by Craig Nielsen, first published in California Fly Fisher Magazine February 2010
In California, we fish all winter, because we can. Angling during winter in the Golden State might mean ice in the guides one day followed by a second application of sunscreen a day or two later. The fishing for steelhead on the upper Klamath River in winter can provide both extremes and most everything in between.
The upper Klamath lies in a banana belt north of the Shasta Valley, in a rain shadow south of the Siskiyou Pass and west of the Trinity and Marble Mountains. The river is also a tailwater, with regulated releases below Iron Gate Dam, which help keep the angling consistently good through all but the most severe storms. Miles of marshland, which make up the headwaters, also provide relatively warm water temps and absorb precipitation like a sponge making the Klamath one of the last rivers in the state to blow out and one of the first to drop, clear, and provide quality angling in days, rather than weeks after major storms.
So…why haven’t you visited?
Most likely because the Klamath is a remote river, nearly a full gas tank away from the larger population centers of California. It is located just south of the Oregon border, in Siskiyou County, which is approximately the size of Connecticut, but with a population of only about 40,000 people. The county is the home of several other fine trout and steelhead rivers and one of the few places left in the state where the trout and steelhead vastly out number the human population.
When to Visit?
Since the Klamath can fish well most anytime in the winter the old adage “The best time to fish is when you can” is not far from the truth. The first runs of Steelhead begin showing in the upper river below Iron Gate dam in October and continue arriving well into January providing quality angling opportunities all winter until the Steelhead spawn in April and May. Klamath fall and winter runs also overlap (unlike those on the Rogue and Trinity) without a slow period of fishing in between the runs.
There are some differences in the fish and the fishing that, depending on your appetite, might guide you in planning a trip to suit your preferences. Late in the fall and early winter is the time of year when the catch rate is highest. Water temps are typically in the fifties and upper forties, the fish are actively on the grab and it is not an uncommon occurrence to hook a fish in each pass through a run. This time of year there are still a few Chinook Salmon spawning and it can be easy to locate the Steelhead stacked just downstream from them. With near perfect water temps it can also be an ideal time to swing flies successfully.
So what is the downside? Nearly all the fish you will find this time of year will be small. The run is made up primarily of “half-pounders”, trout sized juvenile fish that earlier in the spring traveled downstream to salt and returned in the fall. They are accompanied by a run of adult Steelhead that came upstream the season before as half-pounders, returned to salt and are arriving once again, this time to spawn. The half-pounders are “trout” sized, ten to sixteen inches, while the early run adult fish are typically wild and sixteen to twenty three inches or so. The adult steelhead having typically spent just a half season in salt, followed by a year in salt which makes them small compared to adult Steelhead in other rivers that spend two years or more in salt. A Steelhead 25 inches or longer caught in the early season on the Klamath is considered exceptional.
Sometime in December temps drop and winter sets in for real. Water temps drop into the lower forties with air temperatures on most mornings below freezing. The fish become lethargic in the cold temps and the grab softens as a result. Fish no longer chase down swung flies with reckless abandon, the salmon have spawned and are gone and the fishing can become very challenging. Fortunately this is also the time the fall run of hatchery fish arrive in the upper river along with a run of bigger wild fish. These fish are typically 21 to 26 or 27 inches long and heavy bodied with an occasional exceptional fish that can be even larger.
While the opportunity to catch these bigger fish is to be enjoyed, these new arrivals usually also spark the bite for steelhead that have been in the river for a while as well. It is important to remember steelhead do not travel hundreds of miles to eat, not even the flies you painstakingly tied. They come to spawn and their behavior reflects this primal urge. I liken this phenomena to a bar scene. Imagine a pub where the patrons have been sitting nursing their drinks and listening to music or watching television when a sorority arrives. Everyone in the place livens up with not only the new arrivals ready to party, but almost everyone buying drinks and looking to dance.
Winter run fish arrive upstream in waves through the coldest months and are well conditioned, chunky and bright. Downstream anglers call this run of fish the “ghost run” because of the speed they move upstream through the system. They arrive today and are gone tomorrow.
Angling in the dead of winter can be slow and cold. Although a few fish are caught each day winter steelhead fishing in the Klamath has a boom or bust element. Most epic days come during a few weeks in midwinter when the bite is unbelievable, but unfortunately also unpredictable. It often coincides with a warm spell, but not every warm spell. So the best plan is again to fish when you can.
How to Catch ‘em?
If you’re planning to go steelheading on the Klamath in winter, the first decision you need to make is how you choose to play the game. Do you prefer to swing, bob, or swing & bob? If swinging flies is your passion ,you must then choose between a floating or sinking line and big leeches or classic wet flies. If you prefer to bobb (with an indicator) you must decide if you care to fish egg patterns or stick strictly to nymphs. If you choose eggs you must also decide between pegging plastic or limiting your game to glo bugs and other yarn based imitations.
The good news is that on the Klamath, unlike many other steelhead streams, choosing any of these games will catch fish. We’ve enjoyed surprising success on a few occasions in the heart of winter swinging classic wets with a dry line. The bad news for purists is that a swung wet fly on a dry line will find fewer dance partners than a well drifted pegged plastic egg, particularly as water temps drop into the lower forties and colder. In order to have fewer decisions to make, on winter days I’ll cover all my bases and simply have two rods rigged, most often a single handed rod with an indicator to fish nymphs, eggs and legs (rubberleg patterns) and a switch rod with a fast sinking tip to swing leeches and classic wets as trailers. On the Klamath be certain to pinch your barbs as you are much more likely to have them checked than on any other river in the state.
For swinging flies, I typically load a four or five weight switch rod with a Skagit line and an 8 to 12 foot tip of fast sinking tungsten. The head and tip together will usually run 350 to 450 grains total. I’ll add 3 to 5 feet of ten pound Maxima and a marabou, rabbit or Intruder style leech that is two to four inches in length. I most often will add a size 6 to 10 classic wet as a trailer fly about thirty inches off the hook bend of the leech. I have come to believe that darker colors most often work best and save the bright flies only after I have exhausted my efforts with dark buggy patterns. I must admit I would likely catch more fish on bright flies if I fished them with more confidence.
Most of the fish I catch swinging in winter are oriented to structure such as boulders in a run or holding downsteam from drop offs. I find few if any fish in the tailouts and riffs that produced so well in fall. The fish most often hold deep into the run in the softer water and getting the fly right in front of them is usually the best chance to get them to eat. For this reason I often prefer to cast from an anchored boat rather than wade. The fly is simply moving through good holding water for more time during the swing and I believe this increases my odds dramatically. It has the added benefits of keeping my toes warmer and reduces my chances of falling in, which in winter will probably end my day.
For nymphing on the Klamath, most folks select a six or seven weight rod with a floating line and their bobber of choice. You can bring your special collection of steelhead nymphs, egg patterns and rubberlegs and you will likely find something that works as well as the other guy’s assortment of special flies. Most fish are taken while side drifting from a boat through runs, deep holding pockets, and slots. Wading anglers can fish this water if they are able to wade within range. Again the idea is to drift the fly right in the fishes face, as cold steelhead prefer not to chase. This requires some line management and the ability to mend and feed line effectively. Most anglers can learn the basics of getting an adequate drift pretty readily.
What separates the most successful winter steelhead nymphers from the rest of us is strike identification and their hook sets. On a good day of nymphing for trout an angler might expect a couple dozen grabs or more. A couple dozen grabs while winter steelhead fishing is considered awfully good, even for the Klamath. With fewer opportunities it is important to take advantage of each and every one. In cold, slow winter holding water, steelhead takes can also be quite subtle. The anglers who are best able to recognize a strike and quickly get tight to the fish are the ones who enjoy the dance most often. The key is to maintain a relaxed focus and to keep your hands in the best position to set the hook as you manage your line through the drift. The mindset is not unlike a batter hitting a fastball, a tennis player returning a serve or a soccer or hockey player scoring a one timer. Sorry golfers, I don’t have an analogy for you.
Klamath River Access
The most popular access on the upper Klamath is the drift from the hatchery below Irongate dam down to the Klamathon Bridge (also called the Copco Ager Bridge)-and for good reason. The reason is that there is no need to find fish. The fish arrive in October and remain until the spawn in April. You merely need to find a way to get them to eat your fly.
Downstream, the next most popular drift is past the hamlet of Hornbrook to the Collier Rest Stop on Interstate 5, roughly eight miles downstream from the dam put in. The launch ramps are gravel bars, rough at best and a four wheel drive vehicle is recommended.
Drifting the Klamath should not be taken lightly. While the whitewater upstream of I5 is tame compared to the class III, IV and V rapids and drifts found downstream, it can easily spook a boatman accustomed to drifting, say the Lower Sacramento, Feather, Trinity or Yuba. The river has a good deal of structure that is not easy to see or read. It is not at all uncommon to suddenly find oneself perched on a rock midstream- a rock that was all but hidden until you left a bit of aluminum gleaming on it.
Wading access upstream of Interstate 5 is confined to a couple runs, because most of the riverbank is on private property. Public wade access below I5 is quite good, with Highway 96 running on one side of the river and a secondary road running on the other from Ash Creek about 25 miles downstream nearly to the community of Horsecreek. Plan on enjoying this water by yourself, it is an event to encounter other anglers.
There is little in the way of amenities along this part of the Klamath River. Plan on basing your winter trip out of Yreka which is just a few minutes down I5 south of Hornbrook and the Collier Rest Area. For more upscale options including fine dining and entertainment try our hometown of Mount Shasta, about 45 minutes south or in Ashland, Oregon just 25 minutes north. Do be aware that you will need to get over Siskiyou Pass to get to Ashland which sometimes closes during stormy winter weather.
So…tell me again, why haven’t you visited? Shake off those winter shack nasties, fill up the tank, pack the rods, and repeat after me: “The best time to fish is when you can.”