Lurking below the slow-moving waters of the Molalla River in and around Canby is far more sport fish than many realize.
The river, which had seen fishing activity along its banks and in its waters slow for many years, has undergone a renaissance of sorts over the last decade. Fish, it seems, have reappeared in the waters around Canby and the secret is getting out slowly but surely.
That rebirth has been well-received by those who like to dip a line, including members of the local chapter of the Northwest Steelheaders.
The Molalla is active, said Sam Wurdinger, chapter president of the steelheaders group. I think it has gotten a bad rap. In the late 90s, the hatchery plants for steelhead were cut along the Molalla. Hatchery steelhead were a popular game fish at the time. At that point, there werent a lot of wild fish in the river and people stopped coming to the Molalla altogether. It has just been in the last 10 years that people have started coming back. Fish are there and opportunities are there.
And thats all year long.
Right now, wild coho salmon have been flowing over the Willamette Falls in good numbers, and theyre finding their way into the Molalla River. They are the progeny of old hatchery fish that were released 10 to 15 years ago.
They have taken hold in area rivers, Wurdinger said. They are resilient buggers and have spawned on their own.
There were a few years of meager numbers, then in 2009 there were more than 20,000 over the falls, he said. Weve had the largest run the last few years without any human help. They are coming back to the Molalla River.
Wurdinger said that the coho is so new a fish to the Molalla that many sport anglers dont realize they are swimming around in the waters near Canby.
They are new and there arent that many people chasing them right now, Wurdinger said. But theres got to be a lot of fish out there and people will start chasing them.
According to Wurdinger, anglers can keep up to two coho per day under the permanent regulations. Anything longer than over 16 inches is considered an adult.
Ive been out only a handful of times, but Ive caught three, he said. Anytime theres a little rain, immediately following, when the river starts to drop again, those fish are on the move and aggressive. Theyll bite.
But the wild coho are just the tip of the angling iceberg for the Molalla River, which appears to have an active fishery most of the year.
Wild winter steelhead
What the Molalla River is best known for is wild winter steelhead, Wurdinger said. They will start coming over the falls in the next two months and be in the river from the first of December into April.
Those are big, aggressive fish and are catch-and-release only. Its enough of a fishery that the people who fish for them really enjoy them.
Wurdinger noted that most of the time, fishing on the Molalla is a fairly lonely affair. The river is not overcrowded with boats and other anglers from the banks. It is a river whose fisheries are enough to entice those in the know but still secret enough to make the experience enjoyable with few others on the water.
The Molallas winter steelhead population is considered a core population for recovery of the Upper Willamette run by state and federal fish managers. ODFW estimates that 20 to 30% of the winter steelhead that cross Willamette Falls are headed for the Molalla, which creates a very fun catch-and-release fishery. Theres also not a lot other folks fishing it, said Russell Bassett, executive director for Northwest Steelheaders. As much I enjoy fishing Buoy 10 at the mouth of the Columbia and the Deschutes, I enjoying getting out in nature away from the crowds and the Molalla is my favorite river to fish because of that. Its a challenging river, but rewarding to the mind and spirit. The drift from Wagon Wheel to Canby City Park can be very productive for winters.
The Molalla and particularly the rivers winter steelhead population is also interesting because it is a focus river of the ongoing hatchery-versus-wild debate. The Molalla used to be stocked with winter steelhead, summer steelhead, coho, and catchable trout, but that all stopped by 1998, and now the only stocked fish in the river is spring Chinook, Bassett continued. People are keeping a close eye on this population to see if the Molallas winter steelhead run is really recovering after all hatchery stockings were discontinued, and depending on who you talk to, this is happening or its not. There hasnt been any monitoring except volunteer spawning surveys in decades, so its really hard to prove anything definitive.
Discovery waiting to happen
Considering that the river offers quality angling from boat or bank along much of its stretch around Canby and is less than 45 minutes from Portland, its a wonder more anglers havent discovered the river.
It has a lot of boat ramps and access points along the way to make it easily accessible, Wurdinger said. Its one of my favorite rivers to fish. You can get into some pretty good schools of fish out there.
Additionally, theres a run of hatchery-produced spring Chinook that makes its way into the currents of the Molalla River. That run has been pretty sparse the last few years, but a new acclimation center higher up the Molalla looks like it will help the smolts get used to the Molalla River first, then release them into the river proper. The hope is that the acclimation process will allow more fish to survive and thrive in the waters.
Im really excited about the potential of the Molallas spring Chinook acclimation facility, which released its first fish earlier this year, to create a good spring chinook fishery, Bassett said. The Molalla River receives approximately 100,000 South Santiam River hatchery springer smolts each year, but the return of those are not good. Some years, like this year when the overall Willamette run was so poor, I estimated that only 200 or so survived through the summer. With acclimation, we expect to see the return improve. So now we are maybe at .25 percent to .75 percent return. In three years when they start returning, I expect that to get to up to 1 percent or even better.
In a small river like the Molalla, 1,000 to 2,000 fish can create a potent fishery. With only a minimal amount of natural production happening in this population, the vast majority of the run – 90 percent or so – are hatchery fish designed for harvest.
Im a firm believer in eating sustainability by catching your own dinner, and Im very hopeful in a few years the communities of Canby and Molalla will have a good harvestable run right in their back yard on the river, Bassett said. By the way, the same group trying to shut down the Sandys hatchery operations also tried to stop all stockings of spring chinook in the Molalla River and block the funding for the spring chinook acclimation facility, but thankfully that did not happen.
That fishery runs from about May to August, said Wurdinger.
Members of the local chapter of Northwest Steelheaders offer fish-along opportunities for people interested in learning more about fishing the Molalla – or fishing in general. Its a good way for new faces to see the old river up close.
We get a chance to show people the river and get them involved, Wurdinger said. Once youve done it once, its very addicting.
The Steelheaders arent the only group looking at the potential of the Molalla River. Molalla RiverWatch has put a lot of time, effort and finances into making sure the river is cleaned up and habitat is conducive to fish health.
Molalla RiverWatch is a nonprofit organization created in 1992 by a group of local citizens for the purpose of protecting, preserving and restoring the flora, fauna and water quality of the Molalla River and its tributaries.
Concerned with the excessive amount of garbage dumped along the river bank and often into the river, the group is committed to promoting respect and understanding of the Molalla River watershed through education and conservation for present and future generations.
The membership is composed of a diverse group of local people. Our common bond is a love for the Molalla and the beauty and recreational activities it provides, said the groups website at molallariverwatch.org/.
They do a lot with the local watershed and property owners along the river, Wurdinger said. Were all working to make the river a positive place to be.