November 18, 2022
By Michael Wier
UPDATE: On November 17, this last major hurdle to dam removal was cleared. A License Surrender Order was issued for the Lower Klamath River Hydroelectric Project by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, clearing the path for removal of the four lower dams.
Steelhead capital of the world. That’s what the wooden sign reads as you enter the small town of Happy Camp along the main stem of the Klamath River. The sign is still there, but it’s long past its glory days. A painted steelhead remains visible, but the old paint has cracked and faded and peeled away. Some of the hand-carved lettering has fallen off, making the sign hard to read. I find it perfectly symbolic of the steelhead fishing in the Klamath River. The fish are there, but their numbers have faded. Along with them, the once booming sport-fishing industry in this area has also faded. The fish, like anything we value, need our attention. They need to be tended to. Invited to stay. Encouraged to return.
It’s true the Klamath was once at very least the steelhead capital of California. Hundreds of thousands of steelhead traversed the waters of the mighty Klamath every year. There are still wild steelhead somewhere in the Klamath system every month. The Klamath has strong summer, fall, and winter runs of steelhead including the legendary Klamath “half-pounders,” which are perfect miniature versions of classic adult steelhead.
The Klamath River is a lengthy and diverse watershed. The story of the Klamath fishery is really a story of the tributaries. The main stem is just a commuter route for salmon and steelhead headed to their natal streams. Every major tributary has its own run of steelhead that are genetically and physically adapted to its unique elevation, obstacles, and habitat. Famous tributaries include the Salmon, Scott, Shasta, and Trinity but there are also many smaller, lesser-known rivers like Blue Creek, Clear Creek, Dylan Creek, Indian Creek, and many more that all historically have perfect conditions for native steelhead.
Fortunately, many of the tributaries have remained in relatively good condition. Several flow out of wilderness or protected lands in some of the most remote areas of California. Some others in the upper middle Klamath have been hammered by a legacy of gold mining, cattle ranching, and other farming and industrial uses. But despite these challenges, they still have solid populations of wild steelhead.
The main stem of the Klamath is arguably in worse shape due to the decay of conditions in the reservoirs that feed the main stem. Iron Gate Reservoir in particular experiences horrific algae blooms in the mid- to late summer. The toxic algae pulls oxygen from the abnormally heated waters. The warm temperatures and high nitrogen spill out below the dam, create extremely challenging conditions for all salmonids in the summer and fall. These conditions may change dramatically in the coming years as the dams are removed beginning in early 2023.
In the meantime, the Klamath is an upside-down river system. What I mean by that is that water conditions actually improve the closer you get to the ocean, instead of the other way around. The Klamath has a huge wetlands complex floodplain and lake at the top of the river system. Because that area around Klamath Lake is extremely fertile, it has been adapted to farming and ranching lands for many decades. The high nitrates and other agricultural runoff from those operations are in part what has created reservoir conditions that have choked the river of oxygen, aided fish-killing diseases, created abnormally high temperatures, and encouraged toxic algae blooms.
As a result, the water just below the dams has some the worst quality in the basin. However, as you move downstream each tributary contributes toward slightly better quality water. The farther downstream you go, the clearer and colder the water actually gets—the opposite of most large watersheds where the best water quality is often near the top.
In September on the Klamath, water is often dark green below Iron Gate Dam, and by the time it reaches Klamath Glen near the river mouth it is clear again because all the tributaries contribute better water.
As an angler, knowing the typical conditions at any given time of year will help you locate the best fishing opportunities. The main stem Klamath is open year-round, and from September to April you have a good chance of intercepting a steelhead if you know where to find the right conditions.
I’m going to talk about the steelhead fishing on the Klamath in three different regions—the upper, lower, and middle Klamath. Technically the upper Klamath would be above the dams, but for our purposes here, the upper Klamath is the water below Iron Gate Dam, as that is as far upstream as salmon and steelhead can make it.
Soon the upper Klamath will change forever . . . again. The four main stem dams on the Klamath River are slated to be completely removed by 2024. It will be the largest river restoration project in history. No one knows exactly how the river will respond in the short term, but everyone agrees that the long-term benefits will be immense.
The area that is most used by fly fishers is also the area that will experience the greatest amount of immediate change. This stretch is what I consider the upper Klamath, even though it’s really the middle of the entire Klamath river system. It’s the uppermost water that salmon and steelhead can currently reach. This is the area from Iron Gate Dam to Happy Camp.
This region is arid and dry. It’s here that the Klamath gorge opens up to foothills and lava-capped bluffs. Green irrigated fields and rolling golden hills give way to gentle grassy banks falling off to a meandering river. Where it’s irrigated, the land is green and there is livestock. Where it’s not, it’s dry with deer, turkeys, and wild horses occasionally roaming the hills.
This stretch of river is accessible right off of Interstate 5. It’s a half hour from Mount Shasta, California, and a half hour from Ashland, Oregon, and there is a lot of water here that is easily accessible to anglers, boaters, campers, and wildlife enthusiasts. Both Highway 96 and Hornbrook Road provide many places to pull over and access the river. There are also multiple put-ins and takeouts for easy float trips.
Iron Gate Dam is currently the end of the line for migrating Klamath River salmonids. There is also a hatchery just below the dam that releases salmon and steelhead as mitigation for the loss of habitat above. As a result, the stretch just below the dam gets stacked up with salmon and steelhead in the prime runs in the best months of the year. This draws many anglers from far and wide to try their hand catching a legendary Klamath River steelhead.
There is no fishing permitted within a half mile of Iron Gate Dam. There is a boat ramp slightly above this demarcation line, so anxious anglers have to hold their lines for a bend or two before making their first casts. From there, fishing is permitted all year in the Klamath, all the way down to the Pacific Ocean.
Unfortunately, just below the dam is some of the poorest water quality on the river. Iron Gate Reservoir gets very warm in the summer and is the site of horrific algae blooms. When it cools down later in the year, the water quality improves a bit, sometimes just in time for the fall steelhead and salmon season. But often, the water quality is still very poor and temperatures are too high when the run of fall Chinook begins to return. In some years it has infamously become lethal for salmon.
As it cools down in late fall and early winter, the water quality usually improves for the steelhead run. Because the water is green and off-color due to algae coming out of the reservoir, it can make catching steelhead a little easier. The water is not the beautiful emerald steelhead green like you see on the Eel or the Smith, but more of a darker green off-colored water that makes the fish less spooky.
In 2021, the upper Klamath had a banner run of steelhead. Even though numbers were down on most coastal systems, the Klamath is its own separate beast. There are many factors that contributed to the quality of the run, but one of the main factors was that this was the cohort that were reared in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Those steelhead enjoyed great water years, which broke the previous seven-year drought cycle. Because of the three years of high water, 2018 ended up being one of the best big-fish years I can remember. The high water also provided great spawning and escapement conditions for salmon and steelhead. Four years later, the offspring of those fish returned to the river in great numbers.
The upper Klamath is great for both swing and nymph fishing. Steelhead average 16 to 25 inches, and reflect more of the classic summer- and fall-run fish you see in the Trinity. There are also winter steelhead that come in January, February, and March. These big guys are harder to catch but can average about 10 pounds. In this area I usually fish nymphs on a 6-weight single-handed rod or swing a 4- to 6-weight switch rod. The water is smaller up here, and there’s no need to bomb out a huge Spey cast. Light two-handed gear and smaller flies are perfect. The summer steelhead act more like trout by the time they get all the way up there.
Right now, the upper Klamath is a classic get-it-while-you-can scenario. With the removal looming, and conditions bound to change, many fly fishers have turned their attention to the upper Klamath, knowing the fall of 2022 is the last time they will see it like this. The hatchery will disappear, and the bottleneck scenario that stacks fish up below the dam will also disappear.
I consider the middle Klamath to be from Happy Camp to the confluence of the Trinity River at Weitchpec. If you’re looking for easy road access to quality water in a very remote area, this is the place to be. There are some quality floats in this section as well. There’s one Class III rapid below Happy Camp that is runnable in a raft. Just above the confluence of the Salmon River there is a Class V rapid called Ishy Pishy Falls which is not runnable and off-limits to visitors because it is a sacred site to the local Karuk tribe. The rest of the water is Class II and simple to float.
Given the remote nature of this area, there are not a lot of facilities. There is a market in the small town of Orleans and a couple fishing camps and lodges that are still in business. If you are a self-sufficient angler who doesn’t mind camping in the fall and winter, this is a great area to explore. There are tons of camping options in the area.
As you drive down Highway 96 you’ll spy great swing runs from the road. In the winter, it’s easy to pull over and hit several great spots in a day and not see another angler. The Klamath stays that good steelhead green even when all the other rivers on the north coast have become low and clear. The Klamath typically becomes perfect and can maintain good fishing conditions for several weeks between storms. On the other hand, the Klamath is typically too high and unfishable when the other rivers in the area come into shape.
The middle river is a great area to swing flies. There are several good runs with easy access. If you are looking to soak eggs or nymphs, I would suggest boating this area. If you are swinging flies, get up early and try and be the first person through the run that day. You have the best chance at a hot fish if it hasn’t been disturbed by boat anglers yet. You can easily assess where the boat put-ins and takeouts are, and just fish the lower parts of the runs before the boats get there, then go up and fish the upper runs long after the boats are gone.
In this area, all the standard winter steelhead gear works great. There are lots of big perfect runs for traditional Spey-size equipment, like a 13-foot 7-weight meant to cast larger Intruders, Comets, and Popsicles. Be sure to experiment with different sinking tips to make sure you are getting to the right depth and speed on your swings. It’s not uncommon to find fish in the lower parts of the runs and especially in the tailouts throughout this section. Don’t wade too deep, as the steelhead often travel in the soft inside seam in 2 to 5 feet of water.
I consider the lower Klamath to be the section from the confluence of the Trinity at Weitchpec downriver to Requa. Requa literally means mouth of the river in the native Yurok language. Here, the river really starts to take on more of a coastal habitat. There are large conifers lining the rocky hillsides, and as you get lower, redwoods start to pop up through the canopy. Coastal weather patterns dominate, and fog is the norm in the cold, misty winter mornings.
Unlike the other river sections, which have highways running along their lengths, the lower Klamath is relatively roadless. From the Highway 96 bridge down to Highway 101 is a wild and remote area. The majority of the lower Klamath is also on tribal lands, so as visitors to the area, it is important to be respectful of private property. For respectful anglers there are typically no problems.
What’s cool about the lower Klamath is that every single fish in the watershed has to pass through there. The farther upriver you go, the more options the fish have to turn off into tributaries and other rivers. If you’re fishing below the Trinity, you have a chance of intercepting fish from every different tributary.
There are a couple challenges to fishing the lower river. In a wet winter, the lower part can potentially blow out by December and not be fishable again for the entire season. The last decade or so there have been drier conditions, and many fishable days on the lower river throughout the late fall and winter.
The best conditions for swinging flies are typically between 3,500 and 6,000 cubic feet per second. If it’s above 8,000 cfs at the Klamath Glen gauge, most people won’t bother fly fishing. The other challenge is access. Because it is mostly roadless, the only ways to get to the prime areas are by either putting in a boat up high and floating all the way through, or taking a jet boat upriver from Klamath Glen. From Highway 96 down to Klamath Glen is around 60 miles. If you are floating it in a raft or a drift boat it takes a couple days, and you need to camp along the way, which is a barrier for most people in the winter. Hiring a guide and accessing the lower river via jet boat is the most practical option.
Personally I love this stretch because it is wild and remote. It is also some of the best Spey fishing water in all of California. There are many classic and beautiful runs that are absolutely perfect for swinging flies and covering water. The fish down here are also typically fresh, and make the most prime targets for swinging techniques. The strikes can be explosive, and the fish are typically hot when you do hook them.
In the winter I typically fish a 13-foot 7-weight setup and modern steelhead flies like Intruders and Popsicles. Pink, orange, white, and purple all seem to work well for classic winter-run fish in the lower river.
In the late fall and early winter when the river is low and clear, and the summer and fall fish are cruising through, I switch to smaller flies and sometimes a lighter setup like a switch rod if conditions allow. If water conditions and temperatures are right some fall and summer fish have even been known to grab a skater on occasion.
The Klamath is famous for its run of half-pounders. This is a phenomenon where coastal rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus m. irideus) go to the ocean in the spring to feed on the abundant food sources near or close to the estuary. They spend only a couple months in the salt before returning to the river in the late summer or early fall of the same year. They are chrome-bright little mini steelhead, typically ranging from 12 to 18 inches, and they can be a lot of fun between catches of full-grown steelhead.
Half-pounders have a life history that is unique to Northern California and Southern Oregon. They have been documented in the Eel and Rogue rivers, but the biggest and definitely most famous run is in the Klamath, where thousands of them can return in any given year. This life history is dependent on an ocean condition known as the Humboldt Upwelling, where cold currents push up close to the shores of Northern California, bringing an abundance of food. While some steelhead swim thousands of miles in the Pacific and spend years at sea, Klamath steelhead have the opportunity to feed close to home in the Humboldt Upwelling and return after a summer of feeding.
For fly fishers who want to start or improve their two-handed game, half-pounders can be great transition fish. Switch rods and trout Spey gear are the preferred methods for these feisty little fish. You can swing small traditional flies with a sinking tip or even skate dry flies and elicit heart-pounding strikes. When the half-pounders are in thick, it is not uncommon to catch 20 or 30 of them in a day. August, September, and October are prime months for half-pounders. And of course there’s always a chance of encountering a bigger adult summer steelhead in that window as well.
For an exceptional guided experience, contact John Rickard or Chuck Volckhausen of Wild Waters Fly Fishing (wildwatersflyfishing.com). They have the program up there dialed. They provide quality guided experiences for a walk-and-wade or float trips for anglers of all abilities. Plan a multi-day trip as it’s remote up there and takes a long drive to get to and from the good fishing areas.
The state of the Klamath fishery after the removal of the dams and the hatchery is uncertain, but the fishing should improve over time as the river returns to a more natural state. Perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, this mighty river will again be worthy of the title Steelhead Capital of the World.
Michael Wier grew up in the Sierra foothills, where he split his time between snowboarding and fly fishing. He spent 15 seasons fishing and guiding the waters of the Truckee, Carson, and Walker rivers. He also started BURL Productions, producing outdoor films such as Trout Bum Diaries 1, Soulfish, and Cali Rush. He is a Patagonia ambassador and outreach coordinator for California Trout. www.burlproductions.com | @mikowier
Rob Benigno is an illustrator and fly fisher from western New York. He owns the angling art and apparel company Lakes Rivers Streams. When he isn’t behind his desk sketching the next idea for his own brand, he’s working for clients such as Orvis, AFTCO, Grundéns, Fly Fisherman, and others. Fly Fisherman commissioned this illustration to highlight the importance of dam removal, not only on the Klamath, but on other rivers across the country with aging dams that are damaging native fish populations, impacting treaty agreements, and harming a way of life for Indigenous Americans. www.lakesriversstreams.com | @lakesriversstreams