If you've never experienced the Klamath River's annual salmonfly hatch, you've been missing something really special. But -- shhh! -- don't tell other trout anglers about it!
Guide John Drew admires a beautiful Klamath River rainbow that fell for a black Rubberlegs nymph.
Photo by John Higley
It took some effort but John Drew managed to row his double-ended drift boat across the river and upstream into the slow current beside a rollicking whitewater riffle. Once in position in the slack water, he was able to hold the boat in place with very little effort as Scott Rebstock and I studied the situation.
"Go ahead and cast, Higley," Drew said. "The trout are waiting for breakfast."
I waved my 6-weight 8 1/2-foot fly rod and flipped a weighted Rubberlegs nymph slightly upstream to the edge of the white water. It immediately sank in the current and I watched its bottom-hugging progress via a large yarn indicator attached where the floating fly line met the leader. For a few yards the indicator rode high on the surface, and then it disappeared like a kid's bobber on a farm pond full of bluegill. I raised the rod tip sharply and felt the surge of a hefty fish. But just when I thought I had control of things, the hook came loose. The trout was gone.
"Darn!" I said, or something to that affect. "Another long-arm release!"
"You're not going to pout, are you?" Drew chided, grinning.
Not hardly. We were adrift on the upper Klamath River in Siskiyou County and I was thoroughly enjoying myself. The early summer weather was perfect, the scenery was great and the fish were willing. Heck, even the company was good. Scott Rebstock of Mt. Shasta is an accomplished flyfisherman and airline pilot and John Drew of Red Bluff is a fly-fishing guide who works several Northern California streams. Together we were sharing something of a bus man's holiday on the Klamath.
The Klamath River is known mostly for the fine steelhead fishing it provides. Not giants, but numerous and strong, Klamath steelies are the river's main attraction from September through March. In addition, there is an ample run of Chinook salmon in the river from late September into November. Obviously, there's a lot of fishing opportunity along the Klamath's 200-mile route, from the Oregon border across Northern California to its mouth at Requa, and that includes angling for 10- to 18-inch resident river trout that are most numerous from I-5 upstream.
One of the best times to try for them is from mid-May to the end of June. That's when the upper Klamath comes alive with the annual hatch of salmonflies (Pteronarcys californica), giant members of the stonefly family. Stoneflies make up nearly 400 species spread throughout North America. Wherever they are found, stoneflies become food for trout.
At least to human eyes, it's the salmonfly that is the most spectacular. Think of a bug with a body 2 1/2 inches long and a wingspread upwards of 4 inches.
Salmonflies reside in well-oxygenated water on rivers and streams across the West but substantial hatches do not occur just everywhere. Among the rivers with notable hatches are the Rogue in Oregon, the Madison in Montana and the Klamath in California's Siskiyou County.
It's the abundance of salmonflies on the upper Klamath that excites the trout and the anglers who come to catch them. "It's the Montana experience here in our own backyard," Drew says.
To be honest, I've fished the Klamath during the salmonfly hatch only a couple of times, but each outing was a learning experience. My introduction to the fishery came compliments of third-generation Klamath guide Albert Kutzkey.
John Drew has fished the Klamath since he was a boy but he has guided there for only four years. Still, I found him knowledgeable, especially in the ways of fly-fishing. Together, both Drew and Kutzkey have filled in the blanks pretty well when it comes to the salmonfly hatch.
To fish the salmonfly hatch most effectively you've got to know a little about their lifestyle. Salmonfly nymphs crawl around in the streams of their birth for about three years. Then they leave the water and climb up on vegetation or rocks whereby the winged adults emerge. This metamorphosis takes several hours and is often done in low light conditions or even after dark.
As you might expect, the process presents trout with feeding opportunities. The developing nymphs are always in danger of being eaten as they move about in a stream. However, the mature nymphs are even more vulnerable when they migrate toward shore for the great unveiling, as some of them are invariably swept away by the current. They become easy pickings for waiting trout. Meanwhile, the winged adults, which fly erratically at best, are often consumed when they make contact with the surface to deposit their eggs or when they simply fall into the water.
Kutzkey noted that trout will feed on adult salmonflies anytime, meaning that they'll sometimes rise to a dry fly even when airborne bugs are few. However, Kutzkey also said that large nymph patterns work well when the salmonflies are still clinging to streamside vegetation. The best time to use large, dry imitations is when the winged beauties start the egg laying process. That usually happens in the afternoon, when the temperature rises above 70 degrees and goes on until dusk.
If there's any drawback to fishing the upper Klamath below Iron Gate Dam, it's the lack of foot access because of private land. However, the river here is perfect for drift boats, and even pontoon boats are used in places. As for foot access, there's a little in the vicinity of the Fish Hook Restaurant and a bit more on the south side of the river below the Klamath Bridge.
There is also some foot access along the stretch of the river from Copco Lake to the Oregon border. However, caution is advised when wade fishing. The flow is managed for power production, with daily ups and downs, and it can be dangerous if your in the wrong place when the flow is increased.
The Copco/Oregon reach is no place for a driftboat, period. Even experienced rafters occasionally have a difficult time here. Perhaps the best bet is to go with an experienced Klamath guide at least the first time out. The guides who helped with this story were John Drew (530-941-3474, email email@example.com) and Albert Kutzkey (530-842-2229. Cell 530
-941-3474, Web site
For background information on the area's lodging and other facilities, and an additional list of guides, contact the Siskiyou County Visitors Bureau at 800-574-3456 (on the Web at
firstname.lastname@example.org). -- John Higley
MATCHING THE HATCH
John Drew and I kept things simple, using only size 4 and size 6 weighted Black Rubberlegs nymphs, which are similar in size to salmonfly nymphs. To put it mildly, the trout ate them up. The idea was to cast a nymph at an upstream angle so it would sink quickly and tumble along the bottom as naturally as possible. As I explained earlier, our weight-forward floating lines were equipped with large strike indicators, which telegraphed hits by sight before we could actually feel them.
Because the outfit was somewhat unwieldy, casts were short. At the end of a drift we sometimes allowed the current to tighten the line, whereby a simple forward thrust of the rod would propel the fly upstream without false casting. Obviously, this is not delicate fishing so a 5- or 6-weight rod is the best choice and a 3x leader tippet is called for.
As for dry-fly fishing, which is arguably the most fun, Albert Kutzkey said several large patterns have potential. However, his personal favorite is the Stimulator, which, depending on size (he generally uses size 4 or 6), mimics several species of stoneflies, including salmonflies.
"Salmonflies spend a lot of time hanging onto streamside vegetation so the trout wait for them there," Kutzkey said. "That's why I like to drop a fly upstream near the bank and let it drift under overhanging branches. It's great fun when a trout, especially a big one, erupts on a fly that's almost as big as a hummingbird!"
Kutzkey said big patterns aren't the whole deal here. Since there are other species of stoneflies hatching at around the same time as salmonflies, it sometimes pays to use smaller stonefly patterns. "It's just common sense," Kutzkey said. "If what you're doing isn't working, go ahead and experiment a bit."