Coastal rivers await steelhead

Mike Phillips of New Jersey holds a 35-pound king he caught Nov. 30 on the Chetco River while fishing with his son, guide Rye Phillips. The salmon hit a 5.0 MagLip. Photo courtesy of Rye Phillips

With very little rain over the past week and the rivers on the drop, the end is likely in sight for the late, fall-run salmon season on the North Coast. The season has been somewhat of a disappointment to fishermen as only a couple major storms hit the coast and dropped enough rain to bring the Smith and Chetco up to ideal levels. While the fishing window was very small, that doesn’t necessarily mean the number of returning salmon was small. Even during the low water conditions, salmon were seen making their way upriver on all of our coastal streams. Typically, the season’s first big rains come in October, leaving us a good four to five-week window to fish. That hasn’t been the case the last couple of years as the salmon didn’t bother to wait for us, or the strong flows to get them to their end destinations.

On the flip side — with the calendar now saying it’s December — expect the winter steelhead to start showing in numbers in the rivers. The Chetco has seen quite a few adults make their way in and the Smith steelhead should be right behind them. But don’t give up entirely on salmon just yet. The Smith, Chetco and the Eel should each see another spurt or two of fresh kings move in on the next substantial river rise.

Weather ahead
The next round of storms should arrive by mid-day Sunday according to Matthew Kidwell of Eureka’s National Weather Service. “The bulk of the system should move into the area on Sunday afternoon and will linger into Monday. We could see up to an inch and a half in the Smith basin and up to an inch here locally. We’ll have a break beginning on Monday afternoon, with the next system forecasted to arrive Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. There’s quite a bit of uncertainty with this one, but we could potentially see one to two inches. We’ll get another short break on Thursday, with the next system predicted for later in the week or by the weekend,” said Kidwell.

Humboldt Bay crabbing
Sport Crabbing inside Humboldt Bay has improved according to Justin Kelly of RMI Outdoors in Eureka. He said, “I’ve been hearing that the fishing has improved.The best spots have been between the Coast Guard station and the entrance. The medium-sized crabs are in really good shape, while the jumbos are still a little light, but improving. Squid and chicken seem to be the bait of choice,”Kelly added. Typically crabbing is best an hour and a half on both sides of the slack tide.

Commercial Dungeness crab season to open in Sonoma County
The commercial Dungeness crab fishery from Bodega Head, Sonoma County north to the Sonoma/Mendocino county line will open this Saturday according to a press release issued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). The area from the southern boundary of Bodega Head State Marine Reserve, Sonoma County (38° 18′ N.latitude) north to the Sonoma/Mendocino county line (38° 46.125′ N. latitude)was closed due to elevated levels of domoic acid. The fishery will open at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8, to be preceded by an 18-hour gear setting period that would begin no earlier than 6:01 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 7. No vessel may take crab within a delayed area during the closure period. In addition, any vessel that has landed crab from ocean waters outside of this delayed area is prohibited from taking, possessing on board, or landing Dungeness crab in this area until Jan. 7, 2019 pursuant to Section 8279.1 of the Fish and Game Code.

The northern California commercial Dungeness crab fishery in Fish and Game Districts 6, 7, 8 and 9 (Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties) remains closed until 12:01 a.m. December 16, due to poor crab meat quality tests. If the next round of test results indicate good quality, the fishery will open and be preceded by a 64-hour gear setting period. For more information, visit

River closures
The South Fork Eel, Van Duzen, Mad and Redwood Creek will all be closed to fishing beginning Thursday morning, Dec. 6 due to low flows. Be sure and call the low flow closure hotline, 707 822-3164, to determine if the river is open prior to fishing.

“Salmon fishing has been slow on the Chetco the past week, although there seems to be one boat that gets hot each day and gets a couple of fish,” said Andy Martin of Wild Rivers Fishing. “The water is higher than the gauge indicates, and that has played somewhat of a role in the success. The river is still high. More steelhead have been caught the past week, both from drift boats and the bank anglers plunking Spin-N-Glos. Expect to see more steelhead after this week’s rain. Salmon are currently spawning in the upper river.”

The Elk and Sixes have been hit or miss, with a few nice fish being caught early this week reports Martin. “Overall, fishing has been slow this fall on the two rivers, following a similar pattern for all the north-migrating rivers. The Elk is the southernmost river where the salmon migrate to Alaska, and all of the north-migrating rivers have had fairly poor returns this fall,” added Martin.

“It’s transition time for the Smith River as the majority of the salmon have moved upriver and we’re now waiting for the steelhead to show,” said Mike Coopman of Mike Coopman’s Guide Service. “The river has been low this week, and the fishing pressure has been light. From what I’m hearing, there aren’t many salmon around, especially bright ones. It looks like the majority of the fish came through on the rise that we had around Thanksgiving. I heard good reports of fish making it to some of the creeks, and I’ve also seen quite a few main stem spawners. It was definitely a short fishing window, but that not a reflection on the potential run size.Now is typically when we see the steelhead start to show, and I’ve heard there’s some small ones around. We have a decent rise coming late this weekend,so hopefully the first wave of steelhead will begin to show.”

Main stem Eel
The main stem is turning green and was fishable on Wednesday reports Paul Grundmans of Grundmans Sporting Goods in Rio Dell. He said, “We may see a few fresh salmon coming in,but the majority likely moved upriver during the higher flows. We’ve got some pretty big tides happening, so we should see the first of the winter steelhead start to make their way in,” Grundman added.  The flows were just below 1,900 cfs on the Scotia gauge on Wednesday afternoon and predicted to be around 1,000 cfs by Saturday.

Upper Trinity
It has been an up-and-down week on the upper Trinity reports guide Steve Huber. He said, “Deadwood Creek, which was heavily affected by the Carr Fire, has pushed quite a bit of mud into the river. Most of the creeks have all started to flow due to the recent rainfall.  We’ve finally started to see some new fish pushing into the upper river, which should be the start of the winter steelhead run. The Junction City area is clearing quicker due to the clean water coming from the creeks, and that’s where most of the fishing pressure has been. All methods seem to be working, both bait and fly fisherman are seeing good results. Most of these fish from here on out will be wild fish. More storms and weather coming in this week, so I’d expect to see good fishing.” 

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