September 29, 2010
From half-pounders to full-grown mature steelhead, fishing on the Klamath River this winter is bringing back a lot of memories of the Golden Days of fishing here.
Photo by Kraig Haske
By Rick Laezman
It was my first trip to the Klamath, and my expectations were inflated by the stories I'd heard. The river has a grand tradition dating back to the early 20th century, when salmon canneries thrived there and presidents and corporate tycoons rode in steam-powered trains up the canyon for weekends of fishing. Luxurious lodges were built to accommodate those well-heeled anglers.
Then the Klamath became a victim of its own popularity. Perhaps a harbinger of the river's changing fortunes, the famous Blue Creek Lodge washed away in a massive flood in 1964 and was never rebuilt. Visitors can see remnants of this and other abandoned retreats from the golden days of Klamath River fishing at different points along its path.
Eventually, the combined effects of logging, gill-netting, overfishing, drought and other factors took their cumulative toll on the Klamath fishery. One local guide reports business was so bad in the early '90s he had to close up shop.
Showing a remarkable resiliency, the Klamath bounced back. A change in management practices got a lift from Mother Nature in the mid-1990s, when the long drought finally came to an end, and soon after salmon and steelhead populations rebounded. That same local guide who went out of business is again fishing for a living. He says the last five to six years has been "almost like the old times."
The Klamath's popularity is easy to understand. It is one of the largest and longest rivers in the state, traveling over 200 miles through the spectacular scenery of northwestern California's rugged mountains. The Klamath actually begins in south-central Oregon as the outflow of Klamath Lake. From there it travels south across the border and begins the long journey west to the Pacific Ocean.
The uppermost stretch of the Klamath harbors a healthy population of native rainbow trout. There it feeds Copco and Iron Gate reservoirs, after which it flows freely to the ocean. The long stretch known for its runs of salmon and steelhead begins at the outflow of the aptly named Iron Gate Dam.
* * *
The fall salmon run was in full swing. On our way to the river, we stopped at a narrow wooden bridge traversing a shallow nameless creek that wound its way through ranches and farms before it emptied into the Klamath. From our vantage point, we had an intimate view of the final stages of the salmon's journey.
It was an almost surreal scene, something from a science fiction movie; like alien creatures about to conquer a defenseless planet, hulking salmon charged against the tiny current, their backs emerging from the shallow water. We could have easily scooped them up in nets.
Along the way, we also stopped by the intake to the Iron Gate Hatchery. We watched in awe as huge salmon repeatedly leaped and struck their heads against the tarp covering the entrance to the hatchery. But the hatchery was filled to capacity and could accommodate no more eggs. The fish bounced back helplessly into the water.
Later as I waded into the river after steelhead, a 40-pound salmon leaped so close to me it could have landed inside my waders.
* * *
As is the case with most anadromous fisheries, the Klamath features several runs that coincide with the seasons. The timing of these runs differs depending on the location on the river. Because of the time it takes for the fish to travel the entire length of the river, runs fished on the lower stretches can be fished again on the upper reaches one to two months later.
The Klamath has runs in summer, fall, winter and spring, each with its own characteristics. The summer and spring runs are the lightest. Most of the fishing attention focuses on the runs of fall and winter.
In early August, the chinook or king salmon begin their long journey at the mouth of the Klamath, which opens up into the Pacific at a point about 20 miles south of Crescent City and 50 miles north of Eureka. Steelhead begin appearing a few weeks later.
The Klamath does not produce the largest steelhead in the region. That honor goes to such neighboring rivers as the Smith and the Chetco, which produce adults in the 8-pound range, with trophies going to 20 pounds. A typical adult steelhead on the Klamath may range from 20 to 24 inches and weigh 4 or 5 pounds. A 10-pounder would be a terrific catch, and local guides report that the fish can get as big as 15 pounds. The best run of adult steelhead occurs each winter.
The Eureka Fly Shop offers guide services, equipment and fish reports for the Klamath and other neighboring rivers. It can be reached at (707) 444-2000.
The Trinity Fly Shop, (530) 623-6757, offers guide services on the upper Trinity River.
For information about fishing the lower Klamath, contact the Steelhead Lodge in the town of Klamath Glen at (707) 482-7905.
Tim and Albert Kutzkey are second- and third-generation guides on the upper Klamath. They can be reached at (530) 842-4360 (Tim) and (530) 842-2229 (Albert). See also www.kutzkeyfishing.com.
For accommodations in Eureka, contact the Eureka Chamber of Commerce at (707) 442-3738.
For information about access points and other questions pertaining to the Six Rivers National Forest, contact the ranger district office in Orleans at (530) 627-3291. -- Rick Laezman
HALF-POUNDERS The Klamath is perhaps most well known for its run of so-called half-pounders. It is a misnomer, of course, since these young steelhead typically weigh from 1 to 3 pounds, but they usually appear in th
e lower river in mid-August. Anglers can fish to them in the upper river in September, October and November.
One theory holds that the fish race upstream to feed on roe left behind by spawning salmon. But that is not confirmed. A second theory has it that the fish, although sexually immature, are following their instincts to swim upstream. If the latter theory is true, it has nothing to do with spawning. Unlike juvenile salmon, or grilse, which exhibit similar behavior, these 2 1/2-year-old fish are not sexually mature and they do not lay any eggs. Regardless of the explanation, when the river brims with leaping salmon, it's a good bet half-pounders are not far behind.
They are a kick to fish. They give anglers an opportunity to enjoy the thrill of catching an ocean-going trout using lighter tackle than they would need for an adult salmon or steelhead. They have more energy and fight than a resident trout, and they test any angler's landing skills. For reasons only known to nature, anglers will find half-pounders only on the Klamath and a few other rivers in the region.
If they aren't caught by anglers, half-pounders return to the ocean where they will spend four to six years of their life maturing. Eventually, they return to the river as sexually mature, adult steelhead to spawn.
* * *
As I swung my fly through the tail end of the riffle, a force even greater than the swift moving current took hold of my line. A healthy steelhead had engorged my fly and was on the move. The battle had begun.
The steelhead raced downstream and I followed. I had both the fish and the river with which to contend. Although I was wise enough to venture no deeper than the shin-deep water close to the bank, I struggled to keep my balance against the powerful current.
The feisty juvenile gave me several breathtaking aerial displays in between runs that led me well into my backing. My inexperience notwithstanding, I somehow managed to tire the fish and lead it toward the bank, where I coaxed it gently into my net.
It was no record-breaking fish, but a trophy in its own right; the beautiful, silvery ocean-going trout was my first half-pounder. No more than 17 inches from snout to tail, it had less flesh and color but more strength and endurance than any of its resident cousins.
If the Klamath doesn't provide enough steelhead angling excitement for you, there are plenty of other rivers in the area.
The New, Trinity, Salmon and Scott rivers are tributaries to the Klamath that hold their own runs of fish.
Other coastal rivers include the Eel, Mad, Mattole, Smith and Redwood Creek. The Van Duzen is a popular tributary of the Eel River.
For information about these and other fisheries in the area, anglers should consult local fly shops and guides for up-to-date run information, water levels, fishing conditions and regulations. -- Rick Laezman
* * *
Contrary to what one might expect, steelhead should not be fished for as you would for salmon. Where salmon can often be found holding in deeper pools, steelhead are best found in the swift moving water of riffles, tail-outs and runs.
Tactics for fishing for steelhead are very much like those used to catch rainbows. After all, they are the same fish.
One of the best places to find them is in the seams of current. Like rainbows, they can also be found lurking behind underwater obstructions that break the current, like a log or tree trunk.
Perhaps more so than resident trout, steelhead are notoriously finicky, and any one of a number of factors can influence their attitude. Temperature, weather, light and water conditions can all affect them.
Also unlike rainbows, steelhead are migratory fish that don't stay in one place for a long period of time. For this reason, anglers need to keep moving. Most techniques call for making a few casts in one likely holding spot and, if that doesn't produce, taking a few steps downstream to try it again. Almost all techniques involve some element of sweeping or swinging the fly across the current to attract the fish.
Steelhead can be caught on all forms of tackle, bait, hardware or flies. They will take different forms of tackle in different depths of water. Bait fishermen will have their best luck in deep pools, although the fish generally prefer to hold in 3 to 6 feet of water. Anglers tossing lures or flies will have the most options. They can cover more water and present their tackle in different ways.
The consensus of guides interviewed for this story points to flies as the tackle of choice. One guide said bluntly, "Swinging wet flies on a floating line is by far the best technique, hands down." And another guide who has made his living on bait and hardware also admits he, too, has added flies to his arsenal.
Successful flies include the Silver Hilton, Brindlebug, Burlap and various Atlantic salmon flies. Even Woolly Worms will do the trick. For fishing behind a salmon run, the best flies imitate salmon roe, which steelhead like to feast on. Here's when bait fishing also comes in handy.
Flies can be delivered on a floating or dry fly line. Although catching steelhead on the surface is a difficult proposition, anglers have been known to catch a few by waking or skating large dry flies across the surface. Lure anglers also use a plug technique, pulling divers against the current.
One of the best-known techniques, known as "greased line," involves casting a floating line with a wet fly slightly downstream. After a few upstream mends, the line is allowed to swing slowly downstream. This forms a belly in the line, which slowly pulls the fly under the surface. It is presented broadside to an upstream-holding steelhead. The fish will often follow a fly all the way to the end of its drift, and the angler should stay prepared for a strike until the last possible moment.
Some of the local guides like hotshotting on the Klamath. Situated in the middle of the river, they row their boat against the current. This keeps the boat in place, while the angler drifts a fly, lure or bait downstream. The effect is a lot like trolling.
Anglers who want to try their luck without a guide can access the river from the banks, although some stretches are better fished from a boat. Lightweight, breathable waders will offer adequate protection in the warmer months. Neoprenes provide added insulation in the colder months. Anglers should dress in layers and take adequate precautions against inclement weather when they fish during this time of year.
The lower stretches of the Klamath have some deeper water, but there are access points all along the river. The Forest Service provides access roads in many points. State Highway 96 runs the length of the river from Interstate 5 downstream to the community of Weitchpec. Other communities where anglers can stock up on supplies and access the water along the route include Orleans, Happy Camp and Seiad Valley.
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