Mad River Fishing: Catch Big Steelhead & Salmon

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Steelhead anglers in California tend to overlook the Mad River. Perhaps that’s because of its more famous neighbors.

The majority of the Mad River’s 113-mile course flows through Humboldt County, sandwiched between two of the West Coast’s most iconic steelhead streams: The Klamath River to the north, and the Eel River to the south. It’s not an easy part of the world for a river to stand out in.

But the Mad River supports a major population of winter-run steelhead, and anglers in the know line its banks every season, waiting for a shot at the so-called ‘fish of a thousand casts.’

The Mad River also hosts a moderate Chinook salmon run every autumn, and there are more than enough resident rainbow trout in the upper sections of the river to keep anglers busy during the spring and summer months.

No matter the season, a day fishing the Mad River is seldom ill-spent.

It’s also a wild, beautiful stream that rushes through a diverse landscape of rugged canyons and mountain forests up near its headwaters in Trinity County. It is dammed in only one place, forming the picturesque Ruth Lake.

By the time it reaches the coastal plain, the Mad River is a mostly-tranquil stream, meandering among groves of spruce, pine and redwoods as well as open farmland.

This lower section of the river is the most popular for fishing, and easy access can be found throughout the Mad River’s lowest 18 miles. 

Steelhead Fishing

The Mad River has historically hosted some of the most impressive steelhead runs on the California coast, but those fish were almost gone by the mid-20th century.

Logging along the river had especially taken a toll, allowing runoff to transform it into a muddy mess.

Thankfully, efforts to restore the Mad River have been largely successful.

The Mad River Fish Hatchery releases hundreds of thousands of steelhead every year, and the fish that return to the Mad River to spawn every year now number 10,000 or more. 

In recent years, steelhead in the Mad River have been not only abundant, but increasingly impressive in terms of size. Most fish are in the 6 to 10 pound range, but a handful of 20-pound giants turn up most years.

There are even a few wild steelhead mixed in with the hatchery-reared fish, though wild steelhead—identifiable by their un-clipped adipose fins—must always be released unharmed.

Numbers like those put the Mad River in rare company as among the best steelhead fishing rivers in California.

When to Catch Steelhead

The first of the steelhead start to trickle into the Mad River as early as August, and there are limited numbers of fall-run fish that enter throughout the following months.

The action isn’t always consistent in fall, but it’s a great time to beat the crowds. 

The bulk of the steelhead that spawn in the Mad River are winter-run fish, and the peak season is December and January. Fishing can hold up well in February as well.

A few will hang out as late as March, when there is also a limited run of younger steelhead weighing 3 to 5 pounds, referred to among some local anglers as bluebacks.

Where to Catch Steelhead

Because there are no significant dams or obstructions in the lower Mad River, some steelhead eventually find their way quite far up the river and its tributaries.

That being said, the lower section of the river is by far the most popular and productive for steelhead fishing. 

The Mad River Fish Hatchery is located about 18 river miles from the ocean, and the overwhelming majority of the action takes place in that 18-mile stretch.

The riffles and runs immediately downstream from the hatchery in the town of Blue Lake are the most heavily-fished, and offer your best shot at hooking a steelhead. 

Focus on the stretch from below the hatchery’s fish ladders downstream to the Blue Lake Bridge.

Farther still downstream, some other hot spots include Summer Bridge, Walton Paving, and the flat below the Blue Lake Bridge.

A frontage road runs alongside the river downstream from the hatchery and provides easy access.

Some anglers also like to fish the area upstream of the hatchery, but it takes a bit of hiking to reach this section.

How to Catch Steelhead

Steelhead fishing techniques on the Mad River tend to be pretty straightforward.

And while some anglers do employ drift boats to navigate the river, bank fishing is much more common. The river is narrow enough for the most part that casting into deep water from shore is seldom a challenge.

Drifting bait tends to account for more fish than any other tactic.

Use salmon roe and attach just enough weight to keep your bait on bottom, but not anchored in place. The idea is to cast across the current and let the bait bump and bounce down through fishy-looking holes and riffles.

Some anglers cast spinners and spoons as well.

As a general rule, they don’t land as many fish, but artificial lures may tempt some of the biggest bites in the river. Mepps and Blue Fox spinners are popular, along with Little Cleo spoons.

Fly fishing is less common, and since the water in the wintertime is often stained or muddy from runoff, the most effective fly patterns tend to include black, orange or chartreuse.

Swinging dry flies across the current using sinking lines is the best way to get your fly down to where the fish hold close to bottom. Fly fishing tends to be better when the water is relatively low and clear.

Pick up more steelhead fishing tips and techniques in our simple guide.

Salmon Fishing

There’s a fair-to moderate fall Chinook salmon run on the Mad River most years.

These fish don’t spawn in the Mad River as abundantly as they do in many other coastal California rivers, but the Mad River Fish Hatchery has been making a tremendous effort to improve the salmon run in recent years.

It’s still not among the best salmon fishing rivers in California, but stay tuned for years when the Chinook are coming in strong.

Fall-run Chinooks start to appear in the lower estuary portion of the river in July and August, and start pushing upstream throughout the fall.

October and early November typically offer your best shot at hooking up with salmon, and some solid 20-plus-pound Chinooks have been caught here. 

Focus on deep holes, which salmon use as resting places while they work their way upstream. There are a couple of popular holes just downstream from the Highway 101 and Highway 299 bridges, and the hatchery area can be productive too.

Salmon usually strike more out of aggression than hunger when spawning, so most local anglers target them with fast, flashy lures like Flatfish plugs and Apex Salmon Killer spoons.

Roe becomes more effective as the season progresses, and salmon key in on eating the eggs of their perceived rivals.

More: Salmon Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips

Trout Fishing

In addition to steelhead—anadromous rainbow trout that spend much of their lives in the ocean—the Mad River also supports a population of resident rainbow trout that inhabit the river year-round. 

The best fishing for resident rainbows tends to be in the upper and middle sections of the Mad River, where the water stays a bit cooler throughout much of the year.

A significant stretch of the river flows through Six Rivers National Forest, and there’s a lot of prime, easily-accessible fly-fishing water there.

The R. W. Matthews Dam, built in 1962 creating Ruth Lake, is generally considered to be the dividing line between the “upper” and “middle” Mad River.

Sections of the river immediately above and below the reservoir offer some of the best trout fishing.

Fly anglers typically use either dry flies or nymphing techniques to mimic the various insects that hatch along the river in late spring and early summer, including mayfly, caddis and stone flies.

Interested in discovering the top fly fishing rivers in the state, including some North Coast rivers? Check out the Best Fly Fishing Rivers in California.

Small spinners and natural bait on ultralight spinning tackle can also be effective for Mad River trout.

Ruth Lake itself has been regularly stocked with rainbow trout by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, and is a great place to fish for planted trout from a kayak or float tube.

Warm water game fish including largemouth bass, crappie and bluegill also inhabit Ruth Lake, and the U.S. Forest Service operates several campgrounds along its shoreline. 

Planning Your Trip

The winter months are prime time for steelhead fishing on the Mad River, but you might also visit in late fall or early spring to beat the crowds and take advantage of milder weather.

Either way, it’s best to be prepared for varied water conditions. 

There is still a fair amount of logging that takes place along the middle section of the Mad River, and winter flows tend to be on the muddy side.

Even so, the Mad River is less likely to get blown out by heavy rains than other nearby rivers like the Klamath River and Eel River. That makes the Mad a great alternative when other coastal rivers are unfishable. 

Getting There

The Mad River flows through some remote countryside as well as several well-populated towns and small cities. Most of the river is within a two- or three-hour drive from Redding, the nearest major city.

The lower Mad River is especially easy to get to. U.S. Highway 101 and CA State Route 299 intersect just south of the Mad River in the city of Arcata, and several access points are available just off both highways.

Mad River Fishing Access

Depending on which area of the Mad River you plan to fish, you should have no trouble finding a place to wet a line.

Of course, a lot of the more popular spots on the lower Mad River are abuzz with angling activity on a busy weekend at the peak of steelhead season:

  • Estuary – The lowest section of the Mad River, where it opens up into an estuary to meet the Pacific, is accessible through Mad River County Park and Hiller Park in McKinleyville.
  • North Bank Road – A frontage road known as North Bank Roat runs between U.S. 101 and CA-299, providing access to several quality steelhead and salmon holes along the river’s northern shore (West End Road provides similar access on the south side of the river).
  • Hatchery Area – Access to the river is provided on the grounds of the Mad River Fish Hatchery, and you’ll find additional access just downstream along Hatchery Road. This is the most popular access site on the river, and gets quite busy during steelhead season. 
  • Middle Mad River – The middle section of the river is easily accessible in the community of Mad River, which is located along CA-36 within Six Rivers National Forest. The Forest Service maintains the Mad River Campground along the river, just a few miles upstream. 
  • Ruth Lake / Upper Mad River – Several access sites are located on Ruth Lake, above the Matthews Dam. The Forest Service-operated Fir Cove Campground offers shore access and several first-come, first-served campsites. There are also privately-owned marinas and campgrounds around the lake. 

Know Before You Go

As with many California rivers in which salmon and steelhead spawn, fishing seasons and other regulations vary between different sections of the Mad River and may be subject to emergency rule changes.

Be sure to acquaint yourself with the California fishing regulations before you go.

In addition to a current California freshwater fishing license, a North Coast Salmon Report Card or Steelhead Report Card is required to take salmon or steelhead.

Find more fishing spots in Humboldt County