Life + Outdoors » Fishing the North Coast

From Salmon to Steelhead: Transition Time for Coastal Rivers



With very little rain over the past couple weeks and the rivers on the drop, the end is in sight for the late, fall-run salmon season on the North Coast. The season has been somewhat of a disappointment to fishermen, as only a couple storms hit the coast and dropped enough rain to keep the Smith and Chetco up to ideal fishing levels. While the fishing window was short, that doesn't necessarily mean the number of returning salmon was small. Even during the low-water conditions, salmon were seen making their way upriver on all our coastal streams.

On the other hand — as we flip the calendar one last time in 2021 to December — it's transition time here on the coast. The majority of the salmon have reached their end destination and we now wait for the winter steelhead to make their way into the coastal rivers. All the rivers have seen a few adults push in, hopefully with plenty more right behind 'em. But don't give up entirely on salmon just yet. The Smith, Chetco and the Eel should each see another spurt or two of fresh kings move in on the next substantial river rise.

Weekend marine forecast

The weekend marine forecast is looking good for offshore crabbing and possibly rockfish. As of Wednesday, Saturday's forecast is calling for north winds 5 to 10 knots with northwest waves 7 feet at 13 seconds. Sunday is looking similar, with winds coming out of the north 5 to 10 knots with northwest waves 6 feet at 11 seconds. These conditions can and will change by the weekend. For an up-to-date weather forecast, visit or To monitor the latest Humboldt bar conditions, visit You can also call the National Weather Service at 443-7062 or the office on Woodley Island at 443-6484.

Perigean spring tides coming this weekend

Perigean spring tides, the results of either a new or full moon, will be in effect beginning Dec. 3 through Dec. 6. The north spit tide gauge prediction is for a high tide of 8.5 feet at 10:05 a.m. Saturday morning and 8.7 feet at 10:48 a.m. Sunday. Minor coastal flooding is possible.

Weather ahead

According to Matthew Kidwell of Eureka's National Weather Service office, this rest of this week is looking dry. "The next chance of rain is for Monday and Tuesday," said Kidwell. "The Smith basin could see up to an inch of rain while Humboldt could see a half to three-quarters. Beginning Dec. 5, the forecast models are trending toward above normal precipitation."

Humboldt Bay crabbing

Sport crabbing inside Humboldt Bay is still really good, according to Justin Kelly of RMI Outdoors in Eureka. "The best spots have been the south bay towards the jetty as well as King Salmon. Guys running rings are doing well and getting easy limits. Squid and chicken seem to be the bait of choice," Kelly added.

Mad River Steelhead Derby Starts Dec. 18

The Nor-Cal Guides and Sportsmen's Association (NCGASA) is hosting its third annual Mad River Steelhead Derby from Dec. 18 through Feb. 28. Anglers must be signed up prior to Dec. 18 to be eligible to win cash and prizes. Only hatchery steelhead can be entered. The largest steelhead wins $500, second place $300 and third place $150. First place in the youth division (16 and under) will win a $175 RMI Outdoors gift card, second and third place finishers will win prizes to be announced. Anglers can sign up online at or in person at RMI Outdoors. Part of the proceeds benefit the Mad River Steelhead Stewards volunteer angler›s broodstock collection program that works in concert with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. For more information, visit

The Rivers:

As of Wednesday, Redwood Creek and the South Fork Eel were closed to fishing. All other North Coast rivers subjected to low-flow fishing closures, including the Smith, Eel, Mad and Van Duzen were open to angling. Be sure and call the low-flow closure hotline at 822-3164 to determine if the river is open prior to fishing. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife will announce whether rivers will be open by a telephone-recorded message each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. NOTE: The main stem Eel from the South Fork to Cape Horn Dam, the Mattole River and the Mad River from the mouth to 200 yards upstream are closed until Jan. 1, 2022


The Mad is low and clear, but still open to fishing. It's a little early for steelhead in big numbers, but a few have reportedly been caught. Expect the steelhead numbers to improve after the next significant rise.

Main stem Eel

Flows were down to 1,100 cubic feet per second Wednesday and it's getting clear. There are some coho around, but not many kings. The last push of kings should arrive after the next significant rainfall, as well as the first of the steelhead.

Van Duzen

Flows were down to 160 cubic feet per second Wednesday and will likely close to fishing before the next rain event.


With no rain for a couple weeks, the Smith is low and clear, but remains open to fishing. Boat pressure has been light, as most guides have canceled their salmon trips due to the conditions and lack of fish. Winter steelhead should start to trickle in even during the low-water conditions. As of Wednesday, flows were right around 1,075 cubic feet per second on the Jed Smith gauge.


Low water has slowed salmon fishing on the Chetco, Elk and Sixes rivers, reports Andy Martin of Wild Rivers Fishing. He said, "The Chetco is still driftable but very few fresh salmon are still in the system. Expect a few new kings and some early steelhead after next week's expected rain. An early December rain typically produces good fishing on the Elk and Sixes, especially after a few weeks of low water."

Kenny Priest (he/him) operates Fishing the North Coast, a fishing guide service out of Humboldt specializing in salmon and steelhead. Find it on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and For up-to-date fishing reports and North Coast river information, email [email protected].

Add a comment