Steelhead Fishing on the Trinity River
● By Jon Lewis
By Jon Lewis
For two trout that are members of the same species—oncorhynchus mykiss—there are some notable differences between rainbows and steelhead.
The first is the name. A rainbow brings to mind a graphic element on a get-well card or maybe a feel-good meme on social media. A steelhead summons an image of unrelenting, brute force.
The second is more of a lifestyle thing. Rainbows stay local, living, feeding and spawning in the lake or river they started in. Steelhead are anadromous; they make their way to the ocean where they forage far and wide for a couple years before migrating back to their freshwater origins to spawn.
The third is closely tied to the second. Life at sea is a rough-and-tumble affair, and the effort required to swim upstream and spawn is considerable. As a result, steelhead are bigger, faster and stronger than their stay-at-home rainbow brethren.
That physicality and single-mindedness make steelhead a prized sportfish, and fortunately for anglers in the North State, September is when the fish typically begin their migration up the Trinity River.
It’s a combination of such a special fish in a pristine, accessible river that’s especially irresistible to fly fishers, says longtime guide Andrew Harris, the operator of Red Bluff-based Confluence Outfitters.
“It’s such a big draw because so many fly anglers are familiar with trout fishing, because they start out trout fishing, and steelhead is the ultimate trout,” Harris says. “They’re bigger because they’re seagoing. Three to four pounds is kind of the starting size. Three to eight is normal and sometimes they’re over 10 pounds.”
After swimming for perhaps thousands of miles in the Pacific Ocean, steelhead swim up the Klamath River for 20 miles, make a right turn into the Trinity at Weitchpec and then travel roughly another 80 miles before spawning.
Fish making that kind of a journey are not prone to distractions, and they are not inclined to eat, which adds to the challenge. “If you hook one fish a day, you’re doing good,” Harris says. “The Trinity is special because you have a chance to hook into multiple fish a day. You can also get skunked.”
If you do hook into one, you’re in for a battle. “They’re pretty acrobatic,” agrees Lewiston resident Scott Stratton, who has been fishing for steelhead since he was a teenager living up in Puget Sound. “They’re not like a salmon, where you’ve just got a tug-of-war going. They’re pretty strong from living out in the ocean and coming into the fresh water. They’re fighting a lot of currents and going upstream. They’re like a trout on steroids.”
Stratton and hundreds of other anglers also enjoy the fact that steelhead fishing on the Trinity is at its best in the fall and winter months, which often means beautiful fall days or brisk winter mornings on a pristine river. “You can wade out and fish for ocean-run fish in a smaller river that’s crystal clear most of the time. And you’re in the mountains,” Stratton says.
The Trinity is the largest tributary of the Klamath River and drains portions of the Coast and Klamath mountain ranges. The roughly 80-mile stretch from Lewiston Lake to the confluence with the Klamath has been designated a Wild and Scenic River.
While the upper part of the river, from Lewiston down through Junction City, draws the most attention, Redding resident and Fly Shop employee Nick Fassiano says he enjoys the more wild and woolly downstream stretches near Del Loma.
Fassiano says he likes to “swing” flies, a more traditional method of fly fishing where the angler uses a heavier, two-handed Spey rod to fling the fly downstream and let the current gradually swing the fly toward the shore.
“Steelhead tend to be pretty darn grabby and they will move a long ways to grab a fly,” Fassiano says. “We’re talking about a fish not in the river necessarily to feed, so we’re keying in on a response instinct. For whatever reason, they will move, respond and attack flies.”
The swinging method is typically most productive in the fall when the water is still fairly warm. As it cools in the wintertime, steelhead don’t tend to move as much, so anglers will often opt for a nymphing technique to get their flies down to where the fish are holding.
Like a lot of good things, steelhead fishing on the Trinity can become a victim of its own success, and anglers who spend a lot of time on the water are well aware of that concern. The advent of social media has helped increase the Trinity’s popularity, Stratton says.
“People like to brag and post photos. For about five years, we had a really good run of fish and saw an influx of people, but it has slowly backed off because the runs have not been as large,” Stratton says. “It’s just a cycle. It’s been back to a normal pattern for steelhead for the last three or four years. I’ll take less fish and less people on the Trinity any day.”
“It’s definitely busy, but I think everybody works together pretty well,” Harris says. “All the guides know each other and know how to work with each other, and boaters know to give space to bank fishermen. People who want to go out and wade don’t have any trouble finding spots.”