The Sandy River Steelhead are Special Indeed
By Terry Otto
Born of the icy waters of the Mt Hood glaciers, Sandy River steelhead are a graceful and powerful fish. Known for blistering runs and gravity-defying jumps, they are the epitome of winter steelhead of the Cascades Range. The spirit of these fish matches the boldness and power of the Sandy River itself, which leaps over rapids and plunges through high country canyons before settling down into deep, slow pools that flow past the green lawns and stately homes of Troutdale.
Raised along the headwaters in Welches, Brian Silvey is a fly fishing guide who has always favored Sandy River steelhead, although he now chases them with a spey rod. “It’s a great river for swinging a fly,” he says. The Sandy River was never a good match for one-handed fly rods, and few steelheaders used them. About 15 years ago the spey rod revolution spread to the Sandy, and anglers found the technique to be perfect for the river. “The two-handed rod makes it easier,” he says, “and it’s more effective.”
Conventional anglers still make up the majority of steelheaders that target the Sandy, although the spey rod presence is unmistakable, and growing. “There seems to be a lot of guys fly fishing the sandy with spey rods these days,” says Silvey.
A river born of volcanic power
The Sandy is a dynamic, glacial river, prone to lahars that carry rock and rubble from the glacial fields all the way to the mouth at the Columbia. Gravel and boulders are strewn through the runs and drifts where the steelhead hold, and anglers swing fly’s or spoons through the tail outs in search of a strike. When they do strike, Sandy River steelhead can be viscous, smashing the interloping lure with stunning force.
The two runs of Sandy River steelhead
There are two runs of Sandy River steelhead. The hatchery run can be substantial or poor depending on the year, but the native run is more consistent, and they average a little larger. Both return in the same time frame, with the first steelhead starting to trickle in during December. The numbers climb until they peak in March.
Sandy River steelhead average from 7 to 11 pounds, and every year some larger fish are caught in the upper teens. The river gives up a few steelhead in the twenty pound range every season.
37 miles of steelhead water
Good steelhead water can be found along the entire river, but Silvey prefers the reaches below the confluence of the Sandy and Bull Run Rivers. These sections are the best match for the spey rod. Above Dodge Park the river narrows, and conventional gear seams a better fit.
Most of the hatchery steelhead pull into Cedar Creek and the hatchery. From there to the deadline at the mouth of the Salmon River is 13 miles of native steelhead water.
Any way you fish it, the Sandy and its steelhead are special. That’s why winter tends to find Silvey and his clients working the runs and riffles. The Sandy is river enough that even the slow days are worthy. “I just enjoy getting out and swinging flies, and if I’m lucky I’ll hook a steelhead,” he says. “I like to get people into fish, or try to teach them something.” His clients will always learn one thing: the Sandy River and its steelhead are worth coming back for.
Silvey’s Fly Fishing Guide Service: 1-800-510-1702