Steelhead: Good for the soul

By: J.D. Richey Journal Outdoors Columnist
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I’m not sure how we all got so busy in this life, but it seems nearly impossible to plan any sort of fishing trip with the boys anymore. Kid’s soccer games, basketball practice, in-laws in town, the back deck needs fixing, the truck’s in the shop… and on and on it goes. There’s always some reason one of us can’t make a given date.
So, sometimes the best-laid plans aren’t plans at all but spur-of-the-moment impulses. That’s exactly what happened on Sunday when my buddy Big Fred Contaoi suggested that we blow out of town to go chase steelhead on the Eel River.
“Right now,” he said.
My impulse was to say, “Nah, can’t make it…” But then I checked the calendar and, amazingly, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were clear.
So, just like that, we hitched up my drifter and we headed north.
The timing of our impromptu mission was as good as you could ever hope for. The rain last week flushed out the Eel, which had been low and clear for nearly a month. And she was dropping nicely early this week, with a perfect glowing green color to it…that amazing, drool-inducing hue we chrome junkies call “Steelhead Green.”
Adding to the perfect situation was the fact that the weather up in that country was unbelievably warm and dry. Of course, you expect both sideways rain and gusty winds on North Coast winter steelhead adventures – either that or clear, icy mornings. We had neither, it was nearly short sleeves type of weather and we didn’t even have dew in the boat in the morning.
Just a ride down an emerald beauty like the Eel, through the steep hills and stands of redwoods is reward enough for the drive, but we would soon find out that the perfect mission was going to be even better than we could have imagined.
On his second cast of our first day, Fred hooked a chrome steelhead that jumped like it was a popcorn kernel in a hot skillet. Not 10 minutes later, I landed a perfect, nearly translucent hen of about 11 pounds. And we were off and running from there.
By day’s end, Fred and I had hooked over a dozen steelhead. Now, we’ve had some amazing steelhead trips together, like 33 fish landed in one half day’s fishing in British Columbia, 27 steelies on the fly one blissful afternoon in Oregon and so many other epic missions, but we also have had countless memorable trips where we only landed a fish or two…or maybe none at all. We live for the experience, the scenery, the camaraderie and have a great time, fish or not. Every steelhead is a gift and when you have a day like we had Monday, you cherish it.
The next morning, Fred and I agreed that even if we didn’t touch another steelhead the rest of the trip, this Eel mission was going down as one of our career favorites. Well, as it turns out, the fishing continued its frantic pace and the river again blessed us with its bounty. On the rarest of January days, we basked in 60-degree sunshine and hooked well north of a dozen steelhead again!
With the water temps unseasonably warm, the fish were amazing fighters, cartwheeling all over the place and making sizzling, nearly unstoppable runs. They were so hot, in fact, that we lost a lot more fish than normal. But we didn’t care…we were having a ball.
Tuesday evening it started to rain and then dumped pretty hard all night. We figured we’d have to bust out the raingear after all, which is par for the course on most winter trips. But, we must have been living right as the dawn was clear and strangely warm. We had another amazing day in the sun, hooking another seven beautiful steelhead, each as shiny as the bumper on a new car.
With about an hour left before we had to pull off the river and head back home, I plopped down on a gravel bar and took an incredibly refreshing siesta – the icing on a perfect trip…one that we’ll remember for years.
Fish the Eel
This trip made me fall in love with the Eel River all over again and inspired me to head back up there later. I’m going to run a week’s worth of steelhead trips there the last week of February, so if you’d like to sample some of the best of what the North Coast has to offer, drop me a line at or