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American Steelhead

American Steelhead

The 23-mile-long American River is an unlikely steelhead stream. But some sections have world-class holding water that hides chromers to 15 pounds. (December 2009)

Looking at the American River on a map, you'd never figure it was a steelhead stream.

Most of the American River's steelhead are 6- to 9-pounders with an occasional 15-pounder in the mix. These are hatchery fish originally of Eel River stock.
Photo courtesy of J.D. Richey.

The river flows right through the heart of the densely populated Sacramento region, where more than a million people live.

Yet this river isn't what you think.

When you get down on the river, you'll be amazed -- there's a thin greenbelt along much of its 23 miles that isolates the American from the endless strip malls and tract homes that surround it. There are beautiful riffles and pools down here -- and gravel bars, too. The water's clean and cold -- and there are steelhead.

In fact, the steelies here get as big as they do in most of the coastal drainages.

American River winter steelies are mainly adipose-clipped hatchery brats in the 6- to 9-pound class. But these Eel River-strain fish were originally used in the hatchery program, and fish more than 15 pounds are taken each season.


Winter fish begin the upstream migration as early as the first week of December, but the action doesn't really get going until the upper river opens on Jan. 1. After the initial flurry of activity on opening day, the bite will often taper off again until the second half of the month.

Though it's always subject to change, the peak of the winter run normally takes place somewhere between the last two weeks of January and the first half of February.

After that, there are some smaller spring "football" steelhead that ascend the river. They appear to be remnants of the American's original steelie population -- 2- to 5-pounders, stout and full of energy. These guys arrive in February and can continue through April.

From a numbers standpoint, the American doesn't get the largest run of steelhead in California. But it does possess several unique features that make it a very attractive alternative to the state's famed North Coast steelhead streams.

First of all, it's easy to get to.

While rivers like the Eel, Smith, Trinity and Mad all require nearly a day's drive to reach from the Sacramento and San Francisco areas, the American is within easy striking distance of several major population centers.

It's a 58-minute flight from Los Angeles or a 90-mile drive from San Francisco.

Anglers living in and around the Capital City are so close to the action that they can fish on their lunch breaks.

Another appealing characteristic of the American is that it's a tailwater stream. Even in the heaviest of downpours, its dam-controlled flows rarely blow out and, several times each winter, it's the only steelhead stream in California that's fishable. When everything else is a raging wall of mud, the American is usually stable.

Because the American is easily accessible and wadeable in most spots, it's very popular with bank-anglers. Bankies throw a wide array of offerings for the river's winter fish and none is more effective than drifted roe.

To rig up, tie a black snap swivel via a Palomar knot to the end of your 12-pound main line. Attach a Slinky-style sinker to the snap (use just enough weight to get down to the bottom), and then fasten a 36-inch section of 10-pound fluorocarbon leader to the other eye of the swivel.

At the end of the leader, you'll need a No. 4 octopus bait hook tied on with an egg loop. Add a thumbnail-sized chunk of bait to the loop and then slip the point of your hook through a ball of foam, such as a Fish Pill, and slide it up around the bend so it rests against the back of your egg cluster. It adds buoyancy and a splash of color to your bait.

Roe is the top bait in December and January, but many American River anglers start switching to drifted night crawlers in February.

The water temperatures are often in the low to mid-50s. Steelhead in this system can be quite aggressive -- which means they will also slam pink plastic worms.

American steelies also respond favorably to Little Cleo spoons -- especially in the early season near the hatchery and up in the Nimbus Basin. No. 3-4 Blue Fox, Mepps and Pen Tac spinners also work occasionally, and, in recent years, anglers have been finding that pink-and-black marabou jigs fished under floats can be deadly.

With its plentiful access and generally mellow demeanor, the American is a boater's delight. It is mainly the domain of drift-boaters, since the 5-mph speed limit keeps most jets away. There are launches liberally sprinkled along the river's course ranging from newly installed concrete affairs to gravels bars where four-wheel-drive vehicles are necessary.

The uppermost launch facility is located at Sailor Bar on the north side of the river just below the hatchery. It's got a brand-new ramp and plenty of parking and is the closest you can put a boat in to the fish hatchery.

Some energetic anglers drag their drifters through the riffles along the north bank all the way up to the hatchery, but most simply put in at Sailor Bar and fish down.

For a super-short float, you can pull off the river at the Upper Sunrise Flats, which is about a mile downstream on the south side. There's no official ramp at this location, but there are several spots on the gravel you can get a trailer down to the water with the help of a 4x4. The next take-out is just above the Old Fair Oaks Bridge, which lies another three-fourths of a mile downriver on the south bank. There's a new ramp there that you could back a semi down.

It's five miles downstream to Rossmoor Bar, which is the next take-out on the south side of the river. In that run, you'll encounter the San Juan Rapids -- stay left and keep her straight through the standing waves and you'll be fine.

Rossmoor is the most popular take-out for anglers fishing the upper end of the river. Below there, you can go another 5 1/2 miles to the south side's Gristmill Park, which is about the l

owest take-out used by steelheaders.

From Gristmill down to Watt Avenue, it's three miles of mostly pond-like water, though there is a nice set of riffles at the end. If you do go down that far, remember that Howe Avenue is your last shot to pull off -- otherwise you'll have to do an eight-mile mostly flat-water trek down to Discovery Park at the mouth.

Side-drifting is the most popular way to hook American steelhead from a boat. Sometimes, the key to success on this river is simply bouncing your bait through as much water as possible -- and side-drifting gives you the ability to cover lots of ground in relatively short order.

Roe is the top producer for side-drifters, though night crawlers definitely have their days as well.

Plug pulling is also a popular pastime on the American River and you can sometimes do very well backtrolling with Hot Shots, Brad's Wigglers, FatFish and "old school" Wiggle Warts and Pee Wee Warts -- if you can find them. Popular colors include the green or blue "pirate," silver-black, hot pink and silver-orange back.

You can also pull eggs or night crawlers behind a Size 10 Jet Diver with good results.

Run a 7- to 9-foot rod with 20-pound braided line on a levelwind reel for plugging. The rod needs a stout lower end but a soft tip to allow the fish to grab and hold onto the plug.

As far as anadromous fish are concerned, the American River is a short system -- 23 miles from its confluence with the Sacramento River upstream to impassible Nimbus Dam. In that stretch, the river features several long, slow stretches that are punctuated by beautiful riffles, flats and the occasional minor rapid.

Most of the stream lies within the American River Parkway, a Sacramento County-run facility that features superb public access and several launch sites. Generally speaking, just about every inch of the river is easily accessible from shore via 30 separate county parks. There's also a bike trail that runs along the river for most of its length, affording anglers on two wheels plenty of mobility.

Upper, Lower River
You can divide the American River into two sections: upper and lower.

The lower portion starts at the mouth at Discovery Park and extends 15 miles upstream to the power line crossing at Ancil Hoffman Park. The upper end runs for eight miles from the power lines up to Nimbus Dam.

As far as regulations go (and these change from time to time), the lower stretch below the power lines is open to fishing year 'round and boats are free to run it -- as long as they don't exceed 5 miles per hour.

From the power lines up to a spot 200 yards below Nimbus Fish Hatchery's weir, the American is open to fishing Jan. 1 to Oct. 31. In that stretch, there is also a 5-mph speed limit for boaters, and the use of all motors (electrics included) is illegal from Nov. 1 through March 15.

Fishing or boating is never allowed from 200 yards below the hatchery to the Hazel Avenue bridge piers. The final 300 yards of river from there to Nimbus Dam is open year 'round, though no boats are allowed.

Confluence To Headwaters
Now, let's take a look at the American from the bottom to the top.

Upstream of the mouth for about the first four miles, the river is estuarine-like -- sluggish, sandy and completely devoid of any good steelhead holding water. You'll encounter the first set of riffles near Paradise Beach, which is about five miles up, and they can hold fish in the early parts of the season -- particularly during drought years.

Continuing upstream, it's mostly "turtle water" for the next four miles until you get just below the Watt Avenue Bridge. There's some nice steelhead water immediately below and above the bridge, but keep in mind that the section from Watt Avenue down to the mouth can be unfishable at times in the winter if the Sacramento River is high. The Sacramento acts like a dam and backs the American up so much that the lower nine miles can turn into a lake.

Heading up past Watt Avenue, there's not much to get excited about until you get upstream of Gristmill Park, which is near Mile 12. At that point, the American starts looking very fishy and there are good riffles, slots and flats near River Bend Park (formerly Goethe Park) and up to the power lines at Ancil Hoffman Park at river mile 15.

Above the power line crossing, the river once again turns froggy, but at Rossmoor Bar (Mile 17), there are some choppy flats that are worth investigating. The three-mile run between Rossmoor Bar and the Sunrise bridge also features some nice water, and in the final three miles from Sunrise to the dam, you'll find plenty of quality steelhead holding zones -- especially just below Nimbus Fish Hatchery and Nimbus Dam.

While the lower American can produce some nice catches through the winter, you're better off concentrating your efforts on the upper section -- say from the Sunrise Bridge up. For some reason, the fish pretty much blow through the bottom end of the river and don't hold much until they get within striking distance of the Nimbus Fish Hatchery (about a half mile below Nimbus Dam).

Of course, as the fish congregate near the end of the line, so, too, do the anglers.

In the Sailor Bar, hatchery and Nimbus Basin drifts, you can expect to always have plenty of fish -- and company. You can fish in solitude farther downstream, but your chances for success drop with each mile you move away from the hatchery.

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