If the closest you’ve ever come to steelhead fishing has been pursuing rainbow trout in trickling mountain streams, you may be shocked to learn that these two fish are the same species.
But steelhead, known for their sizzling runs and bull-like brute strength, are indeed rainbow trout.
Unlike salmon, though, steelhead don’t always die after spawning. Many of them survive to spawn multiple times, reaching sizes that often exceed 20 pounds in the process.
In California, rivers that empty into the Pacific provide some of America’s great steelhead fishing opportunities.
This article spotlights the very best steelhead fishing rivers in California, although several other streams will host smaller runs of these fish and can be worth getting to know, especially for locals.
Being a cold-water species like all trout, steelhead are more numerous in the rivers in the northern half of the state, although a few smaller populations are found farther south.
The best time to go steelhead fishing in California varies. Some rivers host more than one run in a season, with summer-run steelhead followed by a much larger winter run.
Generally speaking, the peak of the steelhead run is usually December through February.
The tactics used to catch them vary too. Salmon eggs are an ever-popular bait (the steelhead run comes immediately after the Chinook salmon run, and steelhead know how tasty and nutritious salmon roe is).
But many anglers use spinners, spoons or live baits such as nightcrawlers or sand shrimp.
Fly anglers have a lot of options too, from nymphs and streamers to egg imitations.
A word of caution before you hit any of these great California steelhead rivers: take the time to learn the rules.
Generally speaking, there’s a 2-fish limit on hatchery-raised steelhead, while all wild steelhead must be returned to the water immediately.
You can tell the difference between hatchery reared and wild steelhead by looking at the adipose fin, which is the fleshy, small fin on a steelhead’s back closer to the tail. Hatchery steelhead have their adipose fins clipped and healed, making them easy to spot.
The Klamath River is a vast river system that offers some of the most abundant steelhead runs on the California coast.
California’s second-largest river by discharge, the Klamath River originates in Oregon before flowing 257 miles through California to the Pacific Ocean. It’s fed along the way by tributaries that include the Scott, Salmon and Trinity Rivers.
The winter steelhead run starts to peak in December, and goes strong right through February.
There’s also a summer run that gets going in mid-July and typically ends in early November.
In both cases, it’s fair to expect a lot of 3- to 7-pound steelhead, with a few 10 pound-plus fish mixed in.
Folks don’t really come to the Klamath River for size. They come for numbers of fish, and for the beautiful mountain scenery.
In fact, the Klamath is arguably best known for its abundant half pounder run in fall. These are juvenile steelhead re-entering the Klamath River for the first time, usually about four months after making their first trip back to the ocean.
Don’t take the term “half pounder” too literally. These fish measure 13 to 18 inches and typically weigh a pound or two. Besides, what they lack in size they make up for in abundance, scrappiness and the sheer non-stop fun of catching them.
The half pounder run is usually at its peak in November, just a little behind the fall Chinook salmon run, and a bit ahead of the proper winter steelhead run.
Jet boats are the best way to navigate this wide, often tumultuous river, especially the lower sections.
Many anglers and local guides use jet boats to hop from one shore-fishing spot to another. Wading tends to be the best and most enjoyable way to fish the Klamath.
Many anglers use salmon roe to tempt steelhead that are hot on the heels of the salmon run.
Fly fishing is also popular, with egg-imitating flies getting the call more often than not.
Nymphing is often effective too, and since specific insect hatches aren’t a huge factor for Klamath River steelhead, generic fly patterns tend to work just fine, sometimes using eye-catching colors the provoke these aggressive fish.
The lower Klamath River from Happy Camp down to the mouth at the Pacific Ocean is the most popular area when steelhead are in the early stages of a run. After about a month into the run, head farther upstream to the Iron Gate Dam tailwater.
Steelhead get backed up below the dam, and although much of the shore immediately downstream is privately owned, fishing this area from a boat can be incredible.
A little farther below the dam, there’s good roadside access just off Highway 96.
More information: Klamath River Fishing
A major tributary that feeds the Klamath River, the Trinity River traverses 165 miles of the Klamath Mountains and Coast Ranges before meeting up with the Klamath.
The Trinity is a designated National Wild and Scenic River, and it courses swiftly through mountain meadows and canyons.
Many of the steelhead that run in the Klamath River eventually make their way up into the Trinity. This includes a substantial half-pounder run in fall, and a great many adult steelhead between December and March.
Expect mostly 4- to 8-pounders and the occasional steelhead weighing 10 pounds or more among the adult steelhead you catch.
The Trinity River Hatchery produces steelhead smolts as well as salmon, so the river from there downstream is the productive stretch.
The hatchery is below Lewiston Lake, which sits just downstream from the giant Trinity Lake.
Although the Trinity River can be awash with winter snow melt early in the year, it tends to be a calmer and more manageable river than the Klamath, which makes it great for fly fishing.
It has great fly-fishing runs and an abundance of roadside access, and the look and feel of a classic fly-fishing stream.
Highway 299 parallels much of the Trinity, as do some smaller roads, and there are also several National Forest campgrounds within walking distance of the water.
Many fly anglers stick to dry flies in fall, and switch gears to nymphing when the waters rise and cool off in winter.
The Trinity River has major hatches of Callibaetis and adult stoneflies in late winter and early spring, and dry flies that match these hatches can tempt big steelhead as well as wild brown trout.
More information: Trinity River Fishing
The Smith River meanders through 25 miles of Del Norte County in the extreme northwestern corner of California.
One of the state’s best destinations for steelhead and Chinook salmon alike, it’s home to the long-standing state record steelhead, a 27-pound, 4-ounce beast caught in 1976.
Not a single dam exists along this free-flowing waterway, making the Smith River one of the crown jewels of the National Wild and Scenic River program and earning it the nickname, “California’s last wild river.”
Steelhead fishing starts to get cooking around December here, and typically hits its peak in either January or February, depending on the rains and countless other factors.
Most years, there are opportunities to catch steelhead right through to April.
Drift fishing is the tactic of choice for many who fish the Smith for steelhead, especially the fishing guides who make their living on the river. You can also have great success casting or trolling plugs.
Tumultuous riffles and runs make the main stem of the Smith River a very challenging place for fly fishing.
The entire stretch of the river from the Forks (where the Smith River’s three forks all meet) downstream to the Highway 101 Bridge to can be productive.
Farther upstream, some of the best shore fishing access is on the middle Fork of the Smith River, and fly anglers tend to favor this section.
The North and South Forks aren’t as easy to access as the Middle Fork, but both offer opportunities.
The North Fork is only open to fishing in its lowermost mile, but the South Fork has some great pools where nymphing with indicators and weighted flies can be effective.
The Smith River also offers unsurpassed scenery thanks to its location among the picturesque Klamath Mountains.
The upper forks are especially lovely, and much of the river including the main stem flows through state park and national forest land, including gliding past some of California’s tallest coastal redwoods.
More information: Smith River Fishing
The Eel River is an iconic, historic waterway that is widely considered to be the birthplace of California fly fishing for salmon and steelhead.
During its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, the steelhead runs in the Eel River were some of the most abundant on the West Coast.
But the river’s downfall—spurred largely by logging, mining and the floods that resulted from habitat destruction—was swift and devastating.
By the 1990s, steelhead runs in the Eel River were a tiny fraction of their historic levels, only in the last 20 years have strict regulations allowed a partial recovery.
These days, the narrative surrounding the Eel River is that steelhead are back. But caution is still warranted.
Steelhead in the 8- to 10-pound range are increasingly common, and 20-pound fish are being caught most years, but historic-level steelhead runs remain a long way off.
Still, let’s focus on the positive.
The winter steelhead run is the big one here, and fish start showing up in November. The winter run hits its peak in January, and there are steelhead in the Eel until March.
The main stem of the Eel River as well as its two major feeders, the Eel South Fork and the Van Duzen River, all offer opportunities to catch them.
Focus on runs near the mouth of the river to target the earliest arrivals in November. The water here is deep and slow-moving.
In winter, when the water is high, drift boats dominate the main stem, especially the lower part of the Eel River.
If you find the main stem blown out by rains, try the South Fork or the Van Duzen.
But during times when waters are manageably low, the go-to method among fly anglers is to cast wet flies in a classic down-and-across pattern on the abundant riffles and runs along the Eel River’s main stem and the South Fork.
Highway 101 and the Avenue of the Giants run alongside the river and provide ample access.
Know before you go: there are no hatcheries on the Eel River, which means the steelhead here are wild (with the rare possibility of a hatchery fish straying from another river system), and wild steelhead must be released immediately.
More information: Eel River Fishing
Van Duzen River
One of the major tributaries that feeds the Eel River, the Van Duzen River winds through 60 miles of Trinity and Humboldt counties, meandering among stands of pine, fir, hemlock and redwood trees.
It’s a beautiful river, and many of the steelhead that make their way up the Eel eventually find themselves here.
The Van Duzen River is more of a beloved local fishing spot as opposed to a world-famous steelhead destination.
A lot of the same wet fly techniques that excel on the Eel and the South Fork of the Eel also work here, and drifting nymphs and egg patterns under an indicator is also popular.
Overall access to the Van Duzen River is somewhat limited, but there are some great spots between the Bridgeville and the mouth of the river, and a popular hole right where the Dan Duzen merges with the Eel.
Winter-run steelhead are most abundant here from January onward, and there’s also a moderate summer steelhead run.
Typical Dan Duzen River steelhead weigh 7 to 10 pounds, and they’re known as especially hard fighters.
More information: Van Duzen River Fishing
With its headwaters in the Coast Range of Trinity County, the Mad River flows through 113 miles of Northern California before emptying into the Pacific in Humboldt County.
The Mad River is sandwiched between the Klamath River to the north and the Eel River to the south, and as a result is a somewhat overlooked steelhead river.
Of course, those who fish this river probably don’t mind that it’s a little under the radar.
The Mad River offers winter-run and summer-run steelhead, of which the winter run is the more substantial. Numbers are excellent in January and February.
You also have a solid chance of catching steelhead weighing 8 to 12 pounds here.
Populations of wild steelhead suffered greatly in the past due to logging around this stream, but the efforts of the Mad River Fish Hatchery have been extremely helpful to anglers.
The best fishing tends to be in the lower 8 miles of the Mad River, from the hatchery downstream to the mouth.
There’s a lot of public access in this stretch, thanks to a frontage road that follows the river, which makes this a great place for shore anglers and waders.
The best time to be on the Mad is once the winter rains have subsided and the river is in the process of lowering and clearing.
A heavy rain can wash the river out and make it unfishable for a spell, but the Mad River tends to be less volatile than other NorCal Rivers like the Smith and the Eel.
A wide range of fly-fishing techniques work for Mad River steelhead.
One thing to be aware of is that the water tends to be cloudier here than in many other rivers, so a lot of anglers use large black or chartreuse flies with sinking line to get them down in front of a steelhead’s face, where they often can’t resist hitting it.
But when conditions are ideal, fishing riffles with traditional steelhead patterns is usually effective.
The Mad River also has a small population of fall-run Chinook salmon, so you have a chance at catching both species during the late fall/early winter months.
More information: Mad River Fishing
California’s largest and longest river by far, the Sacramento River originates in the Klamath Mountains and flows south for 400 miles to the ocean through San Francisco Bay.
Before it gets to saltwater, it merges with the San Joaquin River to form the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.
Steelhead, of course, must pass through the Delta before making their way up the Sacramento River to spawn, but this labyrinth of channels and estuaries is a challenging place to fish.
Most steelhead anglers—especially those who favor wading and fly-fishing—wait for the fish to make it farther upstream.
They usually do so around December. Although there is a small summer run here, the overwhelming majority of Sacramento River steelhead are winter-run fish, entering the Delta in fall and eventually reaching spawning grounds farther up the Sac and its tributaries between December and April.
With so much water, it can be hard to know where to start on the Sacramento, but the area between Redding and Anderson is one of the best places to fish.
This roughly 15-mile stretch has a lot of great access, including Bonnyview Boat Launch and Anderson River Park.
Of course, a lot of the steelhead that make their way up the Sacramento River eventually turn into its larger tributaries, like the Feather and American Rivers described next.
But smaller streams like Mill Creek, Battle Creek and Deer Creek also have substantial runs. Few fish actually spawn in the main stem of the Sacramento.
Salmon eggs are the bait of choice for a lot of steelhead anglers here.
As in many California rivers, the steelhead run on the Sacramento follows hot on the heels of the salmon run, and steelhead recognize salmon eggs as a reliable, protein-rich food source.
Natural egg presentations tend to work best, as the Sacramento River often has good visibility, and steelhead often key in on the look and smell of real eggs.
Single eggs or small clusters in natural or dyed red/orange colors work well.
Fly fishermen often rely on egg patterns too, along with standard nymphs and wooly bugger patterns.
Plenty of steelhead in the Sacramento River system weigh 10 pounds or more. You’ll find a mix of wild fish and steelhead reared in the Coleman National Fish Hatchery.
There’s also a resident population of wild rainbow trout that never leaves fresh water.
More information: Sacramento River Fishing
One of the Sacramento River’s main tributaries, the 23-mile American River might not seem like a prime steelhead river, especially if your first glimpse at it is on a map.
That’s because the American River flows through a mostly urban and suburban landscape before meeting up with the Sacramento River in the city of Sacramento.
But there’s a picturesque greenway that stretches along most of the American River’s course. It’s possible to fish the river without so much as a glimpse at the suburbs and shopping malls that surround it.
Steelhead start to trickle into the American River in early December, but the action really heats up when January rolls around and most of these fish have made their way into the upper portion of the river.
Expect a lot of 5- to 8-pound fish, but don’t rule out double-digit steelhead. Most years, a few 15-pounders turn up in anglers’ catches.
One of the great things about the American river is its accessibility. It’s extremely popular among bank fishermen, who mostly drift roe for steelhead throughout the earlier part of the run.
Many switch to live nightcrawlers, pink plastic worms and Little Cleo spoons around February, after the steelhead have been in fresh water for a few months.
It’s worth noting that the American River is dam-controlled by a system that includes Folsom Lake.
While it may lack the wild character of some other Northern California rivers, its flow is well-regulated, and it seldom gets blown out by winter rains.
The area around the Nimbus Fish Hatchery is an especially popular spot.
More information: American River Fishing
Along with the American River, the Feather River is one of the Sacramento River’s largest tributaries.
Its four main tributary forks drain the northern Sierra Nevada before joining together to form the main stem of the Feather River, which stretches 73 miles to its confluence with the Sacramento.
The Feather River was at the center of California’s gold rush in the mid-19th century, but today, it’s better known as one of the state’s great steelhead streams.
Most of the steelhead here are hatchery-raised fish that originated at the Feather River Hatchery below Lake Oroville.
The bulk of the steelhead run on the Feather River takes place from mid-December through the end of January, but you’ll find stragglers right up until April most years.
There’s also an early “half pounder” run that happens in October to November.
There’s a lot of easy access on both the upper and lower Feather River.
It’s a popular river for wading, but there are some very deep holes that warrant caution.
The access sites on Arline Rhine Memorial Drive and Wildlife Area Access Road, both on the lower part of the river, are among the most popular.
More information: Feather River Fishing
Catch More Steelhead
Learn to catch more of these fish with our guide, Steelhead Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips.
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Several of California’s best steelhead rivers also can have very good runs of Chinook salmon. Check out our full run-down of the Best Salmon Fishing Rivers in California.