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Destinations Steelhead Trout West Coast

Steelhead Fishing California Rivers

by John Nordstrand   |  October 19th, 2012 1

Eureka-area steelhead, like this 11-pound hen from the Eel River, take a variety of flies, including Brindle Bugs and Comets. Wes Powell photo.

“Eureka!” The word was supposedly first exclaimed by the Greek mathematician Archimedes when he discovered a way to determine the purity of gold by applying the principle of specific gravity. Many steelhead fishermen have uttered the same word upon entering California’s city of Eureka, an alluring coastal community filled with antique stores, free-spirited Humboldt State University students, redwood loggers, and commercial fishermen. For feverish anglers, Eureka means winsome motels and cafes manned by friendly locals who are ready to welcome fly fishers looking for the best steelhead fishing in the state.

Just 90 miles south of the Oregon border and 275 miles north of San Francisco, this seaside city is the main hub for fall and winter fishing on the famed steelhead and salmon waters of California’s Six Rivers National Forest. The six rivers include the Smith, Klamath, Trinity, Mad, Eel, and Van Duzen. They flow out of the Coast Range, a range of scabrous mountains covered with Douglas fir, pine, hemlock, and alder, to a coast decorated with crags, rough surf, tidal lagoons, and steelhead rivers bordered by giant redwoods.

The best time to fish these rivers is from January through March, after awinter freshet, when the rivers are dropping and clearing. But before you make a long drive to the area, call the California Department of Fish and Game’s Low-flow Information Line, (707) 442-4502, for river closures due to low flows. Also, because of logging in the area, the rivers can blow out quickly after a storm, so you should check with a local fly shop before traveling.

Graphic: David Deis

The Six Rivers
The Smith River, a little more than an hour by car from Eureka, is California’s only major river without dams. It’s truly an unspoiled, effusive water that looks like liquid jade rolling over a granite floor. Smith River Chinook and steelhead are the state’s biggest, and though the Smith drainage does have a few hatchery fish, Smith River devotees fish hard for trophy wild Chinook and steelhead. Most of the fly fishing for Chinooks is done in the river’s tidewater and lower pools from October through December. The Smith’s steelhead fishing is a challenge, but many anglers accept it when the steelhead run strong from January through March.

A short distance south of the Smith, the Klamath River is well known for its beautiful canyons and runs of Chinook salmon, silver salmon, steelhead, and a few sea-run cutthroat. The Klamath is now a popular destination for its “half-pounder” steelhead in late summer and early fall.

Half-pounders are sexually immature steelhead of about 13 to 18 inches (up to about 21/2 pounds) that spend a short time in the ocean and then return early to their natal streams. They are bright, thick, and incredibly feisty when hooked on 5- and 6-weight rods. On good days, they can be plentiful, and many half-pounders will outfight adult Klamath River fish (3 to 7 pounds) caught in the same runs.

The Trinity River is the Klamath’s major tributary. It originates southwest of the Siskiyou Mountains in the Trinity Alps, then winds north to meet the Klamath. Though the Trinity also has a strong run of half-pounders, it receives most of the Klamath system’s largest adult fish. It also has runs of Chinook and silver salmon and a few resident and sea-run brown trout. It fishes well from about September through March, and because it has excellent roadside access to ideal fly-fishing runs, it is known as California’s “gentleman’s stream.”

Ten minutes north of Eureka, you’ll find the Mad River, a small coastal stream that retains a meandering beauty despite being the victim of extensive logging. Though this river retains few wild fish due to massive habitat loss, a successful hatchery program in winter packs the stream with Chinook salmon and large steelhead that average about 12 pounds. Large fish runs means you can find fish during all but the muddiest of conditions.

South of Eureka, you’ll find the Eel River and its tributary, the Van Duzen. The Eel is the birthplace of fly fishing for Chinook salmon and steelhead. It is also the motivation for great fly patterns—the Fall Favorite, Optic, and Thor—and the testing grounds for shooting-tapers and distance casts. The mainstem and Middle Fork of the Eel hold wild and hatchery Chinook salmon, silver salmon, and steelhead. The Van Duzen is also home to good runs of salmon and steelhead. The South Fork of the Eel—its headwaters are over 100 miles south of Eureka—only has runs of wild Chinook salmon and steelhead.

Eureka-area steelhead, like this 11-pound hen from the Eel River, take a variety of flies, including Brindle Bugs and Comets (above). Photo: John Nordstrand

Gear and Techniques
When planning a trip to Eureka, you must be prepared for varied conditions, because the waters in the Six Rivers National Forest are incredibly diverse and subject to change as the weather changes. During a single weekend of fishing, you can go from using floating lines to present small flies to steelhead and browns (16 inches to 10 pounds) on the Trinity to using sinking-tips to swing large, colorful flies in front of large Chinooks and steelhead in the Smith or Eel rivers. The effects of continued logging over the last century cause many of the rivers to blow out with even moderate rains. This requires anglers to hop from one water to another—sometimes more than once in a day—to find good conditions.

Since most of the fly fishing in the Six Rivers area is for steelhead, the following basic checklist of equipment and techniques focuses on these fish, but I’ve also provided a few comments on gearing up for Chinooks.

You should bring at least two rods, a 5- or 6-weight and an 8-weight. The lighter rod is good for the Klamath and Trinity, because it won’t overpower the half-pounders and can handle the medium-size (4 to 8 pounds) adult steelhead in both rivers easily. It is also perfect for presenting the small (#6-#10) flies most anglers use on the Klamath system.

The heavier 8-weight rod (91/2-foot recommended) is ideal for fishing the heavier waters of the Smith, Mad, and Eel, where you can chase fall Chinooks in the lower pools and tidewater, or hurl heavy sinking-tips and large flies to winter steelhead in the upper waters. Rods should have the power to land a large Chinook (up to 60 pounds possible).

Salmon and steelhead fly fishing requires a lot of casting, so you need a rod that you can use all day without tiring. Because thick willows and alders surround many of the best steelhead runs in northern California, the rod must roll cast well. Most steelheaders prefer rods of nine feet or longer with a medium to medium-fast action because these offer the best line control, roll casting, and mending capabilities—all of which are critical to presenting the fly successfully.

Eureka-area steelhead, like this 11-pound hen from the Eel River, take a variety of flies, including Brindle Bugs (above) and Comets. Photo: John Nordstrand

Contrary to popular belief, high-priced reels with hi-tech drags are not necessary for successful salmon and steelhead fishing. Choose a sturdy, well-made reel that can hold your line plus at least 150 yards of fresh 20- or 30-pound-test backing. The reel should also have a drag that gives out line smoothly and won’t overrun when a fish takes your line for a long run. Don’t buy a cheap reel. You may lose the fish of the season—or a lifetime—if it binds, overruns, or blows up during a long battle. Large-arbor reels are not necessary.

The most important equipment to carry is a complete selection of fly lines, because in one day you may have to change from fishing small flies on floating lines to swinging large, gaudy patterns on high-density sinking-tips to catch fish. Carry at least the following lines for each rod: a weight-forward floating line, medium (Type II) and extra-fast (Type IV to V) sinking-tips, and a high-density Teeny-type line or shooting-taper. Other good lines include clear intermediate or clear-tip lines and lead-core shooting-tapers.

Assassin Originator: Dale Lackey TAIL: Lime-green Krystal Flash. BODY: Lime-green or olive (light or dark) Sparkle Chenille. HACKLE: Brown saddle hackle palmered forward. COLLAR: Long brown saddle hackle. OPTIONS: Tie it with a Krystal Flash wing. Rib it with gold tinsel. NOTE: The original Assassin was tied with a body of dark olive dubbing, a rib of oval gold tinsel, a brown saddle hackle palmered forward, and a wing of about eight strands of lime-green Krystal Flash. Photo: John Nordstrand

You can carry different lines on different reels or spare spools, or you can use a running line and interchangeable tips, which are available from several companies. You can also make your own tips of various densities and lengths. The tips attach to the floating running line with a loop-to-loop connection for easy changes. If you carry tips of various densities, you can cover most depths.

Attach a 25- or 30-pound-test leader butt section to the end of your fly lines. Use a quality leader and tippet material (don’t mix brands) and check it often for nicks, abrasions, and wind knots that cause weak spots. If the material is damaged, replace it. The six rivers and their different water conditions require different leader lengths, tippet strengths, and fly selections; I’ll address these below.

Breathable waders (I prefer Gore-Tex) can make warm days on the Klamath or Trinity rivers more comfortable, but in late fall and winter, you should prepare for cold, damp weather. Use at least 3mm neoprene waders; 5mm boot-foot neoprene waders are available at reasonable prices. Warm neoprene waders have saved many a frigid day on the Smith and Eel rivers.
During cold weather, it is critical to dress in layers. Start with a wader undergarment and a shirt of polypropylene or a similar product that wicks perspiration away from your body (legs and torso), then add a long-sleeved shirt, sweater, or fleece jacket and your waders. Carry a quality rain jacket.

Three Techniques
There are three basic fly-fishing techniques used to catch steelhead and salmon in the Six Rivers area. I’ll describe each technique briefly here, then match the technique to specific waters in the “Fishing the Rivers” section below. [For illustrated details on how to use each technique, see a companion article on the Virtual Flyshop, The Editor.]
Cast-and-retrieve Technique. Use it in the stillwaters of estuaries and lower tidewater pools for large early steelhead and fall salmon.

Continued – click on page link below.

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