Eel River Fishing: Steelhead, Salmon (and Sasquatch?)

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The Eel River has a history of epic fishing.

It’s one of the larger watersheds entirely in the state, with headwaters high up in the Coast Range providing cool waters that support trout, salmon and steelhead down to its lower reaches through coastal redwood country south of Eureka.

As the river flows down the mountains and gains size, it grows into a diverse, incredibly dynamic fishery.

Targeting anything from winter steelhead to Chinook salmon to ocean-run cutthroat and even Pacific lamprey is possible.

Depending on the time of year, you might be casting for Chinook salmon or steelhead while a beaver or river otter stops by to check out your technique.

Special regulations apply to this river, with catch and release only rules for native steelhead and all salmon. Hatchery steelhead and trout can be taken in certain areas, so be sure to check out the latest regulations before hitting the water.

One of the biggest reasons to fish the Eel River is the scenery. It flows through rugged, beautiful forests, mountains and pristine lakes.

Redwood trees, dense undergrowth, and a wide variety of animals will have you wanting to explore as much as you can. There’s always something around the next bend.

Steelhead, Chinook and coho make runs up the Eel River every year. Some years are better than others, though overall, it’s better than most of the salmon rivers in California.

Brightly colored native rainbow trout can be found upriver above Lake Pillsbury. 

The lower river has part-time resident lampreys that swim up from the Pacific Ocean. They look like eels (but technically aren’t) and are what gave the river its name. These slimy, snake-looking fish can make great bait for targeting sturgeon.

Water levels can fluctuate rapidly on the river.

Rains in the fall can blow out the entire section, making for terrible fishing conditions. If the flows are too low in October, they tend to close the river entirely to fishing until they rise up enough.

Steelhead Fishing

When people think about the Eel River, they first think of steelhead.

That’s because it’s one of California’s best steelhead fisheries and is improving on that claim every year. 

Steelhead move up the Eel starting in the fall. You’re able to catch them into early spring, but the best time is typically in the winter. January is often the very peak for catches.

Fishing from shore is always an option here, though the best way to cover this river is by drift boat. Bring waders even if drifting, as it’s best to stop and step out of the boat periodically to cover the broader areas.

The river is famous for fly fishing for steelhead.

Comets, Bosses, Rabbit Leeches, Glow Bugs, Nymphs and River Rat Squids should be in your box.

Try a Spey rod to get the best range.

Lure anglers will cast spinners, spoons and jigs from shore or run wobbling plugs downstream from their boats. Drift-fishing techniques will also catch fish.

Read the regulations carefully, as there are specific areas and stream sections when bait is permitted, although barbless hooks are the rule.

In the fall, you’re apt apt to get a fall-run salmon or two at this point as well. Remember that this river is catch and release only for salmon as well as native steelhead and trout.

The Van Duzen River and the South Fork of the Eel provide some excellent spots, though the best place to go for the shore angler is Fortuna. The fish stack up here before running up the rivers.

Steelhead are notoriously challenging to catch, but increase your odds by learning the best steelhead fishing techniques and tips.

Salmon Fishing

Chinook and coho run up the Eel River each year.

There are good numbers of 8- to 15-pound kings, with occasional catches up to 40 pounds. They run up the river starting in late August, and fishing can be fantastic in the lower river until it rains.

The Eel has a nasty tendency to blow out when it rains for a day or two. If this happens, try your luck up the Van Duzen. It stays relatively calm after storms and can be almost as good as the lower Eel.

There have been some significant improvements in the numbers of salmon running up the Eel.

The river has been set aside as a State and Federal Wild and Scenic designation, which keeps it from being dammed anymore.

The fish are coming back in better numbers each year and will eventually (hopefully) be back to their past numbers. Fingers crossed, perhaps salmon harvests will resume here one day.

Until such a day, be sure to release any salmon you catch. Try not to take them out of the water.

More: Best Salmon Fishing Rivers in California and Salmon Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.

Shad Fishing

Look for shad to start their runs up the Eel River in late April and keep at it until mid-June or so.

Bring along your light action spinning rod or a 4-weight fly rod. Shad fight like crazy.

Solid numbers are easy to target anywhere from Fulmore Hole just before the river meets the ocean, all the way to the Van Duzen confluence.

Hit the pools below any fast water with bright flies or lures and you’ll be into good numbers.

May is the best month to plan a trip for shad, though early June is good as well.

More: Best Shad Fishing Rivers in California and American Shad Fishing: Simple Tips and Techniques.

Trout Fishing

Resident rainbow trout hang out in the best numbers above Lake Pillsbury.

The upper river has a great population of rainbows that can be caught with fly rods or spinners. Be sure to check out the regulations before heading out. 

Standard techniques will catch these resident rainbows.

There were several steelhead upstream when the dam was built, so it’s possible that the resident strain of rainbows comes directly from those steelhead.

Check the local regulations for wherever you fish, and generally expect to be releasing wild fish and using artificial lures and flies with barbless hook. If you catch a fin-clipped trout in season, you can keep it.

Either way, a light action rod with spinners is a great time on the upper river.

Bring along a fly rod and some dry flies to entice the top feeders.

Pick up some more trout-fishing tips in our popular how-to guide.

Planning Your Trip

Eureka is about 15 miles north of the mouth of the Eel. The area is perfect for wildlife watching and hiking. Chartering an ocean fishing trip is another great way to spend some time in this beautiful area.

Fortuna is definitely worth checking out, as it has some fantastic access to the river, and there are good numbers of steelhead here. 

Boat and Shore Access

While much of the Eel River isn’t near any major population center, it gets swamped with people during the steelhead season, especially if word gets out that the run is strong.

Drift boats can fill the river, leaving little room to maneuver. However, during the week, it’s pretty casual. Avoid weekends if possible.

Shore access is easy to come by, with spots all along the river. Waders will help, especially in the frigid waters of the winter season.

Where to Stay

There are RV lots and campgrounds located along the river, with the majority being near Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

Hotels can be found along Highway 101 and nearby in Eureka. There are restaurants in several of the small communities that dot this river, such as Rio Dell. Give them a try, and you’ll be glad you did.

Definitely check out the Avenue of Giants while you’re in the area. 

Also, just in case, keep an eye out for a sasquatch while you’re in the woods.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse as the legendary Big Foot ambles along through the underbrush. It would be too bad if you didn’t get a shaky, blurred video of it, so be sure not to clean your camera lens before searching!

Bring along the family and make a vacation of it. There are so many options in the area that everyone will have something they love to do.

Take care of the fish in the Eel River.

There is a huge push to keep this river full of wild, not planted steelhead. We all want a sustainable fishery of wild fish year after year, so be sure to only take any that have been planted.

If we take care of the ones we catch now, we’ll be back to catch more next year.

Find more fishing spots in Humboldt County