From early fall through early spring, steelhead numbers continue to impress anglers on the wild and scenic Klamath River. (December 2006)
Nowadays, when fishermen think of the Klamath River, no longer do great and healthy salmon runs come to mind. A major die-off occurred several years ago. Since then, the Klamath has been surrounded by reports of low water, warm water, poor salmon returns and battles between giving salmon and other fish enough cool water to survive, versus letting the farmers have all the water they want.
In anticipation of a historically well-below-normal return of chinook salmon this past fall, anglers weren't allowed to keep any adult salmon. The runs were so poor that drastic measures have been taken, including closures up and down the California coastline, to try to preserve chinook.
Nevertheless, while the salmon struggle and generate bad publicity, the Klamath's steelhead can still stand tall. From early fall through early spring, steelhead numbers continue to impress anglers on the wild and scenic Klamath River, which harbors a thriving population of wild and hatchery steelhead.
"We've been enjoying bumper crops of steelhead for the last five years, and I don't think it's going to change," said veteran Klamath River steelhead guide Wally Johnson of Seiad Valley Guide Service. "Some days, you can catch 20 steelhead a day on the Klamath. The steelhead seem to be doing fine. The steelhead come in a different time of the year when there's more water, and it's cooler water."
MORE FISH -- FEWER PEOPLE
The Klamath steelhead run is intact, and hatchery operations should keep the run persistent for years to come. However, the Klamath is a much different system than its neighbors to the north and south. The Klamath is a fairly large system, but still doesn't tend to carry trophy fish.
Fortunately, anglers don't come thinking they'll land a trophy steelhead. Steelhead to 12 pounds are caught annually; however, you are more apt to catch 3- to 6-pound fish. Anything heavier than 7 pounds is a very good fish for the Klamath.
"The difference between the Klamath and the Smith River is that there's more fish on the Klamath and less people," Johnson added. "The Smith has bigger fish, but tons of people. You are fighting crowds all the time there."
Crowds and the Klamath River mix as well as oil and vinegar. You are likely to see more bears than other anglers on the Klamath -- at least along the stretch of the Middle Klamath River near the town of Happy Camp, a former logging town. It now serves as a base for anglers fishing the section of the river between the Scott River and Orleans. It's one of the river's most productive stretches of water and tends to be kind to anglers.
Happy Camp lies downriver of the more crowded section of river between Interstate 5 and Iron Gate Reservoir, just north of Yreka. During the winter, Happy Camp and the surrounding area is a perfect spot for anglers wanting to not see another soul, yet still endure great fishing.
"The serenity of not having a bunch of people around is tough to beat," Johnson said. "The river is all yours. When people call about the Klamath, I tell them you probably won't see any other boats, unless they are fishing with our group."
He's right -- and the same goes for bank anglers. Many anglers argue that the Klamath offers the best bank-fishing for steelheaders in the state. There's dozens and dozens of miles of fishable roadside water. There's also dozens of put-ins and take-outs, making drift-boat fishing excellent.
Most of the Klamath is comprised of fairly easy water to drift. The few fast-water runs it features won't trouble even beginner drift-boat operators and anglers.
Steelhead occupy the Klamath from late fall through March. Throughout that time frame, the action in and around Happy Camp never skips a beat. On the other hand, you'll need to come prepared. This remote section of the Klamath National Forest might not get overrun by anglers, but the cold still makes daily appearances. It's not uncommon to have below-freezing temperatures prior to the sun hitting the water. At times, it'll snow, but more often than not, any weather you encounter will be in the form of rain.
"That's why we don't go fishing early in the morning during the winter here," Johnson said. "We don't like it that cold, and neither do the steelhead. The good thing about fishing here is you can sleep in, eat breakfast, have some coffee and then go fishing."
The Klamath can get blown out, similar to the way California's North Coast rivers do. However, the Klamath tends to clear fairly fast. After a hard rain, it can be fishable three days later. Many North Coast waters could take weeks to come back into shape. Only when record rainfall occurs does the river become unfishable for long periods of time.
Historically, the Klamath River tends to fish well as early as November. Early on in the month, anglers tend to catch plenty of half-pounders. But as Thanksgiving approaches, the larger adult fish tend to move in. The river is traditionally chock-full of steelhead by turkey time.
Early in the season, fly-fishing tends to be extremely productive for anglers swinging flies. As winter sets in, however, the bite becomes much tougher, and most anglers switch over to bait and hardware. Johnson said he finds the greatest success when using Pautzke Fire Cure roe soaked in Liquid Krill. When he's fly-fishing, his favored patterns include Brindle Bugs and Assassins. He added that over the last decade, night crawlers and spinners haven't been productive.
Locating the steelhead is your biggest battle, but definitely not a chore. It's likely they're going to be in the runs and riffles, specifically the slower runs. With the water as cold as it is during the winter months, steelhead tend to flee the quick-moving water. Keep in mind, the most impressive bite doesn't start until at least 10 a.m. The best bite takes place from midday to late afternoon. In the dead of winter, the more sun on the water, the better.
Johnson added that plugs can be effective this time of year, especially in clear water. Pee Wee Warts or size 30 or 50 Hot Shots are the mainstay. Finding the best color combination is more of a trial-and-error gig, not something you can plan ahead for. It's best to come prepared with an arsenal of colors and patterns. It's common to fish plugs in the shallower water and roe in the deeper water in late fall and throughout the winter.
"They'll be in the lower end of tail-outs. That's what happens when the water cools off. They'll be in the runs instead of the riffles," Johnson added. "This time of year,
you also want to slow down your presentation. They are much more lethargic until you sock a hook in their mouth."
Roe can be fished several ways on the Klamath, but side-drifting and boon-doggling are by far the most effective methods. Boon-doggling is productive because you don't have to worry about other boats in the area, and there's plenty of topography that lends to this method.
If you want to find success in January and February, steer clear of fast-moving water. It's likely there won't be a single steelhead in those areas.
"They'll be in the slower, deeper holes. They won't be lying in the runs. They'll be on the edges of the faster water," Johnson explained. "You can basically fish just about anyway you want, but you've got to get them on the bottom. They are pretty deep. This time of year, when it's cold, I'll run two flies. I'd run a large stonefly nymph fly and a very small nymph. Have the small one be an egg pattern."
Keep in mind the Klamath River never closes to fishing; therefore, anglers can still find consistent action in March and sometimes, early April. While many other rivers will be blown out this time of year, it's likely the Klamath will be fishing. In the spring, water levels will be higher than winter and hopefully, a tad warmer.
In the spring, Glo Bugs and boon-doggling roe dominate the scene. As it gets warmer, night crawlers and Panther Martin and Mepps spinners are also effective. Concentrate on fishing from the Scott River to Indian Creek. This area holds more fish than the upper section because of the number of tributaries that are present.
Another tip: Fish the edges rather than the middle of the river. The slower water around the edges can't be beat.
For more information, contact Wally Johnson of Seiad Valley Guide Service in Happy Camp at (530) 496-3291.