Finding steelhead in central California can be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. These hardy (yet threatened) sea-run trout live in small coastal streams, parts of which may go completely dry during the summer months. During the brief winter rains, smolts run downstream to the ocean, and a few returning adult fish run upstream to quickly spawn and return to the sea.
You have a 4-month season of weekends only, and you have a very short stretch of water to fish...usually less than a mile up from the river mouth. You may fish all morning and return to your truck with only nettle stings to show for it. Instead of the bears commonly encountered up north, you may see a shy coyote loping through a cow pasture, or an irritated bobcat being dive-bombed by a territorial hawk.
California steelhead were recently discovered in San Mateo Creek, south of Los Angeles, and they are uncommon anywhere south of San Francisco. The further north you go, the more rainfall--and the more steelhead. This adult specimen (above) was collected on the headwaters of the Carmel River, where a dedicated band of diehard conservationists annually runs rescue missions to save stranded smolts as the river dries up in the summer.
The silvery "halfpounder" (above) was caught in the lagoon at the mouth of a creek just south of the Big Sur coastline. The smolts seem to take on this coloration in the brackish lagoons that are often blocked from the sea by surf-piled sand. Anglers use the term "halfpounder" to describe small silvery steelhead making their first upstream run (they may however weigh a pound or more).
The little guy is from a landlocked population living in a small creek in Big Sur. These colorful native rainbows are the very same species as the steelhead, yet are blocked from the sea by massive waterfalls, and so live out their entire life cycle in the creek itself. We can only guess how these little gems originally got into this rugged watershed.
More on southern California steelhead:
Text and images ©2001 by Stuart Helmintoller @Streamside.