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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.