A fishing gold mine in upper Klamath

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A fishing gold mine in upper Klamath

Tom Stienstra    Sunday, November 11, 2001

We slid the drift boat into the Klamath River, the river running green and cold, and I felt a surge of anticipation over what the day might bring. After all, we had searched everywhere to pick fall's No. 1 fishing spot in California. The choice was made and it was here on the upper Klamath.

Yet there was also an undercurrent of anxiety.

You see, in the front seat of the drift boat was Pat Patterson of Orinda, a man of success, a friend of the governor and an eminent philanthropist. At an auction for the organization Cal Trout, Keeper of the Streams, Patterson had won an auction for a fishing trip with guide Jack Trout and myself, followed by a week at the world-renowned (and private) Bollibokka Club on the McCloud River. In the process, Patterson had spent thousands of dollars.

What if we got skunked?

"Look at that," Patterson suddenly shouted, pointing across the river. The dorsal fin and back of a giant fish had emerged at the surface, then disappeared, followed by a tail jutting up that was eight inches wide. "It's huge!"

It was a good sign. The Klamath is full of fish, not only salmon on their fall spawning run -- like the one that had just rolled like a whale -- but also fantastic numbers of steelhead and trout. When salmon spawn, not all the eggs get buried in the gravel. So the steelhead and trout will wait on the edges of rapids, eddies and where flows converge, then pick off the salmon eggs as they are drifting downstream.

That was why we were here, fly-fishing for steelhead and trout.

We put in just below Iron Gate Dam, then planned to float down six miles to Klamathon near the Interstate 5 bridge. The morning air sent a light chill on the backs of our necks as we took in the riparian beauty, the cold, fresh river bordered by cottonwoods, willows and oaks in various shades of orange and bronze.

"There are giant fish all over the place," Patterson noted, his voice full of electricity. With polarized glasses, you could see the salmon below in the river, most from two to three feet long, shooting upstream. Many were mottled, ready to complete their life mission, to spawn and die.

We anchored the boat and climbed out, wading thigh-deep, then started making short casts along the quiet edge of a long riffle.

Almost instantly, Patterson had a hook-up with a rainbow trout, and looked over with a smile. A moment later I had one, too.

In the first two hours, we caught and released something like 10 trout and steelhead. The pressure was off. Patterson has this great smile, and he was glowing. Then he set the hook on another bite, and his little six-weight trout rod doubled over like a croquet hoop.

"Big," he announced, all business. "I mean, big."

That fish took off downstream, and there was nothing Patterson could do but hold on until it finally stopped after 60 yards and turned. Then Patterson pulled off one of the most difficult tricks in river fishing: He let out 30 yards of slack line, and with the current pulling that line downstream, the fish suddenly felt resistance from the opposite direction. Instantly, the fish powered away from the resistance, and in the process, swam upstream, virtually right into our arms and the net. It turned out to be a fresh 14-pound salmon, released to spawn.

"It turned around and came right to us," Patterson said with a happy shock.

We climbed back into the boat, and with Trout (the guide, not the fish) at the oars, we worked our way down the river, casting as we went. This is easy fishing. Anybody can do it, with only very short casts needed. To make it even easier, we rigged with strike indicators, which float on the surface like bobbers, so when the indicator twitches or gets pulled down, it means a steelhead has just punched your ticket.

I was using my favorite rod, a 10-foot, 8-weight Sage fly rod, set up with Abel reel (with drag) with floating line, Spectra backing, then rigged with an 8-foot 3X leader. We use a large strike indicator, set about five feet up from two flies with barbless hooks, an October Caddis trailed by a red egg simulator. Just as figured, most of the fish were taking the egg.

By midafternoon, there'd been a ton of strikes, hookups, fish lost, fish caught and released, and four doubles. The river beauty seemed like a stage for greatness when suddenly Patterson gurgled some incoherent words. I turned and saw he had hooked a big steelhead, the reel spinning as the fish dashed 50 yards upstream.

Patterson fought that fish for 15 minutes, had it near the boat three times,

then each time it surged off on a long run. The fight ended suddenly, with the fish "releasing itself," Patterson explained. "Incredible."

As dusk arrived, we pulled the boat to shore at the take-out, and I turned to my new friend. We had shared a great day with 50 fish between us, including the river grand slam, trout, steelhead and salmon, crowned by five steelhead hooked in the seven- to 10-pound class.

On the Klamath River right now, these are the good old days.

Contact information: Jack Trout, (530) 926-4540; http://www.mtshasta.com; DeNardi Outfitters, (530) 842-7655; guide Wally Johnson, (530) 496-3291.

E-mail Tom Stienstra at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com.
 

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