Denis Peirce: Steelhead on the Sacramento |

Denis Peirce: Steelhead on the Sacramento

Denis Peirce
A steelhead trout jumps in the holding pond at Coleman National Fish Hatchery. Steelhead are the anadromous, or ocean-going, form of rainbow trout found throughout the Sacramento River system and its tributaries.
Laura Mahoney/USFWS


For fly fishing guide trips I would recommend Red Bluff based Randy Hamann at

Access: the ideal way to fish the Sacramento is floating the river in a boat, if only to access multiple locations. For the bank angler the numerous boat launch ramps are good places to look for public access. The river is low now and you can walk the edges in many places. When the river is up, during the irrigation season or winter storms, shore access can be difficult.

Driving up I-5, the Jelly’s Ferry Road above Red Bluff led to many access points. The bridge over the river is out for the winter. Going up to Ball’s Ferry Road or Deschutes Road will lead you to good river access.

— Denis Peirce

If you ask local anglers about steelhead fishing you will hear about the Yuba and Feather rivers. You might also hear about the Trinity and the Klamath rivers in the far north part of the state.

What you don’t often hear about is the Sacramento River.

The Sacramento in the Redding area is famous for its trout fishing. The length of the river is known as a salmon fishery but the steelhead fishing has not been a focus for anglers.

When Shasta Dam was built, a hatchery was planned to supplement the loss of spawning habitat above the lake. The Coleman Fish Hatchery near Red Bluff was built on Battle Creek in 1942. The advantage to Battle Creek is that it flows from Mount Lassen providing cold water year round for the facility.

Steelhead are a rainbow trout that has migrated to the salt. During the 1990s steelhead returns to the Coleman Hatchery were poor. These fish in the Sacramento River were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1998.

Since that era, hatchery returns for steelhead have been improving. Each year the fish begin arriving in October and a decade ago a couple hundred arriving in that month was typical with an increasing number each month with the last of the fish arriving in January.

In the last decade the season of 2014-2015 was considered a banner year with more than 3,600 adults returning. Compare this with the Feather River Hatchery which has had returns as low as 87 to a high of 1,731 in the last 10 years. The steelhead production goal for Coleman is 600,000 juveniles and for the Feather River facility is 400,000 per year.

Then came the 2017-2018 season at the Coleman Hatchery. Instead of hundreds of fish returning per month, these were the numbers for a week. At times 1,000 fish returned per week. In total more than 10,000 steelhead returned, an unprecedented number. The hatchery had to put on extra staff to handle the increased work load.

In trying to explain the incredible return, the two consecutive wet years of 2016 and 2017 surely played a role. But another factor was the river conditions in January 2016 when a series of winter storms coincided with the release of the 6- to 8-inch juveniles from the hatchery. The storms raised the Sacramento River and turned the water brown with silt. These are ideal conditions to move the fish quickly down river and give them cover from predators. The survival rate was excellent. Just add water and you will get more fish!

First choice?

The Coleman Hatchery is a federal facility managed by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service. The Feather River Hatchery is a state facility and they have some different ways of dealing with steelhead.

In the state hatchery once the steelhead are spawned in January, the males are immediately returned to the river below the hatchery and the females are trucked down river. Some females are placed into the high flow zone below the Afterbay Hole and the rest are trucked to Verona where the Feather and Sacramento rivers join. At the Coleman Hatchery the post spawn steelhead are placed into a recovery pond and fed until late March or early April. Then they are trucked to the Bend Boat Launch nearby on the Sacramento River.

This year is on track to be another great year. As of early December 2018, there are an estimated 5,000 steelhead that have arrived at the Coleman Hatchery with more coming.

The practical application for this information is that the best steelhead river that we can access for a day trip may be the Sacramento.

The steelhead run into the hatchery beginning in late September and continue to arrive well into January. The majority of the Sacramento River trout fishing takes place above the mouth of Battle Creek, from Anderson up to Redding. But the steelhead fishing from Battle Creek down through Red Bluff, Los Molinos to Corning can be quite good.

Any time during the steelhead run, Red Bluff up to Battle Creek would be my first choice.

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

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