The Fish Sniffer - Steelhead Fishing On The American River Breaks Open
Steelhead Fishing On The American River Breaks Open

Written By: Dan Bacher, January 3, 2011
Location: American River- South Fork,

For the first time in several years, anglers fishing the American River in the heart of the Sacramento metropolitan area experienced great steelhead fishing this January. The top-notch action took place after the Bureau of Reclamation dropped flows below Nimbus Dam to 3,000 cfs.

Just ask Rodney Fagundes of Sacramento, who experienced superb fishing on the American four trips in a row while fishing in his drift boat from just below the hatchery to Sailor Bar.

“Scotty Gomar of Sacramento and I caught 10 fish out of the 15 we hooked on Thursday, January 13,” said Fagundes. “The steelhead, a mixture of dark and bright fish, ranged from 6 to 12 pounds, with an average size of 10 pounds. It was the best day of steelhead fishing I’ve seen on the American in 10 years.”

The anglers back trolled with copper and cop car Wiggle Warts and Tadpolly lures in what Fagundes refers to as the “Steelhead Highway.”

Over the next two days, the fishing wasn’t quite as hot as on that memorable day, but was still very good. On Friday, Fagundes and his fishing partners, Scotty Gomar and Yoshi Itamura of Watsonville, switched over to pulling roe on 6-inch leaders behind Hot Shots. They landed 5 steelhead from 8 to 13 pounds out of the 7 fish they hooked. “We boated three fish over 12 pounds,” he noted.

They on the following day, January 15, Itamura, Isaiah Cuddiferd and Fagundes landed 5 out of the 7 steelhead that they hooked. They landed fishing ranging from 8 to 12 pounds back while bouncing roe.

Kenny “Ghostfish Slayer” of Watsonville landed three out of the five fish he hooked up while using an F-7 Flatfish from the bank the same day. He kept a chrome-bright 10 lb. hatchery steelhead.

Wanting to get in on the action myself, I went fishing with Fagundes in his drift boat from below the hatchery to Sailor Bar on Tuesday, January 18. Fagundes and I have fished together from either shore or boat on most January 1 openers since 2002 – and this year was the first time I didn’t see him on the opener. We anchored up in a slot above the Sailor Bar riffle, pulling Wiggle Warts and Tadpolly lures. We didn’t hook any fish the first hour, but Fagundes finally hooked and landed a 4 lb. steelhead while fishing a Wiggle Wart while anchored up. Meanwhile, a bank angler started hooking one fish after another while using Little Cleos.

Fagundes’ buddies, Samuel Yoro of Watsonville, and his friend, Finn Kennedy showed up on the river across from us in Yoro’s Zodiac. Amazingly, Yoro hooked and landed two steelhead to 8 pounds in just 10 minutes of fishing with a Wiggle Wart!

Kennedy then proceeded to hook his first ever steelhead, a bright 8 pounder, while casting out a Little Cleo. Not long after, he caught and released another steelhead about 9 pounds, followed by another steelhead.

It was getting frustrating. “What the heck are we doing wrong? “ I asked Fagundes as we continued to see people hooking up all around us. Fagundes decided to change strategy and rather than fishing plugs anchored up, he began back trolling at a spot further out in the river near a boulder.

Sure enough, I hooked my first steelhead of the year, a dark 9 lb. buck that we released. The change in strategy from anchor fishing to back trolling definitely changed our luck .

Over the next two hours into the afternoon, I caught four more steelhead ranging from 8 to 12 pounds, keeping the bright 8 lb. hen.

The biggest fish, the 12 lb. buck, hit a plug right by one of the tree branches dangling in the water. While the 8 pounder came right in, this fish made a series of runs and thrashed wildly on the surface. It was the toughest, though not the largest, steelhead I’ve ever hooked on the American and my hand was shaking when we got it in the net and Rodney released it.

We ended up hooking three more fish, all lost, before calling it a day. 10 hook-ups and 6 fish landed is a darned good day of steelhead fishing! The hottest plug color was a purple/green combination.

Yoro and Kennedy hooked and released several more beautiful steelhead before calling it a day. Russel Strickland of Hog On Guide Service confirmed the solid fishing on his latest drift boat trip down the American from Sailor Bar to Rossmoor Bar.

“My buddy Paul from Pleasanton and I went landed two fish out of 6 hooked up on January 14,” Strickland stated. “We released a wild American hen around 4 pounds. We caught all of the fish while drifting roe.”

Shore anglers are also bagging steelhead on the American. The fish were biting better when the water was still high, but actually landing them is a lot better now that flows are down. William Wright of Sacramento has reported hooking lots of fish since the opener.

“I’ve landed 7 out of the 28 fish I’ve hooked since the opener,” said Wright. “The fish were hard to land in the high water, since they go into the willows and break off.”

Wright has been using an array of offerings, including salmon roe, Little Cleos, nightcrawlers and Flatfish. Faced with high flows and a heavy current, he decided to switch over from lighter gear to 20 lb. test Berkley Big Game Main line and a 15 lb. test leader after losing too many fish.

Using the heavier gear hasn’t made much difference in his success rate. For example, he caught two steelhead, releasing one 7 pounder and keeping one 4 ponder, while fishing from shore below the hatchery on January 16.

Good numbers of steelhead continue to show at Nimbus Fish Hatchery. Nimbus had received 1111 adult fish and 30 half pounders to date, compared to 666 adults and 3 half pounders last season, according to Bob Burks, hatchery manager.

The numbers of steelhead at other Central Valley hatcheries are also dramatically better than in 2010. The Feather River facility in Oroville has received 591 adults to date, in contrast with only 56 adults and 1 half pounder in 2010. The Mokelumne River has trapped 183 adults and 79 half pounders, in contrast with 49 adults and 11 half pounders last year.

Hopefully, the best steelhead fishing is yet to come on the American, if past years are any indication. I have experienced some of my hottest steelhead fishing on this unique urban stream during February, March and April while fishing both from shore and a drift boat. Anglers can expect to catch a mixture of hatchery and wild fish.

The daily bag limit on the American is 2 hatchery trout or hatchery steelhead and 4 hatchery trout or hatchery steelhead are allowed in possession. Only barbless hooks may be used in the upper river from Jan. 1 through Oct. 31.

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