It was a glorious September afternoon—bright, warm, and sunny. Around 4 o’clock I started at the top of a riffle and about 20 minutes later I was 20 yards downstream as the cold, clammy fog crept up the river basin and the sun disappeared behind a gray blanket.
A truck pulled up on the gravel bar and another angler hopped out and waded into the heart of the hole about 20 yards below me. Getting cut off is a common occurrence on the lower Klamath. The truth is, most anglers who fish there are clueless about proper etiquette and pool rotation. I tolerated his behavior with a chuckle and for good reason.
He waded about ten yards deeper than he should have and didn’t move down the run. When I was about ten yards above him I reeled up, waded to the shallows, and walked downstream past him. When I was well below him I waded back out to mid-calf depth and cast the fly. I was using a variation of the Herniator that I call the Emperor because it wears no clothes. It’s a beadhead fly with a sparse Guinea hen collar, gold and copper Flashabou wing, peacock thorax, and a bare hook for a body.
The Emperor splashed in at about the same depth as the guy who’d waded out too deep. It’s probably not out far enough to catch a fish, I thought. But I’d been talking to Tommy Chew at a local tackle shop and he said the biggest steelhead travel tight to the bank. According to Chew, most guys wade right down the traveling lanes of the big steelhead. I stepped downstream—staying at mid-calf depth—and cast again.
Tommy was right! The take was solid and the first run peeled off 40 yards of line. The steelhead boiled on the surface and its broad tail confirmed it was a big fish. Twenty minutes later I pulled the Emperor from the mouth of a chrome-bright, thick-bodied, 9-pound summer steelhead. I walked back up to where I hooked the fish and waded back in below the same guy. “That was a great fish!” he said.
A Great River
The mighty Klamath is possibly the best river in the lower 48 for fly fishing for steelhead and salmon. It supports good runs of Chinook salmon, with 100,000 to 200,000 fish returning most years. Roughly half the Chinooks are bound for the tributary Trinity River and come in early to mid-September. The other half enter the river in mid-August and head for the middle Klamath upstream of the confluence with the Trinity and downstream from Iron Gate Dam.
Preceding these Chinook salmon runs are half-pounder steelhead. A typical half-pounder is 12 to 16 inches long and can actually run up to a pound or more. The run numbers are usually between 100,000 to 200,000 but even higher in good years.
A half-pounder is a biological anomaly that exists only in northern California and southern Oregon. These steelhead migrate to salt water in the spring, and after feasting in the near-shore waters for the summer, return to the Klamath in August and September—not to spawn but to feed on caddisfly hatches and the salmon eggs. They are usually washed out of the system by the first heavy rains of the fall and spend winter and early spring in the ocean.
For a novice steelhead angler, half-pounders are an ideal transition between trout and steelhead. They are about twice as hard to catch as trout and twice as easy as an adult steelhead. An experienced fly angler who targets half-pounders can do well as Gary “the Assassin” Hix showed during the peak of a huge run in 2002, when he caught and released over 100 half-pounders in seven hours of fishing! Because these acrobatic fish tire easily in warm water, getting them off the hook in less than two minutes is an ethical goal but they frequently get themselves off the hook in less than five seconds! Half-pounders return to the river to feed or spawn every year. They usually grow about two pounds per year.
What I enjoy most about the Klamath is the big steelhead. Mixed in with the huge schools of immature half-pounders are adults in the 3- to 4-pound range, bigger adults in the 5- to 6-pound range, and an occasional grandma in the 7- to 9-pound range on her fourth or fifth return to the river.
Along with adult half-pounders, summer-run steelhead appear. They are usually 7 to 15 pounds but their timing is different from the half-pounder strain. Summer steelhead return earlier—starting in July and peaking in late September or October—and head toward the Trinity or Salmon rivers. Half-pounders start about a month later and primarily head for the middle Klamath.
The Humboldt Upwelling
The Klamath also supports good numbers of winter-run steelhead, but fewer anglers target winter steelhead because of the unpredictable winter weather between Point Reyes, California, and Cape Blanco, Oregon. When the prevailing winds are out of the northwest, ocean currents draw water from the ocean bottom up to the surface near shore. This phenomenon, called the Humboldt Upwelling, causes the temperature of the near-shore water to be about 10 degrees cooler than the water offshore. The upwelling water is nutrient rich and about three times as productive as offshore ocean water. This is one reason why half-pounders only exist in the Humboldt Upwelling.
During the winter, this cold near-shore surface water supercharges winter storms, making them extremely wet. As an example, Seattle, Washington, and Arcata, California, both average about 36 inches of rain per year. The difference is that Arcata gets its rain in three months or less. This abundant winter rainfall coupled with loose sedimentary soil means rivers like the Klamath blow out frequently and can be unfishable for weeks after a good gully-washer.
During drought winters, steelhead returns are usually low and the water is low and clear. These conditions, coupled with the cold, clear nights that cool the river, make the steelhead lethargic and unwilling to bite. To find great winter fishing on the Klamath, you must have lucky timing to be there during that narrow window just after the river clears from a good rain. If you can find this window, fishing pressure is light and the steelhead are often eager.
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