First published in California Fly Fisher Magazine, September 2010
The steelhead, some contend, is a fish of a thousand casts. In some cases, that is an understatement. Having chased these elusive creatures from California to Alaska for over 40 years, I have attained intimacy with the skunk in nearly all of its forms. Guiding for steelhead sometimes serves to intensify this stink. Guiding provides the distinct advantage of being on the river most days, following the fish, knowing their lies, and gaining some sense of their mood. Even when we find ourselves lucky enough to intercept steelhead in ideal conditions, there is still no guarantee that the most seasoned steelheaders and guides can entice them to eat.
I recently read a report that the average angling effort per steelhead caught by all methods in California is a little over 30 hours per fish. This translates roughly into three and a half days of fishing for eight hours a day for each fish caught. I know of no place where this is less true than on the upper Klamath in the fall. Fly fishers are more likely to catch multiple fish per day than get skunked. Because of this bounty and reliability, there may be no better time and place to discover the joys of fly fishing for steelhead than the fall season on the upper Klamath River.
Steelhead on the Klamath begin entering fresh water in the early summer. These chrome beauties are able to migrate over 190 miles upstream, where they are blocked by Irongate Dam. Waves of fish begin arriving in the upper river sometime in September or October, providing fishable numbers from below the dam downstream about 50 miles to the community of Happy Camp. New waves of fish continue to migrate upstream, with the number of fish increasing until the steelhead spawn in winter and spring.
The first steelhead to arrive in the upper river chase the fall chinook salmon run, feasting on eggs the salmon drop, along with the insects these enormous beasts dislodge in preparation to spawn. The vast majority of this first wave of fish are the famed Klamath “half-pounders,” which have spent two seasons in fresh water and a few months in the salt. What they lack in size (they are typically 12 to 18 inches), they make up for in attitude and abundance. Half-pounders take flies aggressively and are incredibly acrobatic. It is rare to land a fish without a few screeching runs and multiple aerial displays. Anglers experiencing half-pounders for the first time find them a hoot, but are stunned to find the big trophy that fought so brilliantly turns out to be smaller in the net than they had imagined.
Often, after anglers successfully hook and land several of these charming, agreeable creatures, they encounter the real deal. Mixed in with the half-pounders in the early season will be a few adult wild steelhead that have spent an additional season in the salt, gaining the bulk that goes with it. These full-bodied brutes typically run three to six pounds, and if anglers are geared sportingly for half-pounders, these heavy, hot fish can prove to be a challenging change of pace.
Sometime in November, after these initial runs of fish have arrived, fin-clipped hatchery fish begin to show. Increasing numbers of fall-run wild adults typically arrive in the same wave, which includes some of the largest fish of the season. The bulk of these fish will be 22 to 26 inches, or three to six pounds. A few will be in the 6-to-10-pound range, and on rare occasions, a fish over 10 pounds will find an angler’s net. While these are not considered large compared with the fish in most other famed steelhead rivers, the numbers of fish and the diversity of the runs on the Klamath mean that anglers can find willing dance partners nearly every day of the season.
The Klamath also differs from most popular steelhead venues in the United States in that wild fish outnumber hatchery fish by a wide margin. In recent seasons, as hatchery returns have declined, local guides report catching at least 20 wild fish for each hatchery fish landed. The bounty of the Klamath, along with some studies that show that wild fish are more eager to take artificial flies than their cloned counterparts, may help explain continued angler success on the river while other steelhead fisheries have suffered.
Most seasoned trout anglers already own the gear they need to get started steelheading on the Klamath. A 6-weight rod with a matching reel and floating line is the most popular setup. Anglers focused on half-pounders sometimes opt for a 5-weight, but find themselves undergunned for the occasional adult, while those targeting the larger adult fish with 7-weights will find that only the larger half-pounders are capable of putting a serious bend in the rod. If you have a quiver full of rods, play the game you choose. If not, realize that there is no perfect rod, and just enjoy the dance with the one you have.
The majority of fly fishers nymph with indicators, putting into practice trout tactics they’ve found to be effective on other California tailwaters. To floating lines they’ll attach a standard-taper 9-foot 2X or 3X leader with a tippet of the same test, an indicator, perhaps some split shot, and two or three flies. The most popular combination of flies is “legs and eggs,” though many standard nymph patterns, such as Hare’s Ears, Prince Nymphs, Pheasant Tails, and Copper Johns can be equally effective. Having an indicator system that easily adjusts to varying depths while moving from runs, to pockets, to ledges and drop-offs provides dividends in efficiency.
Increasingly, we’ve seen anglers arriving interested in swinging flies. In some ways, this represents a return to an era when nearly all fly fishers employed this technique. The “Klamath Swing,” where the fly is cast down and across on a line that was greased to float, and swung across in the surface film or just under, is a style of fishing a wet fly on a floating line that found its origins here. Modern-day anglers can still find success with floating lines and classic wets, but having a sink-tip line often saves the day when the fish seem unwilling to move to the surface.
What has changed is that the majority of anglers now swinging flies are casting two-handed switch or Spey rods. Particularly in the fall on the Klamath, swinging can be more productive than nymphing, though perhaps from day to day it is not as consistently effective. One of the reasons is that the upper Klamath water clarity is moderately cloudy, a tea color that usually runs to three to five feet in visibility, which is ideal for swung flies.
Unfortunately, many of the two-handed rods we’ve seen employed are better suited to other venues, a bit too big and/or heavy to enjoy the majority of the water and fish encountered on the upper Klamath. With these bigger rods, it can be hard for half-pounders to show their stuff, and even sometimes small adults merely get cranked in after a jump or two. We have found switch rods and the lightest Spey rods available to be better matches, and most manufacturers now offer them in lengths and weights suitable for Klamath conditions. Rods comparable to a 6-weight single-hander, or about a 4-5 weight Spey designation, are increasingly popular for good reason.
Until recently, finding lines other than a floating steelhead/salmon taper for these light rods was next to impossible. A number of manufacturers now offer Scandinavian and Skagit lines in the 200-grain to 400-grain weight designations that match well with the lighter rods. While single-handers can fish floating lines, they can also employ sinking lines or simply add one of the new Poly or Versatip sink tips to gain depth when conditions warrant. On the other hand, the new light two-handed rods are a pleasure to cast with sink tips and offer anglers an opportunity to reach water where back casts are a bit too cramped for single-handers.
The most popular and productive flies for swinging continue to be dark classic wets. Silver Hiltons, Skunks, Mossbacks, or homespun designs in similar colors are the most consistent producers, while Brindle Bugs and Burlaps make for a nice change of pace and serve as follow-up flies for fish that have already been moved. When the fish are looking up, a skated caddis or Muddler can also get their attention. Flies on floating lines are best attached to 2X or 3X tapered leaders about the same length or slightly long than the rod in use. (See our recent post on Fall Flies)
Some anglers fish flies that have produced on other classic steelhead waters, but are a bit too big for the Klamath. Flies in hook sizes 6-10 will often elicit the most grabs here. Bigger flies, dark leeches two to four inches long, fished on sinking lines, may not get grabbed as often (fewer half-pounders play), but may be more effective in getting the larger specimens to chase. Big flies are most commonly used with sink tips, with three to five feet of tippet connecting the fly to the tip, and are most easily cast with two-handed rods. Again, the bounty and diversity of Klamath River steelhead allow anglers to choose the game they most enjoy playing and still stand better than a fair chance of success.
The vast majority of fly fishers pursue steelhead on the upper Klamath from drift boats and rafts. Most often, the person on the oars slows the boat, while anglers side drift flies suspended under indicators down a run. When the tailout or end of the run is reached, the boat can be rowed back up an eddy and additional drifts down the run can be made. This is a commonly used tactic on trout tailwaters and is a highly efficient way on the Klamath to cover lots of water and locate lanes that are holding steelhead.
In the early part of the fall, when the chinook salmon are numerous, steelhead are not at all difficult to locate. They will reliably hold in the deep water and pockets downstream from the salmon and feast on the eggs that salmon drop, along with the bugs they dislodge from the substrate. During this time, anchoring the boat or wading to these areas is a popular strategy. Particular care should be taken to avoid anchoring or wading on the nests of eggs, or “redds,” the salmon are building to produce their young.
An interesting and exciting minor tactic during the salmon spawn is a variation on tight-line nymphing. Anglers cast indicators, quartering them upstream toward shore from the boat, but downstream of spawning salmon. Rather than attempting a drag-free drift, the angler keeps the fly line taught or perhaps mends it with a slight downstream arc, so the flies are moving ever so slightly faster than the current, keeping them from snagging the bottom. Takes are seldom subtle, and most often, as with swung flies, setting the hook is not required.
Wading anglers are increasingly discovering the joys of steelheading on the Klamath. Anglers are able to drive or boat to likely runs and wade into a position that allows them to cover as much quality holding water as possible. Anglers who are nymphing will prospect the lanes closest to the near shore, wading deeper and working their casts through successive lanes toward the far shore, adjusting the depth of their offerings as needed. Attaining the longest drag-free drifts possible is necessary, but it is also important to manage the line in a manner that enables the angler to detect a strike and set the hook quickly. Allowing the flies to swing up at the end of the drift will get a surprising number of fish to grab.
Wading anglers who prefer to swing flies often find themselves searching the same likely runs as nymphers, but they cover the water differently. They cast their flies toward the far bank and swing them back to the near shore, increasing the length of line and arc of each successive cast. Once the maximum casting distance desired is reached, swingers can take a step or two downstream, covering the run from top to bottom.
On guided trips, I often ask guests what techniques most interest them, and we mix them up. We drift indicators through the long, deep runs and glides, tight-line nymph shorelines, and then anchor the boat or step out to wade and swing flies in tailouts, runs, and riffles with switch rods. Most often, all the techniques will find fish.
Almost every fly fisher I have met hopes to catch lots of fish, and big ones, too. I have already suggested that the Klamath may not be the best place to seek trophies, but with perhaps the strongest runs of wild fish in California, it is ideal for the angler looking for some steelhead action.
Early in the fall season, during October and early November, fair-weather trout anglers looking to extend their season and explore steelheading will find the most comfortable weather conditions, along with the warmest water conditions, which helps keep the fish active. As mentioned earlier, most of the early arrivals are troutlike half-pounders, which provide a great deal of action and are ideal for those new to the sport. Unfortunately, these early arrivals also coincide with the end of the very popular fall chinook salmon fishing season and the corresponding aluminum hatch.
Late in November, as the fall progresses, the larger fish move in, but so does the winter weather, which along with dropping water temperatures can temper the bite, particularly for the half-pounders. If the goal is to seek out the larger fish and avoid the half-pounders and salmon anglers, though, later can be better.
Sometime late in December, winter weather and cold water temperatures set in for good. The fish remain, but require winter tactics to entice a bite. December is also the time that the constant flows from Irongate Dam can be disrupted by flooding and blow out the fishing, though these events are quite rare. (Also check out our post on fishing the Klamath in Winter)
Klamath River Access
The upper Klamath River provides ample access for both wade fisherman and boaters. There are over a dozen established launch sites from Irongate Dam downstream to Happy Camp, though many are rough affairs best suited for high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles. One of the easiest and most popular drifts is from the fish hatchery below the dam five miles down to Klamathon Bridge, (also called Copco Ager Bridge), or as an alternative, another three miles down to the Interstate 5 bridge.
Drifting the Klamath should not be taken lightly. There are numerous Class III and Class IV rapids downstream of Intestate 5, along with a great deal of structure that is not easy to see or read. Several boaters accustomed to drifting the lower Sacramento, Trinity, or Yuba have been spooked or worse when encountering these challenges.
Wading anglers will find little public access above the Interstate 5 bridge, but considerable access below, because Highway 96 parallels the river. A secondary road also follows the river on the opposite bank, from Ash Creek about 25 miles down to the community of Horse Creek. The Klamath River map published by Streamtime (available at most Flyshops and on-line at http://streamtime.com/publications.htm) can be a handy tool to find some of the launch sites and access points.
The Klamath River remains one of the few rivers in the state of California with reasonably healthy runs of salmonids and provides perhaps the best opportunity to avoid the steelhead skunk. Though the runs are just a shadow of their historical abundance, the upper river flows through Siskiyou County, which is the size of Connecticut, but has a population of just over 40,000, so it doesn’t have the development pressure other steelhead rivers have suffered. The river is not without its challenges, which the largest freshwater fish kill in U.S. history in September 2002 demonstrated.
CalTrout, Trout Unlimited, the Federation of Fly Fishers, and the Nature Conservancy, along with many other stakeholders, were pivotal in discussions to bring about a historic agreement and remove dams from the Klamath, beginning in 2020. We can only hope the fish will hang on long enough to realize the benefit of this. The Nature Conservancy has recently purchased property with prime spawning habitat on the Shasta River in hopes of restoring this important nursery and is negotiating water-use practices with landholders in an attempt to keep cold, clean water in the Scott and Shasta Rivers, which serve as important spawning and rearing habitat for steelhead and salmon. We support these organizations and their work with this watershed in every way possible. We hope that you will take the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way, as well, so that our children and theirs might enjoy the bounty and beauty that the Klamath River provides.