Coastal Steelhead Season on the Brink

Steve Soli of Fortuna holds a winter steelhead caught on a recent float down the South Fork of the Eel River. Photo courtesy of Kenny Priest/Fishing the North Coast Guide Service

With the majority of our coastal rivers in prime fishing shape, it’s starting to feel like it’s now or never for the 2023 winter steelhead season. In what has been one of the most dismal seasons anyone can remember, if the next couple of weeks don’t produce some quality fishing, it’s likely the season will go down as big, giant dud. There’s plenty of theories on why the steelhead haven’t returned in big numbers, but nobody really knows for sure. Drought, ocean conditions, climate change, habitat are all playing some type of role. We’re right at the halfway point in the season, so there is time for a resurgence. We’ve pulled a few “Miracle Marches” out of the sky in the past, and it’s looking like we may need to do it again.

The weather ahead
According to Merl Heinlein of Eureka’s National Weather Service office, we’re looking mostly dry through the weekend. “There is a chance of rain Thursday, but it won’t be enough to impact the rivers,” said Heinlein. “The eight-to-14-day outlook is looking wetter, but it’s a little too far out to be certain.”

2023 Salmon information meeting coming March 2
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Annual Salmon Information Meeting will be held via webinar on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The meeting will provide the latest information on California salmon stocks and the outlook for ocean salmon fisheries for the upcoming 2023 season. The public is encouraged to provide comments on potential fishing alternatives for California ocean salmon fisheries in 2023. A panel comprised of fishery managers, scientists and industry representatives will be assembled to address questions and collect public input that will be used in developing a range of season alternatives for California salmon fisheries at the March 5-14 Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Seattle. Final season recommendations will be adopted at the April 1-7 PFMC meeting in Foster City, CA.

Salmon Information Meeting details, informational materials and instructions for attendance will be published in advance of the event on CDFW’s Ocean Salmon webpage,  Please see the Ocean Salmon webpage at wildlife.ca.gov/Fishing/Ocean/Regulations/Salmon/preseason for a complete calendar of events and contact information regarding the Salmon Preseason Process, including other opportunities for public engagement in the season-setting process.

Free fishing days this weekend in Oregon
It’s free to fish, crab or clam on the Saturday and Sunday of President’s Day Weekend, Feb. 18-19. During these two days, no fishing licenses or tags (including a Combined Angling Tag and a Columbia River Basin Endorsement) are required to fish, crab or clam anywhere in Oregon. Although no licenses or tags are required, all other regulations apply including closures, bag limits and size restrictions. For more information, visit myodfw.com/articles/2023-free-fishing-days-and-events

Flow releases from Lewiston Dam set to increase
The California Department of Water Resources on Feb. 8 released the B120 forecast that states there is a 90-percent probability that inflows to Trinity and Lewiston lakes will meet or exceed 945,000 acre-feet for water year 2023 (Oct. 1, 2022 through Sept 30). Under TRRP’s Winter Flow Variability plan, this allows scheduling 60,000-acre feet of release from Lewiston Dam, above the winter base-flow level, as of Feb. 15.

Flow releases from Lewiston Dam to the Trinity River will change from the 300 cubic feet per second baseflow to the flow schedule presented below beginning Feb. 15 through March 14. Dam releases are then likely to remain elevated above the 300 cfs baseflow until the spring flow release commences on or around April 15. To view the flow schedule, visit trrp.net/restoration/flows/current/?fbclid=IwAR1E31LpHhKW7-4gJ2VmZp0KItUCU8u8pkcue-MLY7Fml3U2Qam3UzX50FY.

The Rivers:
Mad
The Mad is just starting to turn green and water conditions should be much improved by the weekend. Fishing continues to be slow, as not many hatchery or wild steelhead are making their way into the river. Flows as of Thursday were right around 1,350 cfs.

Main stem Eel
As of Wednesday, flows were just under 5,900 cfs at Scotia. The river is in good shape color-wise, but it’s still a little big. It will be in prime shape by the weekend and should take some pressure away from the South Fork. Hopefully there will be some fresh steelhead making their way through the system.

South Fork Eel
The South Fork continues to draw the biggest crowds, but the slow fishing has put a dent in the boat traffic. Conditions remain excellent, but there isn’t a surplus of fish. Most boats are getting one to three chances per day. Flows are predicted to be right around 800 cfs at Miranda by Saturday.

Van Duzen
The Van Duzen was down to 460 cfs as of Thursday and is in great shape. There are plenty of bank anglers taking advantage of the conditions, but reports were hard to come by. It’s not forecast to drop prior to the Saturday.

Craig Nakata of Sacramento holds a limit of steelhead he caught Feb. 13 on the Chetco River with guide Andy Martin of Wild Rivers Fishing. He also donated a wild steelhead to the hatchery brood stock program.

Smith River
The Smith was sitting just below 7 feet at the Jed Smith gauge as of Thursday. The river is low, clear and snaggy. The boat pressure has been light, as most guides have moved to other rivers. It’s forecast to be down to 6.7 feet (1,525 cfs) by Saturday. Will likely need some rain to bring in some new fish.

Southern Oregon rivers
Steelhead fishing remains slow on the Chetco but there are a few fish around, reports Andy Martin of Wild Rivers Fishing. “Flows are down to 1,100 cfs and expected to slowly drop through the weekend,” said Martin. “The best fishing has been on the lower river, where a handful of local guides are getting a fish or two a day. Pressure has eased. The Rogue, Elk and Sixes have been slow for steelhead.”

Brookings ocean update
According to Martin, rough weather has kept bottom fish anglers at the docks in Brookings. “Big swells and wind are expected through the week. Surfperch are now being caught from beaches around Brookings.

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