California Fishing Regulations – Seeking a Balanced Approach


By Patrick Samuel,
Bay Area Program Manager


Last winter, CalTrout worked to engage you, our members, lodges, guides, fishing businesses, fly fishing clubs, biologists, researchers, and our partners to weigh in on the inland trout fishing regulation simplification process the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) is leading

You may recall our social media, website, Trout Clout, and other efforts requesting your input and sharing our thinking on the subject. 

Based on input from these groups, we wrote our formal comment letter to highlight our philosophies on trout management.

We feel it is our duty as stewards to lead on this issue, as it was California Trout that introduced legislation nearly a half century ago to create the Wild & Heritage Trout Program within CDFW in 1971, and helped create widespread adoption of catch and release angling ethic that same year. 


Cover Photo: "Owens River" by Gayle Soskolne





Photo: Sebastian Vido




In March 2019, CDFW released its proposed draft trout fishing simplification regulations.

This effort was initially started in 2012 as a way to decrease the over 200 special regulations affecting trout fishing in California beyond the simple statewide 7.0 regulation, simplify them, and encourage more anglers to get on the water all while protecting our public trust resources.

Sounds simple enough, right? You may remember we requested your input and provided forms for you to raise your voices on this effort, and they were heard. 

We went to Sacramento with our partners at Trout Unlimited to sit down with CDFW staff to discuss our concerns and suggestions in person and were assured there would be more opportunity to collect public input. 

After receiving over 5,000 formal comments submitted electronically and in-person at multiple statewide hearings, hundreds of phone calls, letters, etc., CDFW decided to slow the adoption of any proposed changes, which were scheduled for adoption in summer 2019, and take a closer look at this issue to adequately address the comments they received and make changes to the proposals.   


Photo: Luke Williams


Photo: John Kim


In February 2020, California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) re-engaged the public by releasing their draft regulation changes based on the enormous public comment they received.

At the end of February, we sat down for a second time in person with our partners at TU and CDFW to provide input and examples of rationale for continued changes we felt would better balance our priorities and trout management in the future.

We walked through a list of waters in the state with economic, social, safety, biological, and other information to temper the proposed regulations in these places to try to come to agreement over better serving management and simplification goals without putting wild trout fisheries at unnecessary risk of overharvest.  

CDFW just released its latest draft inland trout fishing regulations for public review and comment, which is open now. 




By careful design, any regulation changes must occur within the California Fish and Game Commission three-part process.  The three-part process entails a primary notice meetinga meeting to receive public comment and debate the staff recommendation provided to the Commission, and a third meeting to endorse and vote to accept formal changes to go into effect.  For this regulation simplification meeting, the Fish & Game Commission meeting schedule is  

  • June 24 and 25, Santa Ana – Notice Meeting 
  • August 19 and 20, Fortuna – Discussion Meeting 
  • October 14 and 15, Oakland – Vote/Adoption Meeting 

The plan right now is for these meetings to be held as planned on the Fish and Game Commission website but they are virtual meetings hosted remotely due to concerns with the coronavirus.


Photo: Bob Hilcox




Throughout this process, we advocated for a model of management that matches the stated management goals with the appropriate tools to achieve the desired results, not a piecemeal approach to every single water in the state. 

As we worked through the overarching issues, we eventually drilled down to use several waters as examples for a management approach we were advocating for. 

We leaned on our work and those of our partners to inform changes such as on the Truckee Fall rivers and several lakes with large spawning aggregations of trout moving into tributaries seasonally

Where we have cooperative science ongoing with CDFW as in the Fall River, we were able to show that rainbow trout use interconnected springs, tributaries, lakes, and other waterways in the Fall River complex to spawn year-round.

With this information in hand, we were able to apply the science to policy and successfully lobby for a unified regulation that would reflect this unique life history and protect these fish from potential overharvest 


Some other proposed regulations were changed with different approaches. For example, several proposed regulations were tempered with social, economic, safety, enforcement, and other considerations such as increased potential to damage sensitive habitats from increased foot traffic, littering, poaching, or others, especially those in more rural or remote areas on the East Side.

With this combination of approaches, we were successfully able to make our case that proposed regulations should be changed to keep things like Opening Day intact in rural communities that rely upon them for business and to prohibit fishing in the middle of winter to keep people from falling through ice or unnecessarily straining limited Warden capacity for enforcement when different hunting seasons were commanding their attention. 


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Taken in concert, we feel that the latest revision of the trout fishing regulations strike a much better balance between these different considerations than the initial draft released last year, and are glad to see many of the changes we recommended showing up in the revised proposal, such as the change to the statewide 7.0 regulation that reflects a need to better protect spawning fish: 

  • Still Waters and Lakes:  
  • Open year round, 5 trout limit, no gear restrictions 
  • Rivers and Streams:  
  • Last Saturday in April to Nov. 15: 5 trout limit;  
  • November 16 to last Friday in April: 0 trout limit, artificial lures with barbless hooks 


Many areas that had artificial lure requirements prior now mandate the use of barbless hooks on those lures, helping to reduce any incidental mortality or sublethal impacts from hooking and playing trout.  

At the same time, there are some catch and release only waters that are being lost in this effort from our perspective, and not all of the effective management tools we’ve advocate for (slot limits to protect larger spawning broodstock and juvenile, immature fish) have been included “on the menu.” 

A few waters we are still working to get amended (East Walker, East Carson, Upper Sacramento, and Mokelumne) require more effort to better protect thriving wild trout fisheries there where they co-exist with stocking. We feel these areas do not have adequate regulations in place to do so as written. 


In general, the astute angler will notice a trend of opening up more waters in the state to fishing for more of the year, but with restricted times (typically summer, when angling pressure is highest) when barbed hooks or lures may be used to harvest trout.

This approach was put forward by CDFW to balance the desire to provide angling opportunity to get more people on the water, while protecting vulnerable spawning fish during spring (rainbow, cutthroat, brook trout) and fall (brown trout) months.

In general, lakes and reservoirs will have more generous bag and possession limits that moving waters to protect more concentrated populations that are more susceptible to overharvest.

While we did not advocate for year-round trout angling, we feel that opening up some waters to catch and release angling in seasons that were not open before is a good way to get more people engaged in fishing and to spread angling pressure among many waters to help protect wild fish. 

There are also generally strict regulations in waters that sustain our imperiled native trout species, such as McCloud River redbands and California golden trout, that with proper enforcement are likely to protect them from significant impacts from angling:  we are working tirelessly with our partners statewide on the other threats they face.

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