old-growth tree on Eagle Creek.
The stream, swollen with mid-January rain, was proving tough to fish, so that tail really turned my head.
Bending down slowly, I peered under the log and was met with the sight of an entire school of steelhead holding there.
I backed away and repositioned myself a little upstream.
The little side channel had drawn the fish away from the roaring currents of the main channel, and the water was too slow for any kind of drift.
I slapped a green Stee-Lee onto the swivel and sent a short cast down the length of the log.
When it hit the water, a big steelhead slashed out from under the log, barely giving me time to close the bail.
After a great fight the fish slid to the bank, and I extracted the hooks and let the nice 9-pound buck slip back into the water to join his companions.
I went on to hook five more of those fish, and eventually landed three.
Classic small stream
Fishing Eagle Creek in the middle of January can be some of the best walk-in winter steelheading to be had in the Portland area.
The stream’s size makes it easy to fish, and the strain used by the fish hatchery on the stream is very robust.
Even poor years can offer some good fishing, and all indications are that this year will very good.
Managers at the hatchery run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service expect a return of about 1,500 steelhead to their fish traps.
Anglers will catch two or three fish to each one that makes it back, so the math adds up nicely for anglers.
While the peak of the return is during February, the best time for catching fish is January.
“That’s when we see the most steelhead brought in,” said Ray Akre of Estacada Tackle (503-630-7424) in Estacada. “But they catch them all through March.”
Akre also adds that while the average winter steelhead will come in at 8 to 10 pounds, there are a lot of fish to 18 pounds brought in.
There will be bright fish to be had during the entire run too.
Akre sells plenty of bait to fishermen who pass through his store, with sand shrimp and eggs being the most popular.
Anglers who use bait in Eagle Creek have started turning more and more to presenting the bait with bobbers as opposed to drifting.
The tight pools and runs of the creek are tailor-made for light bobber fishing.
Also, the rugged bottom can make many stretches of the creek difficult to drift fish because of constant hang-ups.
Still, in some of the shallower holding water, drifting is the best option.
When the creek is running high, fish the bait with a pink or orange Cheater. If the water is running clear and cool, just drift the bait by itself.
Jigs are becoming more popular among Eagle Creek fishermen all the time.
The most popular colors include hot pink-and-chartreuse, pink, pink-and-white and red.
Jigs from one-sixteenths to one-eighths-ounce are best. When the creek is running very low and cold, darker colors can be effective.
In conditions like this the local fishermen prefer black or purple jigs in one-sixteenths-ounce size.
If the water you’re fishing has been worked over by other anglers, try a little hardware.
Spinners like the Blue Fox Vibrax in size 3 or 4 will sometimes snap to life a lethargic steelhead that has seen jigs and bait all day.
A personal favorite of mine on this creek is a green or blue Stee-Lee. These probably account for about half the fish I catch on this stream.
I use them whenever the creek is running high.
Rain and water level are the keys to the bite in Eagle Creek. The fishing is best when the stream is running too high to wade across.
Lower flows generally mean colder water, and that will slow the bite as well.
Doug Dysart, manager of the USFW hatchery on the creek, said the key temperature to look for is 42 degrees Fahrenheit.
When the creek is below that point, turn to smaller baits, lighter lines and darker colors.
Glo Bugs or anything that resembles a single egg will work well in these conditions.
Sometimes small black flies will trigger a bite. It’s also important to work each hole a little longer when the water is cold.
Steelhead won’t move far to grab the bait in the cold water, and you need to put that offering right on his nose.
There are four main public access areas on the stream, which flows through a lot of private land.
The first is Bonnie Lure State Park, where the stream discharges into the Clackamas.
Low gradient pools and glides dominate this reach. The fishing is best here when steelhead are on the
They don’t tend to spend a lot of time holding there. Fish the tail-outs with hardware when the creek is on the rise.
Eagle Fern Park also offers some good access. There are good holes in the park itself, and in the first ½-mile of stream above the park.
A short distance below the park is the lower fish ladder, and the mile of stream below the deadline there really kicks out a lot of fish.
There can be a lot of competition here on the weekends, but the fishing is worth putting up with it.
Both Dysart and Akre wanted to point out that the second ladder, long a favorite spot for anglers, is private.
The owner has had too many problems, and has closed the area to the public.
Probably the most productive stretch of the stream open to the public is below the hatchery.
Fishermen need to park in the marked lot about ¼-mile below the hatchery. A trail takes anglers down to the public water.
This is a large area that offers about 2 miles of great steelhead water, although it is rugged country and the hiking can be difficult.
Although this stretch sees some competition, there is a lot of water for anglers to spread out.
This stretch will produce well all the way through March, and provide bright fish the whole time.
By Terry Otto