By: Richard Alves
“I remember when you could walk across the river on the backs of the fish,” the old timer told me. “The salmon were so thick you could catch them with your bare hands!”
Commercial fishing, logging and mining followed by the most serious long term drought since records have been kept, combined to bring the Klamath River fishery to near extinction by 1990. As the fishing deteriorated, anglers found better places to fish closer to home and the Klamath became a distant memory.
The drought ended, salmon farming put most of the commercial fleet out of business, logging and farming practices changed and the fish started to make a comeback. This year 70,000 Chinook returned to the Iron Gate Hatchery on the Klamath and another 50,000 returned to the Trinity, a tributary. Both were record returns!
The increased numbers of salmon have contributed to the resurgence of the steelhead by providing a food source, roe, during their spawning runs. The salmon run was so large this year, late arrivals were tearing up nests in the redds in an attempt to make their own. This released even more roe than usual into the river and the steelhead, along with the native rainbows, gorged on the bounty. This year’s steelhead run is large, possibly record, and the fish are larger than usual because of the forage.
Albert Kutzkey with our biggest Klamath River Steelhead of the day Last Thursday, I fished with guide Albert Kutzkey to experience first hand the resurgence of the Klamath. We put in just upriver of the Collier Rest Stop on Interstate 5. My fly was barely wet before the first fish aggressively struck. I set the hook and missed. “I use larger flies than I have to so we don’t spend the day fighting the little fish. There’s plenty of the big ones in here,” Albert said.
At the beginning of the steelhead run, water temperature is relatively warm and the fish are fat with roe. The fish are active and aggressive making fly fishing the most effective method of catch. As the water cools through the winter, the fish become less active and spinning gear with roe or plugs works better.
The gear we were using consisted of 6 wt. fly rods, sinking tip line (dark green, and a 3 foot long 6 lb. fluorocarbon leader. Water visibility is only about 3 feet, so longer leaders are not necessary.
Getting the fly to the fish requires no skill as the water current takes the fly to the appropriate distance downstream of the boat. You have to occasionally roll cast, which can be mastered in a few tries, to clear your fly of the notorious Klamath River algae and weeds. Landing steelhead on fly is the real challenge. Barbless hooks means constant pressure has to be maintained on the fish. When they run straight at the boat it can be difficult to keep the line tight. If this is too much of a challenge, use a bubble and fly on a spinning rig.
The first hour my red-butted skunk must have been hammered at least 10 times as Albert guided the boat over the redds. I didn’t stick one of them. Then it happened, a vicious quick hard take down. I set the hook and the fish immediately came 4 feet out of the water. I took my finger off the line to allow the steelhead to run. You have to have your finger on the line to set the hook, but if you leave it on the line the leader will break the second the fish starts to run. Later in the day I lost one because of that little mistake.
The steelhead stopped its downstream run, headed toward the center of the river, then turned straight toward the boat. I reeled as fast as I could, moved the rod back and then the tip. I couldn’t keep up so I started stripping line by hand in an attempt to keep up with the fish. I delicately fed out line by hand as the fish started another run punctuated with another majestic leap.
The fish slowed and I was able to gain a little line. The rod tip pumped at the water. “Get off the reel!” Albert yelled, as I remembered he told me reeling disables the drag. How tough can you make it to boat a fish? Keep all that straight and the fish out of the trees and off the rocks. Somehow after what seemed like an eternity of this Marx Bros. insanity, the buck tired and we were able to net him. We took his photo, gently placed him back in the water, and he swam off.
The action continued like this for the first three hours of the drift. We had three nice steelhead and one native rainbow to the boat. As we approached a stretch of the river which doesn’t have any redds, Albert had me change to a Brindle Bug. “It kinda looks like a piece of algae with bugs on it to a fish,” he told me. The Brindle Bug has been a standby on the Klamath for years and it worked again to fool a couple more fish.
As noon approached, the fog burned off. The sun intensified the spectacular fall colors and the rock formations cast shadows across the canyon walls.
As Albert manned the oars all day, I was the only one fishing. We finished with 5 steelhead and one rainbow to the boat, all wild fish. The rainbow went about 3 pounds, the largest steelhead, about 6. All this incredible fishing and we were the only boat on the water! The Klamath may just well be California’s best kept fishing secret.
You are allowed to keep one fin clipped steelhead a day and you must use barbless hooks. If you would like more information about the Klamath or would like to fish with Albert, call 530-842-2229.
By: Richard Alves