Issue: June 2014
To many, the idea of catching a steelhead on a dry fly is the pinnacle of all coldwater fishing. One of North America’s top gamefish…taken on a wad of feathers and glue…on the surface—it just doesn’t get a whole lot better than that! But it doesn’t happen every day. In fact, some steelheaders dedicate their entire lives to the pursuit and never get the satisfaction of watching a big sea-going rainbow come up and take the fly.
Since I don’t fly-fish for steelhead very often, I’m almost ashamed to say that I have had the pleasure of catching one on a dry. And it was kind of a fun story…
The tale took place many moons ago in Oregon with the fine editor of this publication and our mutual pal Big Fred Contaoi and it was one of those days that just seemed like a fairy tale. The three of us hooked close to 40 steelhead on small nymphs under indicators, and the day was highlighted by some crazy moments like a triple header on flies and when I hooked three steelhead on three consecutive casts—three separate times!
It was one of those amazing, magical days when you feel like you can do no wrong and the hours just whiz by. Right before dark Nick asked me if I’d like to try to catch a steelie on a dry. He said he had a special flat where it was a possibility and I just immediately knew that it was going to happen.
So, we waded out to the sweet spot and he pointed to a rock near the far bank where Nick said steelies sometimes held. As I plopped the first cast out into the run, he warned me to not set the hook if a fish hit the fly…until I felt the weight as it was on the way back down to the bottom with it.
“Dude…I guide topwater striper trips for about 6 months a year and it’s the same concept,” I said. “Plus, I’ve caught a zillion stream trout on dries. Don’t worry about me…”
Well, none of that prepared me for what happened when I saw a three-foot-long rosy-cheeked leviathan slowly rise to the surface. It calmly sucked my fly down and then it seemed like it took forever for that freckled green back to disappear beneath the water.
Of course I panicked and jerked the fly right away from him! I must have been such a pitiful sight…standing there in the failing light of the canyon, a bewildered look on my face and about 10 loose coils of fly line draped around my shoulders and neck.
“Get yourself together, man, and make another cast before it’s too dark,” said Fred.
“You’ve got this…you topwater ‘pro’,” Nick added with more than a hint of good-natured sarcasm.
I snapped back to reality, freed myself of fly line and plucked the fly out of my hat, where it had come to rest after the quick-draw incident.
With shaking hands and a lot less confidence than I’d had just a moment earlier, I chucked the fly back out where it hit the water—not with the faintest of sound but instead with a big, fat splat. Perhaps not the most elegant of presentations but she was riding high and drifting into the general vicinity of the boulder where the fish had just shown itself.
A few more casts produced the same result and Nick said we’d better start hiking for the car.
But first, I had to make the obligatory last cast.
The red and yellow Chernobyl Ant hit the water and I squinted hard to see it in the low light as it drifted. As I strained to watch it swim through the drift, I was surprised to feel a heavy headshake on the end of the rod. The weird thing was I could still see the fly yet my rod was bucking wildly, the pressure coming from a point well downstream of my position.
It took a moment to process all that was happening and then it hit me: I had lost track of my fly and was instead watching a bubble drifting along. Meanwhile, my offering was actually about 10 feet further downstream than I thought and, in the meantime, had been slurped down by a steelhead while I was looking elsewhere.
It actually worked out perfectly. Since I never saw the fish rise to the fly, I had no cause to set the hook. By the time I realized it, the fly was stuck squarely in the steelie’s jaw and the fight was on. Dummy-proof dry-fly fishing…I love it!
The steelhead was nowhere as large as the one that I had seen a few minutes earlier, but it was my first ever taken on a dry and I’ll never forget it. Okay, so it took some serious dumb luck and lousy eyesight to make it all happen, but I’ll take it. And that fish was made even more special by the fact that it was the cherry on top of a day that will forever live as one of my favorites of all time. Great fishing and great friends…and a dry-fly steelhead…are you kidding me??
To this day, that fly lives on the wall next to my office computer and I can’t help but smile every time I look at it.
Issue: May 2014
Springers! This time of year it’s hard for me to think about anything besides these chrome bullets that are making their way up rivers all up and down the West Coast right now. My feelings for these amazing fish are incredibly strong. The word “passion” just doesn’t even do it justice—it’s more like extreme, over-the-top, out of control addiction. And I know you know what I’m talking about here!
So, to help me feel a little better about sitting in front of this computer today, I’m going to at least think about springer fishing and throw out a few basic concepts. Hopefully, these will help those of you out there who haven’t yet had an encounter with one of the most bad-arse fish that swims. A word of caution: be prepared to get absolutely hooked!
Springers can be moody buggers so your best chance to get at them is right at first light. When the sun gets high and there’s lots of light penetration in the water, fishing typically grinds to a halt. On clear streams, I’m usually thinking about wrapping things up no later than 10 a.m. Now, if you are fishing really deep water or on a river that has lots of color, the bite window stays open longer. That is also true on cloudy/foggy days. Basically: the darker the day, the better.
I’m not totally sure how to explain it, but springers seem to have a soft spot in their hearts for green. Yes, the traditional chartreuse that we use on plugs and spinners for fall chinook works, but I have more confidence when springer fishing when I also have some darker green mixed in too. Most of the spinners and plugs I use have dark green, chartreuse and gold in combination. A close second is chartreuse and metallic blue.
I also keep those principles at the forefront of my mind when choosing flasher and herring brine colors for springer trolling.
Now, color schemes for lures and baits vary from river to river and everybody has their local favorite, but the above combos will definitely get you in the ballgame.
Fish the Inside of Bends
When they hit the lower end of a river system, spring chinook are on a mission to get up to their summering grounds well upstream. As quickly as possible. So that means when they are down low, they don’t spend much time holding. Instead, springers pretty much put their heads down and start marching upriver. They will cut the corners of a river and rest very infrequently (until they get up closer to where they are going).
While trolling is the way to go on a massive river like the Columbia, springer anglers on smaller streams tend to anchor up. What you’re trying to do here is figure out a travel lane and then post on up that spot and put some lures in their paths. On rivers like the Klamath and Rogue, for example, the best places to drop the pick are in 3 to 6 feet of water on the inside of river bends. Try to get your gear right in on the seam where the fast water of the main river transitions into the slow stuff on the inside.
When anchored on a spot like that, you’ll usually have to use heavier lead on the outside rods and lighter sinkers on the ones positioned on the soft side.
Unless I’m targeting springers in the upper sections of a river, where they stack up in deep holes, I like to fish as low in a system as I can—as close to the tide as possible. The fish usually come in on the flood in big wads and are at their most concentrated then. As they move upriver, they start to string out and the groups of fish will be fewer and farther between. That’s not to say you can’t catch them but the gaps between pulses are going to be longer.
Springers are very scent conscious and you’ll always do better by lathering your gear in some sort of fish “sauce.” As with lure color, there are lots of local variations here but one of the more common themes with springers is tuna. Tuna wraps on plugs, tuna liquid squirted on spinners and tuna mixed into spawn sacs with eggs. On Northern California’s Trinity River, straight tuna balls (wrapped in Moline bags) have been a spring salmon staple for eons. When using tuna from a can, be sure to buy the oil-packed variety!
In addition to tuna, I like anise but again, don’t be afraid to experiment.
I generally use rods with softer tips when fishing springers than I do for fall fish. Spring chinook have a way of violently mashing lure or bait and I feel that extra “give” in the tip section helps keep fish from pulling off on the strike and initial run. Of course, you’ll still need lots of backbone in the lower two-thirds of your stick so you can tame one of these wild, crazy beasts.
When things get tough for springers, try scaling down the size of your gear. I’ve caught tons of spring salmon on small plugs and spinners intended for steelhead—so many in fact, that I’ve got an entire section in my box set aside for small lures. By downsizing, you can sometimes get fish with lockjaw to bite again.
Issue: April 2014
You guys know me—I’m as kooky for salmon and steelhead as anyone. But living down here in Northern California, I also have a real soft spot for the “other” anadromous fish of the West Coast: The striped bass.
This time around, I figured I’d mix things up and introduce you to the iconic fish that’s as synonymous with river fishing in my area as salmon and steelies are. I originally got thinking about doing a little piece on stripers here in STS after taking several of my Pacific Northwest buddies out for them.
None of them had ever caught stripers before but had always been intrigued by these exotics of the Sacramento-San Joaquin system. After fishing for—and catching—stripers all my Northern buddies instantly fell in love with the things. To a man, they’ve all said they wished they had some stripers to catch closer to home.
From a fishing standpoint, there’s really nothing not to like. Striped bass can get massive (fish over 40 pounds are caught each year and 50-to 60-pounders show up now and then), though the average “schoolie” size is more like 4 to 7 pounds. They’re also often a numbers fish—I’ve had more 75- to 100-striper days over the years than I can even remember, and I’m not happy on my guide trips unless my clients catch at least 20 to 30 of them. I can’t say that very often about salmon and steelhead!
Another attractive attribute of the striper is they pull hard. They’re not much for jumping but they are strong fighters capable of long—and surprisingly quick—runs.
Stripers are also available year-round, which is cool. Most spend their summers roaming the saltwater of the San Francisco Bay region, while others trickle on down the coast and provide cool surf-fishing opportunities for anglers from San Francisco to Monterey. In fall, the fish move into the vast California Delta, where they over-winter.
Come spring, the fish start heading up pretty much every river in the Central Valley—the Sacramento, American, Feather, Yuba, San Joaquin, Mokelumne, Merced, Cosumnes and Stanislaus—to spawn. Depending on the river, stripers will hang around until early summer, while others post up in freshwater through the fall. By June or July, good numbers of fish have usually migrated back to the salt.
And then there’s the eating part. Many of my clients prefer striper to halibut when it comes to table fare. Yes, they’re that good! The flesh is light and firm and extremely versatile (stripers make awesome fish tacos, by the way!).
The really great thing about stripers, however, is that there are so many ways to target them. The striper’s willingness to explode on surface lures makes them one of my favorite fish to catch but they’re also a ball on swimbaits, plugs, spoons and flies too. Some folks do nothing but troll for them while others are dyed-in-the-wool soakers of cut bait. I know guys who only want to spoon for stripers while others prefer to drift live minnows.
Though they are apex predators and eat seemingly everything in sight, stripers are not always easy to catch. For all their reckless feeding habits, striped bass are by far the most skittish, nervous fish I guide for. They are super spooky and can drive you absolutely nuts with their ability to disappear, en masse, in the blink of an eye. Of course, that’s also what makes chasing them fun!
The first striped bass came to California in 1879, when 132 juveniles safely traveled by rail from the Navesink River in New Jersey and were released near Martinez.
The State Fish and Game Commission brought in another batch of 300 stripers that were released into lower Suisun Bay in 1882, and the rest is history. Within just a few years, a serious sport fishery was developing and by 1889, there was a commercial market for striped bass. A mere 10 years later, the commercial net catch alone was averaging well over a million pounds of striper a year!
In 1935, California outlawed commercial striper fishing in favor of the sport fishery. Fishery managers raised stripers in captivity and planted them in state waters until about 10 years ago.
But controversy has been a-brewing lately. Reacting to our epic salmon collapse from 2007 to 2010, some fisheries managers and politicians have been calling for the eradication of striped bass in California. They say that, as an invasive apex predator, the striper is having too much of an affect on native fish species like salmon and steelhead.
Recently, there have been anti-striper laws introduced to the state legislature—most notably Assembly Member Jean Fuller’s (R-Bakersfield) 2011 bill that would have basically declared war on striped bass had it passed. The water mongers in Southern California even sued the California Department of Fish & Wildlife to lift all angling restrictions on stripers in an effort to trim the herd.
In each case, the State’s anglers rose in unison and defeated the opposition, but with corporate water politics involved, the stripers will never be safe.
The irony of it all is that the very people who are fighting to rid the state of striped bass are already doing a really good job of it with their massive water exports from the Delta. The salmon decline, along with the demise of striped bass, sturgeon, Delta smelt and others, are all right in line with record amounts of water being pumped out of the system. It’s not hard to figure out who the real culprits are!
But enough of politics—they bum me out. I think I’m going to grab some poppers and head for the Delta. A little striper “topwater therapy” will do me wonders!
If you would like to come down and do a guided striper trip with me this season, or just see the latest fish pics, hit my guide website: www.thesportfisher.com
Issue: March 2014
As I write this near the beginning of February, portions of the West Coast have been parched for months. California, in particular, is suffering through what could be an historic drought.
Reservoir levels are abysmally low and rivers are nearly dry. The Governor in January declared a state of emergency and, as of this writing, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife is considering sweeping fishing closures to protect steelhead and salmon.
These are dark, dire times for the fish of California and all we can do is hope for some sort of miracle late-season monsoon. I read in the paper the other day that it’s probably going to take 14 inches of rain just to get the ground saturated at this point.
So, as far as anadramous fishes go, what can we expect?
Well, there’s quite a bit of bad news--which is especially upsetting considering we have seen our salmon runs rebound nicely the past couple seasons and steelhead numbers also looking pretty good. Just when things were looking up…
There was an excellent chinook salmon spawn in the upper reaches of the Sacramento, Feather, American and Yuba rivers. Not long after those redds had been covered up with gravel, however, reservoir releases dropped dramatically, leaving a large percentage of them high and dry. So, our naturally reproduced salmon numbers look like they will be dreadfully low three years from now.
With river levels down to or near the lowest allowed by law, the out-migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead will suffer heavy losses this spring. That goes for the lucky few that wiggle out of the gravel and the massive hatchery plants. The young fish will encounter the usual suspects--predatory birds and fish--but without a good flush of water, they’ll be easy marks. Strong outflow also helps fish negotiate the maze that is the Delta…this year, you can bet a good chunk of smolt will end up getting lost--and sucked up by ag diversions.
While some of the state’s hatcheries are considering trucking the young hatchery fish down past some of the toughest hazard zones, Federal managers at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery decided to let their fish run the gauntlet. Concerned more with reducing straying than actually getting live fish back to the river, they ignored all the evidence that suggests that they could lose well over 50 percent of their fish in the first 50 miles below the hatchery! Your tax dollars at work, folks!
Tough Spawn On The Coast
Things aren’t super rosy on the coastal streams, either. Lack of rain kept flows down the entire fall and in-bound adult chinook had very little water with which to deal. Conditions were so bad that I saw unspawned chinook salmon in the Eel River in January, milling around in shallow pools and waiting for the water to rise. The same thing occurred on the Mad River, where kings continued to wait to be able to spawn almost into February.
I’m not sure how long those fish can hold on. At some point, I have to believe that they’ll either just die or release their eggs randomly if the rivers don’t rise.
I in no way have a crystal ball, but looking at the evidence, I’d have to say that we could easily see salmon fishing closures in both the ocean and freshwater again in 3 years. With dewatered redds and low survival of juveniles from river to the sea, it just doesn’t look good. Steelhead Sadly, the drought has continued into steelhead season and adult fish have been piled up into the lower sections of the rivers. Anglers pounded on them in the tidewater and lower riffles of many drainages, taking advantage of the kegged-up fish--which seems a bit shortsighted to me.
At presstime, steelhead numbers appear to be pretty solid on California’s northern coastal streams…if some rain does happen in the near future, those fish should be able to get upriver and get the job done. Of course, in-river rearing and redds left dry are also concerns in a year like this.
In the Sacramento Valley, a good run of steelhead showed up in the Feather River, only to have the water drop out on them. The same was true on the American, where flows were in the 5,000 cfs range in early January of 2013. This year, flows were down to 500 cfs and potentially going to 250 cfs. Sadly, there was much red stomping and snagging occurring as of late January in the river’s upper reaches.
Bummer too, considering we had an epic steelhead season here on my home stream last year. I was so looking forward to hooking big winter runs in my backyard this year, but cancelled my entire American River steelhead guiding season before it even started when I saw the water levels.
It’s a bit early to tell what the long-term effects on California’s steelhead will be because we still have some time left for the weather to change. I’m doing my best rain dance hoping for the skies to darken. In the meantime, it’s been a very strange 70 degrees all winter in Sacramento and I’m sure water rationing is coming.
I shudder at the thought of what will happen if we get a couple more rainless winters…old-timers talk about the drought of the mid 1970’s as being one of the things that changed California fisheries dramatically forever. Yikes!
Keep your fingers crossed and hope that the jet stream moves south!
Issue: February 2014
It’s gonna happen…I guarantee it. You put enough days in on the water and a hook is going to find its way into your skin. As a full-time guide and dad of a 7-year-old fishing fanatic, I’m in harm’s way more than most—but even weekend warriors are going to get spiked at some point.
It happens fast too. One minute you’re happily fishing and the next your day is potentially over because someone’s got a treble buried in their hand. Been there, done that!
In my experience, a lot of hooked situations occur when handling/unhooking fish. I once took a 3/0 siwash through the meat of my thumb when a salmon I was unhooking flopped…the back hook of a Kwikfish stuck me good and the fish (still hooked to the belly hook) was still wildly thrashing around on the deck! OUCH! When I worked on the Nushagak River in Alaska, every one of my guide buddies suffered a similar fate while releasing kings next to the boat.
Small steelies are the worst! Last fall, I was reaching down to unhook a feisty half-pounder hooked on a plug. As I was sliding my hand down the line towards the lure, I was thinking: “Hey dummy…use your pliers.” But, alas, I didn’t listen to my own advice and you can guess what happened next! I grabbed the plug, the fish went crazy and then, in a nanosecond, we became blood brothers!
Lack of rod awareness during the cast is also a major culprit. In fact, just the other day, I was fishing with my kid and he popped me right in the chin (see photo) with a Little Cleo on the cast. I’ve had clients catch themselves (and each other) in the back of the head or shoulder when casting. The scariest of which occurred while I was on a striper trip and my dudes were throwing 6-inch long surface poppers liberally festooned with large trebles. On guy wasn’t watching what he was doing and reached back to make a long cast but instead of going overhand, he got a little sidearm and on the follow-through, got his buddy right above the ear. The cast had so much force that the 3/0 treble traveled about 3 inches from the point of contact to the time it finally came to a stop, buried to the bend in the guy’s scalp!
What You Can Do
How the rest of your day turns out can often be determined by your preparedness. With a few basic tools and skills, you will be able to handle most hook-in-skin situations—and be able to keep fishing.
But let’s back up here first. The most important thing you can do to protect yourself from a serious hooking injury is to always wear quality glasses/sunglasses. A hook in the arm sucks, but if you get it in the eye, that’s a whole different level of bad!
When dealing with hooked fish, it’s a good idea to bonk them in the net before handling them. Give them a good pop with the stick and you wont have to worry about thrashing fish and flying hooks. Of course, when releasing a fish this isn’t an option—which leads me to my next safety tip:
Go barbless! Aside from my fall chinook fishery, I’ve gone barbless on everything. I keep very few steelhead, trout or striped bass, so why bother running barbs? For fish you plan on letting go, de-barbed hooks are the way to go. It’s so much easier on them—and safer for you. In that striper plug above the ear story I just told, the big top water popper was barbless and the hook easily popped out with pliers. A barbed hook that deep in someone’s head probably would have resulted in a trip to the ER.
Okay, so speaking of the emergency room—there are times when only professionals should do the hook pulling. Hooks in or around eyes shouldn’t be messed with…in fact nose and face shots are pretty dodgy for the amateur too. In short, anything that looks a bit sketchy is best left to the pros.
For the minor cases, I carry a little kit for hook emergencies with me on the boat that includes a set of needle nose pliers, a really good pair of wire cutters, split ring pliers, a spool of 60-pound mono, a tube of Neosporin, some aspirin and Advil, alcohol wipes and Band-Aids. That pretty much covers me on all minor hooking incidents.
When somebody gets hooked, the first order of business is to cut the line and remove the lure. Your patient doesn’t need any extra pressure or weight on the wound. To remove the hook, I use one of two techniques…
The “Line Trick” as it’s often called works great in most situations. First, take one pass of that heavy mono around the hook and then wrap the two loose ends in your hand. Next, use your other hand to hold the eye of the hook against the patient’s skin. What you’re going to do next is yank hard with your hand holding the line. It’s critical to pull in the opposite direction of the way the hook went in!
This method is all about commitment! You can’t do a half-hearted pull…it’s got to be quick and sharp. It’s amazing how easily a hook will come out this way when executed properly.
The “Push-Though” system is less ideal but sometimes necessary. As the name implies, you have to pass the imbedded point out through the skin. Once the barbed portion is clear, take pliers and cut it off and then back the other part of the hook out.
Trust me, skin is a lot tougher than you think and pushing a hook point through is no picnic! But there are situations in which the line trick just isn’t the best bet. Hooks deeply buried in fingers are a good example. Yanking hard on a line here can potentially bend or break a person’s finger, so you really have to be careful.
Before you try either method, dunking the hooked body part in ice water will help numb it and may make the extraction less painful. Just be sure it’s clean water—soaking in the cooler that’s got fish blood in it is going to cause you infection issues.
In all cases, when the hook is free, thoroughly clean the wound and then coat it in antiseptic ointment. Check the hook for rust…if there’s any doubt there, check your records for the last time you had a tetanus shot.
Tips from Dr. Reilly
Okay, my buddy Reilly isn’t really an MD, but he’s done a fine job of freeing hooks from my skin on several occasions out on the water. One of his major field surgeon attributes—and one that we all can learn from—is his calmness. When you are dealing with somebody that’s hooked, keep your cool. If you freak out, you’re not doing the person with the hook in his arm any favors!
And Reilly’s biggest trick is distraction. When you’re getting ready to pull a hook out, try to get the person thinking about something else. Then, do the deed when they are not expecting it. Tell them you are going to yank on the count of three…and then pop it on two instead. The natural instinct is to tense up at the moment of truth but hooks come out a lot easier from relaxed tissue and flesh.
Follow these basic guidelines and you should be able to handle minor hook issues—and keep fishing!
Issue: January 2014
“Steelhead haunt my dreams and run through my veins. They have taken me to the top of the mountain and they have broken my heart. I’ve bled for them; I’ve frozen for them and I’ve driven, flown, hiked and floated thousands and thousands of miles for them…and there’s not a single day of the year that I don’t think about them.”
I was once doing a phone interview with a writer from a big East Coast magazine. From his cozy office in New York City, he asked me what it was that made steelhead fishing such a special sport.
It was hard for me to answer. I mean, with steelhead…you either get it or you don’t. There are so many deep-seeded feelings and emotions for me that are tied to these fish that it’s almost impossible to articulate in a way that somebody on the outside can understand.
So, I spat out the first thing that came to mind:
“I fish for steelhead so I can see them up close…”
And then, I just got on a roll and rattled off a total unabated stream of consciousness…
I fish for steelhead because I want to get as close to them as I can. I feel that they are like fine art, each one to be viewed quietly, taken in and remembered. I told him that I have never felt more alive and in touch with the world--and myself--as when I’m standing in a misty canyon, with a ribbon of emerald flowing in front of me.
Steelhead haunt my dreams and run through my veins. They have taken me to the top of the mountain and they have broken my heart. I’ve bled for them; I’ve frozen for them and I’ve driven, flown, hiked and floated thousands and thousands of miles for them…and there’s not a single day of the year that I don’t think about them.
Steelhead make me straight-up crazy. Even on dry land, I can close my eyes and literally feel what that moment of first contact is like, that initial tight line surge. And I can make my heart rate jump by simply imagining a float going under or a plug rod going off. Oh man…the plug takedown of a steelhead…wow…if that doesn’t get your juices flowing, you’d better check your pulse because you’re probably dead.
Steelhead make me want to follow every single anadromous river from the mouth to the source--and then float back down them again. They make me think irrational thoughts like maybe I should just sell the house and get a toy hauler that fits a drift boat and hit the open road...and never come back! They drive me to drink; they drive me to the limits--mentally, physically, emotionally. Steelhead make me wear the numbers off my credit cards and sometimes pull the hairs off my head.
They give me this insatiable desire to fix all the damage that has been done to the rivers they call home. They drive me to pick up trash, fight for flows, plant trees and dump spawning gravel by the truckload into the water.
Steelhead are the fish I’d miss Christmas for and the reason I got married during the offseason. They give me sweaty palms and weak knees. Though I’ve probably shaved at least a year off my life expectancy due to all the junk food consumed on steelie road trips, I also believe that every day you fish for steelhead is one you get to tack onto the end. And speaking of the end, if I had a choice, I’d go steelhead fishing on my last day on the planet. I’ve informed my family what to do when my time is about up: Take me to the top of some whitewater gorge with a drift boat and a couple rods. No need for a life jacket or a shuttle…it will be my last ride. Hopefully, there will be a couple biters along the way!
Steelhead are responsible for all the drift and float and plug and fly and center-pin rods…the jigs and stacks of Pip’s and boxes of plugs; the BC Steels and the spinner boxes; the Slinkies and pink worms; the two deflated pontoon boats; the Fish Pills all over the floor; the nets and waders and boots and pink-stained fridge—that all make my garage useless to terrestrial vehicles. They’ve also ruined many a potentially productive day in the office…all it takes is a photo or a text from somebody on the river and I’m worthless the rest of the afternoon.
Steelhead are why my favorite color is green--because it reminds me of the perfect hue of a river just coming into shape and the giant redwoods that stand on its banks. And because of the dorsal color of one of those awesome-looking bucks that’s transitioning from ocean chrome to river camo--olive back and a faint pink cheek and stripe peeking out from silver flanks.
In short, steelhead are epic, nearly indescribable critters that make me tick and dream and feel alive. I’m not at all sure the interviewer ever really got the message, but I bet you all do…
Issue: December 2013
Carp, squawfish and maybe a few suckers—that’s often what comes to mind when you first see the American River on a map. It’s a logical conclusion, too, considering the river flows smack through the heart of California’s Capitol City. How could anything but trash fish survive in the middle of such a densely populated metropolitan area?
Take a closer look at the American, however, and you see that things aren’t always as they seem. Though the river is within easy striking distance of well over 1 million people, it is surprisingly uncrowded. And what’s even more impressive is the diversity—and quality—of the fishing here.
While aforementioned rough fish do call the river home, it also plays host to surprisingly good runs of chinook salmon, striped bass and shad. This time of year, however, winter steelhead are the stars of the show!
Beginning in December and running into March, winter-run steelhead ascend the American rapidly (they can make the 23-mile run from the mouth to the hatchery in as little as two days) and pile up in the upper portion of the river.
While there are productive riffles and flats in the lower river at places like Paradise Beach, Watt Ave., Gristmill, River Bend Park, Ancil Hoffman Park and Rossmoor Bar, the best fishing generally takes place from the Sunrise Bridge up. In particular, the steelies really keg up at Sailor Bar, the Nimbus Basin and the area immediately below Nimbus Fish Hatchery.
The winter steelies are mainly of hatchery origin and will average 6 to 8 pounds. Since they are of the Eel River strain, they can occasionally get much larger and fish from 14 to 18 pounds show up now and then.
Pretty darned cool when you consider you’re only minutes from downtown Sacramento!
Conventional anglers drift a lot of roe on the American, but nightcrawlers are often even more effective starting in about February. Pink plastic worms catch plenty of fish too and jigs and bobbers are really catching on as well.
Hardware-chuckers fishing Little Cleo spoons and No. 3 Blue Fox spinners on the swing also do very well. Fly-fishing is popular here as well and Glo Bugs and nymphs such as Birds Nests, Hare’s Ears and Fox’s Pupae dead-drifted under indicators will take fish. You’ll also see lots of Spey casters on the river, and black, pink and purple leech patterns take some nice fish every winter.
Drift boaters tend to side-drift with eggs and ‘crawlers and back-troll wobbling plugs like No. 40 Hot Shots and Yakima Bait’s 3.5 MagLips in darker patterns. Threaded nighthcrawlers fished behind No. 10 Jet Divers also get eaten quite a bit.
Great Bank Access
Thanks to numerous county parks and a bike trail that runs the length of the river, bank anglers will find plenty of access points along the American from which to fish. Some folks car hop between access points, while others walk or ride the bike trail. You can contact Sacramento County Parks for a map of river access areas.
The American River has a mellow disposition and is mostly Class 1 and II water the whole way from Nimbus Dam to the mouth. The main spot to watch out for is the San Juan Rapids, between Sunrise and Rossmoor, but they aren’t too technical. Down where the Arden Rapids used to be spawning gravel placed last fall has altered the river. It’s hard to say what that’s going to look like after some high water this winter, but just pay attention when you get to the bike bridge at River Bend Park.
The county maintains four concrete ramps along the American and there are several other gravel launch areas accessible to anglers with four-wheel drive vehicles. During winter steelhead season, the Sailor Bar to Rossmoor Bar drift is the most popular, but steelheaders can get away from the crowds by fishing further downstream. The tradeoff is the fishing usually tapers off with each mile traveled downriver.
Boats should be aware that no motors are allowed from Nov. 1 through March 15 above the power lines at Ancil Hoffman Park. The rest of the river is open to powerboats but a 5 mph speed limit makes it really a driftboat-only type of place.
In March, the winter steelhead give way to a spirited run of small spring fish that will go 2 to 5 pounds. These feisty little guys tend to take their time moving upstream and, therefore, you can find them spread throughout the system—not just all at the top. Just about any riffle from Paradise Beach up to the dam has potential through April and drifted nightcrawlers are the top getters for conventional anglers while fluff-chuckers should concentrate on subsurface caddis imitations.
So, the fishing really is worthwhile despite the American’s urban location. But what about the scenery? Luckily, the early architects of the city of Sacramento had enough sense not to allow civilization to grow right to the water’s edge. There are a few sections of the river where there are houses on the bank, but for the most part, the concrete jungle is held at bay by a thin green belt that runs the entire length of the American below Nimbus Dam.
In that greenway, you’re likely to see lots of deer and turkey, along with tons of herons, egrets and various waterfowl. Also calling the area home are raptors such as red tailed hawks, osprey and the occasional bald eagle. When you’re down on the water, you’d swear that you’re 100 miles from town—and the nearest carp.
I run steehead drift trips all winter long on the American and you can reach me at www.thesportfisher.com. Guide Blair Dixson is great too: (916) 397-0603.