Winter Steelhead Up Next for Coastal Rivers

With no rain in the forecast for at least the next 10 days, the end is in plain view for the late, fall-run salmon season on the North Coast. The Chetco saw a few good days of fishing but the Smith was somewhat of a disappointment. The rains, along with the runs of salmon, were short-lived, forcing most of the anglers to throw in the towel by mid-November. With the calendar now saying it’s December, it’s transition time. The majority of the salmon have reached their destination and we now wait for the winter steelhead to make their way into all of the coastal rivers.
The Chetco has seen a few adults make their way in along with a bunch of half-pounders, and the Smith steelhead should be right behind them. But don’t give up entirely on salmon just yet. The Smith, Eel, Mad and Chetco should each see another spurt or two of fresh kings move in when and if the rivers rise.

Weather ahead
According to Kathleen Zontos of Eureka’s National Weather Service, the first couple weeks of December are looking dry. “There’s some light rain in the forecast for Monday night but it won’t be enough to impact river flows,” said Zontos. “The high pressure that’s set up off the coast looks like it will holdover for the next few weeks. The trend is for below normal precipitation predicted through Dec. 14.”

Sport crab fishing update
Sport crabbing out of Eureka remains slow. Boats fishing on either side of the entrance are averaging around four keepers per pot on an overnight soak. Tim Klassen of Reel Steel Sportfishing was on the water over the weekend and reports the crabbing isn’t improving. “Our trip on Sunday was tough,” said Klassen. “We ended up with limits, but we averaged around three and a half crabs per trap.”

Mad River Steelhead Derby coming Jan. 1
Join your fellow North Coast anglers for the second annual Nor-Cal Guides and Sportsmen’s Association’s (NCGASA) 2021 Mad River Steelhead Derby. The fishing contest starts on Jan. 1 and will run until March 31. Anglers will be fishing for hatchery steelhead only during the winter steelhead run on the Mad River. The three longest measured, photographed and entered fish will win cash and prizes from our sponsors and community partners. There will also be a youth prize for anglers 16 years old and under. Part of the proceeds from this derby will benefit the Mad River Steelhead Stewards volunteer angler’s broodstock program that works in concert with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife. For more information, visit the Mad River Steelhead Derby on Facebook or Instagram. Register online at, RMI Outdoors, or Bucksport Sporting Goods.

The Rivers:
Currently, all the North Coast rivers subjected to low flow fishing closures, including the Eel, Mad, Redwood Creek, Smith and Van Duzen are closed. Sections of rivers that are open include the main stem Eel River from the paved junction of Fulmor Road to its mouth and the main stem Smith River from the mouth of Rowdy Creek to the Smith’s mouth. The Mad River from the mouth to 200 yards upstream is closed until Jan. 1, 2021. Be sure and call the low-flow closure hotline, 822-3164, to determine if the river is open prior to fishing. CDFW will make information public by a telephone recorded message each Monday, Wednesday and Friday as to whether any river will be open or closed to fishing. Rivers will not automatically open to fishing once the minimum flows are reached.

Haley Hensel, of Crescent City, holds a 35-pound king salmon she caught and released Nov. 29 while fishing with guide Mick Thomas of Lunker Fish Trips. Photo courtesy of Lunker Fish Trips

With no rain for a couple weeks, the Smith is very low and clear and will close to fishing above Rowdy Creek starting on Thursday, Dec. 3. Boat pressure has been light as most guides have canceled their salmon trips due to the conditions and lack of fish. Winter steelhead should start to trickle in even during the low-water conditions. As of Wednesday, flows were right around 720 cubic feet per second on the Jed Smith gauge.

Chetco River
Low water has slowed an already slow salmon season on the Chetco reports Andy Martin of Wild Rivers Fishing. He said, “Flows are now below 900 cfs and no major rain is in sight. A few dark jacks and an occasional bright adult salmon are being caught by the handful of boats still fishing. Half-pounders have shown up, along with the first adult steelhead of the season. Four adult steelhead were reported last week at local tackle shops.”

Salmon fishing was good on the Elk and Sixes before Thanksgiving, but both are now low and clear and difficult to float with drift boats according to Martin. “They should have another batch of salmon after the next major rain,” he added.

Kenny Priest (he/him) operates Fishing the North Coast, a fishing guide service out of Humboldt specializing in salmon and steelhead. Find it on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and For up-to-date fishing reports and North Coast river information, email