Denis Peirce: Feather River steelhead on the Yuba |

Denis Peirce: Feather River steelhead on the Yuba

A steelhead is a migratory rainbow trout. They return to reproduce in freshwater rivers during the winter, then leave for other haunts in the spring. Some go to saltwater. Others stay in the Sacramento River system or the Delta. The Department of Fish & Wildlife’s definition of a steelhead is a trout in a river with ocean access, after it reaches 16 inches. Below that length it is considered a rainbow trout.

Fish scales have growth rings much like trees. Researchers, looking at growth rates of the rings, believe that dramatically larger rings in a local steelhead indicate a season in the ocean where the food is more plentiful. Narrow rings indicate a season in the Sacramento River system, where the food is not as abundant. Where these fish go and why is a question we do not have clear answers to. Suffice it to say that rainbow trout are wanderers and anywhere they can go, they will go. In any given month they can be from the Delta to Redding or Oroville.

Speculation I have heard is that these fish evolved into wanderers to survive the droughts that must have hit the Sierra over thousands of years. Those that ran to the ocean survived extreme droughts to reproduce. Those that stayed in drying Sierra rivers perished.

Our local steelhead river is the Lower Yuba, a tributary to the Feather River. These last two dry winters have produced good trout fishing on the Yuba. Winter floods can scour the river bottom, knocking down insect populations.

Tom Page, the owner of Reel Angler’s Fly Shop, has been guiding on the Yuba for decades and has seen many annual cycles. The last two seasons on the Yuba have been very good. There have been lots of well-fed fish. The average fish caught has been longer and thicker than previous years, indicating very good conditions in the Yuba.

Part of the trout food cycle on the Yuba is the return of the spawning salmon. The annual salmon returns have been in decline, culminating in a very poor return in 2020. That trend reversed for the salmon run of 2021. We had a tremendous increase in both the spring and fall runs. The most dramatic increase came after the atmospheric river dropped more than a foot of rain over a weekend. After that surge of water, even more salmon arrived. All of these spawning fish produced an excellent “egg bite” for anglers fishing the Yuba. The rainbow/steelhead feed recklessly when salmon eggs are on the menu.

The Lower Yuba has no hatchery. It is a wild fishery. There is a hatchery on the Feather River in Oroville. The steelhead it produces are marked by removing the adipose fin, that small nub between the dorsal fin and the tail. The other notable difference is size. A typical Yuba fish will be 12 to 16 inches, an 18 inch fish is a notable catch. The Feather River steelhead are from 18 up to 24 inches. A distinctly larger fish. It is rare to catch a hatchery steelhead on the Yuba. Tom Page estimates that there may be a half dozen taken annually, based on his customer comments and his guide trips on the river. This year that has changed. Based on Tom’s client’s success and angler reports, he estimates 40 to 50 Feather River steelhead have been caught and released on the Lower Yuba in just the last two weeks. This is the first time in his experience that such numbers have shown themselves on the Yuba.

Angler speculation attributes this to water and food conditions on the Yuba compared to the Feather. Lake Oroville gave up most of its water this past summer. Apparently there has been enough water available to keep the Yuba flowing well this fall. Whatever the reason, the Yuba has produced great fishing this year even before the influx of Feather River steelhead.

How long the good fishing will last depends on the winter weather and water flows. Heavy rains can knock out the fishing with high dirty water. The good news is that starting the first of December, the river above the Highway 20 bridge reopens to angling. This stretch of river closes to angling from Sept. 1 until the end of November to protect the spawning salmon. Maybe the best fishing of the fall is yet to come!

Denis Peirce writes a fishing column for The Union’s Outdoors section and is host of “The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report,” which airs 6-7 p.m. Fridays and 5-6 a.m. Saturdays on 830-AM radio. Contact him via his website at

Tom Page, left, with a guide client holding a Feather River-origin steelhead caught recently on the Lower Yuba. Note no adipose fin between the doral and the tail.
Photo by Tom Page

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