Sandy River Steelhead Fishing

You’d be hard pressed to find another example of a stunning river located so close to a major population center as the Sandy River provides.  Rugged, wild, and in a state of constant change, the Sandy carves its way from Mt. Hood glaciers to its confluence with the Columbia River in Troutdale, Oregon, just a short jaunt east of Portland International Airport on Interstate 84.

For detailed maps of over 30 rivers in Oregon, check out “Oregon River Maps and Fishing Guide” at

In the late 1980’s, the Sandy was putting out a sport catch of winter steelhead that ranged from 6- to 10-thousand fish.  Adding to that was a catch of 1- to 2-thousand summer steelhead.  By 1997 winter steelhead catch had dropped to 563 fish, summers to the same level.  Things were about to change.

Like much of Oregon, the Sandy has undergone many changes to its hatchery programs.  In order to limit hatchery fish and wild fish co-mingling on the spawning grounds, all Sandy River steelhead releases have been moved from the upper watershed, down to the Sandy River Fish Hatchery on Cedar Creek, a tributary of the Sandy very near the town of Sandy, Oregon.  In addition to the move, plant numbers have been scaled back to include about 165,000 winter steelhead on average and 75,000 summer steelhead.  These are not impressive number for a river the size of the Sandy.  The Sandy, however, does have a strong population of wild steelhead, and the changes in hatchery operations were taken to reinvigorate the wild population.  If successful, and it will take many generations of fish to notice, these changes will be worth it.  The wild steelhead on the Sandy are a special breed, indeed.

In light of changes in hatchery production and release sites, steelhead fishing in the Sandy River will focus on the area below Revenue Bridge to the river’s mouth.  Above Revenue Bridge, the river enters a canyon, surrounded by mostly private land, that is virtually un-navigable by all but intense kayakers before emerging with some fishable water at Marmot Dam.  Marmot provides an important bank access point for spring chinook anglers, although certainly stray hatchery steelhead and wild steelhead will be available in the area.

Sections of the Sandy River

Cedar Creek Area

Revenue Bridge offers a nice stretch of water for bank angles, but be advised once you access the river, you must stay below the average high water mark as the land above is private.  The first fishing spot of major importance working down the Sandy River is immediately adjacent the Sandy River Hatchery location at Cedar Creek.  Trails from the hatchery will lead to a solid mile of accessible water.  There are plenty of pockets to pick and a couple of great flats in this stretch before the river continues through private property and emerges at Dodge Park. Steelhead will concentrate at the mouth of Cedar Creek before moving up to the hatchery.  Please note that Cedar Creek itself is closed to fishing.

Dodge Park

Dodge Park has been the area of major bank fishing on the Sandy.  Within the park itself are two very nice stretches of drift fishing water.  Below the park and across the river is where the incredible Pipeline Hole, along with the Girl Scout Hole and others are located.  The trail leading to these holes are opposite the park, and run through private property.  At the present time, access is posted No Trespassing, and use of the trail is illegal.  It is hoped that an agreement can be reached with the property owner, but for now the only way to reach the Pipeline Hole legally is by staying below the high water mark the whole way (suspect at best) or by boat.  Boating below Dodge Park is ill advised.

Boating the stretch of river from Dodge Park to Oxbow Park is extremely dangerous.  Primary to that statement is the first rapid below Dodge Park.  It’s literally full of huge boulders.  I’ve watched rescues from that spot on TV.  I’ve seen sunken boats in the Pipeline Hole below.  Some guides run this stretch of river in catarafts.  Their knowledge and skill is well worth the investment in their service, and equally so is the beauty this segment offers. Be prepared to drift fish, or cast spinners or floats as there is no fishing from a floating device in this section of the Sandy River and above.

Oxbow Park

For many boaters, Oxbow Park is the highest point on the Sandy River, which is not a bad deal because the stretch of river between Oxbow Park and Dabney Park could consume years of an angler’s life.  A great mix of water from long flats to succinct boulder pockets to picturesque tailouts.  There is great bank access at the park itself, along with camping facilities for overnight stays.  Dogs are not allowed in the park, even for those whose sole purpose is to launch a drift boat and leave the park, which is odd, but of importance for dog owners.

It’s a roughly seven to eight mile float between the Oxbow Park and Dabney Park.  Recent rule changes on the river now permit angling from a boat once you are 200 feet below the launch at Oxbow, which means once you’ve left the hole the launch is on, you’re free to anchor and drift fish all you like.  Past regulations prohibited fishing from a boat in the first mile of this drift (and the complete river above), so this change is a welcomed one to boaters.

Dabney Park

From Dabney Park to Lewis and Clark is the lowest float on the river.  As such, this section has some of the biggest, deepest water available.   Roughly four miles in length, this stretch is open to powerboats and is perhaps best fished from one.  There are significant runs for side-drifting and deep slots for plugs and diver/bait combinations.

Fishing Winter Steelhead

The Sandy fishes very well at river heights of 10-12 feet with opportunities above and below those levels.  In the mid-1980’s the river produced over 10,000 winter steelhead to anglers.  If we were ever to see numbers like that again, I’d fall out of my chair.  In fact, with reduced plants of hatchery fish, it would be amazing to see a run of 10,000 fish, much less catch that high.  Nevertheless, the Sandy  offers a quality return of fish and should be on every steelheader’s to-do list, simply for its sheer beauty, challenging water, and exceptionally beautiful wild fish.

Everything works on the Sandy, as I guess you could say for all steelhead rivers.  Drift fishing is certainly effective, but be prepared with lots of terminal rigging as this river can be very grabby.  For colors, many times you can characterize a river by the dominant offering, be it pink, orange/red, or green.  The Sandy is a pink river.  Pink Corkies, pink yarn, pink jigs.  When it comes to jigs, look for river levels under 10.5 feet and clear water for the best conditions.  Side-drifting, like many rivers is becoming increasingly important in the lower reaches where boating is available.  For plugs, #30 Hot Shots and Tadpollies excel in the long flats while Hot Shot SE’s and Wiggle Warts will reach deeper holding areas.

Recent transitions to wild broodstock in hatchery operations will offer a longer return to hatchery adults. (not just because they’re wild broodstock fish but because an effort is made to take spawners from a longer window of return)  To be sure, steelhead enter the Sandy every month of the year.  While December, and even late November, hold a feeling of being the “opener” for steelhead, it is the months of January, February and March that most reward effort.

As December comes to a close, serious steelheaders are gearing up for the late runs up the bigger Columbia River tributaries, such as the Sandy.

One of the best known rivers for winter steelhead in Oregon, the Sandy has fishing to match its reputation.
As the first steelhead of the season start their way up the Sandy, many savvy anglers will target the lower portions of this beautiful river.

They know that the freshest fish the river has to offer will be caught there.

No one knows this better than salmon and steelhead guide Jack Glass of Hook-up Guide Service in Troutdale.
Glass has been chasing winter steelhead on the river for more than 20 years, and he has seen the river’s winter run of steelhead go from boom to bust to boom again.
His drive has helped such sportsmen’s groups as the Northwest Steelheaders combine resources with state agencies to enhance fishing across Oregon.

However, he calls the Sandy River home, and I was able to catch up with him at his Troutdale shop recently for a chat about his expectations for his favorite river’s steelhead run, and to talk about the methods he employs to catch them.

“Although the Big Creek stock is no longer planted in the Sandy,” said Glass, “we are still seeing some early fish, and there are some hatchery fish showing up too.”

Glass notes that although the early season saw less fish than in past years, there were some fish all the way to the hatchery at Cedar Creek by late November.

Expect the fishing to really pick up after the holidays, and to stay good right through March. “January, February, and March will all be good,” said Glass.

He refused to be pinned down about when the peak of the run will be, explaining that weather and flows in the river will decide that.

One thing is sure from year to year on the Sandy: Expect to see some brutes. The river consistently pulls some 20-plus-pound steelhead.

Glass can also be heard as the host of the Outback Angler Radio Show on Saturday at 6 a.m. on KOTK 1080-AM.

Movin’ on up(river)

According to Glass, as the steelhead start to enter the river in good numbers, anglers on the lower river will start to catch fish from boats and the bank.

Anglers who like to plunk will do especially well from the Troutdale Bridge down to the mouth.

The usual plunking rig consists of a three-way swivel with an 8- to 10-inch lead line leading to a 2 or 3-ounce pyramid sinker.

The other leader is usually 24 to 30 inches long and ends with a Spin-n-Glo tipped with bait or scented yarn.

When the river is running clear, pink or pink-and-white are the favorite colors. Tip the Spin-n-Glo with bait such as sand shrimp or pink prawn tails.

Eggs work well too.

Many anglers use a bit of yarn with scent.

The yarn has a tendency to get stuck in the fish’s teeth, giving anglers a little extra time to send the hook home well. Some of Glass’ favorite scents include Mike’s Shrimp Oil and Smelly Jelly Crawfish.

Boat anglers and shore fishermen both score on the Sandy using drift techniques.

The same kind of baits and colors work with this method as plunking, except most fishermen opt for a Corky or Cheater instead of a Spin-n-Glo.

Boat fishermen often use a technique called free drifting, which describes the method of letting the boat and bait drift along with the current through the best fish-holding water.

Other popular methods include back-trolling plugs or divers with bait. Both are tried and true methods.

Popular plugs include the Brad’s Wigglers and Wee Wigglers. Glass prefers the blue and green pirate patterns as well as the silver with the orange back.

“Sometimes very early in the morning I do quite well with the black-and-white pattern,” said Glass. Other good plugs include the Hot Shots in size No. 30.

Glass also likes to run diver and bait on occasion, and he prefers Brad’s divers.

He uses a 5-foot leader that ends with a small Spin-n-Glo tipped with a No. 2 Gamakatsu hook. He tips the hook with a small amount of roe or shrimp.

Increasingly, bobber-and-jig methods are being used on the Sandy, and Glass fishes them more all the time.

He feels this method fishes the best in 3 to 7 feet of water. His slider rig includes a bobber by West Coast Floats with an in-line ¼-ounce weight about 2 feet above the jig.

The jig that completes the rig is a ¼-ounce marabou jig by Beau-Mac’s.

Glass swears by the 12-pound test Stren Fluorocarbon leader, but he cautions anglers that not all fluorocarbon lines are equal.

“There are a lot of inferior fluorocarbon lines out there, but if you stick with the Stren you’ll do all right,” he said.

When fishing jig and bobber, Jack prefers Stren Super Braid in Hi-Vis Gold for the main line.

Boat options

Most boat anglers fishing the Sandy are targeting transient fish.

They tend to keep moving until they reach the stretch between Oxbow Park and Dodge Park, which Glass considers to be some of the best fishing that the Sandy has to offer.

“It’s probably the most productive stretch of the river,” he said.

These transient fish come in spurts, so if you catch one, it’s a good bet you’ll catch more.

Power boats are only allowed up to Dabney Park. Also, fishing from a floating device is only allowed below the power lines located about 1 mile below Oxbow.

Advice from a pro

When asked what advice he would give to anglers fishing the Sandy for the first time, Glass had a number of suggestions.

“Come out and look for the fishermen and leave your rod in the car,” he said.

“The fishermen are more apt to talk to you if they don’t feel like you’re moving in on them. Ask them what they’re using, and watch how they’re fishing. If you see someone catch a fish, note the time.”

“Steelhead get into a pattern in the river, and tend to go on bites at the same time of day. Come back the next day ready to fish, and apply what you learned.”

Wild boys

As the season progresses, expect to see more wild fish enter the river. Wild winter steelhead get very big in the Sandy, and they fight like demons.

When March arrives, the first of the Sandy’s summer steelhead will enter the river, giving the angler a chance for a real mixed bag of steelhead.

It’s often the very best month of the year for steelheading on the Sandy. Later in the year the upper reaches will get good.

That’s the time to look for them all the way to Marmot Dam.

Summer Steelhead

The first good shot of summer steelhead will enter the Sandy in April.  The run builds through May and peaks in June.  The fish are there throughout the summer months, though water conditions can get muddy in the heat of the summer as heat can bring silt off the glacier on Mt. Hood.

In recent years, solid runs of spring chinook have overshadowed the summer steelhead fishery.  Nevertheless, these are solid, gorgeous fish you fish on in water conditions that have them at their peak of aggression and fight.

Sand shrimp, small baits of eggs, spinners, plugs and jigs will all take summer steelhead on the Sandy.  Just remember that hatchery operations have been relocated to Sandy Fish Hatchery on Cedar Creek and concentrate on water from this point on the river downstream.

The Sandy is not an overly large river, but it fishes much bigger than it actually is.  Gearing up with longer rods in the 9- to 10-1/2 ft. range will assist in making long casts to distant slots and control presentations in demanding water.

Expect a lot on the Sandy River, from the beauty of the river to the quality of its fish.  It is not a river that disappoints.


sandy river map

To top