Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes: Popular Fishing Holes for Summer Steelies Close to Portland, Oregon

From July into December, summer steelhead return from the Pacific and swim 150 miles up the Columbia River to the Deschutes. The Deschutes flows into the Columbia just 2 hours east of Portland, Oregon, drawing hundreds of fishermen each summer.

The Deschutes River in Oregon

Originating in central Oregon's mountains, the Deschutes, coursing through porous volcanic rock canyons, maintains a relatively stable cold water flow year round. Summer steelhead up to 20 pounds return to the river's lower 100 miles beginning in July, and fishermen can be found throughout this section.

Most of the final 24 miles of the river, from Mack's Canyon Campground (and boat launch), is accessible only by boat, but a bicycle trail on the east side gives hikers and bikers access to the last 15 miles of that side of the river.

Knowledgeable guides work the river downstream from Mack's Canyon in drift boats, and upstream in jet boats launched from the Heritage Boat ramp on the west side of the river's mouth. Deschutes River State Park provides trailer and tent camping on the east side of the mouth, near the bicycle and hiking trail.

There is also a foot trail on the west side, but it ends just before Rattlesnake Rapids, only 3 miles in. A Burlington Northern rail line parallels the west side as well, but this is heavily used by trains and is not a safe way to access the river.

The bicycle path along the east side is wide and reasonably level as it ranges above the river. This was the site of a proposed rail line that lost the competition to the west side rail, and approximately 15 miles of trail provide good access to the river's east side.

The river is beautiful in late summer, but the terrain is rugged, the water swift and the heat can be dangerous. Fishermen should be well prepared.

Finding Summer Steelhead Along the Deschutes River's Lower 15 Miles

Steelhead don't sit still for long, so theoretically they could be found anywhere in the river at one time or another. However, some places are much easier to fish than others, and concentrating on areas where steelhead have been found before is often productive.

The lower 15 miles of the Deschutes is reasonably consistent water, generally running 2 to 6 feet in depth, mostly across wide reaches of rock and boulder. Several significant rapids are spotted along this section, as well.

Steelhead tend to rest in the slower shallow tailouts above rapids. Tailouts are sometimes difficult to fish effectively, but should not be overlooked. Fish can also be found just below fast water and along stretches of river below the rapids.

They like transitional water, or slots, between fast and slower water, and they can often be found on the downstream sides of boulders, riffles and land breaks. Fishermen new to the river should observe and note where others are fishing, particularly if fish are being landed, and remember these for future visits.

Many fishermen are tempted to wade deep and cast far in search of fish. This is a risky way to fish the river, and probably less successful, as well. Steelhead are often hooked within 20 feet of shore, and excellent water can be reached without wading more than a foot deep.

Water that is moving at about the speed of a fast walker is ideal, regardless of depth or distance from shore. Certain stretches of the lower river are quite popular, but nothing is more satisfying than hooking a fish in a section that others ignore. Fishermen would be well advised to try at least one new stretch on each visit.

Popular Fishing "Holes" Along the Lower 15 Miles of the Deschutes River

Starting from the mouth, the lower 3 miles of river, which includes Moody Rapids, are heavily fished by fishermen on foot. Getting beyond this area is advised, simply because of the competition. On the other hand, good looking open water should not be ignored. Nice steelhead have been hooked right from the shore at the state campground on the east side.

The trail overlooks Rattlesnake Rapids at the 3 mile mark, well below the trail. Access is difficult here, but just beyond this point the trail drops down close to the river before climbing the trail's only steep hill. There is a spur trail to the river at the beginning of the drop that leads to a toilet and some good fishing water, and another at the base of the steep climb.

Just beyond the top of the climb, the trail is nestled against basaltic cliffs and overlooks Colorado Rapids at mile 4. This begins a mile long section of the river known as Wagon Blast, which is well known and popular on both sides of the river.

Access from the basaltic cliffs is somewhat difficult (watch for rattlesnakes), but the fishing below is often productive. An easier trail to the river is located about a mile upstream, where excellent fishing is also found.

Powerlines cross the river at mile 6, just above Gordon Rapids. A trail before the rapids leads to a toilet and a small but excellent place to drift fish. Fishing continues to be good above Gordon Rapids, almost without interruption. The only automobile "access" to the lower river is on the west side of mile 7.

This is the Kloan road, a narrow and potentially treacherous mile of white knuckle 4-wheel driving that leads to some good fishing on the west side. Fewer fishermen are seen beyond mile 7, but the trail can be biked at least another 7 miles, providing access to much more good water.

Accessing and Fishing the Lower few Miles of the Deschutes River

Whether by boat, bicycle or foot, fishermen have good access to excellent steelhead fishing in the lower 15 miles of the Deschutes River. Few places offer good drift fishing, but fly fishing opportunities abound, as do spinner and plug fishing spots. In addition, this part of the river is easily reached as a day trip from metropolitan Portland.

Donald S. Cochran

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 1 comments
Dave Moskowitz - September 12, 2017

Dear Mr. Cochran:
Your article is supposedly about steelhead, yet the photo at the top of the article is clearly a west-side steelhead river, no where near the Deschutes River. And then you have this wild fish completely out of the water which adds a great deal of stress to any fish you intend to or must legally release. And nothing in your article talks about the terrible shape of the wild steelhead run in the Deschutes last year and again this year.

Then there is the video you posted, which is not about steelhead at all.

You are a fine angler in terms of the fishing and hooking goes, but that is where your skills end. The worst part about this video is the way you handle your fish. Using the boca grip on these trout is an insult and highly damaging to the fish’s internal organs. I applaud your use of a net, which I wish more people would do. Yet, you then negate all of the good things by handling the fish incredibly poorly after you net it.

If I ever see you on the Deschutes and you use the boca grip to lift your trout like you did, I will row over and personally weigh you with it.

Get a grip of yourself and take it easy on the fish. That way there is much more chance those gorgeous redsides will be there for you the next time you fish, and for the others who are fishing as well.


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