Steelhead season is here, and the Mad River is the place to be


Ray at play on the Mad. Submitted photo

Ray Olson
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – It’s that exciting time of year again when our local treasure, the Mad River, has hundreds of steelhead fish swimming up from the ocean to spawn. 

And these are big fish! The average size is around two feet long and 8 to 10 pounds. The annual winter spawn runs from approximately November through March depending on rainfall. If you have any friends or family who enjoy steelhead fishing, you probably aren’t seeing much of them these days. When the steelhead-seekers return from their next fishing venture, be sure to praise their admirable perseverance! 

Mad River steelhead are not easily caught. Those who keep trying, despite numerous “fishless” days, have proven their steely determination. Speaking from experience, after 10 fishing excursions to the Mad River last season (averaging two hours per trip), I caught a total of (and this is really hard to admit...) zero steelhead. No wonder they are often referred to as “the fish of a thousand casts!” 

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If you’re new to fishing, I’d suggest starting with something easier to catch such as surf perch from a local beach, or trout from either Freshwater or Big Lagoon. Beginners who are determined to catch a Mad River steelhead can increase their odds of success with help from a local fishing guide service. 

One reason steelhead are such a fishing challenge is because they are not swimming up the Mad River to eat bait or lures cast out to them. The only reason they are temporarily leaving the food-rich ocean to venture up the Mad River is to have sex! The fishy term for that is “spawning.” 

Steelhead return to the same place from whence they were born to spawn. This has led to two main populations: hatchery-raised steelhead and wild steelhead. Hatchery steelhead were born from eggs raised in the Mad River Fish Hatchery (near Blue Lake), while wild steelhead lay their eggs in gravel beds further upstream of the hatchery. There are substantially more hatchery steelhead that spawn in the winter than wild ones. 

Only hatchery-raised steelhead may be kept – wild steelhead must be released back into the river if caught. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has developed an ingenious way to allow fishing-folk to discern wild steelhead from those raised in a hatchery. 

Before the juvenile steelhead are released from the hatchery into the river, their adipose fin is clipped. The adipose fin is a small top fin near their tail which has minimal effect on their swimming abilities. As the hatchery steelhead mature in the ocean, the fin does not grow back. Once caught, the missing fin makes it easy to identify a hatchery steelhead. 

Another factor that makes steelhead difficult to catch is the state’s requirement to use barbless hooks so that wild steelhead can be released with minimal harm. It is comparatively easy for a steelhead to dislodge a barbless hook, thanks to their spectacular twisty-turny acrobatic leaps and maneuvers. Spawning steelhead are also very wary. Potential predators include river otters, ospreys, eagles, racoons, bears, and those of us fishing for them. 

Steelhead fishing in the Mad River requires a California fishing license and a special steelhead report card. Currently, the cost for both is around $60. License fee revenue is used by the CDFW to protect California’s fish and wildlife. 

The fees also fund fish hatcheries throughout California, including the Mad River Fish Hatchery. When fishing for steelhead you are required to keep record of the location and hours fished, and any wild or hatchery steelhead caught or released. The report card must be returned to the CDFW annually. Additional fishing regulations are listed on the CDFW website at 

To see some recent Mad River steelhead fishing in action near Blue Lake, be sure to tune in to the latest “Humboldt Outdoors” show called “Mad River Steelhead – Part 1” broadcast by Access Humboldt ( The show is also posted on the “Humboldt Outdoors” YouTube channel. The 13-minute video reinforces the information in this article, accompanied by some great, local bluegrass music from the Compost Mountain Boys’ album “High on a Mountain.” The program also features spectacular aerial views of the Mad River filmed by Kevin of Humboldt Craft Works. Part 2 will cover less information about fishing and more about the natural history of the steelhead and other Mad River fish – so stay tuned for yet more fun fishiness! 

Ray Olson is the producer of “Humboldt Outdoors,” a non-monetized, independent video series featuring Northern Humboldt County’s premiere outdoor areas. Broadcast by Access Humboldt. Also available on Facebook and YouTube. 


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