When salmon make their way toward the mouths of California’s rivers from their Pacific Ocean haunts, fishermen are never far behind.
Some of California’s most prized and hardest-fighting game fish, salmon are also some of the most challenging to catch.
This article will show you the very best salmon rivers across California, so you can increase your odds of catching one of America’s favorite game fish.
These are some tough fish. Salmon are known for making runs that can strip the gears in your reel, if they don’t snap the line first.
Sturdy tackle and strong line are a must. Many anglers employ 8-foot bait-casting rods and reels spooled with 20-pound line.
In California, the most common and sought-after salmon species is the Chinook salmon. Also referred to as king salmon, Chinooks commonly weigh 10 to 15 pounds, but individuals weighting well above 20 pounds are caught every year.
California’s record king salmon, an 88-pound goliath, was caught in the Sacramento River in 1979.
Chinook salmon head into California’s rivers to spawn every year, and many rivers host multiple runs, often one in the spring and one in the fall.
Fishing for spring-run salmon often peaks from June through August, and fishing for fall-run salmon can be excellent from August through November.
Every river is different, and the fishing also will change from the bays and tidal zones on up into the free-flowing rivers.
Many anglers use flashy spinners and spoons, or brightly-colored wobbling plugs to entice salmon as they head upstream. Others use live or cut baitfish or salmon eggs (also called roe).
Spawning salmon will often strike a lure not out of hunger, but out of aggression.
In addition to Chinooks, coho salmon also spawn in many California rivers. They often run simultaneously with Chinook salmon, but favor smaller streams and tributaries.
The Central California Coast coho salmon is an endangered species, and must be released immediately if caught. For that reason, we’re going to focus on Chinook salmon for the most part.
Before you go salmon fishing in California, be sure to read up on regulations.
Statewide seasons and limits are in place, but most rivers have their own particular set of rules, and those rules can change in a flash as run sizes and water conditions dictate.
Barbless hooks are often required, and it’s common for certain sections of certain rivers to be off-limits during particular seasons. Seasons may also be different from one year to the next.
Without further delay, here are California’s best salmon fishing rivers.
The Sacramento is California’s largest river and one of the biggest on the entire West Coast.
The Sac traverses 400 miles of the Golden State before it merges with the San Joaquin River to form the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a vast estuary that empties into San Francisco Bay, and then onward to the Pacific.
Every year, vast numbers of Chinook salmon enter the Delta.
A few of them head south into the San Joaquin River, but the overwhelming majority run up the Sacramento River, eventually making their way into its many tributaries, including Battle Creek and the Feather and American Rivers.
More salmon spawn in this system than anywhere else in the state.
There are also several distinct salmon runs in the Sacramento River system, which means there are almost always salmon in the rivers. But at present, only the fall and late fall runs are open to fishing.
Fall-run Chinooks typically enter the Sacramento River from July through December, and spawn from early October through late December.
Late-fall-run salmon enter from mid-October through December, and they spawn from January through mid-April.
And while this is by no means a hard and fast rule, it’s generally agreed that the fall run is best for numbers, but late fall-run Chinooks are the real giants.
For anglers, the season biggins in mid-summer, and the tactic of choice is trolling the Delta with flasher rigs, typically with spoons, spinners, plugs and hoochies trailing behind.
As the calendar turns to fall and salmon make their way upriver, fishermen follow them.
In the lower reaches of the Sacramento, where the water is broad and relatively slow-moving, drift fishing is popular.
Local guides usually anchor above a prime spot and let baits drift downstream right into Chinooks’ mouths. The Woodson Bridge area is popular in early fall.
Later in the season, attentions turn farther upriver.
Although there are dozens of prime salmon fishing spots on the Sacramento River, none are more famous or more productive than the one known as Barge Hole, at the mouth of Battle Creek near the community of Cottonwood.
By early October, anglers are usually shoulder-to-shoulder along the banks around Barge Hole, and the waters in mid-river are aswarm with boats.
There are also other great access sites all along the river, including Anderson River Park in Anderson and the Keswick Dam site just above Redding.
Anglers use a variety of brightly colored spinners and spoons on the Sacramento River, especially patterns that include chartreuse, hot pink and chrome.
Salmon eggs, mullet and anchovies are also popular, depending on your favorite style of fishing.
Although the American River is just 30 miles long, it’s a major salmon fishery, and one of the Sacramento River’s first major tributaries as salmon head upstream.
Some of these fish take a left to keep going up the Sacramento. Other veer right into the American.
For those that choose the American River, fishing starts to warm up in August and often keeps on going well into November.
Tactics that work for salmon in the Sacramento tend to also work here. Chunky spoons and wobbling plugs are popular, and it pays to focus on deep holes.
Sacramento’s Tiscornia Park, located right where the American River empties into the Sacramento River, is a great shore fishing spot early in the season, but it can get awful busy.
To find a more secluded spot, there is a walking path that follows the river upstream along the bank from the park, and you might be able to escape the heaviest of the crowds.
Most of the American River flows through Sacramento and its suburbs, but there’s a great network of parks and greenways along the banks that shield the river somewhat from the urban sprawl that surrounds it.
These areas also provide a lot of great bank fishing access.
Sutter’s Landing Regional Park and River Bend Park both offer ample access to the river.
The final stretch of the river between Sunrise Recreation Area and the American River Fish Hatchery is also very productive, especially toward the end of the season.
The hatchery is just downstream from Nimbus Dam, which is the end of the line for salmon that make it up this far.
The deep hole and tailwater area below the dam is arguably the most popular fishing spot on the American River, especially in the latter half of the season.
More information: American River Fishing
The Feather River joins the Sacramento significantly farther upstream than the American. As a result, the salmon run reaches fever pitch just a little later. But by the end of September, the action is usually at its peak or close to it.
A lot of the Feather River is sandy-bottomed and somewhat featureless, with plenty of nondescript riffles and runs. These areas tend not to be all that productive.
However, there are also some deep holes where the current is relatively slack. Salmon use these holes to rest while they make their way upstream, and they have a tendency to bunch up the deepest areas.
The most famous of these is the Afterbay Hole (sometimes referred to as the Outlet Hole), located below the Oroville Dam. Salmon make it this far, and no farther. It’s one of the best salmon holes in all of California.
Some use jet boats to get out into the deep waters of the Afterbay Hole, but shore fishing is popular too. By the 1st of October, it’s common to see a dozen or more boats out in the hole, with scores of anglers chucking spinners and spoons from the bank.
Salmon may only be taken from an hour before sunrise until an hour after sunset in inland waters in California.
It’s not uncommon to see fishermen lining up along both banks of the Afterbay Hole before the sun rises, in an attempt to be the first to secure a much sought-after spot.
For boat anglers, anchoring and drifting roe through prime spots is the go-to tactic, but plugs like Flatfish and Brad’s Cut Plugs are also popular, and often trigger reaction strikes from aggressive Chinook salmon.
The whole area from the Outlet down to Live Oak boat launch ramp can be productive. Catching 10 fish or more in a day is entirely possible when the run is good and the bite is on.
More information: Feather River Fishing
Flowing 25 miles through Del Norte County, way up in the almost-Oregon north-westernmost corner of California, the Smith River is famed for its record steelhead as well as some of the biggest Chinook salmon in California.
The river record sits at 86 pounds—just 2 pounds shy of the state record—and kings weighing 50 pounds or more are landed most years.
The Smith isn’t necessarily the best place in California for numbers, but there are monsters here. It’s best to go prepared to tangle with some serious fish.
It also helps that the Smith is a truly lovely river, with green-tinted waters tumbling between rocky banks and pine-studded Klamath Mountain slopes.
The Smith even passes through groves of redwoods on its way to the ocean. It’s a joy to fish, even when the fish aren’t biting.
The salmon fishing gets going in September in the lower Smith River, when anglers gather around the mouth of the river, about 10 miles north of Crescent City. Salmon arrive hungry, and drifting live bait is popular.
By October, the action makes its way upriver to the Sand Hole area, which is arguably the best salmon fishing spot on the lower Smith. Trolling plug-cut herring and anchovies is popular here, and some anglers also cast plugs and roe.
Sand Hole itself is a deep spot, but salmon must traverse some shallows to get to it, and many anglers have the greatest success in the upper and lower ends of the hole.
Once November rolls around, salmon make their way up past the mouth of Rowdy Creek (a popular late season spot) and up into the Smith River’s North, Middle and South Forks.
Wild salmon mix with kings from the Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery, and the fall salmon run starts to wind down toward the end of November.
Once the calendar turns to December, attentions start to shift toward steelhead fishing, which can be excellent well into spring.
More information: Smith River Fishing
The Klamath River originates in the mountains of Southern Oregon before flowing 257 miles to the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. It’s a spectacularly beautiful waterway, its broad course meandering among ancient alpine forests.
It’s also the second-largest river in California by water volume (after the Sacramento) and receives some of the most abundant annual salmon runs. Fall-run Chinook salmon start showing up around the mouth of the river in August.
For many local anglers, the lower section of the river is the place to be early in the season, and there’s great action from the mouth of the river up to Klamath Glen in September, especially for drift fishing.
The whole area from Happy Camp to Orleans is also productive, especially for boaters drifting roll or back-trolling wobbling plugs and spoons.
Much of the lower and middle sections of the river are easily accessible for bank anglers, many of whom don waders to get closer to the fish.
But the real fall salmon bonanza takes place in late September through October, as Chinooks reach the Iron Gate Dam.
The Iron Gate Dam represents the end of the road for these fish as they make their way upstream, and salmon stack up in the pools and tailraces immediately downstream of the dam.
The shoreline in this area is mostly privately owned, so it really requires a boat to get the most out of fishing below the dam. But 20-fish days are possible drifting roe from the dam down to Klamathon Bridge.
There’s also a spring salmon run that starts in April or May and often stretches into July.
This early run often tends to be a bit less abundant than the fall run, with most of these fish choosing to head up into the Trinity River, but some huge kings are pulled from the Klamath in springtime.
As great as the salmon fishing in the Klamath River can be, it’s worth noting that the fishing here is not without its ups and downs. Like a lot of rivers in California, there are boom years and bust years, with drought being one of the biggest factors.
More information: Klamath River Fishing
The 165-mile Trinity River is the largest of the Klamath River’s tributaries, tumbling down through the Klamath Mountains and Coast Ranges before merging with the Klamath River in Humboldt County.
A good share of the salmon that run up the Klamath River eventually make their way up the Trinity. There’s a simple reason for that: they were born here.
The Trinity River Fish Hatchery near Lewiston is one of the state’s leading producers of steelhead, Chinook salmon and coho salmon. A self-sustaining brown trout population also calls the river home.
The spring salmon run is the main attraction in the Trinity River. These fish start entering the river as early as May and provide trophy fishing through November, with the peak season being July through August.
In addition to being a great salmon fishing stream, the Trinity is also a spectacularly beautiful river. Much of it flows through the protected landscape of Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
The lower portion of the river is paralleled by Highway 299, which provides access to numerous pull-offs and fishing access sites as well as several National Forest campgrounds.
Bank fishing is, generally, the best way to ply the Trinity River. Not only is access to the shoreline abundant and easy to come by, but the river is known for its tumultuous whitewater, which can challenge even the most experienced boaters.
That said, many local guides do employ drifting techniques using jet boats.
More information: Trinity River Fishing
The Eel River, once one of the west coast’s leading salmon and steelhead rivers, suffered catastrophic losses in habitat and fish populations throughout the last half of the 20th century.
Logging was largely to blame, along with the construction of dams and the diversion of much of the Eel River’s flow for drinking water.
In the last 20 years, things have gotten significantly better. And while it’s safe to say there’s still a long road ahead, salmon runs in recent years have been the best since the 1950s.
The fall Chinook salmon run in particular has gotten to a point where fishing is once again allowed, although at last check it’s still catch-and-release only for these fish.
Fall-run Chinook are in the river from August through November, with some of the best fishing taking place in October (the river is, occasionally, closed in October due to low water levels).
Early in the season, the area below the Route 211 Bridge in Ferbridge is the best place to fish for salmon on the Eel River.
River levels in summer tend to be low, and salmon often stack up in the deep hole below Fernbridge, waiting for fall rains to raise the river so that they can proceed upstream.
Once they do, other deep holes like the mouth of the Van Dizen River can be productive. Highway 101 runs parallel to the river for much of its 196-mile course, and there are numerous access sites just off the highway.
A variety of spinners and spoons are effective on the Eel River, and drifting roe is, as always, is a popular tactic.
Steelhead follow hot on the heels of the salmon as fall turns to winter, and it’s possible to catch both on salmon eggs in November.
Be sure to check the regulations carefully for when and where bait fishing is allowed, for barbless hook rules, and other requirements that tend to vary significantly by season and section in the river system.
More: Eel River Fishing
For More Information
Learn to catch more by reading our guide to Salmon Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.
Several of California’s best salmon fishing rivers also are among the best places to catch steelhead. For the full scoop on the latter, read Best Steelhead Fishing Rivers in California.