The Salinas River is not only the largest river in the Central Coast region, it’s also the most mysterious.
The seasonal river is an oddity in that it flows underground for much of the year. It’s even stranger in that it’s a north-flowing river, one of the few out west, joining the likes of the San Joaquin, Snake, Big Horn, Gallatin and Yellowstone rivers.
The Salinas, which usually runs dry above ground by the summer or early fall, stretches Getting to the Salinas some 155 miles in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties, connecting the heavily-farmed Salinas Valley with the coastal range and Monterey Bay. The southern end of this seasonal steelhead fishery begins in the La Panza Range east of the City of San Luis Obispo and flows north to Santa Margarita Lake, a result of a dam placed on the river between the small towns of Pozo and Santa Margarita.
Below the small but popular bass, trout and crappie haven that is Santa Margarita Lake, the Salinas follows the 101 freeway past Atascadero and Paso Robles where it meets up with the tail end of two of its largest tributaries, the Nacimiento and Santa Antonio rivers. Farther north, the fast-flowing Arroyo Seco River dumps into the Salinas near Greenfield.
Because it receives runoff from these three unique rivers, two of which drain from the bass-heavy reservoirs, the Salinas is home to numerous warmwater species, including white, spotted, largemouth and striped bass originating from Nacimiento and San Antonio lakes. Anglers should note the fishing season on the
Nacimiento River is different from that of the Salinas and is typically only accessible via Camp Roberts during the general trout season because the river runs on government property.
Steelhead and wild trout also call the Salinas home for portions of the year. Steelhead are willing to swim 100 miles or more from Monterey Bay to the southern gravel-bottom spawning grounds of the Arroyo Seco and nearby feeder creeks. The river meets Monterey Bay just south of Moss Landing where it meets with the Old Salinas River and Elkhorn Slough before dumping into the Pacific Ocean. The river used to flow directly into the bay to the south, but its original course changed as a result of the 1906 earthquake.
Because it is an annual steelhead passageway, the Salinas is only open to fishing during the standard steelhead season from December-March on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesdays along with legal holidays and closing day. The Salinas is a special-regulation water with a zero limit for steelhead. Only barbless, single hooks may be used on artificial lures or flies. No bait is permitted. Bass, sunfish, carp, Sacramento suckers and squawfish make up most of the catches at the Salinas, unless you stick to fly fishing. Fish the deeper pools under bridges and overpasses and around submerged structure for trout.
There are few trees directly along the Salinas River’s banks on the southern stretches, but if you find a brush-covered bank, trout can be found below the sheltered dropoffs and overhanging vegetation.
For the most part, fishing on the Salinas is a challenge unless you’re at the right place at the right time. The key is to keep moving until you locate a place where fish may stack up. Good all-around flies for the Salinas include Muddler Minnows and beadhead Woolly Buggers, which may pick up the occasional bass. Egg patterns are popular on the northern stretches of the river, as are egg-sucking leeches and glo bugs. Pink or yellow Panther Martins and silver or blue Blue Fox spinners resembling small baitfish are popular lures on the Salinas.
Shrimp flies and crab look-alikes are popular with surf fishermen at the Salinas River Refuge, where anglers can hook up with typical surf species such as surfperch and jacksmelt.
How to Get There
The Salinas River, which runs from central San Luis Obispo County to Moss Landing in Monterey Bay, is accessible via public trails in Santa Margarita, Atascadero, Paso Robles, Bradley, King City, Soledad and Monterey where the river runs through Salinas River State Park and meets up with the Old Salinas River and Elkhorn Slough before dumping into Monterey Bay.