Life + Outdoors » Fishing the North Coast

Rivers Flush with Water, Soon to be Steelhead



The transition to steelhead season is taking a bit longer than anticipated. So far, though it's still early, steelhead fishing has been slow on popular rivers like the Smith, Mad and Eel. But that should change soon. Following a good amount of rain overnight Monday, the rivers Tuesday finally got the flushing they needed. Once the rivers drop down to fishable heights and color, we should see the first big wave of winter steelhead. The Smith will be the first to round into shape, but that may be a few days away. It's predicted to be in the 12- to 14-foot range through the weekend, but should be in great shape by the start of next week. The Chetco could be high and off color all next week if the rain continues as predicted. The rest of the coastal rivers, well, it's going to be a while.

Weather ahead

The North Coast can expect continued wet weather, with on and off rain through next week, according to Ryan Aylward of Eureka's National Weather Service office. "We're not expecting any major storms or atmospheric rivers, but we'll continue to see plenty of rain," said Aylward. "We'll see most of the rivers recede the next few days, but they'll come right back up. Especially the more southern rivers, like the Eel. Beginning Tuesday morning through next Monday, the higher elevations in the Smith basin could see over eight inches of rain. Five to six is predicted for the lower elevations. In the Eel basin, up to seven inches could fall in the mountains and five to seven may fall in the lower reaches through Monday morning. The whole region will see similar rainfall totals but will fall at different times. Next week is looking wet as well, with multiple storms landing throughout the week."

2023 fishing license

A reminder that it's the time of the year to purchase your 2023 sport fishing license, which is required for residents 16 years of age or older to take fish, mollusks, crustaceans, invertebrates, amphibians or reptiles in inland or ocean waters. The cost of a new resident sport fishing license is $58.58. A North Coast salmon report card, which will run you $8.13, is required for all anglers taking salmon in the Smith River System or Klamath-Trinity River System. If you plan to fish for steelhead, you'll need to purchase a steelhead report card, which will cost $9.21 this year.

NEW in 2023: California anglers will be able to purchase a 2023 fishing license that will take effect Jan. 1 and last the entire year. All licenses purchased on or after Jan. 1 will be effective from the date of purchase for a continuous 365 days. To purchase a fishing license, visit At checkout there is an additional option to enroll in auto-renewal for fishing licenses, which allows anglers to automatically purchase and receive their new license when their current one expires. For more info, visit

Reduced-fee sport fishing licenses available

Reduced-cost fishing licenses are available in 2023 for $9.46 at CDFW offices (instead of $58.58) for disabled military veterans and recovering service members. For those 65 or older on reduced income, licenses are available for $9.01. For more information on all CA fishing licenses, visit

Rockfish season to close Dec. 31, changes coming in 2023

The 2022 rockfish season in the Northern Management area, which runs from 40°10' N. latitude (near Cape Mendocino) to the Oregon-California border, will close for boat-based anglers on Saturday, Dec. 31. Rockfish is open year-round for divers and shore-based anglers. Many changes to the recreational boat-based rockfish season will be implemented in 2023. In the Northern Management area, the season will open May 15 and run through Oct. 15, open at all depths. The RCG bag limit will remain at 10 fish in combination of rockfish, cabezon and greenlings, with sub-bag limits of not more than four vermilion, one copper and one quillback rockfish. Take and possession of cowcod, yelloweye and bronze spotted rockfish will remain prohibited.

The Rivers:

All North Coast rivers subjected to low-flow fishing closures including the Mad, Smith, main stem Eel, South Fork Eel, Redwood Creek and Van Duzen were open to fishing. As a reminder, the Mad River from the mouth to 200 yards upstream, the main stem Eel from the South Fork to Cape Horn Dam and the Mattole River are all closed until Jan. 1, 2023. The Department of Fish and Wildlife will make the information available to the public no later than 1 p.m. each Monday, Wednesday and Friday as to whether any river will be closed to fishing. The rivers can be opened at any time. The low-flow closure hotline for North Coast rivers is (707) 822-3164. For more information, visit


The Mad is high, muddy and dropping as of Wednesday afternoon as flows were down to 5,000 cubic feet per second (10.5 ft.). The best is yet to come as its forecast to surpass monitor stage (15 ft.) by Friday evening. With more rain in the forecast this week, it won't be green any time soon.

Main stem Eel

The main Eel hit 78,650 cfs overnight Tuesday but was on the drop Wednesday. It's predicted to reach 112,900 cfs early Sunday morning and then will start to recede. Won't be fishable any time soon, especially with more rain next week.

South Fork Eel

Flows on the South Fork were dropping Wednesday afternoon after peaking at over 19,000 cfs. It's predicted to drop through Thursday morning with the next big rise reaching 17,200 cfs late Saturday night. Will need a few days of dry weather before the upper reaches turn green.

Van Duzen

Peaked at over 13,000 cfs Tuesday and was on the drop Wednesday. Forecast to rise again starting Thursday morning, peaking again at 13,000 cfs Friday night. With more rain in the forecast next week, it will be a while before it's fishable.


The quick-clearing Smith will provide steelhead anglers the first and best option once the rains subside. It peaked at nearly 54,000 cfs (22.13 ft.) on the Jed Smith gauge Tuesday morning. The lower river peaked at just above monitor stage at Dr. Fine Bridge at 27.12 feet. Continued but lighter rain will put it on the drop through Thursday morning before it comes back up. It's forecast to hover between 12 and 14 feet through the weekend. It could be a little too high to drift safely but should be plunkable. Conditions should be excellent early next week.


Steelhead were being caught by plunkers over the Christmas weekend on the Chetco, before the river turned muddy late Monday afternoon, reports Andy Martin of Wild Rivers Fishing. He said, "High flows will sideline plunkers for a few days, and drift boaters into next week. Expect good fishing when the river drops back into shape. Flows could reach 40,000 cfs, which will put the river out for at least five days. A few late salmon were caught last week."


According to Martin, salmon fishing closes Dec. 31 on the Sixes, although most of the run has already spawned. A few steelhead have shown up already on the Elk and Sixes. The Elk should fish by the middle of next week.

Kenny Priest 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].

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