Mattole River Fishing: Legendary Steelheading

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The Mattole River might be nearly hidden on Northern California’s Lost Coast, but it has an exceptional fishing history.

Generations gone by, the winter months found stars like Clark Gable and other famous Hollywood elite casting flies into epic steelhead and salmon runs along the river. 

While you aren’t likely to encounter a celebrity on the Mattole River these days, and your chances of encountering a salmon aren’t all that much better, you can still find good and sometimes excellent steelhead fishing.

The only real problem is getting there. Let’s just say the access road isn’t the best—plan on taking it slow.

Steelhead, along with Chinook and coho salmon, migrate up the Mattole River throughout the year.

The river is possibly the furthest south that any summer-run steelies show up.

Though the river has a storied past, it is in a stage of rejuvenation. The wild steelhead and salmon that run up this river are heavily regulated, so check the regulations before heading out.

However, hatchery steelhead can be kept during the open seasons here, and the winter run draws the most interest (and best catches) for steelhead anglers.

Fishing is open from January through March from 200 yards above the river’s mouth to Honeydew Creek, and most of that area (above Stansberry Creek on the lower river) is open again for much of the summer.

The lowest 200 yards of river at the mouth is closed all year, and the upper river above Honeydew Creek also has no harvest opportunities for hatchery-marked steelhead or trout.

There’s a fair bit of private property along the Mattole River, so stick to public access spots or ask permission to fish on somebody’s land.

Mattole River Steelhead

The Mattole River at times during the winter might be worthy of including among the best steelhead fishing rivers in California, and it’s certainly one to keep in mind if you’d rather skip the crowds at the better-known streams.

These days the fishing often seems to improve year over year, with a general trend toward more significant numbers returning to spawn thanks in part to conservation efforts.

Some of these ocean-run rainbow trout get pretty big, too. There have been reports of steelhead over 24 pounds, and some avid steelheaders would rank the Mattole only after the Smith River for your odds of catching a 20-plus-pounder.

Once you decide to take on the adventure that is Mattole Road, you’ll eventually come to the Honeydew Valley and Honeydew Country Store. This is where the fishing adventure starts.

Fishing is closed year-round above Honeydew Creek, which is about a half mile upstream (south) from the store.

Now that you’ve braved the road to this point check out the aptly named Honeydew Hole. This marks the last major hole on the river before the fish split off into smaller creeks.

There are usually good numbers of winter steelhead during the open season in January through March, and some of the holes here may have a summer-run fish or two later on as well.

The summer run is improving slowly but still has a ways to go. In 2013 a fish count found almost 50 summer-run steelies in the deeper holes, compared to the previous study showing just 9 in 2004. 

Current regulations require catch-and-release river for wild steelhead, though fin-marked hatchery fish are okay to keep. Be sure to remove the barbs on your hooks to make the release easier.

After moving downstream from the Honeydew Hole, head west and look for the A.W. County Park, from here downriver to the mouth are several holes that hold decent steelhead, along with some salmon.

The Mattole River is only open to fishing with artificial lures and flies with barbless hooks. No bait is allowed.

There is a winter season Regulations change once you get to Stansberry Creek, so keep that in mind. 

Pink lures and streamers work great here.

Try a Corky and put a pink bit of yarn (or even a plain Corky), or maybe a spinner or spoon.

Steelhead worms are an excellent option for this river. Pink or purple patterns are good choices. 

You could also try out the Tadpolly Plug. It works well for covering the entire run.

Fly fishing also is a popular approach at Mattole River.

Several streamers are worth a try, so load up before leaving civilization. There aren’t any fly shops in Petrolia, so grab some pink presentations before hitting the road.

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

Salmon Fishing Mattole River  

Salmon fishing isn’t really a fishery here, largely because the river is closed during the fall when most salmon would be migrating upriver to spawn.

If you do catch a salmon, it’s strictly catch and release.

Chinook and coho runs are improving, with stream surveys showing an upward trend in fry counts in the spawning creeks.

Targeting the steelies is by far the better option, and hatchery steelhead can be kept.

Want to catch a Chinook salmon where you can keep it? Try the Best Salmon Fishing Rivers in California and the Best Landlocked Chinook Salmon Fishing Lakes in California.

Mattole River Trout 

While this river’s reputation is built more on sea-going steelhead than resident trout, there are some nice-sized trout along sections of the river.

Most trout are likely to be found between the park and Honeydew. That section has fewer deep holes along the river than below, but it does have some rocky boulder sections for trout to hold in.

Give it a go with dry flies or a gold bead head with a hopper as the indicator. 

A 3-weight or 4-weight fly rod would be ideal for the trout, but a much heftier rod is needed for the steelhead and salmon that might snatch a fly in the same section.

Wild trout must be released in the Mattole River, and smaller hatchery fin-marked rainbows might actually be young steelhead.

If fly fishing for trout and steelhead is your jam, check out the Best Fly Fishing Rivers in California

Planning Your Trip

The Mattole River is located about 50 miles south of Eureka. However, it’s not 50 smooth miles. The trip to Petrolia will take roughly 1¾ hours. Longer if the weather is bad.

The entire Lost Coast area is beautiful, and there’s plenty for the nature-loving family to do, from hiking to kayaking. Lighthouses and a fantastic beach are other options, including to keep the non-fishing family members busy while you perfect your steel heading techniques.

Shore and Boat Access

There is easy access to the river along a good portion of Mattole Road, while Lighthouse Road provides a route into the lower river areas and Wilder Ridge Road gets you to the upper fishing deadline upstream from Honeydew Country Store.

A few spots would work to set in a drift boat for the lower leg. Check the current flows to make sure you can navigate the length. 

When fishing from a boat, be sure to hit Conklin Creek Hole. There are often several steelhead holding here, and this spot is easier to get to in a boat than from shore. 

Once you’re in Petrolia, you’ll see shore access widen out, and the water can be waded with ease.

Where to Stay

The area has several R.V. parks and campgrounds, and Petrolia has a few lodges and cabins available.

Be sure to plan ahead and reserve lodging. Depending on the year, they can fill up pretty fast and options for some types of overnight accommodations are more limited.

Due to the remote nature of this river, plan on bringing everything you’ll need with you. There are some markets, but don’t expect an Albertsons or Safeway nearby.

There are cafes in both Petrolia and Honeydew to check out to get a break from cooking for yourself. 

Getting to the Mattole River is indeed a trek. The road may need some work, but the beautiful, rugged river at the end will make you forget about the potholes. Until you have to go home, that is.

Find more fishing spots in Humboldt County