We recently took the kids on a coho salmon hike organized by the Salmon Protection And Watershed Network (SPAWN) at Samuel P Taylor State Park. Seeing those huge red and white fish in such a small creek got us that got us thinking about the steelhead run in the Russian River right now. Our vacation rental, Lucky Bend Lookout, is actually named after the famous fishing hole the “Lucky Bend” just west of Guerneville just down river from old Summer Crossing Road. Last week we were delighted to chat with several anglers in hip-waders casting through the light fog into the brisk waters right behind our house. One fellow had landed a 18″ steelhead. The kids were mesmerized and amazed that they spent the summers swimming in the same waters from which this huge fish had come.
Luckily for the kids the Warm Springs Fish Hatchery at the base of the nearby Lake Sonoma Dam, there is a fascinating place to visit to learn more about the life of the fish. It’s a real treat to see the huge steelhead swim up the shallow fish ladder on their way back to their breeding grounds. To get the expert opinion on all the great kid-friendly fishing activities in West Sonoma we contacted Scott Heemstra at our favorite Russian River outfitter, Kings Sport & Tackle. The following interview was lightly edited for clarity and flow.
Howdy Scott; for families like ours with youngsters intrigued by the idea of fishing, do you think there is an ideal progression to build-up kids interest in fishing?
Thanks for the interest with promoting fishing, especially with kids. In the current age in which we live I think it is extremely important to get kids into fishing since it gets them outside away from computers and phones and allows them to see how the natural world works. I think one of the most important things to get kids interested in fishing is having a parent that is interested in teaching. Without committing all of your attention to their experience especially when new frustration can set in fast.
Catching isn’t all that fishing is about, but when you are young in feels like the most important part. Keep in mind too that some kids will take to it like I did. My parents have photos of me patiently waiting along the shoreline at 4 years old. Others may lose interest after 15 minutes. I like to couple fishing with just playing, like at Howarth Park since the play structures are there or maybe going swimming.
Is there an ideal progression of skills related to the fishing seasons in the Russian River? For example, should we start with summer bass fishing then move on to steelhead or deep sea or shad? Maybe there is a natural order based on how difficult each would be for kids?
After learning some of the basics and “playing” with beginner rods on dry ground, taking kids to a place in which they can be successful is important. My recommendation would be a pond or lake that has eager fish like bluegill or crappie in it, a trout stocked place like Hagemann Ranch, or check the Department of Fish & Wildlife website for trout stocking at local lakes like Lake Ralphine at Howarth Park or the lakes at Riverfront Regional Park.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the Russian River is necessarily an easy place to fish. In the summer when the “easier” fish are hungry for worms we are not allowed to use them and if we do fish the hooks need to be barbless which can make landing them difficult.
I would recommend starting at an easier place like those I mentioned earlier then following the seasons. When the shad are in the river they can be very easy to catch, but targeting bass is more reliable since they are always here. There is also a non-game fish called a pike minnow that are very aggressive toward lures and can be fun to catch.
Starting in April and May you can try for shad, bass, or pike minnow. These smaller easier fish will gain you experience when the time comes for steelhead season. It may be several seasons of bass however before kids are ready to tackle a steelhead (they are known as the fish of 10,000 casts and that can turn most people off).
Does King’s Sport and Tackle recommend any guided outings or fishing kits that would help kids get up to speed with the gear and how to use it?
If kids are interested in pursing steelhead I would HIGHLY recommend a guide since it will take years out of the learning curve. We offer steelhead guided trips in the winter and shad trips in the spring. There is no quick kit that brings anybody, kids or adults, up to speed when it comes to fishing, just time fishing on the water and a love of learning. Reading books about the fish you are trying to catch and then trying the techniques helps. And of course a devoted parent or sibling that can help the kids get to water where there are fish.