Steelhead time on North Coast |

Steelhead time on North Coast

I divide California steelhead fishing into three regions, the Sacramento Valley, Klamath/Trinity and the north coast rivers.

The north coast is the hardest region to predict good fishing conditions. The rivers do not have enough flow to attract runs of fish until the rainy season gets well underway. Once the ground becomes saturated, the rivers get “blown out” with mud and silt with every rain storm.

The ideal conditions occur intermittently from late December through March when the storm track shifts and the rains stop for days or weeks. Each drainage has its own schedule for clearing. The Smith River at the top of the state clears the fastest and can fish well after a couple of dry days.

The worst case is the Russian River about 50 miles north of the Golden Gate. It often takes up to two weeks for it to come back into shape.

The majority of the steelhead return to these rivers in January. By mid-March the fish have spawned and the available fish are “downstreamers”. January is the prime month but the prime time is any window of opportunity that presents itself.

The series of storms we had between Christmas and the second week of January flushed the rivers and brought good numbers of fish into all of the north coast water courses. The wild card in the mix was the low snow levels of the final storms that locked up the moisture above 2,500 feet in elevation as snow. This allowed the rivers to come back into fishable condition very rapidly. Late last week the Smith was in perfect shape and fishing well. By the weekend it was getting down to low water conditions and fishing was getting tougher.

The Mad River near Arcata, has a reputation for getting dirty fast and clearing slow. The low snow levels had the Mad showing one foot of visibility last Wednesday and three feet by Saturday, about a week ahead of normal. The wild card showed up in the form of warm air temps. It started melting the snow and the river again blew out without significant rainfall by Sunday afternoon. Cold air or time will clear it again. Two feet of visibility or more are good fishable conditions.

The lower Russian River is still running the color of chocolate milk. The flows are falling and the upper reaches are beginning to clear. By the end of this week the river will be fishable – if we don’t get any rain. North of the Russian, the Gualala and the Garcia rivers have already come into shape.

Every year we get a stretch of clear weather during January or February in the northern part of the state. We are in one right now. These are the type of conditions that make steelhead fishing worth the travel. My suggestion is that you not commit to fish a particular river, but to fish the north coast as a region.

It takes a day to get there, which is enough time for conditions to change. Being prepared to pack up and drive an hour or two, can make the difference between good fishing or a skunk. The Smith River is only an hour from Grant’s Pass and the Rogue River in Oregon, for example.

Is this the only clear weather stretch of January and February – or is it the first?

The only guarantee is that the weather will change.


Denis Peirce writes a weekly fishing column for The Union 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. He may be reached via e-mail at

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User