With almost endless great salmon fishing rivers in both Washington and Oregon it’s no simple task to come up with the top 20 salmon fishing rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Granted many anglers would probably disagree with a few on our list but the rivers below have produced excellent salmon catch rates for generations providing fish stories for anglers from around the world. The pacific Northwest is simply the best when it comes to salmon fishing and basically it is the primary fishing scene in the region. If your looking to get out and catch some salmon, here’s our count down for the top 20 salmon fishing river in the Pacific Northwest.
20. Klickitat River
The Klickitat River located in the infamous Columbia River gorge is renowned for some excellent salmon and steelhead fishing. The Klickitat offers both summer and winter steelhead fishing opportunities as well as spring and fall chinook and fall coho. Located just a few miles from the Hood River in Oregon, the Klickitat is on the opposite side of the Columbia in the Southern region of Washington state. The fishing season typically starts in June as summer steelhead and fall chinook enter the river system.
The Spring Chinook fishing is pretty good throughout the whole month of June but the steelhead fishing can remain good through the middle of summer depending on the weather conditions. As the leaves begin to start dropping from the trees the prime time fall fishing season takes center stage. From the end of August till the beginning of October it’s all about the fall chinook fishery with average chinook weighting in at around 18-25 lbs. At the end of September the first run of Coho enter the fray with a second run of larger coho arriving in late October with fish in the 5-8 lbs range. October also happens to be the peak of the steelhead fishing season offering some of the best salmon and steelhead fishing to be found in the pacific Northwest.
Interestingly enough even though there’s fairly decent public fishing access on the Klickitat most of the action takes place a the mouth where the river meets the Columbia. Here is where anglers and various Columbia River fishing guides post up to catch these fish before they make their way up river. The lower sections also offer excellent fishing but if you don’t want to go it alone there’s only a few Klickitat River fishing guides that can help you out. The Klickitat River is one of the hidden gems of the Pacific Northwest and definitely worthy of the 20 spot in our top 20 salmon fishing rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
19. Klamath River
The Klamath river runs through the states of Oregon and California and is on of the top fishing destinations in the region. The lower section where most of the salmon fishing takes place is located in Northern California and is among the most notable salmon and steelhead fishing river in the state. In the upper section on the Oregon the Klamath River offers about 40 miles of fishing opportunities however it’s mostly a trout and steelhead fishery.
With runs of spring and fall chinook and summer and winter steelhead the Klamath is sure to please even the most discerning anglers. The Klamath river is also home to a fairly decent run of fall coho, but due to declining numbers retention is currently not allowed. In the lower sections around the end of April spring chinook enter the river to begin their journey to the spawning grounds. In the sections of the river located in California retention of these fish starts in the beginning of July till the middle of August but it’s not unusual for the state to close the season early for conservation purposes.
During this time most of the action takes place from the mouth of the river all the way up to the confluence with the Trinity River. Many times you’ll see an army of anglers poles in hand lined up on the sandy banks at the mouth looking to catch one of these fierce fighting fish. The fall chinook season begins in the end of August goes until the The Klamath-Trinity basin in-river quota has been met. For 2020 this was about 1300 fish. Over the last few years the fall chinook season has been very limited and usually closes early. Never fear the Klamath aims to please. Fortunately there’s a large steelhead population that it’s pretty much open year round. Basically it’s just a matter of switching over to lighter gear and the steelhead fishing action is on.
The Klamath river is home to both Winter and Summer steelhead. The Summer run fish show up during the late spring and spawn during the Winter months. These fish tend to be in the 4-5 lbs. range but are still very good eating. The Winter run fish arrive in the late fall and spawn from January through the month of April. These are the larger of the species with winter steelhead ranging in the 8-10 lbs. range.
Although the Klamath isn’t as strong a fishery as it used to be, it’s still one of your best bets for salmon and steelhead fishing, especially if you live in California. Given the sheer numbers of fish that come up the Klamath every year it easily qualifies as number 19 in the NWFN top 20.
18. Smith River
The infamous Smith River may not have huge runs of fish every year, but the one that do show up are some of the biggest fish in the Pacific Northwest. The Smith currently holds the California state record for a monster 27-lb. steelhead caught back in 1976. The Smith is also home to some of the biggest salmon in state second only to the Sacramento River. Historically there have been reports of fish in the 50 lbs. to 60 lbs. range being caught and that still hold true today.
The largest king salmon caught on the Smith River was an 86 lb. monster and was the state record for several years until a king weighting in at a whopping 88 lbs. was caught on the Sacramento. This Sacramento king is still the state record and it looks like that’s not abut to change any time soon.
The month of October fall chinook salmon enter the Smith River to make their way to the promise land. The fall Salmon peaks in November and runs well into December right as the winter steelhead show up in the scene. During this time there are opportunities for record class chinook salmon and winter steelhead making it a true anglers delight. The steelhead fishing peaks in January but the fishing is still pretty good in December and February.
Given the sheer size of the fish caught in the Smith it;s an easy #17 in our top 20 salmon fishing rivers in the Northwest.
17. Nisqually River
The Nisqually in Washington state has long been a haven for anglers looking to target chinook salmon. Even with declines in the fish populations the Nisqually offers some excellent chinook and coho salmon fishing. Unfortunately steelhead populations have decline to almost none existent levels but if you’re looking to target salmon the Nisqually is a must go.
During the month of July anglers are lined up on the banks of the Nisqually looking to catch the summer run chinook that begin working their way into the river system. These fish run in good numbers all the way up till August when Coho fishing becomes the main show and basically take over. Although the salmon season is fairly short the number of fish and catch rates on the Nisqually give it a solid place at number seventeen in our top 20.
16. Snake River
The snake river in Washington bordering Idaho is the number one go to spot in Eastern Washington to get a shot at some awesome salmon and steelhead fishing. There have been some real monster steely caught on this river rivalling many of the coastal rivers known for 10-15 lb. fish. The main fishing action starts in the April when the spring chinook arrive. Then later in the fall it’s all about fall salmon and winter steelhead. If you live in Idaho the Snake is basically the only action in town for salmon and it among the top destinations in the region for Washington and Oregon as well.
15. Skokomish River
The Skokomish river was once probably the top five salmon fishing rivers in the world. King, Coho, and the big ugly green chum dog all make this river their home. Unfortunately due to litigation between the Tribes and the State of Washington the river has been closed to sportys. However there are a fairly decent number of anglers that will hike out to the mouth during low tide for a chance to hook up with a chinook of two. If they ever open the Purdy cutoff section to sports fishing again the Skokomish will rank higher however until then its number 15 in out Top 20 salmon fishing rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
14. Mckenzie River
The McKenzie river located in Oregon is part of the Willamette River drainage system. This river is renowned for excellent runs of summer steelhead and spring chinook with pretty much year round trout fishing. Up above the Leaburg Dam to Blue River is regarded as a Fly fisherman’s paradise with several varieties of trout to target. The real deal however is the summer steelhead run which fires up as early as April and peaks into July. These summer run beauties can be caught all the way into October with the peak catch rates taking place in May and June just below the Leaburg Dam. Spring Chinook also run the river the river with May to June being the peak months as well. These are among the most desirable fish to catch on the McKenzie due to the high quality of the meat. Plus it’s never a dull moment when hooking into one of these big bright monsters.
13. Bogachiel River
The Bogachiel River on the Olympic Peninsula has long been considered an angler paradise. With excellent runs of steelhead and salmon the Bogacheil river is hard to beat. Known for healthy hatchery summer run steelhead and monster wild fish in the winter. Also the fall chinook action is another first class fishery with cookie cutter chinook weighing in at 20lbs. Also the Bogacheil is part of the Quillayute dranaige which consists of the Sol Duc, Dickey and Calawah which are all a stone throw away and awesome fisheries.
12. Skagit River
Washington’s Skagit River is a salmon fishing paradise with runs summer and winter steelhead, chinook, pink salmon, sockeye and coho all make the Skagit their home. The steelhead fishing on the Skagit isn’t really the main draw but the sockeye and chinook season packs the house. Spring time marks the time of kings salmon moving through the Skagit river system on the way to the Cascade river hatchery. Also the Sockeye start moving during this time as well but the season is very short with only about a week or two of retention allowed as these fish migrate to Baker Lake. The Skagit is the only river in the Puget Sound that has a sockeye run in Washington State making it a very special fishery for those who don’t want to make the trip to the Columbia or head up to Canada and hit the Fraser. Probably the most abundant run of salmon on the Skagit is the fall coho run which historically has produced some of the best catch rates in the area. Also every other year the pink salmon show up and anglers can be seen lined up on the sand banks of edge water part in Mt Vernon plunking sand shrimp behind a spin glow. The Skagit still one of the best options in the Pacific Northwest and easily ranks in our top twelve.
11. Sixes River
Southwest Oregon’s Sixes River is another fantastic fishing river in a long line of great salmon fishing destinations.
10. Puyallup River
The Puyallup often referred to as the Puke due to the brackish coloration of the water is one of the best salmon fisheries in the state of Washington. Significanlty underrated due to the fact that most of the river can only be accessed from the bank only the lower portions se any boat traffic and generally it’s the Puyallup tribe running nets. This river offers huge runs of king salmon, coho, and every other year pink salmon. A testimony to the sheer volume of fish that run this hatchery fed river was back in 2016 when the tribe netted over 30,000 lbs. of chinook salmon out of the river right at the beginning of the season. You would have though for sure that would have been the death of the run. No way. Even after that there was still plenty of chinook salmon coming up the river. Not only was it enough to feed the tribal fishery but the sport fishery and hatchery egg take requirements as well. The Puyallup is without a doubt of the the best salmon fishing rivers in the Pacific Northwest and easily ranted in our top ten.
9. Alsea River
The Alsea is another one of those rivers that’s not really talked about much because of it small size. Even though it’s referred to as skinny water, the Alsea provides some excellent fall salmon and winter steelhead fishing that is hard to beat. If fair to say that pretty much all the locals know about the great fishing on this river, but try to keep on the down low keep the crowds at bay. This river is a must fish for those looking to break away from the pack and escape the crowds of the Columbia and Willamette. Fall Chinook are the first to enter the system fallowed by coho and lastly winter steelhead. The Chinook generally hit the 20lb range on this river system and the coho and steelhead average about 6-10 ponds. However, it’s not unusual to catch a winter run steely in the 15 lb. range during the later part of the season. If you give the Alsea a try you’ll see why some many people in the Pacific Northwest love to fish there making it a shoe in for our number nine.
8. Rogue River
The Rogue River is another one of those river systems that produce some of the largest fish in the region. Located in Southwest Oregon this river offers world class salmon and steelhead fishing with a legitimate chance of catching a record breaker. The largest chinook salmon caught on the Rogue was a 71.5 lb. monster caught back in 2001.
7. Hoh River
The Hoh river in the heart of the rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula is another one of those rivers that is renowned for producing some real monsters. A steelhead caught on a fly set up just a few years ago weighed in at a hefty 29.5 lbs. This may be the largest steelhead caught on a fly rig to date. Back when this fish was caught wild steelhead retention was still allowed. Today however, all wild steelhead caught on the Hoh must be released even if mortally wounded. The Hoh is also known for really good size chinook salmon. These fish run from 15-55 lbs. and will appease any would be angler looking to feel the burn. There are also some very good fishing rivers near by so you can hop from one to the next and give them a try if your get tired of the Hoh. Given the history of the river and the fish caught the Hoh is an easy number seven for our Top 20 salmon fishing rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
6. Sandy River
One hidden gem in Oregon is the Sandy River. Salmon and steelehad is the name of the game on the sandy. This river has produced consistent runs again and again. Every year you’ll fing anglers linned up on the bank of the sandy targeting chinook salmon, coho and steelhead, however it’s not common to see boats traffic except for by the mouth on the Willamette. The Sandy is another one of those local hidden secrets and in most cases you only see a couple Oregon fishing guides that service this river. If they do it’s generally a walk on trip so you’ll have to hoof is out with your fish.
5. Wilson River
On the Oregon Coast the Wilson River is among some of the most desirable steelhead and chinook fishing destination in the pacific Northwest. With a solid brood stock program that produces monster steelhead and excellent numbers of fall chinook. This river offers excellent catch rates again and again with some of the largest fish in the region. Primarily accessed by drift boat where Oregon steelhead fishing guides and their clients float from hole to hole the Wilson also has some walk on access as well for the avid bank angler.
4. Umpqua river
The mighty Umpqua offers year round fishing opportunities with both summer and winter steelhead as well as spring and fall salmon. This river has produced some of the largest fish caught in the state of Oregon and currently hold the record for largest Chinook salmon ever caught in Oregon set all the way back in 1910. This 81 lb. giant has reigned in the record books for 110 years and isn’t likely to be broken any time soon. The Umpqua also hold the state record for striped bass with a 68 pounder that was caught back in 1973. Also there are some big steelhead in this river as well with the largest to dates tipping the scale at 28.5 lbs. Oregon fishing guides can be found targeting these monsters during the winter and fall but even at that the catch rates are so good and the fish so big the Umpqua in Oregon is our hands down number four in our Top 20 salmon fishing rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
Although not quite what it used to be the Cowlitz is still one of the top salmon and steelhead fisheries in the Pacific Northwest. Located in the Columbia river region of Washington this river hosts summer and winter steelhead runs as well as spring and fall salmon. Even better water levels are controlled by a dam so the river is rarely blown out even after a hard rain. The action on the Cowlitz starts in the spring at the Spring chinook feed on the migrating smelt that spawn in the Cowlitz. Unfortunately smelt fishing is very limited but there’s usually a couple days open every year for the eulachon lover to get out and dip net a few.
2. Willamette River
The Willamette is one of the largest rivers in Oregon and even though there’s not much salmon action above the Willamette falls dam the lower offers up some excellent fishing. Both steelhead and salmon runs push there way up the Willamette on the way to the Clackamas, McKenzie, Sandy, and Santiam rivers. All of which are well know salmon and steelhead hotspots. It’s defiantly not unusual to see Portland Fishing Guides intercepting these on the Willamette as they migrate up river.
Another great thing about the Willamette in the sturgeon fishing. Sturgeon camp out at the mouth of the Willamette and it’s not unusual to catch these dinos in excess of 6 feet long and a couple hundred pounds. This is generally a catch and release fishery due to the size restrictions for retention but several sturgeon fishing guides offer catch and release trips in this section.
This is why we have no problem making the Willamette river a number two out of the Top 20 salmon fishing rivers in the Pacific Northwest
1. Columbia River
It’s undeniable that the Columbia is the number one salmon fishing river in the pacific northwest. Literally millions of salmon run the Columbia River every year and is a major part of the sports fishery in the region. The Columbia hosts runs of spring chinook, summer sockeye and steelhead from April through July. As the fall approaches the fall chinook action takes center stage followed by a healthy coho run and lastly the winter steelhead show up on the scene. Other important fisheries on the Columbia are the year round sturgeon and walleye fishing as well but in the summer you can also target bass, catfish, or shad. The fishing opportunities are almost endless. There are literally hundreds of Oregon Fishing Guides and Washington Fishing guides that will take you out and get you on the fish. As they move their way through the river system. There is plenty of bank access if several sections and the fun last pretty much all year long or until to cold winds blowing off the Columbia chases the fair weather fans away. When you delve into the number of fish caught every year on the Columbia you have to give it the number one spot for the Top 20 salmon fishing rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
This guest post is brought to you by long time Columbia River Fishing Guide Buddy Dupell of Columbia River Fishing Adventures a 30 plus year premier Oregon Fishing Guide