Salmon to steelhead: It’s transition time for North Coast rivers

STEELHEAD STARTING TO TRICKLE INTO THE NORTH COAST RIVERS - Tyler Blevin of McKinleyville landed a bright winter-run steelhead over the weekend while fishing the Mad River. The coastal winter steelhead run will kick into high gear over the next couple weeks. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROSS LANE


FORTUNA — With very little rain over the past couple weeks and the rivers on the drop, the end is in sight for the late, fall-run salmon season on the North Coast. The season has been somewhat of a disappointment to fishermen, as only a couple storms hit the coast and dropped enough rain to keep the Smith and Chetco up to ideal fishing levels. While the fishing window has been short, that doesn’t necessarily mean the number of returning salmon was small. Even during the low-water conditions, salmon were seen making their way upriver on all of our coastal streams.

On the other hand, as we flip the calendar one last time in 2021 to December, it’s transition time here on the coast. The majority of the salmon have reached their end destination, and we now wait for the winter steelhead to make their way into the coastal rivers. All the rivers have seen a few adults push in, hopefully with plenty more right behind ’em. But don’t give up entirely on salmon just yet. The Smith, Chetco and the Eel should each see another spurt or two of fresh kings move in on the next substantial river rise.

As of Sunday, the Mad, Van Duzen, Redwood Creek and the South Fork Eel were closed to fishing. All other North Coast rivers subjected to low-flow fishing closures, including the Smith and main stem Eel, were open to angling.


On the main stem of the Eel, the flows dropped to 900 cubic feet per second Sunday and it’s getting clear. There are some Coho salmon around, but not many kings. The last push of kings should arrive after the next significant rainfall as well as the first of the steelhead.

The South Fork of the Eel is under a low-flow closure, and it is likely stay closed through the week. Although there is some rain in the forecast, it’s not enough to increase flows.

On the Smith River, with no rain for a couple weeks the river is low and clear, but remains open to fishing. Boat pressure has been light as most guides have canceled their salmon trips due to the conditions and lack of fish. Winter steelhead should start to trickle in even during the low-water conditions. As of Sunday, flows were right around 900 cubic feet per second on the Jed Smith gauge.

The lower Klamath has very little fishing pressure this time of the year. There are half-pounders making their way upriver and the first of the winter fish will be showing up soon. The lower Trinity is clear with not much fishing pressure. A few more boats are around as the upper section is crowded. There are some half-pounders around and a few adult steelhead. The adult winter steelhead should start to show with the next rise in flows.

The Nor-Cal Guides and Sportsmen’s Association (NCGASA) is hosting its third annual Mad River Steelhead Derby from Dec. 18 through Feb. 28. Anglers can sign up online at or in person at RMI Outdoors. Part of the proceeds benefit the Mad River Steelhead Stewards volunteer angler’s brood stock collection program that works in concert with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. For more information, visit