Three boats at boat ramp
Featured Northwest Lifestyles Oregon Outdoor Activities

Portland boating is a year round adventure

Caption: Boaters line up at the M. James Gleason Memorial Boat Ramp in Portland after a day of salmon fishing on the Columbia River. Photo by Greg Johnson.

Editor’s Note: The following comprehensive Portland boating guide was excerpted from an article written by long time boating promoter and writer Trey Carskadon. The article appeared in Oregon Boatfinder, a publication of the Portland Marine Dealers Association.

Boating in Portland is a year around pursuit. There’s a bounty of water to explore and 12 months to enjoy it.

From the nearby Willamette to popular Hagg Lake to the west that’s a perfect family getaway, Detroit Lake to the east and the mighty Columbia that offers a staggering array of options for local boating enthusiasts. How about a quiet paddle down the Yamhill from Dayton to Newberg? It’s a great morning trip. There’s the Tualatin, another place to quickly escape by canoe and enjoy a riveting two hours enjoying nature at water level.

Waterskiing, wakeboarding and tubing are available in heaping quantities and just minutes from the Portland area. Try any one of a number of our coastal bays and go crabbing for a couple of hours.

Boating in Portland doesn’t have to be an enormous undertaking. It doesn’t have to consume your day or weekend. It can be easily experienced in snip-its that occupy just a couple of hours making way for lawn work, shopping or the myriad activities that occupy our time throughout the year. A look across the calendar exposes volumes of exciting boating opportunity that’s close to Portland. In other parts of the country, boaters have to drive hours to find decent boating. Here in Portland, it’s a matter of minutes

Before diving into the litany of prospects a couple sage words of advice. If you haven’t already, invest in PFD’s (personal floatation device) that you and your passengers will wear. There’s dozens of options, some better than others, but PFD’s only work if you’re wearing them. Boating safe should be the single most important rule in any boat.

Second, make sure your boat’s ready to go. Seems simple but it’s something that’s regularly overlooked. Are your batteries charged, steering lubed, trailer bearings lubed, winch working, engine in sound running condition and do you have all your required, and not-so-required safety gear aboard? Do you have a paddle, throw cushion, fire extinguisher, signaling device, spare drain plug, tow rope, anchor and rope and are all your essentials in good working order?


Winter Between squalls there’s still ample boating opportunity for Portlanders throughout the winter months. Crabbing’s at it’s peak in the winter and all you need is a few hours to get enough for a nice dinner. If it’s been raining hard chances are estuaries like Tillamook, Yaquina and Nehalem Bay have all been flushed clean of crab with the intrusion of freshwater. If that’s the case Netarts Bay just south of Tillamook is the go-to destination. Make sure wherever you choose to drop your traps that you have a crab license for everyone crabbing and that you read the regulations carefully before setting out.

The Columbia River offers several boating opportunities throughout the winter months too. When the weather breaks, or even if it doesn’t, the Columbia in and around the Portland area stays relatively smooth for most boats. If there’s a strong west wind forget it though. When these winds collide into the flow of the Columbia the result is tightly grouped standing waves that will beat a boat and its’ passengers into submission.

You’ll find good winter launches on Marine Drive at 42nd Street and further upriver at Chinook Landing. For those on the Westside of Portland access to the Columbia is available at either Scappoose Bay or St. Helens launches. Further downriver there’s a nice launch at Rainier that allows access to the lower-Columbia’s islands and backwaters.


By March, moderating temperatures and filling reservoirs add to the list of opportunities available to Portland-area boaters. The Columbia is still a natural as sturgeon fishing is in full swing drawing anglers from across the nation and beyond. The Willamette’s also a good bet for sturgeon as the typically warmer Willamette water pulls sturgeon into its lower reaches. Spring Chinook are beginning to show in March with the peak of the run passing through downtown Portland around the third week of April.

It’s a remarkable fishery as boats ply the dark waters of the Willamette trolling in the shadow of Portland’s skyscrapers. An attraction of this fishery is boaters are spread out from Multnomah Channel that winds around the Westside of Sauvie Island and the mouth of the Willamette upriver to Oregon City distributing anglers along nearly 50 miles of water between these points.

Just south of Forest Grove, Henry Hagg Lake serves up some earlyseason boating that finds an occasional waterskier braving the elements in an effort to beat cabin fever and start the skiing season early. Hagg Lake is a county facility and there’s a fee to enter the park. At Hagg you’ll find trails to explore, picnic facilities, ample parking, nice launches and restroom facilities. It’s a model park that’s beautifully maintained and boating friendly.

Besides trout, Hagg Lake is home to trophy smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, bullhead catfish, crappie and is over-populated with yellow perch. It’s the perfect place to start fishing, introduce the family to boating, cruise, ski, tube, paddle or just drift along.


By June, the range of boating opportunity literally explodes on local reservoirs and lakes. In Portland, the annual shad run starts around the last week of May and continues right through June with millions of fish making their way past Portland. The largest member of the herring family, shad are sometimes called the “poor man’s tarpon” as they deliver a powerful fight on light gear with chilling jumps and strong runs that test light line to its limit. Boaters typically anchor in and around the Oregon City area or near The Fishery located a few miles below Bonneville Dam. With shad, it’s not a matter of “if” you’re going to catch fish, it’s just “how soon and how many”.

Lazy rivers like the Tualatin and Yamhill are perfect for paddlers looking for a morning or afternoon escape. For the more adventurous, the 15 mile float from Wheatland Ferry to San Salvador (St. Paul) will occupy the better part of a day if you stop to take in the scenery, 4 to 6 hours if you maintain a steady paddle.

By summer, area waterskiers have dozens of choices. Early morning on the Willamette is generally flat and crowd-free. There’s some serious boating hazards you’ll want to be aware of. Your best bet is to make a few passes through the area you’re going to be skiing to be safe and to be sure it’s free of hazards.

Detroit Reservoir is the most popular boating lake in the state and for good reason, it’s big, has excellent facilities and serves up an incredible diversity of boating and outdoor opportunity that’s little more than a couple hours from downtown Portland. Located about an hour east of Salem, Detroit Reservoir is a sprawling lake that supports two very nice marinas, several campgrounds and three major launch sites. Home to trout, kokanee and landlocked Chinook salmon it’s one of the most heavily stocked lakes in the state. A few large coves provide private retreats to park and relax away from the main lake’s traffic and with so much surface area there’s plenty of room to enjoy watersports, fishing and cruising without ever feeling crowded.

Summer on the Columbia opens a long list of options to explore. Certainly cruising from port-to-port and going ashore to shop and nose around the many lower-Columbia burgs is fun. Check out the small town on Puget Island, catch a lunch in Cathlamet or great fishing ahead at “Buoy 10.” Pull into Rainier for an early dinner then cruise back to Portland with the sun at your back.

Have you ever chugged down the Willamette from Oregon City to the mouth? Better yet, make an early turn and continue down Multnomah Channel to St. Helens. While in St. Helens you’ll want to check out the old town area. This trip will surprise you if you haven’t made it before. It’s a lot of water to cover but within these 45 miles you’ll see a wonderful falls in Oregon City; skirt some islands; see wildlife you may not have known was so close to town like eagles, peregrine falcons, otter and even deer; pass under more bridges than you’ll find anywhere else in the country; and see a side of Portland that most miss completely.

Fishing is in full swing with local reservoirs and lakes alive with meaningful opportunity. East of Albany two gorgeous lakes are found tucked into the foothills of the Cascades – Foster and Green Peter Reservoirs. Both have bass but most fish for trout or kokanee. They’re sparkling gems that attract skiers and anglers and are an easy drive from Portland.

Above Willamette Falls is an interesting stretch of water that starts in the town of Willamette and continues upriver to Newberg. This 20 miles of the Willamette River gets some serious attention from boaters through the summer months, especially from I-5 to Newberg but on the weekdays, especially in the morning, is relatively free of traffic. Be careful and take your time learning this stretch of water. There are a few notorious underwater hazards that have damaged many a boat. If you’re going to ski the area make a few low-speed passes to confirm there are no hazards in the water you’ll be boating. As is the case with most pastimes, a little common sense goes a long ways.

Finally, no review of summer boating would be complete without some mention of Buoy 10. This is the area from the Astoria-Megler Bridge on the Columbia to a red buoy just downriver of Cape Disappointment called, “Buoy 10”. In mid-August swarms of boats descend on this hallowed water in search of returning Chinook and silver salmon that fill the lower Columbia bound for their natal streams. Productive and popular it’s also one of the most dangerous and unforgiving pieces of water on the planet. There are days it’s lake-calm and others a torrent so fierce it’s swallowed up full-sized ships. Further out towards the mouth and into the ocean is equally destructive potential for the uninformed and uninitiated.

The rules are easy, wear your PFD’s at all times; never go over the bar on an outgoing tide; if the wind comes up get close to your launch so you can quickly scoot back into safe harbor if the weather intensifies; make sure you have at least a cell phone although a VHF radio tuned to channel 16 is recommended; and don’t push your luck.


One of the best and most overlooked seasons for Portland boaters is fall. After Labor Day it seems that most area boaters forget the Willamette exists. Most weekdays, until late in the afternoon, the river’s largely unoccupied… a boat here, a boat there but not much more than that. When the leaves begin to change color it’s one of the more unique boating experiences you’ll find. The same cruise from the Falls to St. Helens takes on an entirely different character and feel.

The Columbia’s also underutilized. With some of the best salmon fishing of the year on tap, the Columbia’s also belting out steady catches of smallmouth bass, walleye and sturgeon. Further upriver from Hood River to The Dalles summer steelhead fishing is in full swing and easy. Trolled plugs, like Brad’s Wiggler, in metallic red or purple set 75’ in back of the boat with nothing more than a plug clip attached to the lure is all that’s needed.

Steelhead typically crowd into the outflows of the many creeks and rivers that flow into the Columbia taking advantage of cooler, invigorating water. A favorite area is just below the mouth of the Deschutes. The crowds have also vacated all the popular summer spots like Detroit, Foster, Green Peter and North Fork Reservoirs along with Hagg Lake and most of the name Central Oregon Lakes like Paulina, East, Crane Prairie, Cultus, Lava and Billy Chinook.