American River Fishing: Catch Salmon, Steelhead & More

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California’s American River is a fishing stream with many personalities.

In its lower reaches, the American River plods through the suburban sprawl of Sacramento, meandering among shopping malls and under highways before emptying into the Sacramento River, which takes its waters through the California Delta and out to the Pacific.

Farther upriver, it’s a very different story. 

The American River’s three principle forks—South, Middle and North—are twisting, tumultuous arteries. Their waters course through rugged canyons and tranquil forests alike.

In certain stretches, they are placid and welcoming to fly anglers. In others, they surge through teeth-rattling rapids with names like “Troublemaker” and “Meatgrinder.” 

All this is to say that anglers who fish the American River have many different rivers to choose from, literally and figuratively. 

The 30-mile main stem is sometimes referred to simply as the Lower American River, although this is not, strictly speaking, accurate (the main stem of the American has upper and lower sections of its own).

The lower American River is a beloved salmon and steelhead stream that also hosts annual runs of striped bass and shad that draw anglers from far and wide.

The South, Middle and North Forks of the American River are more traditional fly-fishing waters, inhabited by wild rainbows and elusive brown trout.

You can take your pick. The American River, in all its many forms and with all its wild quirks and personalities, offers fishing opportunities year-round. 

Chinook Salmon

The Sacramento River plays host to several Chinook salmon runs every year.

With the American River being the first major tributary of the Sacramento, many of these fish hang a right and continue their journey up the American, ultimately reaching the Nimbus Fish Hatchery.

The hatchery is, after all, where may of these fish were born. 

The fall salmon run is the most abundant on the American River, and the first of these fish begin to arrive in mid-summer. The fishing gradually improves throughout August and September, and typically reaches its peak in November. 

The average American River Chinook salmon weighs between 12 and 17 pounds, but there’s always a shot at a monster in the 30-pound class.

Most are two or three years old when they return to the river to spawn. When they do, they get a lot of attention.

Fishing during the peak of the salmon season can be shoulder-to-shoulder in prime spots.

Tiscornia Park, where the American empties into the Sacramento, is an especially popular early fall spot.

The tailwater below the Nimbus Dam, which is as far upstream as salmon can get, is arguably the most popular and productive fishing spot on the river, especially later in the season.

That being said, dozens of parks provide access along the river, all connected by a network of easily accessible greenbelts.

Arden Bar, Sunrise Recreation Area and Sailors Bar Park are all popular salmon spots on the American River.

Casting with brightly colored plugs, spoons and spinners is a go-to tactic for American River salmon, which often bite more from aggression than hunger.

Medium-heavy tackle and 20-pound line are the standard tools of the trade. 

Many local anglers also drift plug-cut herring or anchovies with the current, a technique known as mooching.

Although mooching is a more prevalent technique for ocean salmon fishing, it can also be a great way to hook up with Chinooks when they make their way into the Sacramento and American rivers.

Find the American River and other great spots in our Best Salmon Fishing Rivers in California and learn more about catching them in Salmon Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.

Steelhead

Just as the salmon season starts winding down on the American River, the steelhead season begins.

There’s a brief period toward the end of November when you have a good shot at catching both, but the steelhead run really picks up in December, and goes strong well into March most years. 

As these ocean-run rainbow trout make their way up the American River, anglers have ample opportunities to catch them along the long greenbelt that parallels the lower 23 miles of the river and shields it from the urban environment beyond.

There are a lot of great pools, riffles and gravel bars here that hold steelhead all winter long, making this one of the Best Steelhead Fishing Rivers in California.

Working your way upstream from the mouth of the American River, the first good steelhead water is about four miles upstream at Paradise Beach. Most of the best steelhead holding water is farther upriver, from Gristmill Park on up.

Shore fishing and wading are popular thanks to the abundance of access, with many anglers throwing salmon roe and egg imitations to tempt the steelhead that feed on the eggs of the recently-spawned salmon.

Spoons and spinners work too, with Little Cleo spoons being a local favorite.

And there are plenty of anglers who find success fishing with the most timeless bait of all: live nightcrawlers.

Natural baits are especially effective toward the end of the steelhead run in February into March, when the steelhead start acting more like big river trout and are hungry from the work of spawning. Unlike salmon, they can survive to spawn again.

While many choose to wade or fish from shore, drift boats are also popular throughout much of the river downstream of Sailor’s Bar. In the uppermost parts of the river around the hatchery and below the dam, no boats are allowed. 

Most of the steelhead in the American River are in the 6- to 8-pound class, but 15-pounders turn up fairly frequently.

The vast majority of them are hatchery raised fish from the state Numbus Fish Hatchery, which are easily identified by their clipped adipose fin. Wild steelhead are rare, and must be released immediately if caught.

Catch more: Steelhead Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips

Trout

As much as salmon and steelhead are the focus of most anglers on the main stem of the American River, the forks are the domain of fly fishermen.

The South, Middle and North Forks all flow down from the Sierra foothills, carrying crisp, cold water that’s perfect for trout. 

The California Department of Fish and Game stocks hatchery raised rainbow trout, which supplement the self-sustaining populations of wild rainbows and brown trout that call these rivers home.

Anglers’ catches tend to be about 80 percent rainbow trout and 20 percent browns.

Still, there’s no doubt that the real giants, and the fish most sought after by anglers, are the big, 20-plus-inch brown trout.

Although all three forks can be challenging—they’re arguably more famous for whitewater rafting than fishing—they’re rewarding as well. 

Trout Fishing in the South Fork

The South Fork of the American River originates in the Sierras near Nebelhorn, and flows 87 miles before emptying into Folsom Lake (all three forks feed this large reservoir; the main stem of the American River emerges below Folsom Dam). 

Small wild trout dominate the upper reaches of the South Fork. They can be great fun to catch, and the mountain scenery is spectacular.

As it flows westward, the South Fork gains strength, and includes some class II to class IV whitewater as well as some broader sections where the river is impounded.

Fly fishermen have great success fishing the South Fork in mid-summer, when the water is lowest and trout hold in deep pools.

There are a lot of rainbows in the 12-inch range in the mid- to lower South Fork, and the California DFW stocks these sections every year.

A lot of classic dry fly patterns work here, and nymphing is also popular.

In the lowest section of the South Fork, you can expect some big lake-run brown trout to head upstream from Folsom Lake in the fall.

Trout Fishing in the Middle Fork

From its headwaters in Squaw Valley, the 62-mile Middle Fork of the American River feeds Hell Hole Reservoir—itself an excellent trout fishing lake—before eventually flowing into the larger North Fork.

The Middle Fork of the American River is considered by many to be the best of the three forks for trout fishing, in part because much of it is hard to access and seldom fished.

The water temperature in the Middle Fork doesn’t get much higher than the mid 50s, even in summer, making it a consistently good fishery, provided you can get to the fish.

Expect lots of 10- to 14-inch rainbow trout, with occasional rainbows up to 20 inches and browns up to 26 inches. 

There’s good fishing right below Hell Hole Dam, and the 15-mile stretch from Oxbow down to Drivers Flat is arguably the best on the whole river.

Streamers account for some of the biggest fish, but dry flies and nymphs also have their time to shine.

Do your best to match the current hatch; there are significant midge, mayfly, caddisfly, and golden stonefly populations here. 

Trout Fishing in the North Fork

The longest branch of the American River at 88 miles, the North Fork arises from the springs and snowmelt high in the Sierra near Donner Summit.

The upper section is a designated Wild Trout Water by the California DFW, as well as a National Wild and Scenic River. 

The North Fork of the American River shares a lot in common with the Middle Fork, including great angling opportunities and spectacular scenery, marred only by the difficulty of accessing the best water.

That being said, low water in summer makes access to the normally-impassable canyons possible on foot. If you’re willing to hoof it, this is a dream fly-fishing water. 

Wild rainbow trout dominate, and nymphing in the deep pools is the go-to tactic.

The best fishing is arguably in this challenging upper section, including Royal Gorge, which offers great summer fly fishing.

Farther downstream, the river widens and access improves, but the fishing is less impressive for most of the year. However, big lake-run brown trout make their way up from Folsom Lake in fall.

How to Catch Trout

Learn more from our Trout Fishing: How-To Techniques and Tips.

Striped Bass

There are always some striped bass in the main stem American River, but the action for these fish really picks up when they begin their annual spawning run.

Stripers begin showing up in decent numbers around April or May, and continue to trickle in until the fishing reaches fever pitch in August and September.

Most of the stripers in California live in San Francisco Bay—they were introduced from the East Coast in 1879—and they head upstream through the California Delta and Sacramento River every year.

Many ultimately reach the American River, where there’s a real shot at tangling with stripers up to 50 pounds. 

Realistically, of course, most of these fish are in the 5- to 15-pound range, but they’re still hard fighters and some of the most beautiful fish in fresh or saltwater.

And they’re known for striking with reckless abandon.

Live baitfish including herring, anchovies and shad are favored baits by many local striper enthusiasts, but these fish are opportunists, and are often caught on nightcrawlers, clams and a wide range of natural baits.

Plugs including Rapalas and Heddon Spooks are also popular, and there’s often a great topwater bite in the morning and evening.

Fly fishermen have success tempting stripers with large streamers, or even floating popper flies.

Look for striped bass “boiling” on the surface as they chase smaller prey fish in the American River.

As with salmon and steelhead, striped bass make it up the main stem of the American no farther than Nimbus Dam.

With this entire section being easily accessible via parks and greenbelts, there are plenty of opportunities for shore fishing. Sunrise Recreation Area and Paradise Beach are especially popular spots.

Some anglers also drift and troll for striped bass using boats, especially in the lower part of the river where the water is wider and slower-moving.

Medium-weight spinning tackle and 20-pound line is commonly used by conventional anglers. If you’re fly fishing, consider an 8- or 9-weight rod.

The American River is one of the better places around to catch stripers. Find them all in Best Striped Bass Fishing in California.

Shad

Like striped bass, the American shad has no real business in California. It was introduced here in the late 19th century, and found great success in the rivers of the Central Valley.

These days, the annual shad run is a much anticipated event among local anglers, who pursue shad for the sheer pleasure of catching one feisty fish after another when the action is really going strong.

The shad season gets going in April, and peaks from late May through early July.

Most of the fish measure 12 to 16 inches and weigh a pound or two. 

Fishing for shad is dead-simple.

Most anglers who target them do so when the American River is at relatively low flow, and use small 1/32 and 1/16 ounce jigheads tipped with curlytail grubs.

Bright colors like white, hot pink and chartreuse tend to work best (if you’ve ever fished for crappie, chances are you already have everything you need to catch shad). 

These fish are hard fighters on light tackle. Fly anglers catch them too, often swinging flies with two-handed spey rods.

The low-light hours of early morning and evening are best. 

There are plenty of great shad fishing spots along the American River, including Ancil Hoffman Park and Paradise Beach. Farther upstream, Sunrise and Sailor Bar Park offer some great fishing.

Much more information: Best Shad Fishing Rivers in California and American Shad Fishing: Simple Tips and Techniques.

Planning Your Trip

The American River System is easy to get to from almost anywhere in North-Central California.

The main stem of the river flows directly through Sacramento and its suburbs, and the Nimbus dam and fish hatchery are just minutes from the city of Folsom.

The best season to visit depends on your target species—fall for salmon, winter for steelhead, spring for shad, and summer for trout in the upper forks.

Lower American River Access

The main stem of the American River, from the Nimbus Dam all the way down to the mouth of the river, is almost entirely accessible to anglers.

You can thank the folks at the Sacramento County Parks Department, who maintain the American River Parkway along this entire stretch. 

The parkway stretches along all 23 river miles and connects 30 separate county parks. Access is practically everywhere, and there’s a bike path following the shore that makes it easy for anglers on wheels to pedal from spot to spot. 

South Fork American River Access

Highway 50 runs alongside much of the South Fork of the American River, and there are numerous pull-offs where anglers can reach the water.

You can also get to some prime fly-fishing spots just off Mosquito Creek Road and Slab Creek Reservoir Road, though getting to the best water may require some wading or boulder-hopping, both of which demand caution.

The section of the South Fork between Chili Bar Dam and Coloma is considered by many to be the best area to fish.

There is public access to that part of the river at James Marshall Gold Discovery Park, Henningsen Lotus Park and Greenwood Creek, as well as several private campgrounds and resorts.

Middle Fork American River Access

The section of the Middle Fork immediately below the Hell Hole Dam is easily accessible, and one of the most popular spots for fishing.

Much of the Middle Fork flows through remote, inaccessible canyons, and getting to good water can be difficult. There’s another good access site just below Oxbow Reservoir.

Many anglers float to prime spots, but this takes considerable skill, as the Middle Fork has some very challenging whitewater.

Several whitewater fishing guides operate in the area, and there’s a strong case to be made that booking a guided expedition is the best way to fish the Middle Fork if you’re new to it.

North Fork American River Access

The upper (and indisputably best) section of the North Fork is accessible only on foot, and practically speaking only during the summer months when low water allows anglers to hike up the canyons.

There are places just off Highway 80 where you can pull off and get a good start.

Farther downstream, the middle section of the North Fork is accessible from Iowa Hill Road Bridge, Yankee Jim’s Bridge and the Codfish Creek Falls Discovery Trail.

The lower section of the river near the Highway 49 bridge has easier access, and this section is more popular for warm water species like smallmouth bass and bluegill. 

Know Before You Go

Like a lot of rivers in California that host salmon and steelhead runs, the America River has some special regulations and closures to be aware of.

In particular, the area from 200 yards below the Nimbus Fish Hatchery to the Hazel Avenue Bridge piers is closed to fishing and boating.

The final 300 yards of river from the hatchery upstream to Nimbus Dam is open year-round to shore fishing and wading, but no boats are allowed. 

It’s also worth noting that the Nimbus Dam controls the flow of the main stem American River so that it doesn’t typically get blown out by spring snowmelt the way many wild rivers do. It is, for the most part, fishable year-round

But water is released from the dam at times, drastically increasing the flow and creating potentially hazardous conditions.

In the South, Middle and North Forks of the American River, water levels are also prone to rise and fall rapidly. Use caution, no matter the season or the time of day.

Find More Fishing Spots in Sacramento County