Fishing the Russian River (Complete Angler’s Guide)

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Northern California’s Russian River offers a wider range of fishing opportunities than your typical salmon and steelhead stream.

A quick drive north of San Francisco, historically the Russian River was in fact a world-class steelhead and salmon fishery, but those traditional fisheries fell on hard times in more recent generations.

Conservation and habitat reclamation efforts have made some headway toward returning the Russian to its previous glory, including a hatchery that is the foundation of a steelhead fishery that some years can produce quite good catches.

While Chinook and coho runs aren’t at the level that would allow anglers to keep salmon, the river does offer fisheries for several popular types of fish, including some non-native species.

Striped bass also aren’t at the levels the river once saw, but there’s a sizable shad run in May and June, smallmouth bass are plentiful in sections and fun to catch, catfish can get as big as salmon in the slower sections, and trout are stocked in parts of the upper river system.

Overall, the rustic beauty and slow pace of the Russian River make it a good bet in this part of California for anyone looking for a scenic, easily accessible river fishing experience within a reasonable drive from the Bay Area.

Be sure to check on current regulations before heading to the river. Barbless hook restrictions are active year-round, and seasonal bait restrictions are in effect as well.

The Russian River is around 125 miles long, with several parks along its length with easy access to fishing, swimming, rafting and kayaking.

Taking a trip down the river in a drift boat will allow you to access several quality fishing holes easily.

Russian River Fishing

The upper section of the Russian River is an excellent place to target smallmouth bass throughout the summer.

Then there are decent steelhead runs from December through February. 

Access points near Geyserville, Jim Town and northeast of Healdsburg are good places to try for some late-spring catfish and summertime bass.

Wohler Bridge between Forestville and Healdsburg is a local favorite during the steelhead run. Steelhead Beach in Forestville is another great area.

There are several points up and down these roads to gain shore access, and they tend to be less crowded than the more visited areas downriver near Guerneville.

The middle section of the river takes you from Healdsburg down to Guerneville. Lucky Bend is a promising area for steelhead in the winter and once the waters cloud up in spring makes for some epic catfishing.

Several parks and pullout access points can be found between Healdsburg and Guerneville.

Remember that in California, landowners don’t own the river, so wade fishing isn’t trespassing, but getting there might be. Be sure to check regulations.

From Guerneville to the ocean is a fantastic section of slow-moving water. Bass love it, steelhead stack up in it, and shad forge through on their way up to the tributaries upriver.

Steelhead in the 6- to 12-pound range are common in the winter and 2 to 6 pounds is more typical in the fall. A 6-pound steelhead is still a force to be reckoned with.

The lower section of the Russian River occasionally shows itself as a decent sturgeon fishery.

Both white and green sturgeon may show up here on occasion.

Remember that sturgeon fishing is quite regulated and green sturgeon in particular are fully protected across California, so read the regulations before participating in this fishery.

Runs of spawning sturgeon, though likely rare, have been reported here but frankly are far more common in the Sacramento River.

Steelhead Fishing

Steelhead are always fun to catch, be they 2 or 20 pounds.

Taking a float trip down the Russian River in the late fall through early spring to chase steelhead can be spectacular. It can also be super frustrating, as these are tricky fish to catch. 

There are several sections that you’ll want to make multiple runs through. Kayaks and canoes are available for rent at several local shops along the river and targeting steelhead from a kayak is a lot of fun. 

If not fishing from a boat, bring your waders and hit the slower water just below any rapids, because this is where steelhead will hit the brakes and rest awhile before continuing their upstream migrations.

Honestly, you’ll know where they are by the number of cars parks at roadside and anglers along the shore.

Be there early in the morning during the week to avoid the weekend crowds, or hike into harder-to-reach water.

Standard steelhead techniques work well here.

Favorite spots include the river below Guerneville, around Lucky Bend and upriver to the Steelhead Beach area in Forestville. Wohler Bridge is a great place to spend some time in your waders.

Steelheading open in October and runs through April. While you can catch fish throughout that time frame, the larger adult fish are most likely to be around in the winter months.

Water conditions will dictate steelhead fishing success to a great degree.

If the water is too low, state authorities will shut it down. (Call the hotline at 707-944-5533 to make sure it’s open.)

On the flip side, heavy rains can really blow out the Russian River. If it’s running muddy brown, you’ll have a tough time catching anything and it’s best to hold off on a trip until it drops back into shape.

Flows between those extremes, ideally when the river is a pretty “steelhead green,” are ideal for this fishery.

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

Smallmouth Bass Fishing

Once things warm up enough, you’ll find bass feeding actively in slower-moving section of the river.

Bass are prolific here, and while you usually won’t find fish threatening the record books, you can have days filled with catching one after another of these strong fighters, which is why we’ve included the Russian River as an honorable mention in the Best Smallmouth Bass Fishing in California.

Crankbaits work well, along with anything in a crawfish pattern, because the little “freshwater lobsters” aren’t just tasty to Cajuns. Bluegill patterns can get lit up on occasion as well.

If you’re having a hard day on the water, particularly enticing the more particular larger fish, it might be time to switch to a finesse approach with a Ned rig or a wacky rigged Senko in watermelon flake.

Toss the jig out and be ready to set the hook on the drop. Bass can be very aggressive when chasing finesse baits.

Shad Fishing

American shad are found in considerable numbers each spring, and the Russian River is simply among the best shad fishing rivers in California.

Starting out at the mouth of the river and cruising up to spawn upriver, these feisty fish are ready to put up a fight.

Targeting shad with a 5-weight fly rod is an unforgettable experience.

They are incredible fighters and will grab almost any colorful streamer you put in front of them.

Conventional tackle will hook many as well, with small twisty-tail grubs in bright colors, shiny little spoons and spinners, shad darts and other lures also worth getting the nod some days.

Find plenty more tips and techniques to catch shad with our simple fishing guide.

Shad move upriver in groups and will hold in the deeper pools below rapid sections. Once you find them, you’ll probably find them in masses, and the catch rate can be almost a frenzy—epic fishing for sure. 

The lower and middle sections are the best for shad, though they do get into the upper river as well.

Almost anywhere along the river that you can gain access should be a good spot for them.

Catfish Fishing

Cloudy, warming water in the spring equals stellar channel catfishing.

The fish are prepping for their spawn and will bite almost anything, and the more stinky, the better. Chicken liver, stink baits, and cut mackerel all work well.

Worms and nightcrawlers will catch most fish that swim, but they also are likely to bring smallmouths and other fish calling, and you might not want the other fish stripping your hook.

The slower waters are the best areas to target catfish.

Drift bait down near the bottom in the slower sections.

There are big ones in there, with channels above 20 pounds not unheard of these days.

More: Best Catfish Fishing Lakes and Rivers in California and Catfish Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips.

Trout Fishing

While most of the Russian River isn’t a trout stream, beyond the winter steelhead, those looking for trout should turn up into the upper watershed in rural Mendocino County.

The East Fork of the Russian River is stocked with trout in the spring above Lake Mendocino, about six miles east of Calpella and just off Highway 20 in the Potter Valley Road area.

This part of the stream, also known as the East Branch, is more remote than the main river where most of the other fisheries we’re writing about occur.

This is basically creek fishing that requires some scrambling down often steep and brushy banks.

Striped Bass Fishing

Stripers were everywhere in the Russian River in the past. Salmon and stripers were huge draws, making the Russian River famous, and anglers came from all over to fish it.

That’s not often the case these days, though it is possible to find the occasional striper hanging out in the summer and fall.

While stripers aren’t showing up in huge numbers like days of yore, with restoration projects taking place on the river, the hope is for a rebound.

Until the numbers come back, there will be a few caught while targeting other species, particularly catfish and other bass, but fewer anglers specifically coming for stripers.

If you have stripers on your agenda, check out the Best Striped Bass Fishing Rivers and Lakes in California.

Salmon Fishing

To put it bluntly, salmon are no longer found in huge numbers in the Russian.

There was a time that Chinook and coho salmon spawned in huge numbers. Along came a few dams and other harms to the habitat, and before you know it, there weren’t many salmon.

Efforts are underway to rebuild the historic runs, but for now salmon fishing isn’t allowed here.

If you catch one incidentally while trying for steelhead or other legal game fish, release it immediately and let it go about its business.

If catching salmon is your goal, check out the Best Salmon Fishing Rivers in California and Best Landlocked Chinook Salmon Fishing Lakes in California.

Planning Your Trip

The Russian River is located about 75 miles north of San Francisco.

With it being relatively close to millions of people, it can be crowded on the weekends and is a hot spot for the splash and giggle groups.

Every warm day in the summer will find flotillas of flamingo and unicorn-shaped tubes clogging up the river, especially from Guerneville to the ocean.

Anglers often will do well to stay upriver from Guerneville in the summer, or at least be on the water at sunrise to get out ahead of the flotillas. 

Boat and Shore Access

Whether fishing from shore or by boat, you should have no issue finding plenty of places to go.

Bank fishing is available at almost every park along the river, and there are multiple pullouts as well.

Boats can launch at several parks along the river, and each town has boat launching facilities.

Rental kayaks and canoes are available in several areas, so be sure to book in advance if you don’t have your own watercraft.

Guided trips can be a good option during the steelhead runs, and there are some highly rated services in the area.

Where to Stay

There are several hotels, campgrounds and vacation rentals scattered along the river. 

Camping is available from the mouth in Jenner throughout the 100-plus mile length of the river to its headwaters. Be sure to plan to secure your spot in advance, where reservations are taken. 

There are several cafes and restaurants along the river, including those that show up on those “must try” lists, so the food around the area is excellent.

Wineries are available, so if you’re done fishing for the day, hit up a wine tour and top off the day at a fantastic café along the river.

The Russian River was one of the elite fishing destinations on the West Coast for years.

Through conservation and reclamation projects, the river is now on a comeback tour that already has seen some successes with steelhead. 

Hopefully soon, the epic salmon and striper runs of the past will return in full force. 

Until then, the river is still worth the visit. Who knows, you might even land a sturgeon!

Find more fishing spots in Mendocino County