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Going Mad for steelhead

Article and photos by Casey Allen
02/02/12 -- The Mad River is full of steelhead and the water is clearing. “This is the greatest river in the country,” claimed an excited angler as I walked by with my camera. He wasn’t fishing but waiting impatiently for his partner to arrive. I surveyed the scene at the Mad River Hatchery handicapped fishing access and there were dozens of anglers in view. During the first 10 minutes I was there, mid-morning today, I saw four fish hooked and two landed.

Mad River, steelhead, Humboldt County, Casey Allen, MyOutdoorBuddy.com

Employees at the Mad River Hatchery sorted 1300 steelhead on Wednesday and picked 20 females to spawn. Each female was spawned with two males and when possible they matched a wild fish with a hatchery fish. It was a busy day for hatchery workers who spawn steelhead each Wednesday. The fish are then returned to the river to continue migrating upstream and the fish ladder into the hatchery is closed until next week and the next spawning day.

Mad River is enjoying a huge run this year with steelhead ranging from 6 to over 16 pounds. Some of the fish were dark after holding in the river for a while but many were bright as a dime indicating a fish fresh from the ocean.

I walked down river to the big gravel bar and met Scott Davis and Bud Bautista from Auburn. “What a great fishery,” Davis said as I approached. He said in two days they landed around 35 fish. The two buddies were using fly tackle and had black or dark brown bead-head wooly buggers tied to their leaders.

Mad River hatchery steelhead, Humboldt County, Casey Allen, MyOutdoorBuddy.com

Bud Bautista from Auburn said he makes the trip to fish Mad River at least a couple times a year. He kept this fish, on his last day, for his smoker.

This is an exceptional year for fishing the Mad because long periods without rain have allowed the river to clear. In normal years, the river runs muddy much of the time and the only way to hook steelhead is by a method called beading or flossing. Anglers use long leaders with a single bead above the hook. When rigged properly, the bead keeps the leader straight and a few inches above the river bottom. As it swings downstream the leader catches in a holding steelhead’s mouth and the hook is pulled into the fish just outside the mouth. This method amounts to snagging and is controversial but it is the only effective way to catch fish during muddy conditions. It also is only effective in the near reach below the hatchery where the fish hold, waiting to enter the hatchery. Since the steelhead are raised and released by the hatchery strictly for recreation, the method is tolerated. Hundreds of anglers visit Humboldt County to fish the Mad and if the practice were eliminated serious tourist dollars would be lost.

With the river clearing, only a few anglers were using this method. Most were drifting roe or Spin-n-glo’s. I saw a guy with a side planer and a wiggle plug. Many fishers were fly fishing. With the clearing water and the large number of fish the chances of enticing a bite greatly improved. The weather is predicted to be dry into next week so the fishing should remain very good.

The Mad River Hatchery would like volunteers to help spawn fish on Wednesday’s until mid -March when the spawning season ends. It takes a lot of effort to process 1300 fish and they could use the help. I plan to be there next Wednesday and I am excited to learn more about how the hatchery operates and to lend a hand for future steelhead runs.  

For more information on great fishing, visit Humboldt County.


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