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California's North Coast

A big steelhead from the North Coast
Guided Spey-Only Trips
$550 for 1-2 Anglers
  • December through March
  • Raft Float Trip or Drive-In - all fishing is done while wading

Many of us dream of chasing bright chrome steelhead fresh from the salt. The rivers of California's rugged North Coast offer some of the best options for swinging up that fish of a lifetime. Nestled amongst towering stands of ancient coastal redwoods, the vaunted waters of California's North Coast are where the story of fly fishing for steelhead began.

The Smith: Often referred to as the crown jewel of California's wild and scenic rivers, the Smith drains one of the most rugged and biologically diverse regions in the Pacific Northwest. This river is famous for producing trophy fish with steelhead in the 20lb class range landed each winter season. The drainage is steep with a hard packed bottom, allowing for massive rises and quick drops during winter rain events. The rugged terrain and fast flowing water of the Smith adds an extra degree of difficulty for the winter steelhead fisherman, yet for a few the ultimate challenge yields the ultimate reward.

The prime time for winter steelhead on the Smith kicks off with the first good winter storms in mid-late December and can fish well though March and even April during some years.

The Eel: You can't tell the story of fly fishing for steelhead on the west coast without talking about the Eel river. There are accounts of anglers making their way via steamship by way of San Francisco to cast a line on the lower Eel River from as early as the 1880's. The third largest drainage within California, the Eel offers some of the best and most abundant spey water on the west coast bar none. Its low gradient and heavy sedimentary composition make for a river that can muddy up quickly during winter rain events, but hold color for an extended period of time. With old growth redwoods looming overhead cloaked in mist and turquoise pools glowing in the dim light of a winter morning, a day on the Eel is truly an unforgettable experience.

Winter steelhead on the Eel can show up as early as late November with a good rain storm. Prime time is typically from late December through the end of March.

Drew Griffith represents Confluence Outfitters on these intriguing fisheries. Drew guides spey techniques exclusively and does both walk/wade and raft-based trips. Many days are a combination of walk-in and float fishing.

Recent North Coast Fishing Reports

North Coast Fishing Image
March 12, 2020
North Coast Report by Drew Griffith

At long last we have some actual rain in our forecast for the parched North Coast. While it's nothing amounting to a gully washer it's a welcome change from the prolonged dry spell we've been going through since early February. Despite exceptionally low and clear conditions there are still fish coming into the rivers and over the past few weeks every outing has offered a handful of opportunities to find one of these fish before the season closes (mostly) for 2020. Scaling way down on fly profile and being selective to certain water types has proven to be successful, but conditions are tough on the days that are bright and sunny, and there have been more than a few of those over the past few weeks! Fishing pressure has seen a major drop during March as most rivers have gotten too low to drift. Hopefully this shot of rain will put some fish on the move that are kegged up in the lower stretches and give us a fitting end to our 2020 season. If you've been holding out on making the journey North you still have a shot at finding a fresh from the salt chromer. Tight lines out there! 

North Coast Fishing Image
February 17, 2020
North Coast Report by Drew Griffith

Yesterday I got to fish with Jeff from the Bay Area. Jeff reminded me of a lot of guys I've met and talked with over the years who are new to swinging flies and speycasting. He's a serious fly fisherman, has been involved in the sport for a long time, and has plenty of experience fishing for trout in Northern California and beyond. But he has never ventured into the world of speycasting, mostly because at some point as an angler you stick to what you know, and speycasting can seem intimidating. So much new information to digest. So much new gear to figure out. Who wants to relearn how to cast? Where to begin? I count myself lucky that he obliged and decided to venture out into new territory with me. As a guide there's something special about being there at the very beginning of someones journey into the world of speycasting. I get to relive all of the excitement and frustration of when I was first learning, and get to watch the same progressions and rewarding moments that everyone experiences when learning how to speycast. Remember how epic it was when you first threw a truly long cast and it burped the reel because it wanted more running line?  It's hard to explain, but for those in the know it's something you never forget. We set off on a day that met every standard for winter steelhead. A steady drizzle fell in the dim light of morning, the mist like thick smoke turning the huge redwoods into looming shadows along the rivers edge. Jeff was a quick study. We worked on dialing in his double spey in the morning and graduated to the snap t by noon. He picked up his on shoulder snap t and ran with it. By the time we had finished lunch and he had stepped back into the run he was in the zone. It was a good cast that caught the fish. One that turned over well and emptied all the running line through the guides. This was something! The fish faught well, a chaotic fit of runs, tailwalking jumps and nerve racking headshakes in close to the bank. Just as we we're landing him another angler happened upon us and we were able to get a picture with the three of us. Jeff's fish was a good buck, still clad in his chrome camo from a life in the salt. After it was all over I half jokingly told him to be careful about who he told about getting a winter steelhead on his first day swinging flies. Some folks might go ahead and put their rods on ebay after hearing a thing like that. I knew that I had a convert before me, that he was sold on what I had just shown him was possible, and for that I am humbled and grateful.Looking at the weather ahead there is some rain forecast for next weekend along with snow falling at lower elevations. Whether or not this system will have any impact on our coastal rivers is hard to say, but what is apparant is the need for some soaking rain. Despite low and clear conditions that now prevail on nearly all rivers on the North Coast fishing has been solid. Yesterday I spoke with a handful of other guides who all reported getting into good numbers. I personally have found success the last handful of occasions I've had time to fish for myself coupled with getting clients into fish on my last two trips. If you're looking to head north and swing a critter for a chrome fish this would be a good time to make the journey.  Tight lines!  

North Coast Fishing Image
February 14, 2020
North Coast Report by Drew Griffith

On Monday I got on the water with Kris to swing some flies for winter steelhead. We had fished together before. Twice last season Kris made the voyage from the high desert of Reno to the fog lorn coastline of Northern California and Southern Oregon in the hopes of making the connection with a winter fish. Despite ideal conditions on the two occasions we fished together we struck out. Being a recent convert to spey fishing Kris was still looking to get that first fish to hand on the swing as we began our day together. Thick fog in the morning gave way to a blue bird day on the water. By mid day the temperatures had become pleasantly warm for February as we made our way further down river with the hopes of finding some fresh and eager fish coming up from the tide. Under bright sun in a tell tale riffle I watched as Kris' skagit head swung lazily into the soft water and suddenly jarred tight. It was a good eat, perfect. She jumped for us almost immediately in the place she ate and we saw that she was a near perfect dime bright hen. After some excitement and boat wrangling we made it to shore and brought her to hand for a quick meet and greet and then watched as she quietly dissapeared into the riffle. Spirits were high, and the monkey was now officially lifted from Kris' back. We rowed on, looking to get into one last run before the day was over. Now the wind came up, and casting became a challenge. The sun dipped beyond the ridge and the light went off the water. Nearly towards the end of the run came another freight train grab. It was different then before. No jump, just stubborn headshakes and a refusal to budge an inch. This was a good fish, bigger than the first. It fought well in the riffle and finally came to hand along the willow line. A beautiful wild buck. We saw him off and knew we were done for the day. As we walked off the river we were both laughing and spellbound by our good fortune. Few things in the world of angling compare to the days you find them on the swing.  Looking ahead conditions on the North Coast are fair but we are now in need of some substantial rainfall to bump up our low and clear rivers. Some rain is forecast over the weekend but it doesn't look like anything heavy enough to make a significant dent in river conditions. It might put the Smith River on a slight rise and add a little color to the rivers further south but that's about it. As of now there is nothing looming in the forecast to make a dramatic change in river conditions. Hopefully within the next few weeks that will change. What started off as a dormant January heated up into February and gave way to some of the best fishing of the season for the North Coast. Hopefully we'll see a continuation of that trend as we round the corner into the end of this month and the beginning of March. Tight lines out there!

North Coast Spey Gallery

The Smith runs big and clear
An angler spey casting on a coastal river
Flies for winter steelhead can be colorful
An angler works a run on the South Fork Eel River
Guide Drew Griffith bombs a cast on the Smith
Guide Andrew Harris with a nice Smith River steelhead.
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