Fishing for Steelhead on the Mad River

Justin with steelhead

Humboldt County has plenty of prime spots for catching steelhead, but the most popular is definitely The Mad River. Not only does it have plenty of fish thanks to the Mad River Fish Hatchery, but it also has some of the most conveniently located fishing areas in the county. If you’re looking for a good place to catch a few steelhead, it’s hard to beat the stretch of the Mad that runs southeast from the 101 to the Hatchery.

Since we get a lot of questions about steelhead this time of year, it’s a good idea to go over the basics. The most important thing to know is the difference between wild and hatchery-raised steelhead. When you hook a wild steelhead, it’s strictly catch-and-release. If you want to take a steelhead or two home with you, you’re going to have to stick with hatchery fish.

The easiest way to tell the difference is to check for an adipose fin. The adipose fin is the small nub that sticks off the steelhead’s back between the dorsal fin (the big fin on its back) and the tail. Hatchery steelhead have their adipose fins clipped; if you catch a steelhead with its adipose fin intact, you’ve caught a wild one and will need to release it.

Even with the clipped fins, some people still have trouble telling the difference between hatchery-born and wild fish. Sometimes this is because the adipose fin isn’t completely clipped – if it looks like someone cut off a chunk, it’s still a clipped fin. Wild steelhead are also much more energetic than hatchery fish; if it puts up a big fight after you hook it, it’s almost definitely a wild steelhead.

If you like fishing for the challenge, wild steelhead are going to be much more fun for you to catch. But if you’re planning on cooking up a meal after your fishing trip, just keep an eye out for those clipped adipose fins.