Storms could derail hot steelhead bite on the Smith

Steelhead fishing on the Smith River has been off and running for a week, but the storms headed our way this weekend may put a damper on the hot action. The river has been chocked-full of steelhead since last week and anglers drifting from the forks to Ruby van Deventer Park have enjoyed some of the best fishing in recent memory. But now it looks like the boats may be off the water for a few days. As of Wednesday, the river looks to be fishable on Friday, but it will be big. Saturday forecast is calling for the river to rise all day, going from 12 to 15 feet by early Sunday morning. Monday doesn’t look much better, with the height sticking around 14.5 feet, which is too high to safely drift. Next week is calling for more rainfall, but the totals remain uncertain. With any luck, once the river drops, the good fishing will continue.

The weather ahead
“The North Coast can expect to see quite a bit of rain through Friday, followed by a larger system moving in on Friday night,” said Kathleen Zontos of Eureka’s National Weather Service. “From Wednesday through the day Friday, we’re looking at up to 1.5 inches falling in the Smith basin and Northern Humboldt. For the 24-hour period beginning Friday night to Saturday night, the Smith basin could see an additional 2 to 3 inches. In Humboldt and the Eel basin, we may see another 1 to 1.5 inches. Rain will continue into Sunday, but will diminish by the afternoon or evening,” said Zontos. “Next week is looking active as well. We’re following another storm system for Tuesday, but we’re not sure where it will hit yet or how much rainfall it will bring. We’ll remain in a rainy pattern throughout the rest of the week.”

Oregon Commission denies petition to prohibit wild winter steelhead retention in the SW Zone
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission denied a petition to prohibit the retention of wild winter steelhead in rivers throughout the SW Zone via temporary rule in a split vote (4-2) according to a press release issues last Friday.

The Commission heard from more than 50 people who signed up to testify for and against the petition. ODFW staff had recommended Commissioners deny this petition as staff do not have a conservation concern for wild winter steelhead on the south coast for 2020. The declines in wild steelhead in other parts of the state have not been observed in the SW Zone and current regulations are already conservative. Also, staff continue to work on a multi-species conservation plan for the Rogue and South Coast where concerns about wild steelhead are being addressed. Commissioners denied a similar petition in 2018. For more information, visit

The Rivers

High water has kept drift boaters off the Chetco for the past week, but steelhead are still being caught by plunkers fishing from the lower river gravel bars reports Andy Martin of Wild Rivers Fishing. He said, “The river is high from rain and snowmelt and likely will remain high for boaters through the weekend. Slides above Loeb Park and up the South Fork continue to keep the Chetco muddy. The Rogue continues to be a bright spot for Southern Oregon rivers, as big numbers of fish have returned and Lost Creek and Applegate dams have kept the river fishable. MagLip plugs are working best.”

The Smith has fished well since last Thursday and guides and private boats have enjoyed some of the best steelhead fishing in a few years. Fish are spread out from the forks down and are being caught on a variety of offerings including roe, yarnies, and soft beads. Storms coming this weekend could blow the river out temporarily. Flows are predicted to reach 15 feet on Sunday morning, which are the biggest of the year. This will likely push the fish in the river now into the creeks, and bring in some new fish from the ocean.

Eel River (main stem)
As of Wednesday afternoon, the main Eel peaked at roughly 14,000 cfs. More rain is on the way, which is predicted to push the flows to 25,000 cfs by early Monday morning. This will be the biggest rise of the season, and should bring in plenty of fresh steelhead. However, it will be blown out for quite a while, it typically needs 10 days to a couple weeks of dry weather before it turns green.

Eel River (South Fork)
The South Fork was down to 2,100 cfs late Wednesday afternoon, but was still dirty. The East Branch, which dumps into the South Fork near Benbow, appears to be the culprit as it was chocolate milk-looking on Tuesday. Flows are predicted to reach fishable levels on Thursday and Friday, but the color may still be off.

Van Duzen
Like the Eel, the Van Duzen is forecasted for its biggest rise of the year on Sunday, reaching nearly 7,000 cfs on the Grizzly Creek gauge. It was just above 1,750 cfs as of Wednesday afternoon and dropping. It’s highly unlikely it will drop to a fishable level before it starts to rise again on Friday. It will likely take a week of dry weather to drop into shape.

HSU student and Mad River Steelhead Steward member Jacob Stout landed a nice steelhead Monday on the Mad River. The Stewards programs consists of volunteer anglers who aid in the collection of wild-origin steelhead to meet the hatchery’s annual production goals. Photo courtesy of Cody Baughn

The Mad is currently high and off color, sitting at 9.5 feet as of Wednesday. But that hasn’t stopped anglers from catching fresh steelhead according to Justin Kelly of Eureka’s RMI Outdoors. “Guys fishing around the hatchery and along the willow line are catching their share of fish,” said Kelly. There hasn’t been much happening below the Blue Lake bridge. Most of the fish I’ve seen have been hatchery fish, not a lot of wild ones are being caught right now.” As a reminder, the maximum leader length is 6-feet in CA anadromous waters.

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