September 29, 2010
Steeled fishing keeps getting better on the Trinity River, a bank-angler's highway to heaven. (December 2007)
By John Higley
Jaret Bogue strikes a Trinity River steelhead.
Photo by John Higley.
Both the Klamath River and the Trinity, which joins the Klamath at the small town of Weitchpec in Humboldt County, have good road access and public fishing areas. But of the two, the Trinity probably offers the most drive-up opportunity.
TRINITY'S FAST ACTION
On the Trinity, the best steelhead fishing takes place during what some anglers may view as the off-season. School is in session and the year-end holidays are fast approaching. While a few scattered steelhead may be in the Trinity at any time of year, the real influx comes in fall and winter.
For many steelheaders, fall is the most popular time. The weather is about as good as it gets, and the fish are as feisty as they come. However, the diehard anglers come out in early winter when crowds have thinned and the weather can be questionable.
Dress appropriately, fish with dedication. Realize that you are part of a unique group to whom steelhead fishing is as important as breathing.
As good as it can be at times, steelhead fishing on the Trinity and elsewhere is never a certain thing. The fish move. They could vacate a hotspot overnight. Stormy weather could literally wash out the fishing for days or weeks at a time. In winter, the Trinity River Canyon sees very little sunlight, and some days are bitter cold. But such conditions have always been part of winter steelheading, providing the mystique and challenge of the pastime.
Even in the winter, some days on the Trinity are both pleasant and spectacular. One afternoon in late December, for example, my old fishing buddy Henry Miller and I hit it right on a run below Junction City.
Admittedly, the first couple of hours produced very little. But the last hole we tried made up for all the previous dull moments.
I remember that Miller unleashed a cast toward the head of the pocket. Before his bright orange Glo Bug swept past his feet, he felt the bump of a good fish. Unfortunately, it shook its head once and was gone like a puff of smoke in a gale.
Meanwhile, I tried the tail end of the run.
Seconds after Miller's near-miss, I got a hit on the same kind of lure.
"Gad! Look at it go!" I shouted. The fresh, silvery fish acted like a bee-stung mule, breaking water three times before I managed to get it to hand. It looked like a 4-pounder, but I'll never know for sure because I released it.
After a few more casts, I hooked another steelie. That one peeled the 8-pound-test line off my spinning reel practically at will, and I played it carefully for several minutes before bringing it in and turning it loose.
Incredibly, the next cast drew another hit, this one a bigger fish than the others. It squirted around the pool and thrashed on the surface repeatedly. I was dazzled by it all until the steelhead suddenly went deep and shook the hook. It was a fine example of my patented long-arm release.
OK, that was a few years ago, and things have changed. Right? Well, yes and no. The size of the steelhead run varies somewhat each year. That's to be expected: The return depends on production during previous years. But recently, the runs have left nothing to be desired.
HIGHWAY TO 'HEADS
The main-stem Trinity River emanates from Trinity Dam, which was completed in 1961. The river immediately enters Lewiston Lake, from which it is released five miles later. To mitigate for lost spawning habitat, the Trinity River Hatchery was built just below Lewiston Lake. Salmon are first in line at the hatchery, of course, but a substantial number of steelhead are spawned there as well.
Along its route, the Trinity is shadowed much of the way by State Route 299, which first encounters the stream east of Douglas City. The highway then leaves the river for a while and joins it again just west of Oregon Mountain at Junction City. Nearly all of the time from there, downstream past Big Flat, Big Bar and Del Loma, you get a tantalizing view of the river from the highway.
Only barbless artificials or flies are allowed 250 feet below Lewiston Dam downstream to the Old Lewiston Bridge. Catch-and-release is the rule. Trout are the primary target here, and the season runs from April 1 through Sept. 15.
The rest of the main stem, to its confluence with the Klamath River, is open all year except for the stretch between the State Route 299 bridge at Cedar Flat and Hawkins Bar, where the season is from Dec. 1 through Aug. 31.
The limit is one hatchery trout or one hatchery steelhead. (Fish with a clipped adipose fin -- the fin between the dorsal and the tail -- are from the hatchery.) The limit for brown trout is one per day. Hook-size restrictions are spelled out in the angling regulations booklet and at www.dfg.ca.gov.
SIZE, NUMBERS GROWING
From all reports, the steelhead run on the Trinity during the cold months of 2006-07 was notable for both numbers and the sizes of fish caught.
Larry Glenn, the Trinity River hatchery assistant manager, says that more than 11,500 steelhead came back to the facility in 2006-07. That's an all-time record. The previous high was in 2003-04 when 10,283 steelies arrived. In 2005-06, the number was 7,963. Prior to that, the high was 6,941 fish in 1964-65.
Hard as it is to believe, the all-time low was during the severe drought of 1976-77 when only 13 steelhead made it back to the hatchery.
"Unlike salmon, steelhead don't die after spawning," says Glenn. "All the steelhead that come into the hatchery are spawned with air and released unharmed. Some of them come back a couple more times before their life cycle is complete."
According to Glenn, the 2007-08 season should be another winner. But he concedes that steelhead runs can fluctuate at any time.
"The situation has been improving for the last four or five years, but when it comes to anadromous fish, you can experience a poor year when you least expect it," he says. "However, barring some catastrophe, this year should be another good one."
16 FOR 19
On his days off, my friend Mike Bogue, a full-time fishing guide, sometimes does the right thing and goes fishing for
himself. Bogue's normal beat is on the Sacramento River. But when he takes time for himself, it's often on the Trinity.
Last year, Mike and his teenage son Jaret visited the Trinity half a dozen times from November through January. And though they didn't always catch a lot of fish, they usually landed a few while fishing from the bank or wading.
A couple of days bordered on the unreal.
More than 11,500 steelhead came back to the Trinity River hatchery in 2006-07.
That's an all-time record.
"Jaret and I hooked 19 and landed 16 steelhead one day in November," Bogue says. "We hit it just right, evidently. And another day, we caught 12. It doesn't get much better than that."
When pressed, Bogue admits that on a couple of trips, he couldn't find the fish and on other outings, caught only two or three.
"Sometimes you can fish all over the place and not find them," Bogue says. "That's just the way it is. But on the Trinity, when the flows are normal, you can usually catch a few fish when you locate them. It's a good deal, really."
Guide Mark Speer, an airline pilot in his "real life," couldn't say enough about the quality fishing he and his clients had in 2006 and '07. Speer has fished the Trinity on his own for a long time, but just started guiding there last fall.
"It was good timing," he says. "We had a lot of action because there were so many fish."
Speer uses a drift boat and covers as much as 10 miles a day. Mostly he fly-fishes, but he'll use whatever tackle his anglers want.
"I can't remember a year when the fishing was any better than last season," he says.
A 500-STEELHEAD SEASON
Steve Huber has been guiding on the Trinity for seven years. He goes to other rivers once in awhile, but prefers to fish the Trinity, which is literally in his backyard.
"I like to be with my family, so I stay close to home whenever possible," Huber says. "I run some trips on the Sacramento during salmon season. But when it's steelhead time, I'm back on the Trinity."
When asked about the 2006-07 season, Huber was to the point. "Last year was a banner year," he says.
"My clients brought around 500 steelhead to the boat. I had only three trips when the fishing was far better than the catching, if you know what I mean."
Huber went on to say that he estimates that on average, the steelhead were 10 percent bigger than normal on the Trinity.
"We caught and released a wild 17-pound male last year," he says. "Fish of that size are rare on the Trinity, but I'll take them whenever I can."
When asked about the potential for this season, Huber says it's mostly up to the weather.
"We had very good conditions most of last season, so we were out on the water a lot," he says. "Major storms could turn the fishing off for a while. But if they don't hit us too hard, we should have another great year.
"It seems to me that the steelhead run is just getting stronger as we go," Huber adds.
HOW TO FISH THE TRINITY
There are many ways to catch steelhead on the Trinity. While fishing from the bank, Mike Bogue likes an 8-foot spinning rod with a sensitive tip, 15-pound-test line and 10-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.
His bait of choice is roe cured with Pautzke's Egg Cure. It's attached to the hook with a roe loop.
Other anglers swear by night crawlers and Glo Bugs. The idea is to get any offering down near the bottom where the fish are holding. Pencil lead cut to size is often employed along with other types of weights.
When guide Mark Speer fly-fishes, he uses a 5- or 6-weight rod and a weight-forward floating line with a Boles Float Rite strike indicator. He'll often use a two-fly setup, like a size 8 or 10 Rubberlegs with a Mercer's Poxyback or Copper John.
"I cast the flies slightly upstream and let them drift deep with the current," says the guide. "At the end of the drift, I usually let the flow bring the flies up and just flip them back upstream without any need to backcast. That approach really works well on the steelies."
Steve Huber likes egg patterns, and his favorite flies are October Caddis, Copper John, red and regular, as well as golden or black stonefly nymphs -- and when the water is clear, a plain Hare's Ear.
But Huber's favorite method of steelhead fishing is pulling plugs such as the old favorite Hot Shots and Little Wigglers. Fished across the bow of his drift boat, these lures can be worked into any potential steelhead lair with a few strokes of the oars.
With Hot Shots, he prefers the little guys, like models 60, 70, or sometimes a model 35. The clearer the water, the smaller the plug.
"If there hasn't been a lot of rain, and the water is low, I'll go with a darker plug. When the river is roily, I want something in copper or orange."
Every guide on the Trinity will tell you that drift-fishing is usually more effective than fishing from the bank. That's because a boat allows you to cover miles of water thoroughly, including a lot of places that are out of the reach of bank anglers.
However, if you don't happen to own a drift boat, you can do just fine if you keep a few things in mind. For one thing, you've got to be flexible. If you're in a good spot, but then the strikes dry up, move -- because that's what the fish have probably done. You have the option of other bank-fishing locations on the Trinity, thanks to dozens of access points along the river.
"For my money, the best reach for bank access is between Junction City and Del Loma," Huber says. "There's plenty of access the whole way, and to learn the spots, all you have to do is watch where the other anglers go.
"One thing a lot of guys are doing is what I call sight-fishing. They study the river from a vantage point until they spot some fish. Then they get set up and go after them. That tactic can be really effective." l
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