California Steelhead Fishing: A Complete Guide

California Steelhead fishing on the South Fork of the American River

Many people would not think that California would be a good place for steelhead fishing, but California steelhead fishing can actually be very good if you know when, where, and how. We find out from the guides and lodges in the area all about this great fishery.

Steelhead fishing California is primarily in the northern part of the state some great rivers like the Eel, Sacramento River, and Klamath exist. There are also summer run steelhead and winter steelhead. Combine this with beautiful scenery, and you’ve got a great fishery.

At times, there are also trout and chinook salmon mixed in with the steelhead.

About California Steelhead

Steelhead and steelhead fly reel
I always use good large arbor reels with a good drag when fishing for steelhead and Salmon

California is a huge state, and all the steelhead fishing in California occurs in Northern California on rivers near the border with Oregon.

Those include the Eel River, Smith River, Mad River, and a few others.

Some of these Northern California rivers are on native lands, and fishing there must be done with permission. The steelhead fishing in Southern California is closed.

There are wild steelhead in California, and they are heavily protected. All are catch-and-release. The majority of fish are hatchery steelhead returning to spawn.

There are also summer run steelhead which enter rivers during from the ocean in the early summer months. The Trinity and Klamath Rivers and the Sacramento River system will have a summer run steelhead migration as early as July and continue into early fall.

As the migration continues, good numbers will reach the upper sections by early November, with most fish in the river by early December. Summer run steelhead will spawn in late winter and early spring.

Winter Run Steelhead will start entering the rivers in late fall through February and will complete their spawn by early spring.

Good runs of steelhead can occur anytime between November and February.

Winter rains raise the water levels in the streams and tributaries of the bigger rivers allowing steelhead further up and into good spawning grounds.

California Steelhead Fishing Rules, Licence, Permits, Tags

Fall Spey fishing for steelhead

As of now, all wild steelhead are catch-and-release only. You may only keep hatchery fish, and in most places, that is limited to two hatchery steelhead. Before you fish any river in California, you should double check for updates and restrictions.

A general license is required for anyone over the age of 16.

California offers a variety of licenses and for freshwater steelhead fishing you will need a Residential Sport Fishing License and a Steelhead Report Card.

Sometimes, some California rivers will be closed for steelhead fishing due to low water flow. It is important to check with the California Department of Fish and Game before fishing as they close rivers quickly. Their Emergency Closure Page can also help.

Best Time To Fish Steelhead In California

A nice California Steelhead

In Northern California, the best time to fish steelhead is from November through March, though the peak seasons are often January and February. In Southern California, the season for steelhead is closed due to conservation.

If the season is open in Southern California, and you will need to check with the California Department of Fish and Game, you can often catch steelhead all year round, but the bigger runs tend to be from December through February.

The exact run times vary from one river to the next. If you are new to fishing for steelhead in California, book a guide. They make it much easier to find what you want and then help to keep you legal and safe.

Spring Steelhead Fishing In California

Spring steelhead fishing in California can produce nice steelhead like this.
Spring steelhead fishing in California can produce nice steelhead like this.

Spring steelhead fishing is difficult. Many of the rivers are closed, but a few are open and some remain so year-round. March is the best time to target steelhead. Much of California is considered a Mediterranean climate, which means wet winters and dry summers.

The rainy season is generally from October 15 – March 15. That means in March, the rains are slowing down, and the raging rivers are slowing and clearing. March is a good time to target steelhead and rainbow trout with brightly colored flies in reds, oranges, and yellows.

The best rivers for spring steelhead fishing include:

  • Klamath River
  • Smith River
  • Trinity River

Be sure to check whether these rivers are open for steelhead fishing before you head out to fish.

Summer Steelhead Fishing In California

An Angler spring fly fishing in Virginia

Summer run steelhead are also difficult to catch due to the low water in the rivers. Once in the fresh water, they can become very skittish.

The Department of Fish and Game will shut off fishing in rivers where the water flow is too low.

California is very restrictive and protective of its wild steelhead populations.

If the rivers are open, you can fish as early as July near the mouth of the Klamath River. The Trinity River sees new runs of fish in August, and many of the tributaries in that area will also have Steelhead around August.

July and early August are the best times for fishing for coastal steelhead. August and September are best for fishing inland waters. Though the best time to fish steelhead rivers is in Fall and Winter.

Fall Steelhead Fishing In California

Pennsylvania Steelhead Rivers

Fall steelhead season is perhaps one of the best fishing for steelhead.

The problem is that in early fall, the water levels may be low and the fishing for steelhead restricted.

By fall, most of the runs are in the inland area as the fish are trying to make it to the spawning grounds. The Trinity River system is a good place to target fall-run steelhead. The Smith River and the Mad River are also good areas.

Once the rains start, the rivers will fill up, and the turbidity levels can make it nearly impossible to fish. If that happens, look for deeper holes or backwater areas where the water is moving slowly. Fish with baits rather than lures as the steelhead will hunt by scent to. You can try bottom bouncing or float fishing to tease the fish to the bait.

Winter Steelhead Fishing in California

Winter steelhead runs appear in November in most locations. The Eel River is an excellent fishery if it is open. The upper Klamath River, Trinity River, Mad River, and Smith River are all places to consider for winter steelhead runs and fishing. The best winter steelhead fishing is from November through January.

It is important to check that the rivers are open, even those rivers’ national forest controls. Some rivers, such as the Klamath River can close as early as October. Hope for a rainy fall and most of the northern rivers will remain open.

Best Steelhead Area In California

The Van Duzen River in Humboldt County, California runs "steelheaad green" on a sunny spring day.
The Van Duzen River in Humboldt County, California runs “steelhead green” on a sunny spring day.

The Northern California coast and inland areas are the best places for a steelhead fishing trip.

You can also consider this region to be part of the Washington and Oregon Steelhead fishery.

The rivers in northern California are compatible with other West Coast rivers both in size and scenery.

The ruggedness and vast national forests combined with the aggressive conservation efforts by the state make this a fishing paradise. The Klamath River is great for coastal steelhead and the inland rivers such as the Mad River and Smith River, along with the many tributaries, are all excellent places to target steelhead.

The California coast range offers amazing opportunities for fly anglers or spin fishing anglers, for steelhead, rainbow trout, and even king salmon.

Fly fishing remains a top method and is easily approachable for new anglers if you use a guide. Most will teach you how to fly fish. Spin casting is also equally viable for fishing adult steelhead and rainbow trout.

The Eel River runs North to South, making a beautiful fly-fishing body of water for adult steelhead and rainbow trout.

There are a few rivers in Southern California with steelhead, but most are fisheries for rainbow trout. Northern California is by far the better area for winter steelhead.

Best Steelhead Rivers In California

South Fork of the Eel River California
California Steelhead rivers can be remote with amazing scenery. South Fork of the Eel River California.

Many of the best steelhead rivers on the west coast of California will also have trout in the upper reaches, as well as chinook salmon.

The Klamath River

The Klamath River
The Klamath River is a mid-sized river with mix of slower and faster sections.

Klamath River, or the Klamath River System, is 257 miles long and the lower Klamath River is very large and wide.

The Klamath begins in Oregon and eventually empties into the Pacific Ocean near Klamath on the Northern California coast.

This is perhaps one of the best places to target steelhead from winter through to spring.

Trinity River California

Trinity River – this is a mid-sized steelhead river and is a major tributary of the Klamath River.

It is also an excellent place to target late summer, fall, and winter steelhead. It is considered one of the best Northern California steelhead rivers to fish.

Smith River

Smith River Steelhead Fishing California

Smith River – is 25 miles long and it is the river that produced the current record for steelhead at 27.4 pounds.

You can fish from season opening until April, but the best months are those of the winter – December, January, and February.

Eel River

Eel River is a historic steelhead stream with massive runs of fish flowing through Humboldt County.

The fishery was nearly destroyed and the Eel River is now heavily guarded by conservation.

You can fish the Eel River with the South Fork being the main fishing hot spot today. You can also fish the Van Duzen which is a tributary of the Eel. Best fishing is from November through January, but the higher flow of water is a concern.

November is prime for shore fishing, but as the rains come, the turbidity and swiftly flowing water make driftboat fishing the best tactic. In February and March, shore fishing can be productive and by the end of March, the steelhead runs are over.

Van Duzen River

The Van Duzen River in Humboldt County, California runs "steelheaad green" on a sunny spring day.
The Van Duzen River in Humboldt County, California, “steelhead green” on a sunny spring day.

Van Duzen River – A 60-mile tributary of the Eel River and one of the best winter steelhead areas beginning in January.

This is a fly fishing paradise but you have plenty of opportunity for those who walk and wade with spin caster rods. The river flows with a green color known as steelhead green.

Mad River

A big steelhead caugtt on a streamer
Using the right rod and reel helped me land this big September steelhead

Mad River – The Mad River flows through Trinity and Humboldt Counties. The Mad River is a winter steelhead haven for December and January and hosts a big run of summer run steelhead.

The hatchery sits about 8 miles upstream from the mouth, and that section of the Mad River is home to the best fishing spots.

Mattole River

Mattole River – The Mattole River is located in southwest Humboldt County.

It is a remote river with no dams that has a wild population of steelhead.

Surrounded by mountains, it can be difficult to get to the best and most remote spots.

Sacramento River

Sacramento River

The lower Sacramento river system near the ocean is a huge river and is best fished with spinning gear and is often fished by boat.

The Sacramento River is the longest river in California at about 400 miles long, beginning in the Klamath Mountains and then joining the San Joaquin River before emptying in the San Francisco Delta.

The Sacramento River, also known as the “Sac,” is home to steelhead and salmon runs. The best time to fish for winter run steelhead is from December until Spring and September and October for the big King salmon.

American River

South Fork of the American River near Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.
South Fork of the American River near Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.

American River – A tributary of the Sacramento River offers a much cleaner fishing experience.

The best access is through the American River Parkway.

January is the best month to fish winter-run steelhead on the American River.

Feather River

Feather River – is a tributary of the Sacramento River.

The 73-mile-long river has a hatchery near Lake Oroville. The peak season is from December to January, with a few fish available in February and March.

Methods For Catching Steelhead In California

Fishing Methods

There are many methods for California steelhead.

Bank fishing along the river is most popular, but anglers will also fish river mouth and from shore along the ocean.

Boat fishing is also an option.

Fly Fishing

Many of the California rivers were made for fly fishing. The Eel River is a haven for fly-fishing anglers, but you can do equally well with a spin rod. Where you find steelhead, you often find large rainbows and other species of trout along with salmon.

Anglers will use single-hand fly rods of 10 to 11 feet in the 7 to 9-weight sizes. They also use floating fly lines for nymphing and streamer fishing. See Nymphing For Steelhead: The 3 Most Effective Methods.

Sinking lines, or intermediate sink tip lines, as well as poly leader sink tips can also be used when streamer fishing. See Streamer Fishing For Steelhead to learn more about this method.

Anglers and guides use larger chartreuse flies for spey and streamer fishing. However, blacks and olives can be very good under the right conditions.

Basic Egg flies in all sizes
Basic Egg flies in all sizes are often the best egg patterns and the ones I use the most. Change size and color based on conditions.

Other flies include nymphs and egg patterns when indicator fishing, which is the most common method.

More and more anglers are starting to use Euro Nymphing in the slower, faster water and pocket water. This method calls for weighted flies and can be very effective.

I discuss this method on my page Euro Nymphing For Steelhead: Methods And Tips Of The Guides.

Dry fly fishing can be good at times and under the right conditions, especially for summer-run steelhead during the Salmon Fly hatches. These giant adult stoneflies will entice big steelhead to rise up and grab the fly making for some exciting action.

Float Fishing

Float fishing takes advantage of the current so that you present your bait in the most natural way possible. Float fishing or bobber fishing suspends your bait above the bottom and allows you to run long drifts with your bait in the strike zone.

The float improves strike detection. It’s important to adjust your float to get the correct depth and also set up your leader properly. Anglers who effectively float fish will catch a lot more than other anglers who do it poorly.

See Float Fishing: Methods And Setups.

Drift Boat Fishing

Fly fishing boats like this one get you to new water and uncrowded water..
You can cover miles of great water and not see another angler, and fly fishing boats can get you into lots of private water only accessible by boat or with permission from landowners.

To some anglers, float fishing or drift fishing can also mean fishing from a drifting river boat.

Driftboat fishing is one of the best methods to fish steelhead at any time of the year.

The boats allow you into sections of the river that you would otherwise not reach on foot due to the fast-flowing water. The Eel River is a drift boat haven in winter. However, portable inflatable drift boats like rafts and pontoon boats can be used on rivers 15 feet or wider.

Even river guides will use larger inflatable drift boats to get them and their clients into remote areas and areas with more steelhead. Some of these boats can be very inexpensive. See Best River Boats.

Spin Fishing

Many anglers spin fish for steelhead. Late spring, summer, and fall are prime times for spin fishing as the waters in Northern California are much tamer. Many have lower flows than in the winter months making access to the river system and sandbars easier without a boat.

You can also driftboat fish with a spin rod during the winter months.

A nine to ten-foot rod in the eight-pound line range works best for spin fishing. There are multiple methods used by spin fishing anglers.

Lure fishing with spinning reels or with bait casting reels is popular and effective. Spinners are great, spoons, and crankbaits or plugs rattles can be very effective lures when steelhead fishing in California rivers.

Not all lures work well in the current, and not all lures work well for California steelhead.

See Lure Fishing For Steelhead: Best Methods And Lures

Jig Fishing For California Steelhead

Also very effective for steelhead and salmon are jigs. Jigs can be drifted under a float or used with other bait fishing methods, or jigs can be cast and jigged or retrieved like a lure.

For more on this very effective method, see Jig Fishing For Steelhead.

Plunking For California Steelhead

Near shore fishing for great lakes brown trout
It’s not uncommon to see the shorelines near rivers lined with anglers waiting for cruising trout and salmon.

Plunking is popular and can be effective when fish are migrating through the river.

Plunking is simple and involves casting out a bait and a very large weight that anchors and holds the bait in place near the bottom.

The steelhead swim by and grab the bait. You will see anglers fishing the river from the mouth and shorelines of the ocean.

Best Baits For California Steelhead

Best Bait For NY steelhead

The best bait for steelhead in California is salmon roe or trout roe. If fishing with loose eggs, make what is known as a roe bag or spawn sac using a special mesh made for this purpose.

You thread your hook through the mesh to attach it to your line.

Skein eggs or roe is the second most popular bait for steelhead. Skein is the eggs plus connective tissue that holds the eggs together. You do not need to add tulle to this setup, just thread your hook through the connective tissue. For best rigging, how to fish spawn, and how to improve this bait, see Fishing With Spawn.

Beads can also be a fantastic bait, and are often better than egg sacs, especially in clear water when fish are spooked. See my page on Bead Fishing: Best Rigging and Methods

Live worms are also a bait that steelhead love. Big night crawlers and other pink worms do a great job.

Check out The 11 Best Steelhead Baits.

3 Best California Steelhead Guides

  1. Jeff Goodwin Guide Services – Sacramento River Steelhead Fishing. Out of Redding California – Open year-round.
  2. Ironhead Guide Service – Klamath, Smith River, and Six Rivers plus tributary guided fishing adventures for fly fishing or spin fishing. Out of Happy Camp – access to some of the best steelhead fisheries around.
  3. Jack Trout – Klamath River Fly fishing for steelhead – access to lodging – open all year, and a day fishing includes lunch.

Sometimes, what makes a great California guide is access to the best steelhead waters. Those can include the Klamath River – lower, middle, and upper. The Eel River is another special place for fishing steelhead. More important is their knowledge of the rivers where they fish.

3 Best California Steelhead Lodges

  1. Gold River Lodge – Near the mouth of the Klamath River – Guided fly fishing for steelhead and salmon – Open year-round for summer fishing on the Klamath and winter steelhead on the Smith River.
  2. The Klamath River Lodge – A true fishing lodge on the Klamath River featuring guided fly fishing for steelhead, trout, and salmon m- it sits just off Highway 96 and four miles from the town of Orleans – this is a wild country with wild fish.
  3. Sandy Bar Ranch – Middle Klamath River – Guided fishing with DIY opportunities

Can You Keep Wild Steelhead In California?

No. Per the California Department of Fish and Game – All wild steelhead are catch-and-release only. Hatchery fish are designed with a healed scar where their adipose fin was. The hatchery team removes the fin to mark the fish as a hatchery fish.

Do You Need A Steelhead Permit In California?

No. You do not need a steelhead permit or stamp, but you do need a report card issued by the California Department of Fish and Game.

That wraps up our article on Fishing For California steelhead but if you have a question, a comment, or advice you would like to share, let us know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,


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