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Fly Fishing the Klamath River

The mighty Klamath is possibly the best river in the lower 48 for fly fishing for steelhead and salmon.

Klamath River

(Ken Morrish/ photo)

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 Klamath 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.

Angler holding up a steelhead on the Klamath River
(Terry Metheny photo)

Two Klamaths

The lower Klamath, the 60 miles from Weitchpec to the ocean, is consistently thick with fish, has poor bank access, and flows typically over 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The middle Klamath is more accessible, has lower flows--especially above the confluence with the Salmon River--and the fish are usually more spread out. The lower Klamath is usually crowded when the fish are in, while long stretches of the middle Klamath are barren of anglers.

The lower Klamath is bank accessible from tide water to the first several riffles upstream in the area of Klamath Glen. Most shore-bound anglers access this area from Highway 169 and go to Blake's Riffle, just above the Riffles RV Park at the end of the road.

There are several boat launching ramps in the area but you need a boat with a jet drive to get above Blake's Riffle. The Orchard Riffle just upstream from Blake's Riffle is hammered by big groups of anglers throwing spinners for Chinook salmon but you see more and more fly fishermen there every year. Although it takes a boat to get there, it's almost as crowded as the lower walking beats during the peak pressure around Labor Day weekend.

It is possible to launch a drift boat at Weitchpec and float the entire 60 miles to Klamath Glen, but it's at least a 12- to 15-hour float. You would have to camp at least one night on a gravel bar to have enough time for fishing. This is wild country and black bear encounters are common, so take proper precautions if you decide to camp in the river valley. Fish pass through the lower Klamath quickly so anglers are most successful during peak periods of fish passage. Large summer steelhead usually run the lower river in late June or early July. The fall run of large steelhead usually happens the last two weeks of September or early October.

Most fly fishers target the half-pounders that begin running the last week of July and peak around Labor Day. This run coincides strongly with the Chinook salmon run. The salmon in the lower Klamath are also prone to biting a fly fished right in front of their noses.

Highway 96, the Bigfoot Highway, parallels the Klamath River for nearly 200 miles from Weitchpec upstream to I-5. This middle Klamath area can be divided into two sections–the stretch from the confluence with the Trinity (near Weitchpec) upstream to the confluence with the Salmon River and from there upstream to Iron Gate Dam. Both stretches are bank accessible but the river is smaller above the confluence with the Salmon River.

Most wild steelhead and salmon stay below Ishi Pishi Falls just upstream of the confluence with the Salmon River. Good numbers of hatchery steelhead and salmon pass the falls as they move upstream toward the hatchery, but wild steelhead are more likely takers than hatchery steelhead, and only 1 in 100 Klamath steelhead is a hatchery fish–which is why most steelhead anglers prefer the water below the falls. The exception to this is when hatchery salmon gang up in the few miles below Iron Gate dam to spawn in October. Steelhead feed on their spawn with gusto, making it fairly easy to catch a hatchery steelhead on a dead-drifted Glo-bug.

The Klamath between Weitchpec and Happy Camp is an excellent wild steelhead fishery, primarily because 90 percent of the half-pounders are bound for this area. There are many Forest Service accesses along the Bigfoot Highway in this region and some of them have boat ramps. Some of my favorites are Aikens Creek, 4.3 miles upstream from Weitchpec; Ullathorne, 11.6 miles; Orleans, 13.5 miles; Green Riffle, 24.4 miles; Persido, 33.7 miles; Coon Creek, 40.7 miles; and Indian Creek, 57.4 miles upstream from Weitchpec. The Klamath River map produced by Stream Time (, 916-244-0310) shows these access areas. The hot spots are wherever the biggest schools of steelhead happen to be. They are always on the move, so starting several miles or more above the last place you heard they were at, and then moving downstream to intercept them, is a good strategy. There are usually large schools of half-pounders–along with the some adults–in this section of the river in October, yet the area is lightly fished. Chances are it will just be you and the steelhead.

Klamath River Techniques

Virtually every technique invented for steelhead works on aggressive half-pounders. I prefer swinging small steelhead flies on a floating line with a long leader and a light tippet because it seems to bring out the acrobatic qualities of the fish. The key to making this technique work consistently is being able to cast 80 or more feet of line with minimal false-casting. Excessive false-casting spooks fish.

If you're targeting half-pounders, go ahead and wade deep. Half-pounders usually come up the center of the channel. The bigger steelhead are in the prime slower water along the edges. Using a floating line, cast straight across or slightly downstream and allow the fly to swing in an arc across-stream until it comes directly below you. Give it a few twitches before you pick it up beacause some steelhead will follow the fly and only take at the very end of the swing.

To ferret out the bigger steelhead, use a sinking-tip line, a shorter and heavier leader, and bigger flies. Use the same technique of casting across-stream and allowing the fly to swing in a wide arc until your line comes straight below you. When wading for big steelhead, mid-calf is generally the right wading depth for you to put your fly through their traveling lanes.

A less productive but more entertaining technique is skating dry flies. You don't get as many fish this way but every one is memorable. This technique works best after sunlight hits the water, say from 9 A.M. until 11 A.M. My Klamath routine is to use a sinking-tip line on an 8-weight rod till about 9 A.M. I then switch to a floater on a 7-weight for swinging wets or a floater on a 6-weight for skating drys if there's any hope for surface action.

Some steelheaders constantly mend their line to adjust the speed and depth of their fly. Mend downstream and the fly generally moves quicker and rides higher in the water. Mend upstream to slow the fly and get it deeper in the water column. Other anglers cast a straight line and let the current move the line and fly. Both techniques catch fish. Try both to find out what the steelhead prefer at that time and place.

Another trick is the Klamath River twitch that I learned from longtime Klamath angler Wally Johnson. Instead of mending, just twitch the rod tip. It can provoke a bite. Johnson only uses this if the fish haven't responded to a standard swing on prior casts.

The three most popular local flies are the Assassin, Silver Hilton, and the Herniator. I throw a #6 Assassin in low light, the Silver Hilton in sunlight, and the Herniator when I want to catch a big steelhead or Chinook salmon. When targeting half-pounders, I use the same three patterns as well as The Emperor but drop down to #10-12 flies. The hot fly changes, so experiment or ask Owen Chew at Lil' Ray's Tacklebox in Klamath Glen what the current hot colors and patterns are.

Terry Metheny is a freelance writer in Port Angeles, Washington. This is his first article for Fly Fisherman.

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