NorCal Steelhead Preview

Photos by Green Water Fishing Adventures
Photos by Green Water Fishing Adventures



The following appears in the January issue of California Sportsman: 


By Chris Cocoles

Not that low water conditions prevented his clients from scoring some nice steelhead in the last two years, but longtime North Coast guide Tony Sepulveda expects rivers to have a lot more water this season.

A series of rainstorms that swept through in late fall and December was sorely needed after the extended drought. The Smith River got enough water in December that it crested over flood stage, “the biggest we’ve seen in quite a few years,” says Sepulveda of Green Water Fishing Adventures (707-845-9588; “It’s been a wet December, so hopefully it keeps going.”

From a pure fishing standpoint, Sepulveda prefers lower water conditions when it comes to catching steelhead.

“I didn’t feel like it was a huge run last year, but the low water kept those fish spread out and they moved slow,” he says. “The year before that, we had really low water combined with a really big run of fish. Two years ago was the best steelhead fishing I’d seen in 20 years here.”

“Steelhead are interesting. They’ll sit where they want to sit and a lot of times there are spots that are really low, froggy spots they’ll like to sit in. These are big flats that go for 2 miles in either direction, and a lot of times with just a little bit of a substrate change and no perceivable change of current,” Sepulveda adds. “It just comes down to knowing a river and knowing where those fish want to sit.”

But the rainy season at the beginning of winter was much needed, so more water certainly won’t be frowned upon and can still make for a productive season. One of the only negatives in more rain is perhaps losing a few days to inclement conditions.

“The last couple winters I can count on one hand the number of days I lost to weather,” Sepulveda says. “I just think this year is going to be a different one in terms of conditions since we’ll be back with more normal weather.”


Steelhead preview 2


He will mostly focus his attention on three popular area rivers: the Smith, which empties into the Pacific just north of Crescent City; the Eel, south of Eureka; plus the Chetco, flowing just across the California border in Oregon. During the mostly sporadic rainfall of the last two years, Sepulveda primarily concentrated his efforts on the Eel.

“The Eel tidewater has kind of been my bread and butter,” he admits.

Depending on water conditions, he’ll also “bounce around” to smaller rivers and creeks this season, but the aforementioned three are his holy trinity during the winter steelie run this month and next.

“We’re really lucky here in Northern California; we get a really good progression in terms of the clearing time of all our rivers,” Sepulveda says.

“The Smith is the first one that comes into shape always; after a really big deluge, maybe 24 to 36 hours you can be back on that thing and fishing again. And the Chetco’s a little bit behind it. Then the Eel starts to come into shape on the upper stretches of the south fork, and you can follow a wave of green water for about 2½ weeks as you work your way down the south fork down into the main stem. I suppose the name of the game in winter steelhead fishing is following that progression and being ready to move as you need to.”

Each of the three has its own distinct personality and unique challenge in relation to the other.

“To break the differences down in real definitive fashion, we could write a novel,” jokes Sepulveda, who did his best to provide a CliffsNotes version of the best steelhead waters.

Steelhead preview 1



The Chetco can be a much simpler river to fish. If you see something that looks like good water you are likely to be in a good spot. The river bottom is also lots of smooth gravel, less susceptible to snagging and not super deep.

The Smith can be a totally different prospect and carries a higher degree of difficulty. Sepulveda tells clients who play golf that fishing the Smith can be equivalent to playing 18 holes at Spyglass Hill, the tricky course among the Pebble Beach links on the Monterey Peninsula.

“The fish there sit in peculiar waters a lot of times. It’s just a much harder river to get to your bait to run (on),” he says. “It’s snaggy if you’re fishing too heavy. And when it’s big and pushy it’s hard to get to your baits to drift without drag because there’s so much water flowing.”

The Eel’s south fork and main stem are different rivers in their own right in how they are fished. On the south fork, smaller and easy to read when it gets lower, fish will usually sit right in the heart of deeper buckets of water. But on the main stem you’re catching more fish when rolling over shallow breaks and little ripples.

What really isn’t different is the technique and tackle used from river to river.

“Steelhead fishing is steelhead fishing. We’re still rolling the same stuff most of the time. I’ll do a little bit of plug fishing here and there,” Sepulveda says. “For the most part we’re just rolling bait and drifting roe or even just a yarn ball. That part of it doesn’t change much. It’s just more about where I fish more than anything else.”