Steelhead and The Wild Rivers Coast

Steelhead and The Wild Rivers Coast

With world-class steelhead fisheries such as the Smith, Klamath, Chetco and Rogue, this rugged coastal area is a must-visit region for steelheaders this winter. (December 2005)

Outdoor photographer Larry Ellis holds a small steelhead from America's Wild Rivers Coast.
Photo by Andy Martin

Some anglers are happy to visit an area with one really good steelhead river. Sometimes steelheaders run across a region with two prime streams. But what are the chances of finding eight world-class rivers flowing within a short drive of each other, each offering unrivaled fisheries under almost all conditions?

The 101-mile section of Northern California and Southern Oregon known as America's Wild Rivers Coast is home to some of the West Coast's best steelhead fishing. Popular rivers such as the Smith and Chetco produce some of the largest steelhead anywhere, with 20-plus-pounders common. The Klamath and Rogue rivers are legendary for their abundant steelhead. The Elk River is one of the fastest-clearing rivers anywhere. The Sixes yields big steelhead late into the season, and the Winchuck and Pistol rivers feature rarely visited riffles with trophy steelhead as well.

The rugged coastline of Del Norte County, California, and Curry County, Oregon, is a must-visit region for steelheaders this winter. From high, off-color water to low, clear conditions, at least one of the rivers of the Wild Rivers Coast is sure to offer fishable water nearly every weekend this season.

For Golden State anglers, the Wild Rivers Coast provides a chance to experience some of the best steelheading in the world, without having to leave the country, let alone the state. "It's several days to Canada and we have more or less as good of fishing right here," says pro guide David Castellanos, who fished throughout the West, including Alaska, and then moved his operation just north of Crescent City to enjoy the year-round opportunities of the Wild Rivers Coast. "One of the biggest advantages of where I am located is the ability to have choices depending on the weather. Sometimes Oregon rains more than California and sometimes vice-versa. I have several really great rivers to choose from."

While locals have always enjoyed the vast steelheading opportunities of the Wild Rivers Coast -- it's common to see more California than Oregon licenses plates on the Chetco's gravel bars when the fishing is hot, and Oregon guides can outnumber Golden State outfitters on the Smith during a good bite -- it was only a few years ago when chambers of commerce at the mouths of the rivers in the vicinity went together to jointly market their area. The spectacular region, with towering redwood trees, rugged coastal vistas and exceptional fishing, is now presented to visitors as America's Wild Rivers Coast. The area extends from Klamath, Calif., to Port Orford, Ore.

The Smith and Chetco rivers are by far the most popular steelhead streams in the region, offering excellent bank access and arguably the best drift boat fishing in the world. Anglers will fish aboard powerboats on the Klamath and Rogue rivers, while drifting is the only effective method of fishing the Elk and Sixes. Die-hard bank anglers, meanwhile, are rewarded for clearing a path through the brush and wading the banks of the secluded Winchuck and Pistol rivers, finding steelies in holes few anglers ever fish.

SMITH & CHETCO RIVERS

Castellanos often faces a pleasant dilemma when choosing where to take his clients. Towing his boat to the Chetco or drifting the Smith can be a difficult decision. Both rivers are nearly identical. The steelhead are big, sometimes pushing 25 pounds, and there are days when a boat with three anglers can hook into a dozen or more aerobatic fish.

The Smith, California's largest undammed river, produced the state's record steelhead, a 27-pounder, and yields dozens of 20-plus-pound fish every year. It also is one of the fastest clearing rivers on the entire West Coast, often fishable just a couple of days after a major winter storm. "The Smith clears faster than the Chetco," Castellanos says. "It also has a lot of big fish. It has three distinct runs."

The first steelhead of the season usually show up in mid-November, during the peak of the fall Chinook season. With big kings filling the river, few anglers even target the early steelhead, instead pulling bait-wrapped plugs or back-bouncing gobs of roe in hopes of hooking a salmon that can bottom-out a 60-pound scale. The salmon fishing usually tapers off by the end of December, just as good numbers of big steelhead invade the river. "I think in the earlier season -- December and January -- usually our bigger fish show up," Castellanos says. "We start to see more of our hatchery steelhead in mid-January to mid-February."

In mid-March, the "bluebacks," a smaller, spring-run steelhead, show up. "The bluebacks are definitely a different-colored fish," Castellanos says. "They are smaller than the winter fish. The winter fish also have more of a green back."

Spawned steelhead, called runbacks or downers, also make up much of the mid-March to early April catches as they begin feeding during their trip back to the ocean. While the spawned steelhead provide a great fight, most anglers opt to release them. They keep only bright hatchery fish earlier in the season.

The Smith and Chetco experience very similar runs. Rowdy Creek Hatchery produces smolts for the Smith River, while steelhead from the Chetco are spawned at Elk River Hatchery and then trucked back to the Chetco for release.

Clearing faster, the Smith is usually fishable first after a storm. By the time it becomes low and clear, the Chetco often remains in prime fishing shape for several days. Guides will often go over reports from both rivers the evening before fishing and decide at the last moment which to fish the following morning. The best time to fish either river is after they are dropping and pulling back into shape after a major storm. As the water turns emerald green, the fishing gets hot.

Good bank access on the Smith is available at Jedediah Smith State Park and Ruby Van Deventer State Park and on the south side of the bridge on Highway 101. Boaters will drift from the Forks (near Hiouchi) to Ruby Van Deventer SP, but also may launch at Jed Smith SP. It's common to see guides make two runs down the river the same day, launching at Jed Smith and taking out at Ruby. Fishing from a boat above the Forks on the Smith is not advised.

Drift boaters have several options on the Chetco. You can launch as high as Low Water Bridge, about 20 miles upstream from the ocean, while the lowest public take-out is at Social Security Bar, some 4 miles up from the ocean on North Bank Road. In the early season -- December through January -- fishing is generally best between Second Bridge or Loeb State Park

and Social Security Bar. As fish spread throughout the system, boaters will drift from Miller Bar or Nook Bar to Social Security Bar, or Little Redwood, South Fork or Low Water Bridge to Loeb Park. Excellent bank access on the Chetco can be found at Social Security Bar, Loeb Park, Second Bridge, Miller Bar, Nook Bar and Little Redwood.

KLAMATH & ROGUE RIVERS

Although they produce good numbers of steelhead, the winter-run fish on the Rogue and Klamath rivers average about 6 pounds, well below the 8- to 12-pounders common on the other Wild Rivers Coast streams.

The best time to fish the Klamath and Rogue is during low, clear water conditions, when the Smith, Chetco and other rivers are too low to drift. While side drifting is popular on the Klamath, boaters on both rivers also will anchor and fish Hot Shots or other plugs. Fishing the slow water, used as travel lanes by winter steelhead, is an effective way to intercept migrating fish.

On the Klamath, fishing is best below Blue Creek, says Castellanos. Rogue anglers generally focus on the stretch between Huntley Park and Agness. Above Agness, guides will trade their powerboats for drift boats to side-drift instead of pulling plugs. Plunking is also popular from the gravel bars of the lower Rogue.

ELK & SIXES RIVERS

Bank access is limited on the Elk and Sixes, both located in northern Curry County, about 50 miles north of the California border. Both produce large steelhead, and if water conditions are good, are excellent late in the season, with the best steelhead fishing in late February and March.

The Elk clears just about as fast as the Smith, while the Sixes is often slow to clear, making it a good bet one to two weeks after a major storm. Many anglers stay in Port Orford to fish the Elk one day and the Sixes the next.

The only good public bank access on the Elk is below the Highway 101 bridge and at the fish hatchery, about 9 miles upriver. Most anglers also drift from the hatchery to the Highway 101 takeout. There is a small waterfall to navigate right below the hatchery. Excellent bank access is available on the Sixes except for high water at the Sixes Grange, just below the Highway 101 bridge. The best drift is from Edson Creek to the Sixes Grange.

PISTOL & WINCHUCK RIVERS

If you like to fish from the bank, the Pistol and Winchuck are a steelheader's dreams.

The best access on the Pistol is from the Highway 101 bridge, where the riffles above tidewater are good during low, clear conditions. On the Winchuck, the lower portion of the river is blocked by private property, but there is excellent access about 7 miles upstream on the north bank at several Forest Service pullouts. Fishing is good right in front of the Forest Service campground, with about two miles accessible for wading anglers.

The Pistol is about 20 miles north of the California border, while the Winchuck is less than a mile north of the border. A small stretch of the river actually runs on the California side but is on private property.

GEARING UP

Side drifting is the main technique for fishing the Smith, Chetco, Elk and Sixes rivers, although many anglers will pull plugs during low, clear conditions. Although it's fairly easy to get the hang of side drifting, if you have never done it, it's best to hire a local guide to learn the basics while also discovering the best water to fish. If not, try to stay in the shadow of a boat of experienced side-drifters, watching where they cast and the angle of their lines. Stay at least 100 yards behind and fish the same path, Castellanos says.

Aside from anchoring where everybody else is side drifting, fishing the opposite side of the river that other boats are working is one of the biggest mistakes newcomers to the Smith and Chetco make. Expert guides working a good stretch of river will often actually herd the fish into a zone they want to fish, and a boat going over the hole will scatter the steelhead, making it tough for anybody to get a bite.

A medium-light spinning rod between 8 and 9 feet long combined with a smooth spinning reel is the most popular outfit for side drifting. Eight- to 15-pound-test monofilament line works well. Most guides prefer monofilament over braided lines for side drifting. "That stuff can cut your fingers pretty quickly," Castellanos says of braided lines. An angler grabbing braided line to break off a snag is at risk of getting cut because the line is hair-thin. Guide Marc Fenton, another veteran Wild Rivers Coast guide, says he stays away from braided line because it is so strong and can cause a rod to snap if an inexperienced angler pulls too hard on a snag. Wind can also cause it to wrap around a rod tip, also causing a rod to break.

Anglers who use braided lines give credit to their sensitivity and visibility, and their lack of stretch.

When using monofilament, many guides rely on florescent lines. "Ultra green is really hard to see, especially if it is raining or overcast," Castellanos says. He uses P-Line CX Premium fluorocarbon-coated line.

For leaders, Fenton and Castellanos both rely on 3 to 4 feet of fluorocarbon line, which is virtually invisible underwater. "I usually don't use anything over 4 feet because it is hard for some people to cast," Castellanos says of leader length. In high, off-colored water, he will use just 2 feet. "It's better to have a shorter leader when it's dirty," Castellanos says.

Aside from being difficult for steelhead to see under the water, fluorocarbon leaders have another advantage. "They sink a little bit faster," Castellanos reveals. "They get down to the bottom and fish don't seem to see them."

The leader is attached to the mainline with a barrel swivel and the weight is added to the mainline using a sliding snap swivel.

Slinkies and "Sploosh Balls" have replaced pencil lead, long a favorite of steelheaders, in recent years. A Slinky -- lead shot stuffed inside a piece of parachute cord -- easily slides over rocks, while a Sploosh Ball is a hard plastic weight that is virtually snag free.

"I prefer to use Slinkies in high water because they sink fast," Castellanos says. When choosing Slinky size, Castellanos uses .200 or .170 shot. He uses No. 8 to No. 12 shot, depending on water conditions. In most cases, smaller shot is better than larger sizes. "The Slinkies slide over the rocks a lot easier with the smaller shot. I like about 3/8-ounce. That's No. 10 shot."

Use just enough weight to barely tap bottom every five seconds or so. "You don't require a lot of weight if you side-drift properly. You want your presentation to kind of glide over the rocks," Castellanos shares.

For baits, use tiny clusters of salmon or steelhead roe. A pink or orange Puff Ball will float bait just off the bottom.

Other good steelhead baits include night crawlers or pieces of shrimp. Late in the season, a tiny cocktail shrimp and a small, plain marshmallow can be deadly. If fresh roe is not

available, try a "Bag O' Fire": four to six single Pautzke salmon eggs tied with egg sack netting. Natural colors -- Yellow Jackets or orange -- are good bets for steelhead, but the famous red Balls O' Fire will also catch steelhead.

Scents are also a good idea. They mask human scents and also draw more aggressive bites. "Shrimp is always good," Castellanos says of scents. In recent seasons, Pautzke's Liquid Krill has accounted for many limits on the Wild Rivers Coast. Other good scents include Eagle Claw Trout Gravy, Mike's Shrimp Scent and Pro-Cure sandshrimp oil.

"If everybody is using the same thing, it doesn't work as well," Castellanos says, pointing out he carries several brands of scents on his boat. "I like something that puts out a good scent trail."

If pulling plugs, Castellanos and Fenton stick to Hot Shots. "I like the size 30 series," Castellanos says. "On the Chetco, the 'cop car' is a really good plug." The cop car is black and white. Other good finishes are chrome, silver with a red bill, chrome with a black bill and crawdad.

"I prefer the plugs without rattles, but in murky, off-colored water, a rattle actually helps you," Castellanos says.

Many guides will carry plugs during low water conditions, thoroughly fishing the tail-outs above riffles before continuing downstream.

FINDING FISH

Steelhead are often found fairly close to shore, in 4 to 6 feet of water moving the speed of a fast walk. "Ideally you want to cast near the edges or soft water," Castellanos says. "Steelhead will move up on high, muddy water, but they are always looking for a soft edge where silt filters down fast and allows them to breath better."

In high, off-colored water, fish close to shore. When the water is extremely low and clear, focus on riffles and fast water.

Roe clusters the size of a fingernail are ideal in low, clear water, while larger clusters become necessary in high water conditions. When visibility is limited, also try adding yarn and using small Spin-N-Glos above your bait.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

The Wild Rivers Coast is accessed via U.S. Highway 101. From Southern California, take Interstate 5 north to Grants Pass, Ore., and then cut over to the coast on U.S. Highway 199. It's about 80 miles from I-5 to Highway 101 at Crescent City. Highway 199 actually follows the Smith to the ocean once you cross back into California. Highway 101 accesses the Chetco, Rogue and other rivers in Oregon.

For guides, contact David Castellanos of Cast Guide Service in Smith River at 707-487-2278 or 888-367-7411. Castellanos can help arrange trips with other guides if he is booked. Guide Marc Fenton can be reached at 541-469-3945.

There are motels in Klamath, Crescent City, Brookings and Gold Beach, but most visiting steelhead anglers stay at Ship Ashore Resort, which is at the mouth of the Smith River. Call 800-487-3141 or 707-487-3141 for reservations. Ship Ashore is about 1 mile from the Lucky 7 Casino, a popular gathering place for anglers after a day of fishing America's Wild Rivers Coast.

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