Steelhead Season Awaiting Take Off

Arcata resident Elijah Goode landed a nice hatchery steelhead on Sunday while fishing the Mad River. Photo courtesy of Elijah Goode

The transition to steelhead season is taking a bit longer than we had hoped. To date, steelhead fishing has yet to really take off on popular rivers like the Smith and Chetco. The lower Eel has yet to see big numbers of steelhead as well. The lone bright spot has been the Mad River. It’s probably a safe bet that more steelhead have been caught on the Mad than all of the other local rivers combined. There’s been a good mix of wild and hatchery adults, and the river is full of half-pounders. With another round of rain predicted for Friday, all of the coastal rivers should get another good rise. And with each rise comes the possibility of more ocean-bright steelhead. And that’s all we can ask for.

Weather ahead
Between now and Tuesday, we could see anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 inches of rain from Del Norte to Humboldt, according to Kathleen Zontos of Eureka’s National Weather Service. “The bulk of the rain will fall on Friday, when we could see 1 to 1.5 inches,” said Zontos. “Another half could fall in the Smith basin on Saturday morning and Humboldt could see up to a quarter inch. The next chance of rain will be Sunday into Monday but this one is uncertain. Right now, the models are showing a half-inch falling in Southern Humboldt and a quarter in the Smith basin.”

Mad River Steelhead Derby to start Jan. 1
The Nor-Cal Guides and Sportsmen’s Association (NCGASA) is hosting its second annual Mad River Steelhead Derby from Jan. 1 through March 31. Anglers must be signed up prior to Jan. 1 to be eligible to win cash and prizes. Only hatchery steelhead can be entered. The largest steelhead wins $500, second place $300 and third place  $150. A youth division winner (16  and under) wins a $150 tackle gift card. In addition, anglers who submit a winning video of their catch in action get a $100 gift card to Bucksport Sporting Goods. Anglers can sign up online at or in person at RMI Outdoors and Bucksport. Part of the proceeds benefit the Mad River Steelhead Stewards volunteer angler’s broodstock collection program that works in concert with the  California Department of Fish and Wildlife. For more information, visit

2021 Fishing license
A reminder that it’s the time of the year to purchase your 2021 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 $52.66. A North Coast salmon report card, which will run you $7.30, 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 $8.13 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 2021 for $8.38 at CDFW offices (instead of $52.66) for disabled military veterans and recovering service members. For those 65 or older on reduced income, licenses are available for $7.98. For more information on all CA fishing licenses, visit–reduced-fee

Rockfish season to close Dec. 31
The 2020 rockfish season in the Northern Management area, which runs from Cape Mendocino to the OR/CA border, will close for boat-based anglers on Thursday, Dec. 31. Rockfish is open year-round for divers and shore-based anglers. For more information about recreational groundfish regulations, visit

Mattole River opens to fishing Jan. 1
The Mattole River will open to fishing on Friday, Jan. 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 cubic feet per second at the Petrolia gauging station.

The Rivers:
Other than the South Fork Eel and Van Duzen, all North Coast rivers subjected to low flow fishing closures, including the Smith, main Eel, Mad, and Redwood Creek were open to fishing as of Thursday. 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.

Smith River
There aren’t many adult steelhead around right now, reports Mike Coopman of Mike Coopman’s Guide Service. “The river is full of half-pounders, it seems like all the tailouts are loaded,” said Coopman. We had a lot of rain on Monday night and the river came up quite a bit. Hopefully we’ll start to see the adults show up soon.”

Mad River
There are a few adult steelhead around but not a ton, according to Justin Kelly of Eureka’s RMI Outdoors. He said, “There’s fish scattered from the hatchery down, but the lower river seems to be producing better. Right now, there’s about an even mix of hatchery and wild. There’s also a large number of half-pounders in the river now. I can’t remember seeing this many.” Flows are predicted to reach 2,600 cfs on Saturday morning and will likely be muddy through the weekend.

Main stem Eel
The main stem has been fishable since earlier in the week. There are some adult steelhead in the lower river, but fishing has been slow. Following the rain on Friday, the river is predicted to peak at 4,500 cfs on Sunday afternoon.

South Fork Eel
The South Fork has been closed all week due to low flows. Predicted to peak at 2,000 cfs on Saturday night following Friday’s storm.

Van Duzen
The Duzen closed on Thursday, but that should be short-lived. Following Friday’s rain, it’s predicted to reach 2,400 cfs on Saturday morning. Will take a few days to clear, but could fish by mid-week.

The Chetco has been in prime shape for steelhead but fishing has been slow the past week, reports Andy Martin of Wild Rivers Fishing. He said, “Since the river came back into shape at the end of last week, only a handful of adult steelhead and a couple late-fall salmon have been caught. Catches rates could jump any day, but it may be closer to New Year’s Day before fishing gets decent,” Martin added.

According to Martin, the Elk and Sixes both blew out with Monday’s rain. “The further up the Oregon Coast anglers go, the higher the rivers are. Late salmon were caught on both rivers over the weekend but overall action has been slow. A few guides are now anchoring and running plugs for steelhead on the lower Rogue, but are still awaiting the winter run to begin arriving,” said Martin.

Kenny Priest operates Fishing the North Coast, a fishing guide service out of Humboldt specializing in salmon and steelhead. Find it on
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