The recent winter storms have changed the Plumas County landscape in many ways. Skiers and snowmobile enthusiasts are welcoming the generous blanket of snow.
Some of us anglers are less enthused. But we don't need to be.
Those hearty souls who enjoy ice fishing eagerly await the frozen depths of winter to partake of their sport. I don't ice fish myself. The few friends I know who do ice fish really enjoy it. (But they may tend to be a bit on the crazy side.)
Ice fishers aren't the only anglers who eagerly welcome winter storms. An equally dedicated group of anglers get quite excited as winter storms bring the opportunity for steelhead fishing.
Steelhead return from their Pacific Ocean feeding grounds back to their natal streams to spawn as the shorter days of late fall and winter arrive. There is nothing like a good winter rain storm to get a pulse of steelies moving up a river.
Steelhead are rainbow trout that spend the majority of their lives in the ocean but once they mature after two to three years in the ocean they will return to the streams of their birth to spawn. Unlike salmon, the steelhead does not die after spawning but will live on and return to its ocean home. It is not unusual for these fish to live a decade and return several times to spawn.
Mature steelhead range in size from about 5 pounds to well over 20 pounds. In some rivers, smaller immature fish, not yet ready to spawn, will venture into the river along with the mature fish. These fish range is size from a half pound to 3 or 4 pounds. What all steelhead have in common is that they are tremendous fighters.
Migration for the fall run will normally begin in October and increase as the winter weather sets in. Once these fish have returned to spawn they tend to not feed but they will strike out of aggression at whatever is in front of them that catches their eye. The most successful anglers are those who can present there offerings right in front of the fish in their holding water and trigger their aggressive instincts.
Steelhead will also pick up egg clusters. This is thought to be instinctive behavior with the fish breaking up the clusters to increase spawning success.
They are many books about steelhead. One of the best resources for Northern California waters is Jim Freeman's “California Steelhead”. It has been around for years, but the techniques covered and river maps with access points are still valid.
There is no way to learn steelhead fishing by reading a book, much less a newspaper column.
The best way to learn how to fish for steelhead is to fish with an experienced steelhead angler. If you don't have a buddy who can show you, try a guide. Just one day with a guide is well worth the price of admission. They can show you good spots to fish, but more importantly they can show you the best type of water to fish and the most effective techniques. That information can be used on any river.
Here is the low down on some of our Nothern California steelhead rivers:
The Feather River is obviously the closest to home and the Oroville area offers some good fishing for those anglers who time it right. Fish average two to eight pounds with larger fish caught each year.
The best fishing is right now through December when the fish are stacking up in the riffles and redds below the spawning salmon. Check the regulations carefully as there are some restrictions on the Feather.
The steelhead on the Sacramento, are at their peak in fall and early winter when the salmon are spawning. While there is some shore access, the private property along the lower Sacramento (Redding to Los Molinas) makes drift fishing a good option. The bonus the Sacramento offers is a very healthy population of large rainbow trout. Catching resident rainbows and steelhead on the same trip is not uncommon.
The Trinity River is paralleled by California State Highway 299 west of Redding, for most of its length . Literally every wide spot or turnout along the road has a trail leading to some sort of holding water.
The river is for the most part a friendly stream that requires neither deep wading nor dangerous climbs to reach holding water. During steelhead migrations, when fish can be anywhere within the river, an angler can sample to entire river (mouth to dam) in only two days.
All of these wonderful qualities; easy access, lots of fish, and a fairly easy river to fish, plenty of accommodations right on the river, add up to make the Trinity one of my least favorite steelhead rivers. Why? Because it is one of the most popular steelhead waters in California. The river is crowded not just with bank anglers, but also with drift boats.
If, like me, you consider solitude to be an essential ingredient to a great fishing experience, travel a bit farther north to the Klamath River.
The Klamath River was once known as California's most popular salmon and steelhead river. The fish populations crashed in the 70's and with them the popularity of the Klamath.
While the salmon still struggle, the Klamath's steelhead have rebounded and offer a great opportunity from early fall through early spring. Adult fish tend to be smaller on the Klamath averaging 3 to 6 pounds. The majority of the fish are the much smaller half pounders. But I will take lots of smaller fish in the relative solitude of the pristine Klamath any day.
I may be biased. I used to live in Seiad Valley on the Klamath River. Most days I fished the river, I rarely came away without fish (not a given on most steelhead rivers) and I rarely saw other anglers.
If 3 to 6 pound fish aren't big enough for you, travel just a bit farther north to the Smith River.
The Smith River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean near Cresent City is the most remote and yet the most popular Steelhead River in California.
Why so popular? Easy. The Smith has the largest steelhead in the state. This is trophy steelhead water. Eight to ten pound fish are the norm and twenty pounders and larger are common.
I recommend a guide on this river, at least on your first day. A drift boat trip with a guide will take you through some gorgeous canyon country and you will learn where the fish are holding and how best to fish for them. The exceptionally clear water on the Smith can be challenging.
There is no need to let cabin fever get you down. Even in Winter there are waters to fish locally and plenty of spectacular opportunities if you are willing to travel to other rivers in the north state. Give it a try. You will not be dissapointed.