For steelhead action, you’ll need to go north

By: J.D. Richey Journal Outdoors Columnist
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The upper sections of the lower American and Feather rivers re-opened to steelhead fishing on Jan. 1 with a raspy, last-breath kind of whimper.
It wasn’t all that long ago that you could expect some really nice steelheading on both creeks New Year’s Day, but, like so many other things these days, that seems to be a thing of the past.
On the Feather, longtime guide Craig Bentley said that he visited the stretch of the river’s Low Flow between Highway 70 and the Table Mountain Bicycle Bridge on the opener and witnessed 29 anglers catch a grand total of one 14-inch steelie. En Fuego!
On the American, the crowds were lighter than normal on opening day at places like Sailor Bar and the hatchery, but there was still a fairly good crop of people out and about. Overall, the reports were bleak but anglers managed a few bright steelies in the 5- to 7-pound class – for an average of about a fish per every 20 rods.
Obviously, things aren’t looking really good in the Valley right now and you’re going to have to look elsewhere for your steelhead fix – at least in the near future.
Of course, the state’s “North Coast” region is going to be your best bet. I just fished a couple days on the Smith River earlier in the week and really hammered the steelies while drifting eggs and Fish Pills out of drift boats. The fish we landed were all absolutely perfect chromers in the 8- to 13-pound class and were some of the hottest steelies I’ve had the pleasure of being attached to in a long time.
If you’ve never been to the Smith, you owe it to yourself to make the trip. It’s a bit of a trek up there (it’s situated along the coast between Crescent City and the Oregon border), but the river flows through some epic, almost mystical country forged of granite and giant redwoods.
And then there’s the fish. The Smith’s steelies run 8 to 11 pounds on average, but fish in the 15-plus class are taken regularly and 20 pounders show up every season. They get much bigger than that, too. A 26 pounder was taken by a kid off the bank a couple years back and the state record of 27 pounds and change also came from the Smith.
The Smith is one of those places that likes to chew up and spit out newbies, so hiring a guide is really the way to go up there for at least your first trip. Two of the best are: John Klar (707-725-9120; and Mike Stratman of Redwood Coast Fishing (707-476-9243;
In addition to the Smith, several other area streams are also looking prime: The South Fork of the Eel is already pumping out some nice fish and the Main Stem is looking prime as well. There’s plenty of access to the South Fork along Highway 101 but you’re really best off pulling plugs or drifting bait out of a boat on the Main Stem.
The Mad River near Blue Lake is just dropping into shape and will have plenty of good bank steelies to pursue between the fish hatchery and the Blue Lake bridge. Also, the upper Trinity River got a nice shot of fish and the action has since spiked. Fish from Junction City up to Lewiston.
The guides mentioned above also fish these streams. If you’re looking for general fishing info and updates on the conditions, call Mad River Outfitters (707-826-7201) in Arcata.
J.D. Richey is a 1986 Placer High graduate whose outdoors pieces have been published nationally. Find him online at