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Destinations Steelhead Trout West Coast

Steelhead Fishing California Rivers

by John Nordstrand   |  October 19th, 2012 1

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 Smith—from just above Hiouchi to its mouth—offers 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, Trinity, Klamath, Mad (above), 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).

From the seaside town of Eureka, you can make forays to California’s best steelhead rivers—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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