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.
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
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
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.
Fly Box - What You'll Need
Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for Eel River steelhead:
- River Rat Squids
- Rabbit Leeches
- Glow Bugs
Ventures Fly Co. offers a great selection of dry flies, nymphs and streamers that will catch fish just about anywhere. Set includes 40 high quality, hand-tied flies (see list below) and waterproof fly box.
- Adams Dry Fly
- Elk Hair Caddis
- Blue Wing Olive
- Royal Wulff
- Griffith's Gnat White
- Stimulator, Organge
- Chernobyl Ant
- Rubber Leg Nymph, Brown
- BH Pheasant Tail Nymph
- BH Prince Nymph
- BH Hare's Ear Nymph
- Barr's Emerger Nymph
- Zebra Midge Nymph, Black
- Wooly Bugger, Black (Size #8x2)
- Wooly Bugger, Olive (Size #8x2)
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:
- Sport Fishing Report
- NorCal Fishing Report
- Humboldt Fishing Report
- Northcoast Web Fishing Report
- Trout Underground Fishing Report
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