Crazy about the Mad River

September 29, 2010/Game And Fishing Magazine
By J.D. Richey

Northern California’s Mad River lives in obscurity. To the north is the famed Klamath River, known around the world for its epic steelheading. Immediately south is the Eel River, steeped in tradition and the birthplace of the state’s steelhead sportfishery.

Zane Grey and Ernest Hemingway didn’t spend time on the Mad, nor are there any famous fly patterns named after this river. But that’s OK. For sheer numbers of winter steelhead, the Mad can’t be beat.

After spilling over the dam at Ruth Lake, the Mad rushes through steep canyons for some 50 miles before finally giving in to the low gradient of the coastal plain near of the town of Blue Lake.

There are opportunities to catch steelhead a short way up into the canyons, but the bulk of the fishing takes place in the eight-mile stretch between the ocean and the Mad River Fish Hatchery in Blue Lake.

The hatchery is the main reason the Mad is so outstanding. Wild runs have suffered from the long-term effects of dams, development and logging. By the middle of the last century, the river’s steelhead run was pretty much wiped out.

But the hatchery helped get the river back on its feet. Compliments of the hatchery, anglers enjoyed many glory years on the Mad. But several years ago, the facility fell victim to state budget cuts.

A group of anglers and business owners who had relied on the Mad for recreation and income banded together. They raised money to keep the hatchery on life support until the state finally kicked in some funds to get the fish-rearing program up and running again.

The hatchery still isn’t running at full capacity, but it does raise and plant enough young steelhead to make the Mad a top-notch fishery.

Last season, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 winter steelhead returned to the river. And needless to say, fishing was very good!

The Mad River Fish Hatchery also gives anglers the opportunity to take home a few fish. In most of the state’s rivers, wild steelhead are off-limits. Each winter, anglers come in droves to fish the Mad’s prolific hatchery run to get a few fillets for the grill.

The steelhead that return to the Mad River are mostly hatchery fish, with a smaller run of naturally bred fish as well. They typically run 6 to 10 pounds, but steelies in the mid-teens aren’t uncommon.

And a handful of brutes in the 20-pound class are taken every year. A few years back, in fact, an angler here caught a giant steelhead that would have weighed more than the current state record of 27 pounds, 4 ounces — had he not gutted and gilled it before having it weighed!

Since the Mad River Fish Hatchery sits so close to the ocean, the early-run fish here are extremely bright and full of fight. As the season wears on, you’re more apt to run into “guacamoles” — the locals’ term for fish that have been in the river for a while and have “greened up.”

In March, the fishing can still be good for the river’s modest run of bluebacks.

These small chrome-bright steelies usually fall into the 3- to 5-pound class and can help anglers get a last-minute steelhead fix before having to go cold turkey for the next several months. While bluebacks are much smaller than the winter fish, in the warmer water of the spring, they put up a great scrap on light gear.

As early as late August, steelhead start poking into the Mad River, but the bulk of the hatchery run shows up in December. If the river conditions are right, some of the best fishing typically takes place between Christmas and Jan. 1.

Hatchery steelies will continue ascending the river in January and then peter out later in the month. Of course, a few fresh fish are always trickling in through February. But by late January, anglers will see a much higher percentage of wild fish.

It’s illegal to keep native steelhead, but you can still have plenty of fun catching and releasing them.

Most years, the crowds disappear once the hatchery run tapers off. You’ll find more elbowroom later in the season.

In March, the river will still have some fresh fish in it. But the large majority of steelhead will be runbacks or “downers” — fish that have spawned and are making their way back to the ocean.

Though not as sporty as they were when they were heading upstream, these fish are good for some catch-and-release fun while you wait for bites from fresh-run steelhead.

The Mad, like most other streams in the area, closes to fishing on April 1. By late March, most anglers are catching bluebacks, if they haven’t moved on to other pursuits.

Though the Mad has many miles of good steelhead water, the best fishing generally takes place in the short stretch of river between the hatchery and the Blue Lake Bridge. This is the epicenter of the action where you’ll find the largest concentrations of steelies — and steelie anglers.

Probably the most popular spot on the river is “The Pipe,” which sits just below the mouth of the fish ladder. (On either side of the ladder, there are swathes of river a few hundred feet wide that are closed to fishing).

Steelhead homing in on their birthplace will hug the rocks near The Pipe. And during the peak of the run, anglers working from the disabled fishing-access area on the hatchery side often catch mind-boggling numbers of fish.

Below there, spots like Summer Bridge, Walton Paving, the mouth of the North Fork and the flat below the Blue Lake Bridge are all hot zones.

Some anglers also work the stretch just upstream of the hatchery, where there are several nice riffles, flats and runs to explore. However, you have to be willing to hike up there. The only roads are private logging roads owned by timber companies.

The loggers don’t seem to mind anglers hiking on the roads. But just to be safe, it’s probably a better idea to stay inside the high-water mark and walk on the gravel bars. That way, you won’t run into any potential trespassing issues.

The Mad is a small river and therefore, mostly the domain of bank anglers. On quiet days with very little angler traffic, a courteous drift-boater pulling plugs (like silver-orange Wiggle Warts and Hot Shots) can do OK.

But since you can cast across the river just about anywhere, there’s really no need for a boat.

Plus, from the hatchery on down, you’ll find a stretch with wide, smooth gravel bars that make for easy wading and fishing.

Most shore-casters fishing with conventional gear will toss hardware or drift bait. In the lure department, No. 3 and 4 Mepps, Blue Fox and Pen Tac spinners or 2/5-ounce Little Cleo spoons in silver, gold or copper take plenty of fish.

Your object here is to cast across and slightly downstream and allow the lure to sink near the bottom. Once it’s near the rocks, engage the reel with just enough pressure on the line to keep the spinner’s blade rotating at low revolutions per minute, or the spoon wobbling at a slow rate.

Use your rod tip to follow the lure’s progress as it drifts through the run and let it swing in an arc downstream until it’s directly downstream of your position.

Most strikes will come as the lure hits the apex of its swing. But there are also times when you’ll get slammed at the very end of the drift.

Hardware grabs are usually about as subtle as a slap across the face. When you get bit, you’ll know it!

Once you’ve covered the water in front of you, take a step or two downstream and cast again. Keep going until you either hit a fish or cover all the holding water.

Hardware often accounts for the largest fish of the season, but for sheer numbers, drifting bait is the way to go. Cured salmon roe is the No. 1 offering, though some anglers also catch fish on uncooked prawns.

In either case, use just enough lead to get the bait down — but not anchored — to the bottom.

The idea here is to cast perpendicular to shore and then allow the bait to drift just off the bottom with the sinker tap-tap-tapping along the rocks the whole time. Just as you’d do when fishing a lure, make several casts to the water in front of you, then move downstream a bit and resume casting until you find some biters.

Speaking of bites, the key to this technique is learning to distinguish the subtle grab of a fish from the sinker ticking the bottom. It’s a tough thing to explain, and you need to feel a bite before you’ll really understand.

Basically, when a steelie grabs the bait, you get a spongy feeling in your rod tip. If the fish hangs on, you’ll also notice that your sinker will stop tapping. At that point, it’s time to set the hook as fast as you can — steelhead can inhale a bait and spit it back out in a nanosecond.

To tie up a basic rig for drift-fishing, start by running the end of your 10-pound-test mainline through the line-attachment eye of a snap swivel. Then run the line through a small plastic bead and tie the end off to one eye of a barrel or crane swivel.

To the other eye of that swivel goes the leader, which should test slightly less than the main line — 8-pound is most common. Leaders should be 3 to 5 feet long and finished off with a No. 2 to 4 sharp octopus-style hook tied on with an egg loop.

To give your bait buoyancy and a splash of color, add a Fish Pill puffball to the bend of the hook, or run a Corkie down the leader until it rests on top of the hook eye.

For this style of fishing, the best sinkers are slinkies or hollow-core pencil lead and should be attached to the snap swivel.

Though the winter, you’re bound to encounter all sorts of different fishing situations along the Mad. The most successful anglers are those who understand how to adapt their tactics to match the water conditions.

What works during periods of high water isn’t necessarily the best choice when the river’s low and clear — and vice versa.

Early in the season and also during extended periods of clear weather, the Mad will run extremely low and clear. Then, typically, the nights are frosty, and river temperatures will plummet. As the water drops into the low 40s and high 30s, the steelhead will grow extremely lethargic and gravitate to the slowest, deepest water they can find.

Under these circumstances, you need to fish with larger, brighter baits and lures that will wake the fish up. You also have to work your gear as slowly as possible. To give the water a chance to warm up, start fishing a little later in the day.

If the water is low and clear, but the temperatures are still in the high 40s or above, the fish will hold in the fast water at the heads of runs, especially where it has a broken or choppy surface. With their metabolism raised, these steelies will be much more skittish than their cold-water brethren. The best way to dupe one is to scale down your lures and baits. Switch from bright oranges to light pink and peach colors. Run longer, lighter leaders.

Low water is actually the best condition for fly-fishers who want a chance at a steelie. Some do well swinging Black Leeches on shooting heads. But on the Mad, the most productive way to hook a steelie with fly gear is to run a nymph and indicator rig on a dry line.

Copper Johns, stones, Ugly Bugs and Otis Bugs are all good winter choices, while egg patterns like Glo Bugs are also very effective.

Pick your favorite method and get busy — this is prime time and it can be crazy good!

Other Steelhead Links from JD Richey:

Published by Mad River Steelhead Derby

A hatchery steelhead fishing derby on the Mad River in Blue Lake, CA