Winter steelhead season set to take off

Ruben Rios Jr., of McKinleyville landed an early-season winter steelhead while fishing the Mad River on Saturday. The coastal winter steelhead season should be in full swing following the latest round of storms. Photo courtesy of Sage Romberg

For North Coast river anglers, the past couple weeks were spent waiting on the rain – as well as the arrival of the winter steelhead. Well, we now have both. The latest storms delivered a much more powerful punch than predicted, especially to the Smith and Chetco. Both rivers peaked at well over 20,000 cfs, and got the flushing they badly needed. Here in Humboldt, all of the rivers rose to their highest levels of the winter. And plenty more is on the way. The storms predicted for Sunday and Monday are looking like good ones. While not a ton of angling activity has taken place this past week, there are some good signs. A few adult steelhead were landed on the Mad over the weekend before it blew out. A few also showed up at the hatchery. There’s been a handful of steelhead caught on the main stem Eel, so there’s surely fish making their way up the Duzen and the South Fork Eel by now. Quite a few fresh steelies also made their way to the Rowdy Creek hatchery on the Smith. All signs point towards a good start to the winter steelhead season, all it will take is a few rainless days and we’ll know for sure.

Weather ahead
“More rain is on the way, with a couple pretty good systems bearing down on the North Coast,” said Kathleen Zontos of Eureka’s National Weather Service. “The first system will arrive early Thursday evening and is forecasted to leave some decent rainfall totals in it’s wake. The Smith basin should see from three-quarters up to an inch and a quarter. The hills could see up to an inch and a half. Locally, the Eel and Mad basins could see a half-inch up to an inch and a quarter. Friday and Saturday are looking mostly dry, with the next system forecasted to arrive on Sunday afternoon. This storm, which could linger through Tuesday, will pack a pretty good punch. The Smith basin could see three to four inches, and the Eel, Mad basins could see up to two inches,” said Zontos. More rain is forecasted for Wednesday and Thursday, but the amounts are uncertain according to Zontos.

Humboldt Bay Entrance Safety Zone established
In a recent press release, the Coast Guard established a safety zone in the navigable waters of the Humboldt Bay Entrance Channel to promote the navigational safety of all vessels near Humboldt Bay, when extreme environmental conditions are present. The safety zone will run through March 31, 2019. The safety zone prohibits vessels from transiting the Humboldt Bay Entrance Channel as a result of extreme environmental conditions.

During times of extreme environmental conditions, the temporary safety zone applies to the navigable waters of the Humboldt Bay Bar Channel and the Humboldt Bay Entrance Channel, of Humboldt Bay. This safety zone is effective from the time of promulgation through March 31, 2019; this safety zone will be enforced when on-scene conditions reach 20 feet breaking seas or as the Captain of the Port determines that the on scene environmental conditions are hazardous and unsafe for vessel transits, as announced via Broadcast Notice to Mariners. During times of enforcement, all vessels are prohibited from transiting through or remaining in the safety zone.

Any vessel requesting permission to transit the safety zone during times of enforcement shall contact Station Humboldt Bay on VHF-FM channel 16 or at 707- 443-2213 between 6:30 a.m. and 10 p.m., or to Sector Humboldt Bay on VHF-FM channel 16 or at 707-839-6113 between 10 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.
For more information on boating safety and required and recommended safety equipment, please visit For more information on weather conditions, please visit

2019 Fishing license
A reminder that it’s the time of the year to purchase your 2019 sport fishing license, which is required for residents 16 years of age or older to take fish, mollusks, crustaceans, invertebrates, amphibians or reptile in inland or ocean waters. The cost of a new resident sport fishing license is $49.94. A North Coast salmon report card, which will run you $6.74, is required for all anglers taking salmon in the Smith River System or Klamath-Trinity River System. If you plan to fish for steelhead, you’ll need to purchase a steelhead report card, which will cost $7.56 this year. The Dept. of Fish and Wildlife does not accept cash for fishing licenses. For more info, visit

Reduced-Fee sport fishing licenses available
Reduced-cost fishing licenses are available in 2019 for $7.47 (instead of $49.94) for those 65 or older on reduced income or disabled military veterans. For more information on all CA fishing licenses, visit–reduced-fee

Mattole River opens to fishing Jan. 1
The Mattole River will open to fishing on Tuesday, January 1 from 200 yards upstream of its mouth to the confluence with Stansberry Creek. Only artificial lures may be used and barbless hooks are required. The Mattole is also regulated by low flow closures, with a minimum flow of 320 cfs at the Petrolia gauging station.

Mad River Hatchery ladder open
The water running down the ladder to the river was turned on Sunday and a few fish had already made their way up as of Wednesday. The hatchery hopes to begin spawning on Wednesday, Jan. 2 and then each following Tuesday.

The Rivers:
For the first time this season, the Chetco reached the top of its banks and completely blew out on Tuesday, hitting 20,000 cfs at the Ice Box gauge reports Andy Martin of Wild Rivers Fishing. “A steady stream of logs and trees flowed into the ocean. The forecast shows there is an outside chance the river will fish for drift boaters by Saturday. It could be fishable for plunkers as early as Thursday or Friday. To side-drift, it needs to drop below 5,000 cfs. There should be some steelhead in the river when it comes into shape,” added Martin.

The Elk and Sixes also blew out big time according to Martin. He said, “The Elk reached 8.9 feet Tuesday afternoon, up from 4 feet the day before. The Sixes went completely over its banks. The Elk will be fishable by the weekend. The Sixes may be out for the rest of the salmon season, which runs through December. The Elk will remain open to salmon fishing in January.”

Smith River
The Smith exceeded monitor stage on Tuesday, but was quickly dropping as of  Wednesday. According to Mike Coopman of Mike Coopman’s Guide Service, the color looked good, but it was big. He said, “This is the blowout we needed, the river should have really cleaned up. There haven’t been many boats out due to the weather and flows, but I did hear some fresh steelhead made it to the hatchery. Once the flows drop to fishable levels, I expect there to be plenty of fish in the river.” Flows are looking good for the weekend, but another rise is predicted for late Sunday.

Main stem Eel
Flows peaked at nearly 15,000 cfs on Monday night and looks to be blown out for some time. There were a few adults around as well as half-pounders. This latest rise should have brought the first big batch of adult winter steelhead into the system.

South Fork Eel
The South Fork topped out at 6,500 cfs on Wednesday morning. Another smaller rise is predicted for Friday, with flows dropping down to fishable levels by the weekend. There’s a couple of active slides that will likely keep it too muddy to fish. Another rise is predicted for late Sunday.

Van Duzen
The Van Duzen peaked at 3,330 cfs on Tuesday night, but is predicted to rise again on Friday and Monday. The river will need a few days of dry weather before it turns green, especially on the lower end. Will likely be end of next week at least before it’s fishable.

Like all of the coastal rivers, the Mad blew out on Tuesday and won’t be green any time soon reports Justin Kelly of Eureka’s RMI Outdoors. He said. “We’ll need about a week of dry weather for the river to come around. Prior to the rain, a few adult steelhead were caught below the bridge in Blue Lake. A few fish have made it back to the hatchery as well, so the river definitely has some fresh fish in it.” The Mad is forecasted to rise on Friday to nearly 10 feet and another decent rise is predicted for Monday.

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