Where Is the Best Steelhead Fishing in California?

Steelhead fishing is a popular outdoor sport, but it’s also a great way to enjoy nature. Steelheads are a type of rainbow trout and are famous for their sizzling runs and brute strength. Adult steelhead are highly sought after because they’re among the last migrating fish, giving four-season fishing opportunities.

In California, rivers that merge into the Pacific Ocean are America’s greatest steelhead fishing opportunities. Since rainbow trout are cold-water fish, they can be found in many rivers throughout its northern regions. However, there are also small fish populations across the south.

That said, steelhead fishing in California is a must-do for both fishing enthusiasts and beginners. Whether you’re looking to fish trout in California or are just wondering, this article is for you. If you want to know more about steelhead fishing in California, keep reading!

Top 7 Places in California to Catch Steelhead

As mentioned above, California is a haven when it comes to steelhead fishing. There are many fishing spots to visit in the northern region, but the south also has opportunities you must see. If you’re looking for steelhead fishing spots in California, here are some recommendations you should check out.


Klamath River

With its great trout runs, the Klamath River offers some of the best fishing in California. It’s the second-largest river in California by discharge, with a total length of 257 miles.

Generally, the winter rainbow trout run goes from December through February, with its peak in December. Besides this, there’s also a summer run in the Klamath River, starting mid-July and ending in early November. In both of these runs, you’ll be able to catch it, ranging from 3 to 7 pounds. Not only that, but you’ll also be able to catch a few weighing more than 10 pounds!

Smith River

The Smith River is a 25-mile river that flows through the extreme northwestern corner of California and is popular for steelhead and salmon. Additionally, it’s the home of California’s record-breaking steelhead, a 27-pound 4-ounce fish caught in 1976.

Steelhead fishing is a good bet in December, with the best time to go being January or February. However, you don’t have to worry about your tight schedule because trout opportunities in the Smith typically run until April. 

Eel River

The Eel River is an iconic, historical waterway widely regarded as the birthplace of steelhead fly fishing in California. Anglers usually land trout in the 8- to 10-pound range, but 20-pound ones aren’t impossible to catch. 

With fish making their way to the Eel in November, the winter-run is the best season to fish in this river. Its peak is usually in January, and you’ll still be able to fish steelhead until March. 

Trinity River

The Trinity River is a major tributary of the Klamath River. It’s a 165-mile long river that starts in the Klamath Mountains and Coastal Ranges and ends up in the Pacific Ocean.

Many steelheads that you can find in the Klamath River eventually run into the Trinity, including a major half-pounder run in the fall. Additionally, adult rainbow trout also make their way to Trinity between December and March. You can also expect steelhead around 4 to 8 pounds in both seasons, with the occasional ten pounders (or more!). What’s good about the Trinity is that it doesn’t only give you steelhead, but other species too, including salmon.

Mad River

Running through 113 miles of Northern California, the Mad River flows through the Trinity and Humboldt Counties before going back to the ocean. 

While it’s abundant in steelhead, it’s mostly overlooked because it’s near Klamath and the Eel Rivers. However, it’s still a popular steelhead fishing spot, especially for those looking for a little quiet. Moreover, it’s an excellent fishing destination as it offers both winter-run and summer-run steelhead. The winter-run arrives in January or February, where you can fish steelhead ranging from 8 to 12 pounds.

American River

Visitors can access the American River at the American River Nature Center. It’s a 23-mile river home to many different types of fish, including the steelhead and the Sacramento Black Bass. Moreover, it is a tributary of the Sacramento River.

By early December, anglers can already catch steelhead from the river. However, the river’s peak starts in January, where you can land 5-to-8 pounders. Not only that, but there is also a double-digit steelhead, most of which weighing around 15 pounds.

Sacramento River

The Sacramento River is the largest and longest river in California by far. Originating from the Klamath Mountains, this river flows through 400 miles before emptying into the San Francisco Bay.

If you’re planning to go trout fishing, December is a good season. There’s also a small summer run in the river, but the winter run is where the big catch is. This event usually takes place from December through April.

Can you fish for steelhead in Southern California?

Generally, Southern steelheads are survivors that have adapted to seasonally dry streams due to the extremely hot climate in Southern California. There used to be many steelheads in Southern California, but now they’re stopped by dams and other water diversions. As such, the southern steelhead runs have depleted to only a few hundred fish a year.

While there are sparse steelhead populations in Southern California, it’s important to note that the species was marked endangered in 1997. Because of this, anglers are only allowed to keep these from hatcheries and selected reservoirs. Additionally, wild steelhead, or those that swim in rivers and seas, are illegal to possess.

Can you catch steelhead in the ocean along the California Coast?

California’s coastal steelhead are the most widely distributed native trout species. They’re also the least vulnerable trout in California due to their high tolerance to a wide variety of environmental conditions and other factors. With this, anglers can catch steelhead in the ocean along the California Coast.

Since there are various habitats for coastal steelhead, it’s best to do your research before fishing. If you’re planning to catch coastal steelhead, it’s best to check with local tackle shops for suggestions on techniques and fishing tackle. 

What are the best techniques to catch steelheads in California?

Like any other fish, finding and catching steelhead requires thorough planning and research. If you’re looking to fish steelhead anytime soon, here are some tips and techniques you can use on your fishing trip.

  1. Where to find steelhead

Steelheads are native to the West Coast from California to Alaska. Additionally, many incubators are now supplementing their numbers for increased harvest opportunities. Generally, they like meandering through rocky and gravelly waters with current and a few feet of depth. Thus, areas with boulders can house more fish than coverless areas. 

Additionally, this species likes to hold in shallower water with riffles, so they’re harder to find. If you want to catch a trout, bounce your bait off the rocks or behind them. You can also find one where the water slows after a strong current.

  1. What time to fish

Anglers say that the best time to fish is any time you can get out to fish. While it’s true, rainbow trout is generally more difficult to catch than other species of fish. Because of this, timing can be tricky.

With the different runs happening throughout the year, you’re not limited to just one fishing opportunity. Steelhead from summer runs usually migrate around March and will peak during late spring or early summer. On the other hand, winter-run steelhead migrate late in the fall through spring.

  1. What fishing tackle to use

Since steelhead is difficult to catch, using the correct tackle is crucial. You can check these tools for your next fishing adventure.

For the rod, choose one that’s long and strong enough to handle the abuse. Additionally, make sure that your fishing line is of high quality. An 8-pound or lighter leader is ideal in clear waters. You can also choose the strength based on your preference.

Depending on the area you’re fishing in, you can ask your local tackle shop to help you find the right bait. Ultimately, using heavier gear will help you catch steelhead easier, but your bait or lure will be the determining factor for landing one.

  1. How to catch steelhead

As an angler, you can employ different tactics to land a fish until you find the one that works for you. Steelhead isn’t going to jump into your boat voluntarily, and it might take multiple fishing trips to catch one. With this, here are some tips that you can use to increase your odds of catching your first rainbow trout.

  • Look for water where the current is slow and soft.
  • Don’t wade too deep and cast short if you’re fishing in dirty water. Wade deep and throw far if you’re in clear water.
  • Sharp hooks are the best hooks to use for steelhead.

Time to Go Steelhead Fishing

Catching trout can be difficult, but it’s worth a try. Of course, you’ll need good planning and the appropriate gear to land one. This article will help you do just that.

Now that you know all these, it’s time to bring out your fishing tackle and catch your first steelhead. Just make sure to use these tips and find the fishing spot nearest you. That said, it’s time to go fishing!

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