Steelhead Fishing California Rivers

Steelhead Fishing California Rivers

"Eureka!" The word was supposedly first exclaimed by the Greek mathematician Archimedes when he discovered a way to determine the purity of gold by applying the principle of specific gravity. Many steelhead fishermen have uttered the same word upon entering California's city of Eureka, an alluring coastal community filled with antique stores, free-spirited Humboldt State University students, redwood loggers, and commercial fishermen. For feverish anglers, Eureka means winsome motels and cafes manned by friendly locals who are ready to welcome fly fishers looking for the best steelhead fishing in the state.


Just 90 miles south of the Oregon border and 275 miles north of San Francisco, this seaside city is the main hub for fall and winter fishing on the famed steelhead and salmon waters of California's Six Rivers National Forest. The six rivers include the Smith, Klamath, Trinity, Mad, Eel, and Van Duzen. They flow out of the Coast Range, a range of scabrous mountains covered with Douglas fir, pine, hemlock, and alder, to a coast decorated with crags, rough surf, tidal lagoons, and steelhead rivers bordered by giant redwoods.

The best time to fish these rivers is from January through March, after awinter freshet, when the rivers are dropping and clearing. But before you make a long drive to the area, call the California Department of Fish and Game's Low-flow Information Line, (707) 442-4502, for river closures due to low flows. Also, because of logging in the area, the rivers can blow out quickly after a storm, so you should check with a local fly shop before traveling.

 
Graphic: David Deis

The Six Rivers

The Smith River, a little more than an hour by car from Eureka, is California's only major river without dams. It's truly an unspoiled, effusive water that looks like liquid jade rolling over a granite floor. Smith River Chinook and steelhead are the state's biggest, and though the Smith drainage does have a few hatchery fish, Smith River devotees fish hard for trophy wild Chinook and steelhead. Most of the fly fishing for Chinooks is done in the river's tidewater and lower pools from October through December. The Smith's steelhead fishing is a challenge, but many anglers accept it when the steelhead run strong from January through March.


A short distance south of the Smith, the Klamath River is well known for its beautiful canyons and runs of Chinook salmon, silver salmon, steelhead, and a few sea-run cutthroat. The Klamath is now a popular destination for its "half-pounder" steelhead in late summer and early fall.

Half-pounders are sexually immature steelhead of about 13 to 18 inches (up to about 21/2 pounds) that spend a short time in the ocean and then return early to their natal streams. They are bright, thick, and incredibly feisty when hooked on 5- and 6-weight rods. On good days, they can be plentiful, and many half-pounders will outfight adult Klamath River fish (3 to 7 pounds) caught in the same runs.

The Trinity River is the Klamath's major tributary. It originates southwest of the Siskiyou Mountains in the Trinity Alps, then winds north to meet the Klamath. Though the Trinity also has a strong run of half-pounders, it receives most of the Klamath system's largest adult fish. It also has runs of Chinook and silver salmon and a few resident and sea-run brown trout. It fishes well from about September through March, and because it has excellent roadside access to ideal fly-fishing runs, it is known as California's "gentleman's stream."


Ten minutes north of Eureka, you'll find the Mad River, a small coastal stream that retains a meandering beauty despite being the victim of extensive logging. Though this river retains few wild fish due to massive habitat loss, a successful hatchery program in winter packs the stream with Chinook salmon and large steelhead that average about 12 pounds. Large fish runs means you can find fish during all but the muddiest of conditions.

South of Eureka, you'll find the Eel River and its tributary, the Van Duzen. The Eel is the birthplace of fly fishing for Chinook salmon and steelhead. It is also the motivation for great fly patternsthe Fall Favorite, Optic, and Thorand the testing grounds for shooting-tapers and distance casts. The mainstem and Middle Fork of the Eel hold wild and hatchery Chinook salmon, silver salmon, and steelhead. The Van Duzen is also home to good runs of salmon and steelhead. The South Fork of the Eelits headwaters are over 100 miles south of Eurekaonly has runs of wild Chinook salmon and steelhead.

Eureka-area steelhead, like this 11-pound hen from the Eel River, take a variety of flies, including Brindle Bugs and Comets (above). Photo: John Nordstrand

Gear and Techniques

When planning a trip to Eureka, you must be prepared for varied conditions, because the waters in the Six Rivers National Forest are incredibly diverse and subject to change as the weather changes. During a single weekend of fishing, you can go from using floating lines to present small flies to steelhead and browns (16 inches to 10 pounds) on the Trinity to using sinking-tips to swing large, colorful flies in front of large Chinooks and steelhead in the Smith or Eel rivers. The effects of continued logging over the last century cause many of the rivers to blow out with even moderate rains. This requires anglers to hop from one water to anothersometimes more than once in a dayto find good conditions.

Since most of the fly fishing in the Six Rivers area is for steelhead, the following basic checklist of equipment and techniques focuses on these fish, but I've also provided a few comments on gearing up for Chinooks.

You should bring at least two rods, a 5- or 6-weight and an 8-weight. The lighter rod is good for the Klamath and Trinity, because it won't overpower the half-pounders and can handle the medium-size (4 to 8 pounds) adult steelhead in both rivers easily. It is also perfect for presenting the small (#6-#10) flies most anglers use on the Klamath system.

The heavier 8-weight rod (91/2-foot recommended) is ideal for fishing the heavier waters of the Smith, Mad, and Eel, where you can chase fall Chinooks in the lower pools and tidewater, or hurl heavy sinking-tips and large flies to winter steelhead in the upper waters. Rods should have the power to land a large Chinook (up to 60 pounds possible).

Salmon and steelhead fly fishing requires a lot of casting, so you need a rod that you can use all day without tiring. Because thick willows and alders surround many of the best steelhead runs in northern California, the rod must roll cast well. Most steelheaders prefer rods of nine feet or longer with a medium to medium-fast action because these offer the best line control, roll casting, and mending capabilitiesall of which are critical to presenting the fly successfully.

Eureka-area steelhead, like this 11-pound hen from the Eel River, take a variety of flies, including Brindle Bugs (above) and Comets. Photo: John Nordstrand

Contrary to popular belief, high-priced reels with hi-tech drags are not necessary for successful salmon and steelhead fishing. Choose a sturdy, well-made reel that can hold your line plus at least 150 yards of fresh 20- or 30-pound-test backing. The reel should also have a drag that gives out line smoothly and won't overrun when a fish takes your line for a long run. Don't buy a cheap reel. You may lose the fish of the seasonor a lifetimeif it binds, overruns, or blows up during a long battle. Large-arbor reels are not necessary.

The most important equipment to carry is a complete selection of fly lines, because in one day you may have to change from fishing small flies on floating lines to swinging large, gaudy patterns on high-density sinking-tips to catch fish. Carry at least the following lines for each rod: a weight-forward floating line, medium (Type II) and extra-fast (Type IV to V) sinking-tips, and a high-density Teeny-type line or shooting-taper. Other good lines include clear intermediate or clear-tip lines and lead-core shooting-tapers.

Assassin Originator: Dale Lackey TAIL: Lime-green Krystal Flash. BODY: Lime-green or olive (light or dark) Sparkle Chenille. HACKLE: Brown saddle hackle palmered forward. COLLAR: Long brown saddle hackle. OPTIONS: Tie it with a Krystal Flash wing. Rib it with gold tinsel. NOTE: The original Assassin was tied with a body of dark olive dubbing, a rib of oval gold tinsel, a brown saddle hackle palmered forward, and a wing of about eight strands of lime-green Krystal Flash. Photo: John Nordstrand

You can carry different lines on different reels or spare spools, or you can use a running line and interchangeable tips, which are available from several companies. You can also make your own tips of various densities and lengths. The tips attach to the floating running line with a loop-to-loop connection for easy changes. If you carry tips of various densities, you can cover most depths.

Attach a 25- or 30-pound-test leader butt section to the end of your fly lines. Use a quality leader and tippet material (don't mix brands) and check it often for nicks, abrasions, and wind knots that cause weak spots. If the material is damaged, replace it. The six rivers and their different water conditions require different leader lengths, tippet strengths, and fly selections; I'll address these below.

Breathable waders (I prefer Gore-Tex) can make warm days on the Klamath or Trinity rivers more comfortable, but in late fall and winter, you should prepare for cold, damp weather. Use at least 3mm neoprene waders; 5mm boot-foot neoprene waders are available at reasonable prices. Warm neoprene waders have saved many a frigid day on the Smith and Eel rivers.

During cold weather, it is critical to dress in layers. Start with a wader undergarment and a shirt of polypropylene or a similar product that wicks perspiration away from your body (legs and torso), then add a long-sleeved shirt, sweater, or fleece jacket and your waders. Carry a quality rain jacket.

Three Techniques

There are three basic fly-fishing techniques used to catch steelhead and salmon in the Six Rivers area. I'll describe each technique briefly here, then match the technique to specific waters in the "Fishing the Rivers" section below. [For illustrated details on how to use each technique, see a companion article on the Virtual Flyshop, www.flyshop.com. The Editor.]

Cast-and-retrieve Technique. Use it in the stillwaters of estuaries and lower tidewater pools for large early steelhead and fall salmon.

Continued - click on page link below.

Steelhead Greased-line Presentation. This variation of the original greased-line presentation first developed for Atlantic-salmon fishing is used for steelhead in late fall and early winter, when water temperatures are above 45 degrees. Use this floating-line technique in traditional steelhead runs. If the water temperature is below 45 degrees, use sinking lines.

Wet-fly swing. Use this variation of the traditional greased-line presentation on cold winter days when water temperatures are below 45 degrees and the steelhead are lethargic. The wet-fly swing presents the fly slowly and deeply with a tight sinking-tip line.

Fishing the Rivers

From the seaside town of Eureka, you can make forays to California’s best steelhead rivers—the Eel (above), Trinity, Klamath, Mad, Smith, and Van Duzen. On the Trinity, impressive hatches of Callibaetis and adult stoneflies produce dry-fly fishing for steelhead and brown trout. John Nordstrand photos.

Eel River

The Eel River, the southernmost river in the Six Rivers National Forest, has excellent glides and runs for fly fishing. Fish it from the headwaters of the South Fork, just below Rattlesnake Creek, through the Forks, where it joins the mainstem Eel, all the way to its mouth. During wet years, the mainstem Eel can be blown out most of the winter. When it's fishable, it can become crowded with drift boats. You can also fish the mainstem from the Forks upstream to Cape Horn Dam under seasonal, catch-and-release, and artificial-lure regulations.

Near the mouth of the Eel, in the towns of Loleta, Fernbridge, and Fortuna, you can find some of the best runs to intercept Chinook salmon (12 to 30 pounds) and early steelhead (8 to 12 pounds) in late fall and early winter. These are slow-moving and stillwaters that are easily accessible. Fish them with the stripping technique and an 8-weight rod. Use California's classic steelhead and salmon patterns, such as Bosses, Comets, and Chihuahuas (#8-#12). When water conditions are murky, use standard ties: Thors, Fall Favorites, Eel River Specials, and Hiltons (#6-#10).

Start with medium sinking lines and 9- to 12-foot leaders, tapered to 8-pound-test tippets. When the fish are spooky (clear water), use 14-foot leaders and 6-pound-test tippets, but remember they may not hold the giants that prowl these pools.

Use the wet-fly swing in the riffles and glides of the main stem and South Fork of the Eel. Check local fishing stores, maps, and books (California Steelhead, by Jim Freeman, Chronicle Books, 1984) to locate the best fly-fishing runs. The mainstem Eel has numerous excellent fly-fishing riffles that can be seen and reached from Highway 101 and the Avenue of the Giants. Highway 101 also provides access to many excellent runs on the South Fork Eel.

When the rivers are dropping after a winter freshet, use a wet-fly swing with medium to extra-fast sinking-tips and an 8-weight rod. Use short leaders (3 to 6 feet, tapered to 8- or 10-pound-test tippets) and swing the fly slow and deep.

In these conditions, I use large (#4-#1/0) flies to coax the challenging steelhead into a take. Try marabous, Green-Butt Skunks, black leeches, Fall Favorites, and Silver Hiltons.

As the rivers clear further, use lighter sinking-tips, and when conditions become ideal, a floating line can be effective.

Some fly fishers nymph these rivers successfully, using strike indicators and weighted flies like Golden Stones, Brindle Bugs, and Burlaps.

Van Duzen River

The Van Duzen has a good steelhead run but the water is difficult to reach. It is similar to the South Fork of the Eel and requires the same techniques. It is not a popular destination, but locals fish it regularly.

Smith River

Each fall a loyal group of Smith River regulars pack their campers and tow their prams and drift boats to the lower tidewater pools. They are a sober bunch, obsessed with catching the river's giant Chinook salmon. If you want to join them, enter the lineups cautiously, learn the rhythm of casting in tight quarters with other anglers, and be prepared with at least 8-weight rods and a range of flies and lines.

From December through March, the mainstem Smithfrom just above Hiouchi to its mouthoffers beguiling glides and riffles tailored for traditional steelhead fly fishing. Hooking a steelhead in these waters is one of California's most challenging tasks. The fast, deep waters of these runs require 8-weight rods, high-density sinking-tips, and big (#6-#1/0) flies. The Eel River wet-fly swing setup with short 3- to 6-foot leaders tapered to 10- or 12-pound-test tippets also works on the Smith. Anglers who prefer heavier rods, or who enjoy casting two-handers, can use them on the Smith.

During rare low-water conditions, some runs can be covered with a dry line, but it's best to stick with sinking-tips. The Smith is cold and has lots of fishing pressure, so the fish usually hold tight in one place. Leave the deep pools for the traditional gear anglers, and fish the riffles, glides, and tailouts, where steelhead are more receptive to the fly.

Only the lowest mile of the North Fork of the Smith is open to fishing, but the Middle and South forks offer unbelievable scenery and attractive riffles and glides. Highway 199 borders the Middle Fork (open to fishing from Patrick Creek to the mainstem), which has a decent push of winter steelhead and a few classic fly-fishing runs. Though road access is limited, the South Fork is the least-fished tributary. It has a strong winter steelhead run and excellent pools for fishing traditional swings, as well as ideal runs for nymphing with indicators and weighted egg, stonefly, and nymph patterns.

The key to fishing the Smith is to watch the flows. The Smith's daily flow rates are available at (707) 458-3659 (sounds like a fax machine, but eventually a recorded voice gives the flow rate). Fish the Middle and South forks when the river level is less than 11 feet. Above this level, you'll do better on the lower mainstem unless the river goes above about 18 river feet. Like all North Coast rivers, the Smith is also subject to low-flow closures.

From the seaside town of Eureka, you can make forays to California’s best steelhead rivers—the Eel (above), Trinity, Klamath, Mad, Smith, and Van Duzen. On the Trinity, impressive hatches of Callibaetis and adult stoneflies produce dry-fly fishing for steelhead and brown trout. John Nordstrand photos.

Mad River

On days when the challenges of the Eel or the Smith become a bit discouraging, or when heavy rains make those rivers too turbid to fish, try the Mad River. During salmon and steelhead season, the Mad River is open from the County Road bridge at Maple Creek to 200 yards above its mouth, but most anglers congregate in the riffles and runs below the Mad River Hatchery in the town of Blue Lake. A frontage road provides access to most of this water.

A successful hatchery program packs the Mad River with steelhead during the peak months of January and February. It is not the pristine wilderness experience offered by the Eel or Smith. The river can be crowded with anglers looking to catch hatchery fish, but it offers a place to land a few steelhead when conditions are unfavorable elsewhere.

Conditions on the Mad vary from low and clear to turbid brown, but amazingly, the river remains fishable most days. During low and clear conditions, fish the riffles and pools with popular steelhead patterns (#6-#10).

Since excessive logging in the area causes the Mad to run muddy most of the winter, fly fishers usually use 8-weight or larger rods to swing large black, orange, or chartreuse flies on high-density or lead-core sinking lines. Use a wet-fly swing with extra mends to put the flies in front of steelhead that hold close to bottom.

Klamath River

If you want a kind and gentle version of steelheading, try the Klamath and Trinity rivers. Steelhead fishing on the Klamath begins with the search for half-pounders in the river's lower reaches from about Klamath Glen to Weitchpec. This is jet-boat territory, so you will need a guide or a boat.

From the seaside town of Eureka, you can make forays to California’s best steelhead rivers—the Eel, Trinity, Klamath (above), Mad, Smith, and Van Duzen. On the Trinity, impressive hatches of Callibaetis and adult stoneflies produce dry-fly fishing for steelhead and brown trout. John Nordstrand photos.

During early fall, Klamath water temperatures are moderate (well above 45 degrees), so you can use a 5- or 6-weight rod, a floating line, and a box of #6-#8 Assassins, Mossbacks, Brindle Bugs, Herniators, and Limeys. Leaders of about 9 feet tapered to 8-pound-test tippets are perfect for presenting these flies with a steelhead greased-line technique to half-pounders and the occasional adult fish (3 to 7 pounds). These steelhead sometimes follow flies to the surface, so be ready for decisive last-second strikes and lots of action.

Later in the season, find the fish in the Klamath's central reaches up to below Iron Gate in the upper river. This section of river has good streamside access from Highway 96, and many of the best steelhead runs are shown on river maps or in California Steelhead.

In November, when the weather cools, water temperatures drop to below 45 degrees F., and more adult steelhead enter the drainage. Then it's time to switch to sinking-tips and traditional wet-fly swings. When winter rains color the Klamath, use colorful patterns like Chappies, Comets, and Thors (#4-#8).

The Eel, Trinity (above), Klamath, Mad, Smith, and Van Duzen. On the Trinity, impressive hatches of Callibaetis and adult stoneflies produce dry-fly fishing for steelhead and brown trout. John Nordstrand photos.

Trinity River

The Trinity River is the Klamath's main tributary and it has the system's biggest steelhead (4 to 10 pounds). Use the same 5- or 6-weight outfit as recommended for the Klamath. Begin fishing the river as early as late September, when half-pounders and a few adults first show in the Weitchpec and Willow Creek areas of the lower river, where access is good. By mid-October, a few adult fish arrive in the upper waters near Lewiston.

During warmer fall months, fish Hiltons, Golden Stones, Muddlers, Brindle Bugs, and Chappies on a dry line. In November and continuing through March, use sinking-tips to taunt fish that hold in the slower, colder water. From January through March, the Trinity has impressive hatches of Callibaetis and adult stoneflies, which can produce excellent floating-line dry-fly fishing for steelhead and brown trout.

Highway 299 provides excellent roadside access to the river from Del Loma to Lewiston. There are several National Park access areas and campgrounds or day-use facilities along the river.

Downtown Eureka is centrally-located to the area's best fishing. Photo: John Nordstrand

Resources and Accommodations

Check the river conditions and fishing regulations before visiting Eureka and its six great rivers. Each river has unique seasons and regulations and some have complicated rules that apply to certain sections of water. For example, it is unlawful to kill wild steelhead on any California river except the Smith; and the Eel, Mad, Smith, and Van Duzen are all subject to low-flow closures.

A guide can help you tackle the challenges of fly fishing for salmon and steelhead in the Eureka area. The Eureka Fly Shop, (707) 444-2000, provides guide services for the Eel, Van Duzen, Mad, Klamath, and Smith rivers, and it carries all the necessary equipment for these waters. Tim Bermingham, (209) 984-4007, is one of few independent guides who specializes in fly fishing the Smith River. David DeMoss at Dave's Guide Service, (530) 623-3150, and the Trinity Fly Shop, (530) 623-6757, both offer guide services on the upper Trinity River.

Eureka is central to all the rivers I've mentioned. It is closest to the Eel, Van Duzen, and Mad. The city offers a range of accommodations, from inexpensive motor lodges to fancier hotels, and a broad choice of restaurants. For details, call the Eureka Chamber of Commerce, (707) 442-3738.

The town of Garberville, about an hour south of Eureka and adjacent to the South Fork of the Eel River, has several motels and restaurants.

Crescent City, just minutes from the Smith, has plenty of restaurants and lodging options.

Klamath Glen, near the lower Klamath, has the Steelhead Lodge, (707) 482-8145, and Peggy's Palace of Pleasure, (707) 482-7905.

The cities of Willow Creek, Weaverville, and Lewiston have motels and restaurants near the Trinity. In Weaverville, you can stay at the Weaverville Hotel, (916) 623-3121, and walk to good restuaraunts, including the La Grange Cafe.

John Nordstrand is an outdoor photographer who specializes in fly fishing. He lives in Santa Barbara, California. Steelhead Fishing California Rivers

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