The Esteemed Mr. Whiskers Of Portland
By Terry Otto
Catfish are the Rodney Dangerfield of Stumptown’s fishing scene: they never get any respect.
Salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and other species get all the glamour, all the press, all the covers, but catfish are a worthy target themselves. They grow big, they fight hard, bite easily, and their fillets are light and tasty. And while they get little respect from some, they are getting attention from an increasing number of anglers in Portland and Vancouver who have figured out how much fun Mr. Whiskers can be.
In fact, there are so many good local spots that I couldn’t fit them all in one article. So, this issue we’ll look at Portland-area catfisheries, and next month, discover the plentiful opportunities on the north side of the Columbia River.
Get your drawl on, grab some stinkbait and let’s look at PDX waters.
GILBERT RIVER BULLHEADS AND CHANNEL CATFISH
Every single source for this story pointed to the Gilbert River first, and it may well be the best catfishery in the Portland area. This Sauvie Island stream flows from Sturgeon Lake to the Multnomah Channel and is home to big channel cats, a few blue cats and plenty of bullheads. But despite giving the D River a run for its money as the state’s shortest, it’s long been well known for whiskerfish, says Mark Nebeker, the manager of the state wildlife refuge on the island.
“The Gilbert River is very popular for catfish,” he says. “The fishing platform at the mouth is open all year, and they catch a lot of bullheads there, but there are more and bigger catfish further up the river.”
Nebeker says that not all the bullheads are small, and some reach very respectable sizes. Channel cats can run as big as 18 to 20 pounds, and he once checked a blue catfish in the 30-pound range.
Eric Tonsager of the Oregon Bass and Panfish Club is a bona fide catfisherman who spends most of his time on Eastern Oregon rivers, but he wets a line for cats near home once in a while. He likes to fish the Multnomah Channel and the Gilbert River, an area he confirms is no secret.
“There is lots of effort there,” says Tonsager. “There are people at the fishing platform all the time when the weather is warm.”
He says bank access is very good along the Gilbert, and he points to the Big Eddy as being one of the best spots.
“It’s a sharp, 90-degree turn in the river, and lots of big catfish are taken there,” he says.
Worms and other insects are good choices for bait, but Tonsager says anglers need to “gob that worm on the hook. If you leave tips trailing off, the perch and other small fish will nibble them off.”
From time to time, he also uses cutbaits such as northern pikeminnow cut into 1-inch cubes. He leaves them at room temperature for a bit; just to get some smell going.
“But don’t let it rot!” he warns.
THE WILLAMETTE’S MIGRATORY CATS
There is a good population of channel catfish throughout the Willamette, and they migrate out of the big river into the tributaries in the spring to spawn.
“When the temperature hits about 60 degrees, the channel catfish move up into all the rivers that dump into the Willamette,” says Tonsager. “They move into the Tualatin, the Yamhill, and Oswego Creek – all of the tributaries.”
When the heat arrives, the fish head back down to the Willamette to spend the summer in the deep holes, and they become very nocturnal. The bite is best from dusk to dawn.
CATS PROWL ST. LOUIS PONDS
You might expect a set of waters with a name that hearkens to the country’s catfishing heartland to feature whiskerfish, and you would be correct.
“All of the St. Louis ponds have catfish,” confirms Gary Galovich, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife warmwater biologist. “They are in Ponds 1 through 7.”
He reports that there is no stocking schedule, but he puts channels into the small lakes along I-5 just south of Woodburn when his budget allows. Cats to 20 pounds are sometimes caught here.
The species are also planted in Wilsonville Lake, Woodburn Lake and Hartman Pond on a semi-regular basis.
Henry Hagg Lake is popular for bullheads, which grow well and reach sizes of 12 to 15 inches. Of course, all warmwater habitats around Portland have bullheads, but they are predominately in the 5- to 7-inch range.
THE MYSTERY OF THE TUALATIN TITAN
One of the enduring mysteries of whiskerfish in the Northwest is the story of the 15-pound white catfish caught in the Tualatin River in 1989. Deemed the Oregon record for the species, however, it is the only verified white catfish ever taken in the entire state. How did it get there?
That’s a good question, says Galovich. His research turned up records of 300 white catfish brought up from California in 1951, and placed in a defective holding pond. “When they drained the pond they only found 12 left,” says Galovich.
While the rest escaped into the Willamette system, Galovich says the chances of them surviving, spawning, and continuing the line, and eventually producing the record fish is unlikely.
“It could have come from somebody’s private pond,” says Galovich. “Or it could have been released in the river, but we don’t know.”
The Tualatin fishes well for channel cats in the spring, but a boat with a shallow draft is needed. There are few good bank access spots on the river. NS