North Santiam River Fly Fishing

Howdy,

Having lived in the Santiam Canyon area of Oregon for the past 17 years or so, I’ve explored and fished quite a bit of the river system and would like to share some of what I’ve learned.

The North Santiam is a very diverse and rich system with a variety of fishing options.  Rainbow Trout,  Cutthroat Trout (resident), Summer and Winter Steelhead and Spring Chinook Salmon are present in the system at various times of year which make the Santiam a year round fishery.   The Tributaries of the Santiam above Detroit Reservoir contain Rainbows and fall runs of Kokanee Salmon (landlocked Sockeye).

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North Santiam River near Gates

Here’s a bit of the basic information about the river system, borrowed from Wikipedia:

The North Santiam River is a tributary of the Santiam River, approximately 90 miles long, in western Oregon in the United States. It drains an area of the Cascade Range on the eastern side of the Willamette Valley east of Salem.

It rises in the high Cascades in eastern Linn county, northwest of Three Fingered Jack in the Willamette National Forest. It flows north through the mountains past Marion Forks, receiving the drainage from the western slope of Mt. Jefferson. Near Mt. Jefferson it turns sharply west, descending through a canyon past Idanha, Detroit, and Gates. It emerges through the foothills into the Willamette Valley near Stayton, then flows briefly southwest through the valley where it joins the South Santiam River from the northeast to form the Santiam approximately 15 miles southwest of Stayton. The confluence is approximately 10 miles east of the confluence of the Santiam and the Willamette River.

It is impounded by Detroit Dam in the mountains west of Detroit to form Detroit Lake for flood control. Detroit Lake State Park is located along the southern shore of the lake.

In the 19th century the canyon of the North Santiam River provided a formidable obstacle to settlers. The construction of a railroad in 1887 opened up the canyon to settlement and logging of the surrounding mountains.

 The headwaters of North Santiam River originate at Marion Lake, which is a location of numerous wildlife species. This headwaters area is a breeding location for a number of amphibians including the rough-skinned newt.

North Santiam at Santiam River Park
North Santiam near Santiam Park

Trout Fishing

Resident Rainbow and Cutthroat Trout are available in the 10-16″ range (norm) with fish reaching into the upper teens and low 20′s on occasion (Below Detroit Reservoir).  Both species exhibit typical preferences and habits and will take both dry and wet fly offerings.

The cutties are quite aggressive and you will be able to tell the difference prior to seeing the fish.  They will “slam” your flies hard, make furious runs and acrobatic leaps.  More than once I’ve been swinging steelhead flies and had a bite I was sure was a steelie – yanking the 8 wt. tip over in a hard takedown -for a few brief seconds anyway.  The cutts will hit just about anything.  I’ve hooked 8″ cutthroat on big #1 steelhead/salmon flies.  They really don’t care what they’re hitting when they are in their more aggressive state.

Antelope Goddard Caddis

Antelope Goddard Caddis

Caddis flies are probably the most effective – in any form.  Dries such as the Elk Hair Caddis and the Goddard Caddis (the later being my favorite summer fly) are two flies you’ll want in your box.  Emergers and Nymphs should also be carried.  Gold Ribbed Hares Ear, Prince and Rabid Prince nymphs do quite well.  Have a supply in sizes 6-12 with and without bead heads.  Many sections of the river a fast moving so the bead heads will come in handy to keep your presentations low in the water column.  Mayflies (Callibaetis) and Midges are present most of the year.

By far the most exciting time of year is late summer/early fall.  The October Caddis hatch brings out the big bugs.  Fishing large (4-8) Caddis patterns with lots of orange/rust  colors (dries and nymphs) will get you into fish.  Egg patterns can also be effective this time of year, especially when fished downstream from spawning salmon and steelhead.

One thing to keep in mind when trout fishing the North Santiam – all fish are to be released unharmed.  This regulation is in place to protect the young steelhead that are making their way to the Pacific Ocean.  The Steelhead smolts in the 6-8″ range are very difficult to distinguish from a rainbow trout.

Choose 4- 5 wt. rods in the 8’6′ – 10′ range with floating line for most situations, 9-10′ leaders with 4x tippet will serve you well.

Trout Fishing on the Tributairies of the North Santiam and above the dam (Brietenbush, Upper North Fork and Little North Fork) can be a little more technical.  Smaller streams with fast water and heavy brush makes things a little trickier.  You’ll want to size down with your flies (12-18) and go with longer leaders.

Breitenbush River

Breitenbush River

Steelhead Fishing

Steelheading the Santiam Canyon is a year-round sport with peaks in April-August and again in December-Febraury.  With both a summer and winter run, there are fish in the river system the entire year.  Hatchery rasised fish will normally run 26-28 inches , with the natives being somewhat bigger (30-32″).  Use 7-9 weight rods with both floating and sink tip lines and 6-9 ft leaders with 1x tippet.

Winter's Hope

Winter's Hope

Fly selection is all over the board.  Everything from Dark Stonefly Nymphs to big ol’ Moal Leaches.   I generally begin the season (January – March) with either a weighted egg pattern fished along the bottom or large (1.5-3) Spey and Dee flies using the wet fly swing technique.

Bright colored Popsicles and Speys are called for in high and murcky water conditions.

As the spring and summer progress, downsizing and muting the colors is required.  More #2-6 hairwing flies are in order here.  Skaters and Bombers are often a good choice in the late summer/early fall months.

Salmon Fishing

The Spring Chinook run is generally from April-June.  The last few years have seen low returns and I don’t often fish for them specifically.

Kokanee are numerous in Detroit Reservoir and make a fall run up the Brietenbush River and Upper North Fork of the Santiam.  The fish transform (like their ocean going cousins) and develop a hooked jaw, humped back and turn from silver to deep red prior to moving upstream to spawn.  Egg patterns and chironomids can work.  The fish are not feeding, but will defend their spawning beds.

Final Thoughts

The North Santiam area is a great family destination.  The upper river has many parks and campgrounds.  Detroit Reservoir offers great boating (sail and powerboat) and water skiing.  Hike into the high Cascade Lakes, gather huckleberrys and Chanterelle Mushrooms in the fall months, and of course, fishing opportunities are numerous.

If you’re considering a trip to the area and are in need of a fishing guide, give Oregon Outdoor Excursions a call at 503-767-BITE.

Tight Lines!

Dave

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23 Responses to North Santiam River Fly Fishing

  1. Pingback: Where has the month gone? | Riverwood Blog

  2. Mike says:

    Good read! Thank you very much.
    Mike

  3. admin says:

    Mike,

    Thanks for the nice comment. I live, work and fish on this river. It’s quite a place.

    Dave

  4. Mike says:

    Dave, San Diego Mike here, I’m going to be in Salem 5/13 – 5/17 for my wifes sons graduation. I’m interested in making my way over to your river. It looks like I can make the drive to Stayton in under 30 min., any suggestions? I’m going to bring a fly rod and reel and spinning rod and reel as well.
    Mike

  5. dcarp says:

    Hi Mike,

    Great timing, you should be hitting the area when the river is full of Spring Chinook and Summer Steelhead! Give me a shout when it gets closer to the 1st of May and I’ll be able to give you up-to-date information about fishing conditions. If you’re interested in a guided trip (drift boat or walk & wade), check out our guide service website at http://www.oreoutdoor.com.

    Dave

  6. Mike says:

    Hi Dave, San Diego Mike here. I hope that all is well with you. I’m emailing in advance of my trip to Salem Or. and will arrive Thurs. 5/13/2010 in the evening and check into a hotel there. Unfortunately I will not be able to hire a guide but will rely on problem solving and instinct to get me over to the area around Stayton somewhere on the river. I’ll pick up a “Daily Angeling License” and end up on the water sometime Friday AM I’m guessing. Apologise for writing so late in the game but if you get to this in time I’m all ears regarding suggestions. Places to park, parts of the river, what flly’s that are working, etc. Thank you in advanve, Mike

  7. Dave M. says:

    Hi Dave, I live On Riverwood Dr. Would love to chat with you. My e-mail is steelhead92@yahoo.com. We live on the first lot off 22 on the right. Hope
    to hear from you.

    Dave,

  8. admin says:

    Dave M.- Nice to hear from you neighbor. Wander on down the road one of these days and we’ll go fishin. Dave C.

  9. Steven E. Perry says:

    Question…I’m working on a Fly Fishing Merit Badge with my son at Camp Pioneer up on Pine Ridge Lake. Can you suggest a full complement of flies…I don’t want to be caught without and would have to hike out and drive quite a ways to get what I forgot. Thanks in advance…Steve

  10. admin says:

    Steven,

    I’m not much of a stillwater angler, so take this with a grain of salt. In fact, I consider my fly selection for area lakes to be a “work in progress”. I do know that you can’t go wrong with a few Wooley Buggers, Kaufman Timberline Emergers, and some Soft Hackle flies like the old Partridge and Yellow. I was up at a nearby mountain lake just this week and there was a great hatch of March Browns in the early afternoon. This small lake (about 3 acres in surface area) was about 2/3 covered in spinners, with the occasional female emerger that would be swarmed as she took flight. I would expect the same to be happening all around this region. Later in the evening Blue Winged Olives and Mosquitoes were the majority of the flying bugs, but the fish weren’t rising for them.

    Hope that gives you a little bit of insight. Tight Lines!

    Dave

  11. Dave Stonehouse says:

    I am a new resident in Stayton, and am interested in learning to fish the North Santiam River. Been working all my life, haven’t had much time to fish or relax. Now that I have retired, am planning on doing lots of both. Need some advice and just someone to fish with. Any suggestions?

    Dave

  12. admin says:

    Dave,

    You picked a great area to retire to! The fishing opportunities are great in the Santiam Canyon and surrounding area. The entire North Santiam River system (above and below Detroit Reservoir) offers great fishing for trout species (Rainbow and Cutthroat) and the section below Detroit Dam / Big Cliff Dam contains the larger anadromous species like Chinook Salmon, Coho Salmon, Summer and Winter Run Steelhead.

    Public access is limited to the upper sections of the river above Lyons where you’ll find numerous State and County Parks along the river. Of course, the entire river from Packsaddle Park downstream is accessible from a drift boat. Be sure to check out my other website at http://www.oreoutdoor.com for information about my guide service. Trips are available year-round.

    Thanks for visiting the Riverwood Blog.

    Dave

  13. afelde says:

    i live in aumsville and am interested in this years winter steelhead run, when is it best to fish this river?

  14. admin says:

    Winter run steelhead will generally be in the North Santiam in January/February each year. As of November 30, there are 300+ fish heading this way. Keep in mind that approximately 25 – 35% of the winter run heads for the North Santiam. The winter run is generally between 2,500-7,500 fish total, so it’s not a huge batch of fish, but they are bigger, stronger and much more aggressive than their summer run hatchery raised cousins. They are a true trophy fish in my opinion and well worth the hours and casts it takes to connect with one.

    Tight Lines,
    Dave

  15. Bob Burns says:

    Dave….

    Can you give me the name/phone number of a good truck shuttle guy who works the river from Mahama down to Shellburn?

  16. admin says:

    Bob,

    I generally use Bob Lusk – 503-859-2880 for shuttles. He charges $20 a trip.

    Bob is also the President of the North Santiam River Guides Association which you might want to consider joining. Technically, only a few members are guides, the rest of the membership is made up of local folks that run the river on occasion. The group does a series of “Learn the River” trips each year where several of us run different sections of the river.

    Dave

  17. Bob Burns says:

    Thanks, Dave…..I’ll keep that group in mind.
    Bob

  18. KeizerMark says:

    Dave,
    Came across your web site today. Thanks for getting your information online and from an Oregon native, welcome to the state 20 years later! I envy you a bit because I know Southern Idaho well enough to know it has some tremendous places to fish and play outdoors. I went to school in Ontario for a year and spent many weekends out and about exploring… and fishing a little, too in that entire area! Absolutely love it there.
    Back in high school I took a week-long unit in PE on fly casting. Had a blast. I wish I had hung onto the casting skills I learned back then. Since then, I have only been using the fly method handful of times over the years and have wanted to get back into the sport for quite some time. I am well-versed in casting and spinning, so now it’s time to broaden my experiences. Plus, I have a very strange goal in life to land a Redside out of the Blitzen River and also catch a Lahontan out of Mann Lake. Why? I don’t know. It just seems like one of the odd, eclectic things I view in life!
    Part of wanting to get back into the sport is laying down my father’s old 1959 Fenwick fiberglass/Pflueger reel combo and finding a “decent” beginning package. My challenge here is discovering what is good quality gear and what is the name you pay for. If I could spend $300 on a nice entry-level system, I think I could use that to get started moving up later if I choose. But who are reliable brands and who are the ones I want to stay away from? Seems I can spend anywhere from $25 to $2500 on a rod, and same on a reel. When I go into a fly shop or a larger retailer, they just seem to want to make a buck. So I would ask your professional opinion as to what you would recommend.

    Thanks! May your waders be wet!

    Mark

  19. admin says:

    Mark,

    Quality gear will go a long way in reducing the “frustration factor” for novice flycasters. The bargain packages out there generally turn people off to fly fishing because the rods are as stiff as a broomstick and the reels are clunky. I would highly recommend the Orvis Clearwater rod for an entry level setup:

    http://www.orvis.com/store/product.aspx?pf_id=4Y05&dir_id=758&group_id=759&cat_id=14816&subcat_id=7015

    The next level up is reasonably priced and will give you better performance – The Orvis Access series of rods:

    http://www.orvis.com/store/product.aspx?pf_id=3A8E&dir_id=758&group_id=759&cat_id=23662&subcat_id=23663

    Top of the line in the Orvis stable is the Helios rods. They are spendy, but if you take the sport seriously, they are a great stick! I use the Helios series (905-4 and 1368-4 Spey), the Hydros 107-4 (predecessor to the Access) and the Access 116-4 Switch in my guiding operations on a regular basis. They are all equiped with the Mirage series of reels. They perform day-in and day-out in the hands of novices and experts and never let me down.

    For years I stayed away from the “big names”, figuring I would be spending $100-$200 for just the decal. I’ve come to learn that in the case of Orvis gear, you’re getting what you pay for! …… maybe only paying and extra $25-$40 for the decal :)

    Tight Lines,

    Dave

  20. KeizerMark says:

    Thanks Dave.
    Good advice. I have been looking at Orvis, but wasn’t familiar enough to know what model to look at. My first love of music you will find I have several thousand wrapped up in my gear. But like you, I get to earn some of that back, though it is only a hobby, not my profession! As soon as I stop performing, I will sell that gear and invest my my second love of fishing. Then I can get real serious!
    Match the Hatch!
    Mark

  21. Kurt says:

    I grew up in Keizer (I live in Portland now) and have enjoyed the Little North Fork area since the 1970′s. I went swimming up there before Elkhorn Valley Golf Course was built.

    One thing I’ve rarely seen over all these years is anyone fishing the Little North Fork.

    As far as I’m concerned, the Little North Fork, Elkhorn Valley, and the Opal Creek Wilderness Area are as beautiful as any place in Oregon. I swim it, I golf it, but why don’t I fish it too? Any insights would be welcome.

  22. admin says:

    Kurt,

    I consider the Little North Santiam to be a 3 season fishery – Late Fall, Winter and Early Spring. The low water and hot weather can really stress out a caught fish during the summer months. Their survival rate goes way down. There is a good run of wild winter steelhead that start showing up in the fall along with a small run of Coho Salmon. These are very sporting fish for catch and release. Some decent sized trout can also be found in some of the deeper pools during the cool months of the year.

    My advice? Golf and swim from June through September, then fish it the rest of the year!

    Dave

  23. Kurt says:

    Dave,

    You make perfect sense. And I can testify (a little) to the sporty Winter Steelhead fishery. An old neighbor from the 70′s had a fishing trailer on a riverfront property on the main Santiam not far upstream from Lyons, and we fished that stretch in the coldest, wettest part of winter. Perfect right?

    Thanks for the reply.

    Kurt

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