Feather River: Complete Fishing Guide

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The Feather River is a unique, multifaceted waterway that offers anglers a wealth of options.

The Feather River is one of the best destinations in California’s Central Valley for steelhead and salmon fishing, but it’s also home to a year-round multi-species fishery.

The majority of the Feather River’s main stem is broad and easily navigable, with an abundance of riffles, runs and deep holes. It’s easily accessible to jet boats and drift boats, and much of its shoreline is open to bank fishing and wading as well.

The fact that the Feather River is a short drive from several major population centers only adds to its popularity. 

As one of the principle tributaries of the Sacramento River, the Feather River is part of California’s largest watershed.

While the main stem of the Feather River itself is just 73 miles long, the span from its most distant headwater to its confluence with the Sacramento River is over 210 miles.

The Feather River’s four main branches—the South Fork, Middle Fork, North Fork and West Fork—all converge to form the Lake Oroville.

This man-made reservoir, itself a major fishery, was created with the construction of the Oroville Dam in 1967. It’s the tallest dam in the United States, and marks the beginning of the Feather River’s main stem.

To offset the dam’s impact on salmon and steelhead spawning, the Feather River Fish Hatchery was established along the Feather River just downstream from the Oroville Dam.

The Hatchery releases millions of juvenile salmon and steelhead every year, and its underwater viewing window offers an opportunity for the public to watch the annual salmon and steelhead run in progress. 

Striped bass and shad also make annual pilgrimages up the Feather Fiver, starting in San Francisco Bay and making their way upstream via the Sacramento.

Farther up in the Sierra Nevada where the Feather River’s tributaries emerge, the South, Middle and North Fork are also treasured as fly-fishing streams for wild and stocked trout.


Historically, the salmon runs that took place in the Sacramento River and its tributaries like the American and Feather Rivers were the stuff of legends.

The damming of the Feather River took its toll, but salmon runs in several recent years have been the strongest in decades.

When to Fish

These days, the Feather River hosts spring, summer and fall-run Chinook salmon.

The fall Chinook run is by far the largest, and the only one that is currently open to fishing.

Specific dates of the salmon fishing season vary every year (and from one section of the river to the next) but typically begins in mid-July. That being said, the season opener is usually marked by tough fishing and frustrated anglers.

Salmon start showing up in better numbers by mid- to late August, and the fishing is consistently good through at least October. You can expect many fish in the 10- to 15-pound range with the occasional behemoth tipping the scales above 30 pounds. 

How to Fish

Baitfish imitations get the call early in the season, and a wide variety of big, flashy spoons, spinners and plugs can draw strikes from aggressive Chinook salmon.

Flatfish plugs wrapped in sardine filets are a local favorite, offering a combination of movement, vibration, taste and smell that salmon can’t seem to resist. 

As the season wears on and salmon begin spawning at the hatchery, roe becomes the more effective bait.

Chinook salmon are notoriously territorial, and known for eating the eggs of their fellow “competitors.” Salmon eggs and egg imitations are often the best baits in the fall. 

Where to Fish

There are numerous productive fishing spots along the length of the Feather River.

The best tactic is to focus on deep holes, which salmon use as resting points as they head upriver. There are countless holes along the river’s 73-mile course, but none more popular or productive than the Afterbay Outlet Hole. 

After exiting Lake Oroville, the waters of the Feather River are diverted through a series of storage pools and reservoirs known as the Oroville–Thermalito Complex.

The Thermalito Afterbay is the last of these, and the deep pool where it empties back into the river—the Afterbay Outlet Hole—is the river’s most reliable salmon spot. 

The Afterbay Outlet Hole is so well -known among local anglers that most simply refer to it as “the hole.”

Salmon must traverse several miles of relatively shallow riffles to teach the hole, and once they get there, it’s where they stay until they’re ready to make the final push upriver to spawn.

The Feather River is one of our top choices among the Best Salmon Fishing Rivers in California.

Also, you can learn more ways to catch these amazing fish by reading Salmon Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.


Steelhead follow a life cycle similar to salmon.

These ocean-dwelling rainbow trout head up into the Feather River every year to spawn, and their arrival typically coincides with the salmon season winding down.

Most of the steelhead that spawn in the Feather River are hatchery-raised fish returning to the Feather River Fish Hatchery where they were born. They can be identified as such by their clipped adipose fin.

Wild steelhead, while much less common, do turn up occasionally. They are protected under state law and must be released immediately if caught. 

When to Fish

The fall run of steelhead in the feather River starts in September and goes strong well through December, with lots of adult steelhead in the 3- to 6-pound range. Occasional 10-pounders show up in fall and winter too.

Many steelhead linger in the hatchery section of the river through the winter months. 

There’s also a substantial spring steelhead run in the Feather River from March through May, which includes mature adults as well as a lot of “half pounders.”

The half-pounder run is made up of young fish, typically measuring about 16 to18 inches, making their very first trip back upstream. They’re a lot of fun to catch, and make up for their small size with abundance.

How to Fish

Steelhead fishing tactics vary as the seasons change.

Early in the fall run, fly fishermen have the best luck by swinging big streamers across the current, or drifting nymphs under a strike indicator.

But as fall wears on and the salmon begin spawning, steelhead feed heavily on salmon roe, and will eagerly strike natural salmon eggs or egg imitations.

Spring-run steelhead seem more inclined to key in on insects, as there are substantial caddis and mayfly hatches on the feather river this season. Dry flies and nymphs can be equally effective if you’re able to match the hatch.

Some anglers find success casting spinners and spoons with spinning tackle as well. 

Where to Fish

Unlike salmon, steelhead fishing is more spread out along the length of the river.

The Afterbay Hole can be a great steelhead spot too, but it’s certainly not the only spot.

The river has an abundance of riffles, pools, bars, islands and other structures that support steelhead fishing. When the run is in full swing, any pool has potential. 

Oroville Wildlife Area spans several miles of the upper Feather River just below the dam, and includes a lot of great access points.

Riverbend Park and Arlin Rhine Memorial Drive in the town of Oroville provide access to some great wading and shore fishing water.

More information: Best Steelhead Fishing Rivers in California and Steelhead Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips.


While there are a few rainbow trout that inhabit the main stem of the Feather River year-round, the majority of the trout that anglers catch here are of the ocean-run variety (which is to say, steelhead).

Those who pursue wild inland trout typically do so upstream from Lake Oroville in the South, Middle, North and—to a lesser extent—West Fork. 

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife stocks rainbow trout in the Middle and North Forks frequently, but wild rainbows abound in all four branches.

Trout stocking takes place at various times throughout spring and summer (see links below for stocking information).

There are some big brown trout out there too. Although these fish are not native to California and have not been stocked in many years, self-sustaining populations still exist, with opportunities to tangle with hefty browns measuring 24 inches or more.

South Fork Trout Fishing

Despite being the smallest of the Feather River’s main branches, the South Fork still offers some great trout fishing opportunities.

Wild rainbow and brown trout are abundant, with lots of fish measuring 10 to 14 inches.

It’s a picturesque mountain stream with lots of productive tree-lined pools, and many fly fishermen use nymphs to mimic the June hatches of black stoneflies and mayflies. 

From its headwaters on the slopes of Pilot Peak, the South Fork Feather River is dammed in four places before it eventually reaches Lake Oroville.

Some of the best fishing (and biggest trout) can be found in tailwaters below the Little Grass Valley Reservoir dam.

Middle Fork Trout Fishing

A beautiful stream with abundant insect populations, the Middle Fork Feather River is a dream trout water.

It was one of the first rivers in California to be granted Wild and Scenic River status, and remains the only fork of the Feather River to flow entirely undammed.

Rainbow trout in the 10- to 14-inch range are common, along with brown trout that are slightly less abundant but run slightly bigger.

As a general rule, you’ll find wild rainbows in the river’s many riffles and long runs, with big browns hunkered down in the deeper pools.

The upper portion of the river above the town of Sloat is the most accessible, and is both heavily stocked and heavily fished.

You’ll find wild trout and wilder scenery downstream, where the Middle Fork flows through a hard-to-reach canyon.

Dry flies, nymphs and streamers can all be effective at various times of year. There are significant golden and black stonefly hatches in June, followed by olive and light brown caddis flies in July and August.

North Fork Trout Fishing

The longest branch of the Feather River, the North Fork is dammed at several points, most notably the Canyon Dam just outside the community of Westwood, which forms Lake Almanor.

Much of the North Fork is a popular and easily accessible fishing stream, with numerous pull-offs, boat launches and campgrounds along its course. 

One of the most popular areas is below the Belden Forebay.

From here downstream to Beldon Bridge, the river is heavily stocked throughout the summer, with lots of deep pools that harbor catchable rainbows planted by the DFW.

There are some giant brown trout lurking there too, but it’s essentially a put-and-take fishery. It often gets fished out, and the action can be slow until the next stocking takes place.

There’s also good access at Gansner Bar, with opportunities to hike to some more secluded spots.

Try nymphing or dry flies to imitate the golden stoneflies and salmonflies that hatch in May and June.

How to Catch Trout

Pick up some pointers in our Trout Fishing: How-To Techniques and Tips.

Striped Bass

Like salmon and steelhead, striped bass are anadromous fish, meaning that they spend most of their adult lives in saltwater, but return to fresh water to spawn.

Although they are native to East Coast waters, a population of stripers was introduced to the San Francisco Bay in the late 1800s, and they still spawn in the Sacramento River system to this day.

Many of these fish eventually find their way into the Feather River, and there’s a solid striper fishery here from March through June, which is why this river has a spot in our rundown of the Best Striped Bass Fishing in California.

Striped bass are dogged fighters that have a reputation for fiercely striking any minnow-imitating lure.

Natural baits like shad, anchovies, pile worms and nightcrawlers are popular, as well as topwater plugs and crankbaits.

The best fishing tactics vary depending on the conditions.

Fishing live bait near the bottom over shallow sandbars and on the inside of a river bend is often effective.

Surface strikes are more likely at dawn and dusk, and stripers tend to become more likely to chase an active lure as the water warms up later in spring. 

Stripers weighing around 5 pounds are common, with decent numbers of fish weighing closer to 10 pounds. Striped bass in the 20-pound class, while rare in the Feather River, are not unheard-of.

As a general rule, stripers tend to make their way upriver when the water level rises, and drop back downstream when it falls. So it pays to keep an eye on the Feather River’s flow when planning a striper fishing trip.

Many anglers drift and troll from boats, but shore fishing is also an option.

The Yuba City area has a lot of great striper water, and the Yuba public boat ramp is reliably abuzz with activity when the striper run is in full swing.

Nicolaus Bridge and Star Bend are also popular spots, and many anglers launch at Feather River Wildlife Area.


Fishing doesn’t get much more fun than during the height of the annual shad run, when frenzied bites and 50-fish days are the rule rather than the exception, which is why the Feather River is among the handful of Best Shad Fishing Rivers in California.

Like striped bass, American shad were introduced to parts of the West Coast from their eastern homes in the late 19th century, and like striped bass they have come to thrive here.

California’s Central Valley rivers host substantial shad runs in the spring.

They arrive in the Feather River a bit later than the Sacramento River and American River, and the shad run typically gets going just as the striper season starts to wind down.

The first of the shad start showing up in the Feather River in May, but the fishing really kicks into high gear in June and July, before finally petering out in August.

These silvery fish typically weigh 1 to 3 pounds, but it’s entirely possible to find some 5-pounders mixed in.

A variety of small jigs and flies can tempt shad, which are plankton-feeding fish in their natural ocean habitat.

Small dart-head jigs, bucktails and curlytail grubs are effective. White, pink and chartreuse tend to be the best colors.

When the water is clear, most shad anglers downsize to teeny-tiny 1/32-ounce jigs. 

Shad fishing can be hit-or-miss as schools of these fish move around in search of their preferred conditions. In particular, they favor clear water and temperatures from the upper 50s to low 60s.

If part of the Feather River gets muddied by rain or runoff, shad will move upstream until they find clearer water.

More: American Shad Fishing: Simple Tips and Techniques

Smallmouth Bass

It would be a stretch to say that smallmouth bass are abundant in the Feather River.

But these hard-fighting fish are common enough that their devotees—and there are those who are absolutely dedicated to smallmouth bass fishing—can usually count on catching a few.

The best smallmouth fishing on the Feather River tends to be during the morning and evening hours in summer and early fall.

Smallmouths favor rocky habitat, and you can catch them around bridge abutments and reefs, under overhanging trees, and along rocky shorelines.

They often hold at the upper end of a deep pools waiting for food to be swept down into their waiting mouths by the current.

There’s a lot of good smallmouth water in the Yuba City area, and they are sometimes caught by steelhead anglers in the upper section of the Feather River near the fish hatchery and below the Afterbay Hole.

Smallmouths in the Feather Rive tend to run about 12 to 18 inches and weigh 2 or 3 pounds.

Floating Rapala lures are very effective, as are crawfish-imitating soft plastics like tube jigs.

Fly anglers sometimes tempt smallies using streamers or topwater poppers. Grasshopper patterns can also work well in summer.

Up in the North Fork of the Feather River, there is also a well established smallmouth population.

Lake Almanor is known for being a great smallmouth bass lake, and sections of the North Fork above and below the reservoir offer great smallmouth bass fishing.

More information: Best Smallmouth Bass Fishing in California and Bass Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips.

Planning Your Trip

The Feather River offers year-round fishing opportunities, so plan your trip based on what you want to catch.

Fall is the “busy” season on the Feather River for salmon and steelhead anglers, and some choose to visit in late winter or early spring to beat the crowds. 

To be fair, it can still be crowded in these seasons, but you have a better shot at having a good spot to yourself. Farther up in the forks, June and July tend to offer the best fly-fishing.

The Feather River system is easy to get to from just about anywhere in North-Central California.

The Feather River’s confluence with the Sacramento River is located in the Verona, less than 30 minutes north of Downtown Sacramento.

Farther upstream, the small cities of Yuba and Oroville overlook the river.

Feather River Access

Boat launch facilities and ample shore fishing access are available near the Thermalito Afterbay and along the uppermost section of the main stem Feather River within Oroville State Wildlife Area.

You can easily hike down to the river from Arline Rhine Memorial Drive not far from the hatchery.

The boat ramp at Live Oak Riverfront Park is another popular launch site several miles downriver.

Highway 70 and Highway 99 both run parallel to sections of the Feather River, and there are numerous access points just off both highways.

The Feather River Wildlife Area, south of Yuba City, is a popular access area on the lower Feather River, with plenty of parking, shore access and boat launch facilities. 

The upper forks of the Feather River are also easy to access at these points: 

  • South Fork: The most popular access points are at the South Fork Diversion Dam and Little Grass Valley Reservoir. There is also access at Golden Trout Crossing, just off Lumpkin Ridge Road. 
  • Middle Fork: Highway 89 provides easy access to the Middle Fork of the Feather River above the town of Sloat, where there are numerous pull-offs near the highway. Fishing in the more wild middle section of the river requires some canyon hiking, but there’s a good access point farther downstream at the La Porte Road Bridge.
  • North Fork: There are several pull-offs from Highway 70 where one can park and hike down to the North Fork Feather River. The section from Belden Forebay down to Belden bridge is especially popular ane easy to get to. The small towns of Tobins and Storrie also offer excellent access just off Highway 70 farther downstream. 

Know Before You Go

Fishing seasons vary on different sections of the Feather River. They can be complicated, and a little overwhelming for the uninitiated.

Seasons and limits may also change from year to year, so plan accordingly and be sure to familiarize yourself with California’s current fishing regulations before you go.