Fishing for powerful native rainbows in Oregon's upper Klamath River
Southern Oregon is a big-bodied landscape. The Pacific Ocean crashes at its toes; a sharp spine of volcanic peaks provides backbone; and the high desert adds girth at the torso. River arteries effectively suture the pieces together.
Anadromous salmon and steelhead once steamrolled more than 250 miles from the Pacific to the upper Klamath Basin to produce the next wave in nature's cycle of life, death, and regeneration. That was before development at the turn of the 20th century sparked a multiplicity of dams on the Klamath. Migratory fish access to the upper Klamath Basin was blocked in 1918 with the completion of PacifiCorp-owned COPCO 1 Dam, located just south of the Oregon-California state line.
Despite the decimation of salmon and steelhead, the upper Klamath's redband rainbows remain under-the-radar residents below both Keno and J.C. Boyle dams.
Native redbands averaging 16 to 18 inches are commonplace in the Klamath's Keno stretch, where heavily weighted stonefly nymphs under strike indicators can produce double-digit catch rates. Directly below J.C. Boyle Dam, the river is classic dry-fly pocketwater in the heart of a steep-and-deep, rattlesnake-country canyon. Together, Keno and J.C. Boyle represent two distinctly different fisheries under one shared banner: the Klamath.
At first glance, the Klamath's Keno stretch seems an unlikely fly-fishing destination. Its roiling, tobacco-colored waters look more suited for a whitewater adventure and, true to form, dry-fly fishing is not dependable throughout its 6.5-mile course. The nymph fishing is a different story.
After floating through the first set of Class III/IV rapids, you assess your inventory — camera, sunglasses, rod; check, check, check — and watch as the river divides into distinct slots and channels, perfect for drifting a nymph-and-indicator setup. And when your indicator dips south, you'll typically find a large trout pulling hard from the other end.
This rapid-riffle-pool scenario recycles itself throughout the Keno stretch — from Keno Dam to the takeout above J.C. Boyle Reservoir. Depending on flows from the dam, wading anglers are mostly restricted to fishing from the banks. Floating the Keno is the best way to get at the trout. Skill at the oars and whitewater-capable inflatable rafts allow you to maneuver, anchor, and pick your way through the cherry water — the slower slots, seams, and buckets where fish seek refuge and forage for food.
The Keno stretch opens on October 1 and closes on June 15 to protect the rainbows from the stress of catch-and-release in higher summer water temperatures. In fall, the area fishes best with streamers delivered on heavy (6-7 inches per second) sinking-tip lines. Leaders tapered to 1X or 2X are necessary for fighting big 'bows in the Keno's unforgiving fast water. Use side pressure and power from the rod butt to turn the trout out of fast currents and into your net.
Productive fall and winter streamers include Muddler Minnows, Kiwi Muddlers, and Zonkers (#2-8) in olive, pearl, and natural/pearl; black leeches; Woolly Buggers; and an assortment of crayfish patterns. In addition to good crayfish populations, the river and reservoir hold healthy numbers of sculpins and tui chubs. The chubs migrate upstream from the Boyle impoundment to spawn, and the young-of-the-year are available to hungry trout throughout the fall. Muddlers and Zonkers provide accurate imitations of these Klamath River staples.
Depending on weather, late April and May usher in the season's first mayfly and caddis emergences. The two predominant hatches during this period are caddis (#10-14), and Baetis mayflies (#14-18). Carry an assortment of size 10 to 16 attractor nymphs such as Morrish's Pickpockets in bright olive and golden brown, Beadhead Bird's Nests, King Princes, Prince Nymphs, Flashback Hare's Ears, Lightning Bugs, and Flashback Pheasant Tails. For caddis use size 12 to 14 Morrish's Hotwire Caddis, Peeking Caddis, Beadhead Caddis Pupa, Zug Bug, Go2 Caddis, and any Czech-style caddis larva imitations.
Because of the Keno's stained, ultrafast water, dry-fly action is limited. Don't come looking for a meditative, spring creek experience. You won't find it. Instead, you'll do well to master the intricacies of reading the water and nailing drag-free drifts.
When warmer weather peaks before the mid-June closing, Salmonflies and Golden Stones provide the season's best fly fishing. Trout eating big bugs on top is still a rare occurrence. Instead, the fish key on large nymphs, and 10- to 20-fish days are possible when fishing the right rigs.
Darren Roe, of ROE Outfitters (the only licensed commercial outfitter on the Keno stretch), recommends using large, 1-inch-diameter, Waters West Quick Release indicators above a 3-foot leader tapered to 1X. He attaches a heavily weighted Golden Stone or Salmonfly nymph as the point fly and drops a size 12 to 16 mayfly or caddis nymph off the hook bend with 12 to 16 inches of 3X tippet.
Use fast-action, 9- or 9½-foot, 5- or 6-weight rods for the Keno, and expect tough fights with large rainbows in fast water. With 1X to 3X tippets, use heavy scud-style hooks to avoid straightened metal and lost fish.
Good boat positioning and a deft hand for your anchor drops are required for floating the river. Roe says you should anchor adjacent (slightly upstream or downstream) to distinct slots and seams. Work this water with up-and-across casts followed by an upstream mend to remove slack from your drift and allow your flies to reach bottom. At the drift's midway point, throw in a second upstream mend and continue to stack-mend line as your flies move through the run.
Due to the Klamath's speed, turbulence, and color in the Keno stretch, its big rainbows are relatively unwary. You'll catch fish anywhere from 6 feet to 40 feet out from the boat. Longer casts are not essential, but line control, drag-free drifts, and solid hook-sets are. Cover each run thoroughly, starting in close and working your way progressively across the river before moving downstream.
Roe floats the river in 13-foot AIRE rafts with sturdy aluminum fishing frames — good for the Keno's gnarly rapids, drop-offs, and rocky, boat-eating obstacles.
Roe warns against personal pontoon boats. "Personally, I don't think a pontoon boat is appropriate on the Klamath," he says. "I've seen a lot of pontoons flip in much calmer waters."
Oar failure is another consideration. Be sure to use appropriate oars — carbon fiber or similar — to pull strongly in the Klamath's powerful water. Rookie oarsmen should not attempt this float. Unless you're familiar with the water, get out and scout the rapids before you drop in. There's a daunting 5- to 10-foot chute just above the takeout. If you err here, you're going into the drink. Always wear a PFD.
Flows. In the fall, flows from Keno Dam range from 650 to 900 cubic feet per second (cfs). These levels are ideal for swinging streamers on sinking-tip lines. By November, flows usually drop to between 300 and 350 cfs — too low to float, but walk-and-wade nymph and streamer fishing can be good in places where trout stack up in deeper lies.
Depending on winter snowpack, flows vary throughout the spring months. The best flows for avoiding rocks are around 1,300 cfs. Flows more than 1,700 cfs are too high and fast for productive fishing; at 1,300 cfs the Keno reveals its fishy slots and pockets. For the latest Keno flows, see http://www.wkcc.org/levels/?f=8s3.
Most of the Keno stretch is abutted by private property, but public access is permitted just downstream of Keno Dam, and there is limited wade fishing, depending on water flows. Because walk-in canyon access is difficult, you'll find little pressure through most of the year.
Directions. From Oregon 66, follow signs to Keno Recreation Area. Or, heading west from Keno on Oregon 66, cross the river and veer left on Riveredge Road. At approximately 1 mile, turn left again onto Klamath River Road, which leads to the put-in just below Keno Dam. Find wade access by hiking into the canyon directly off Oregon 66, following the river east of Keno toward J.C. Boyle Reservoir. There are several pull-offs along the power lines here, but a steep scramble down into the canyon means a grueling hike out. These unmaintained trails can be tough: Use common sense and caution.
Klamath dam removal and water management issues generate most of the attention in the press, but two distinct and thriving resident rainbow trout fisheries continue to shine. The dams must be removed to restore the river's historic anadromous fisheries. Meanwhile, the upper Klamath River still provides excellent fishing. Go get it.
Geoff Mueller is the managing editor of Fly Fisherman.