It’s American River steelhead time

By: J.D. Richey Journal Outdoors Columnist
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Okay, so looking at it on a map, you’d never figure the American River for a steelhead stream. The river flows right through the heart of the densely populated Sacramento region, where over a million people reside. Yet it isn’t what you think… When you get down on the river, you’d be amazed – there’s a thin greenbelt along much of its 23 miles that isolates the American from the endless strip malls and tract homes that surround it. There are beautiful riffles and pools down here — and gravel bars, too. The water’s clean and cold – and there are steelhead. In fact, the steelies here get as big as they do in most of the coastal drainages. Winter Steelies American River winter steelies are mainly adipose-clipped hatchery brats in the 6- to 9-pound class, but since Eel River strain fish were originally used in the hatchery program, fish over 15 pounds are taken each season. Winter fish are already showing — there are some dandies in the hatchery ponds and there are reports of a few big fish blowing through the open stretch of river (from the mouth to Ancil Hoffman Park). The upper river opens on January 1 and that’s when things really get cooking. Though it’s always subject to change, the peak of the winter run normally takes place somewhere between the last two weeks of January and the first half of February. After that, there are some smaller spring “football” steelhead that ascend the river. They appear to be remnants of the American’s original steelie population — 2 to 5 pounds, stout and full of energy. These guys arrive in February and can continue through April. Shore Fishing Because the American is easily accessible and wadeable in most spots, it’s very popular with bank anglers. Bankies throw a wide array of offerings for the river’s winter fish — plugs, baits and flies. Roe is the top bait in December and January, though nightcrawlers seem to come on strong in February. American steelies also respond favorably to Little Cleo spoons – especially in the early season near the hatchery and up in the Nimbus Basin. No. 3-4 Blue Fox, Mepps and Pen Tac spinners also work, and, in recent years, anglers have been finding that pink and black marabou jigs fished under floats can be deadly. Fly anglers have to work for their fish, on the American, but Glo Bugs and nymphs fished under indicators can solicit plenty of strikes. Traditional wet patters like Green Butt Skunks, Skykomish Sunrises, Babine Specials and bunny leeches fished “on-the-swing” will also work. To that end, Spey fishing has a real following here. Boating With its plentiful access and generally mellow demeanor, the American is a boater’s delight. It is mainly the domain of driftboaters, since the 5 mph speed limit keeps most jets away. There are launches liberally sprinkled along the river’s course ranging from newly installed concrete affairs to gravels bars where 4-wheel drive vehicles are necessary. The uppermost launch facility is located at Sailor Bar on the north side of the river just below the hatchery. It’s got a brand new ramp and plenty of parking and is the closest you can put a boat in to the fish hatchery. Some energetic anglers drag their drifters through the riffles along the north bank all the way up to the hatchery, but most simply put in at Sailor Bar and fish down. For a super short float, you can pull off the river at the Upper Sunrise Flats, which is about a mile downstream on the south side. There’s no official ramp at this location, but there are several spots on the gravel you can get a trailer down to the water with the help of a 4X4. The next take-out is just above the Old Fair Oaks Bridge, which lies another three-quarters of a mile down river on the south bank. There’s a brand-spankin’ new ramp there that you could back a semi down which replaces the old treacherous one-laner. It is five miles downstream to Rossmoor Bar, which is the next take-out on the south side of the river. In that run, you’ll encounter the San Juan Rapids – stay left and keep her straight through the standing waves and you’ll be fine. Rossmoor is the most popular take-out for anglers fishing the upper end of the river. Below there, you can go another 5 ½ miles to the south side’s Gristmill Park, which is about the lowest take-out used by steelheaders. From Gristmill down to Watt Avenue, it’s 3 miles of mostly pond-like water, though there is a nice set of riffles at the end. If you do go down that far, remember that Howe Avenue is your last shot to pull off – otherwise you’ll have to do an 8-mile mostly flat-water trek down to Discovery Park at the mouth. Side-drifting is the most popular way to hook American steelhead from a boat. Sometimes, they key to success on this river is simply bouncing your bait through as much water as possible — and side-drifting gives you the ability to cover lots of ground in relatively short order. Roe is the top producer for side-drifters, though nightcrawlers definitely have their days as well. I’ll be guiding the river all winter, so if you’d rather leave the details to somebody else, look me up at