Mattole River

Mattole River

Much of the original character of California has been highly altered or destroyed – lost in the fires of progress as the state was overwhelmed by the race to populate it. I know this because I saw it happen in many ways in many places. I was born in San Mateo in 1942 when California was still relatively intact. I lived in BC almost full time until 1958 when we returned to the Bay Area to in time to witness some of the unbelievable change that ravaged California. Make no mistake; California was a beautiful and environmentally rich state. I saw the lovely Santa Clara Valley covered with malls, freeways and box housing development. I saw the great redwood forests of Humboldt and Del Norte Counties ripped
and torn to build the boxes.  I saw great grass lands turn to cheat and sage, the San Francisco Bay marshes buried in garbage and the rivers – oh the rivers – diverted to concrete caskets to irrigate bean fields or fill swimming pools in Los Angeles or Los Altos. The ghosts of the great California Grizzly Bear which adorns the state flag, watched in painful experience.

But there were and still are places where the old California holds on. I have to believe there are enough people with enough heart to give some hope that these places will continue to live in peace. The Mattole River Valley of the northwest coast is such a place. In all of California, it is near
the top of my favourite places.

Deane Swickard and I drove down from Arcata one beautiful spring morning in 1966. We  heard rumours of a fine run of spring steelhead in the Mattole but couldn`t find anyone in Eureka or Arcata that had fished the river even though it wasn`t more than an hour`s  drive south on good roads. For some reason, the Mattole Valley was a place many people talked about but few seemed to go to. We felt we might be violating some unwritten law by passing into this valley of spiritual magic.

It was sometime in early March. We passed through the Victorian farming village of Ferndale on the Eel River floodplain then wound our way through some hills before dropping down to the Bear River and Cape Mendocino. There were sheep ranches in the long ago logged and burned hills. A gentle northwester sent green waves through new spring grass and flowers.  There were yellow splashes of mustard and buttercup along the Bear and the hills were lime green. Along the cape, winter storm waves had ripped out portions of the road and sent driftwood across it.
In some places, there were drifts of sand across the road like snow after a Saskatchewan blizzard. We wished we had been there to experience the sound and fury. We could only imagine it on this bluebird day. We drove on in my little 1960 MGA sports car.

The little village of Petrolia rests in the Lower Mattole Valley and welcomes travellers from the north. We stopped to visit with some people lounging in front of the store where we learned that the river was closed above the Petrolia Bridge to protect spawners.  Only a small portion was open. We were disappointed that we had arrived too late for good fishing – it didn`t last long. We drove the short way to the bridge and were amazed to see at least fifty steelhead holding in the Bridge Pool. Most were above the bridge but there were enough below it to get our hopes up. We waded out on a bar on the north side of the river and began covering the fish with spinning gear. They quickly moved to deeper, well shaded water near the steep south bank. Deane gave chase and was soon flailing away from some rocks directly above the fish. I stayed put. In a few
minutes, some fish moved back to my side and I began to feel a few bites. I was fishing small pieces of roe with no weight and six pound line. The water was low and clear. The next cast was well upstream so the bait could work down to the fish. I left slack and watched the belly of the line on the water surface. I could see it making small dips as the fish mouthed the roe then spit it out. Steelhead have very acute senses and can be extremely wary. They will often smell and taste bait or a drifting lure without the slightest signal to the angler. Rejection can be quicker than an eye flash. But if the hook is very sharp, they may prick themselves and get hooked in a turn of panic. Or a fast current may cause a misjudgement whereby they may brush the hook to a degree that informs the angler and the hook is driven home. And every so often, a fish may simply swallow a bait or attack a lure in a very direct manner.

After about three drifts, the belly in my line took a sharp dive. I cranked the reel handle and set the hook. The fish shook its head twice then blasted downstream like a spooked torpedo. For awhile I thought it might be a big one and I may not be able to land it. I yelled something that sounded like panic and Deane came speeding to my assistance and fell scrambling up the bank. He scraped himself up pretty good sliding back down but was soon beside me with advice and moral support. Neither of us had ever landed a steelhead. I was very careful with the fish but the battle was over after the first wild run. We beached a six pound female kelt then danced on the gravel bar.

We thought the fish in the bridge pool would be spooked now and moved downstream to look for new water. It was a fisherman’s day and our
first success. The warm sun and fragrance of new life from the greening willows and alders gave us quick legs. In the next run, we found steelhead breaking water in good numbers. Canadian steelhead almost never show themselves but California steelhead often roll on the surface or leap cleanly in warming spring waters. We covered the fish for several hours without a touch then packed our gear and drove out of the valley via Honeydew and Bull Creek. At the summit between the Mattole and Bull Creek, the car’s wiring burned out. Frank Deckert and Rich Lamb came down from Arcata and picked us up. We drank a lot of beer on the way back and saw a Ring Tailed Cat run across the road in the bright moonlight near Pepperwood.

2 Responses to “Mattole River”

  1. deaneswickard says:


    How have you been? Contact me and we will catch up on old times.

    Deane Swickard

  2. TedBurns says:

    Hey Deane:

    Great to hear from you. Last I heard you were in an army camp in Southern Cal (Pendleton) and wrote a paper on the fauna of the property – good work. I have many fond memories of our days at Humboldt and often wonder
    where everyone ended up. Lamb came to Nelson and Nanaimo years back and was living in Willow Creek. At the time, I think Jim Lin was still hanging around Arcata but that is just about as much as I know and that was about 50 years ago.
    I hope you know much more than I. If so, fire away….

    All the best mi amigo,


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