California’s North Coast is where fishing enthusiasts can go after Steelhead.
Stories Sean Jansen
The rain never seems to let up. The wet forecast is endless, and the ground moisture sneaks into your boots with every step. The trees continually drip with dew like a spring with an endless reserve. It’s no coincidence. The Emerald Triangle is geographically perched where the ocean meets the mountains. Tectonic plates continually shift and change the landscape like every wave that crashes on the shore, moving sand to its place like an artist with his paintbrush. With blue squiggly lines, the artist connects the mountains to the sea, representing the most erosive force on the planet and one of the greatest natural spectacles on Earth: the life cycle of salmon.
Pacific salmon are born in the rivers of the North Coast before charging their way to spawning grounds upstream. When salmon are mature enough, they swim west to the sea and fatten up. There, salmon live most of their lives in saltwater until they are ready to spawn, returning to the same river where they were born to die, leaving behind their bodies as nutrients for the trees and surrounding environment.
On the contrary, steelhead are a variety of rainbow trout, much like the ones we catch in lakes, rivers, and streams. But unlike those rainbow trout, steelhead also make a migration to the sea like their salmon cousins. Steelhead consume diverse nutrients from the ocean, allowing them to reach a size and strength comparable to salmon. They also return to fresh water, but unlike salmon, steelhead don’t die immediately after their pilgrimage. They either return to the sea again or remain in the river, making them the ultimate prize for the coastal angler. As the North Coast boasts dozens of world-class rivers and streams, all of which are home to steelhead and salmon, the region is a drool-worthy location for any fly-fisher.
Beyond the steep investment needed to purchase gear, a California fishing license and a special steelhead report card are required to legally fish. There is also a litany of regulations to follow depending on which body of water an angler wants to fish.
While accessibility to steelhead is prime on the North Coast, it doesn’t make the endeavor of landing a steelhead an easy one. They are considered one of the hardest fish to catch on a fly. It takes outrageous perseverance and grit to withstand winter coastal storms while patiently waiting to nab a steelhead—it feels like a lightning bolt striking the end of a line. By the time an angler hooks a steelhead, the fish has dodged every predator in the ocean, including seals, sharks, whales, and squid.
Setting foot in these rivers is to witness the power of nature while having a conversation with one of its enduring survivors. It’s hard to imagine a creature with more tenacity and strength than the steelhead. Their story and their home are what make swinging flies for steelhead the ultimate prize. With the fog threading the trees, the cool turquoise water lapping up against your legs, and the redwoods towering overhead, chasing these ghost-like fish is a challenge and joy.