California Fly Fishing 3 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Eel River in California

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

March 21, 2020

Eel River in California

Dynamic, yet serene. Battered, yet resilient. Intimidating, yet awe-inspiring. You could say the Eel River in California is a contradiction.

The River and its tributaries form the third largest watershed in California, flowing through forests of towering redwoods, including Humboldt Redwood State Park. While this River has had its fair share of problems with flooding, landslides, and the effects of deforestation, the Eel River still offers year round fishing opportunities for adventurous anglers.

Still, your success will depend heavily on where you choose to fish, and you’ll want to plan your visit around which species you are most interested in catching.

Check out our guide to equip yourself with all the knowledge you need to take on Eel River.

About Eel River

Fly Fishing Eel River

The Eel River is a major river in Northwestern California. The River is about 196 miles long and empties into the Pacific Ocean near Humboldt Bay. The river basin was originally populated by Native Americans, who were eventually driven out by white settlers. In 1850, Josiah Gregg arrived with a group of explorers seeking land. The explorers were met by Wiyot fishermen, who traded their Pacific lampreys (which the explorers mistook for eels) for a frying pan. The River has never actually contained any eels, but is, in fact, inhabited by Pacific lampreys, which are eel-shaped parasites who live part of their lives in the ocean, but return to freshwater to spawn.

The Eel River originates on the flank of Bald Mountain, and flows south before entering Lake Pillsbury. Below the Lake, the River flows west and is then diverted from the Eel River basin to the Russian River. Below this dam, the River turns north, receiving Outlet Creek and the Middle Fork before entering Humboldt County. The River then flows northwest through the county, turning west at Fortuna. The Eel River finally enters the Pacific Ocean about 15 miles south of Eureka.

The Eel River was granted Wild and Scenic River status in 1981, which makes it off limits as an location for new dams. Unfortunately, the River has still been negatively impacted by human activity in the region, namely  logging and road-building.

Fly Fishing for winter steelhead on the Eel River

The water level of the Eel River is highly variable, depending on the time of the year and the amount of rainfall the area has received. Typically, the River is a beautiful emerald color and holds steelheads, chinooks, cohos, and rainbow trout. The average Eel River steelhead or chinook size is 8 to 15 pounds, but chinooks as large as 40 pounds have been recorded. 

Additionally, the River’s beauty attracts other wildlife, including beavers, river otters, and minks. The River is also a popular site for white water rafting and kayaking.

Eel River Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of fishing access spots on the Eel River in California

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish Eel River

Access to the Eel River is great, and you should be able to locate many public access points near the area you wish to take on.

The lower part of the River provides good fishing for chinook salmon and steelhead. However, if you are looking for rainbow trout, you will want to stay above Lake Pillsbury. You will want to tackle this River with a drift boat, although wade fishing is possible in some areas.

Best Time to Fish Eel River

Generally, the Eel River is open year round for fishing, but sometimes the River is closed after October if the water level is too low. The best time to catch chinook is in late October, but you will likely have luck catching chinook from August to December. In late November to March, the winter steelhead move in, with the best steelhead fishing arriving in January.

If shad fishing is more your speed, the best time to visit is late spring and early summer. 

Best Flies for the Eel River

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for Eel River steelhead:

  • Comets
  • Bosses
  • River Rat Squids
  • Rabbit Leeches
  • Nymphs
  • Glow Bugs

Gear Recommendations

A single-handed 9-foot six- to 8-weight rod with either a sink tip or shooting head. For two-handed rods, a Scandi tip on a floating line is recommended for swinging flies on the Eel River.

Eel River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide an Eel River fly fishing report are listed below:

Fishing Regulations

The state of California requires that all people who are 16 years of age and older have a valid fishing license. There are resident and non-resident sport fishing licenses available. You can purchase a one-year, 10-day, two-day, or one-day license. Some areas also require a permit. You can purchase the license and learn about the most current regulations through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Trip Planning Tips

The nearest airports to the Eel River in California is the California Redwood Coast-Humboldt County Airport and Redding Municipal Airport. We guarantee you will enjoy the scenic car journey to your location.

Rodeway Inn Humboldt Bay offers modest and clean rooms in the area, along with complimentary Wi Fi and breakfast. Of course, there is a good chance that once you see the Redwoods, you will want to stay as close as possible. Redwood Coast Cabins and RV Resort is just a short drive away from Redwood National Park and the Pacific Ocean.

Eel River is making a comeback, and we guarantee you’ll want a front row seat. As long as dedicated wildlife enthusiasts and anglers fight to preserve this fishery, the Eel River will continue to provide excellent fishing for years to come.

Looking for more places to fish? Check out our DIY Guide to Fly Fishing California

Feature image by Jan Kronsell