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Event Article: Fishing the Klamath River

the Klamath River for Salmon and Steelhead with Gary Hix


Date: 10/18/07
Location: Klamath River, California
Event Date: Oct 13-14
Reviewer: Zander & Cal

Introduction: The Klamath river, once the third largest producer of salmon on the west coast, is still a prime destination for both fly and drift bait anglers looking to hook into both King Salmon and Steelhead. We take a trip to this legendary river with the hopes of testing some of the latest tackle and hoping to land a trophy steelhead in the process.


The Klamath river offers some stunning scenery as well as excellent angling opportunities for Salmon and Steelhead


About the Klamath River: The Klamath river, approximately 263 miles (400 km) long, is a major river in southern Oregon and northern California. Once the third largest producer of salmon on the West Coast, but only a fraction of the river's historic runs remain since the construction of six dams, built between 1908 and 1962. Many of these dams have now been fitted with fish ladders to help the fish make a comeback.


You gotta love a town that greets you with a sign like this


The Klamath drains an arid farming valley in its upper reaches, passing swiftly through the mountains in its lower section before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. It is also one of the longest rivers in California and the name of the river comes from a Native American word klamet meaning "swiftness." At one time the river provided a significant transportation route for passing through the Cascades. Archeological evidence in the valley suggests it has been inhabited for at least 7,000 years and the river and its fish are considered sacred by resident Native American tribes, who still net fish on the river today.


The Klamath empties into the Pacific Ocean
(mouth is at the lower right beneath the clouds)

A few years back the Klamath took center stage when too much water was diverted for irrigation during a drought period when unusually low flows hurt the fishery. According to biologists from the state of California and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the atypically low flows in the river combined with high fish return numbers and high water temperatures allowed for a gill rot disease to kill at over 30 thousand salmon in September 2002, who died before they could reproduce. Some of the guides here call this the “fish kill year,” and many anglers feared the worst for the fishery. In the years that followed however anglers reported strong numbers of salmon continuing to return to the river. Exactly five years after the “fish kill” we thought it would be a good time to see just how the Klamath fished. 

Gary pilots the drift boat as the sun begins to rise

The Fish: Salmon reign supreme on the Klamath and are the most caught fish both in numbers and size. The fishing is best during the Fall, and at this time it is possible to get into the occasional steelhead. If you fish near the coast like we did it is less than a mile in from the mouth and the Kings are fresh from the ocean, and in great shape to provide some serious fight on light tackle. The average King weighs between 10-20lbs, but it is possible to get into a fish well over 30lbs.

We drift fish with roe and "Fish Pills"

The Steelhead, while generally smaller and caught in less numbers, are still prevalent in the Klamath, and anglers can still catch the sporadic wild and hatchery trophy class fish. Even more rare are the Coho salmon which do still come to the Klamath but can not be taken and are listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The fish on the Klamath fight hard, and you just never know if you will get into a salmon or a angry steelhead

Head to the coast: We wanted to get into the freshest fish possible so we head to the mouth where the river empties into the Pacific Ocean. Here we would begin and fish inland up the river. The town of Klamath is a small town perched along both the river’s edge and the coastline. It is a 7 hour drive from the San Francisco bay Area and the closest large towns are Eureka to the South, and Crescent City to the North. Accommodations in the town are not exactly four-star, but they certainly get the job done.


There are two motels in particular that stand out, Ravenwood is about ten minutes from the launch ramp and has fisherman friendly features like extra parking for boats, outside picnic areas, and even a fish freezer and the Steelhead lodge is just up from the Terwer ramp where all the local guides launch, and is also conveniently located adjacent the town’s tackle shop.   

Cal is ready to roll to the next spot

Get yourself a Good Guide: There are a number of ways to fish the Klamath, which include of-roading to various points to either fly or spin fish, using a drift boat, or hiring a guide with a jet boat. The Klamath has a rocky bottom and when flows are low the river can do a real number on outboard props, so guides with jetboats can more easily get you into the best fishing spots, many of which can only be otherwise accessed by drift boat. If it is your first trip to the Klamath we highly recommend getting a good guide. The flow conditions on the Klamath are ever changing, and odds are you are traveling some distance to fish the river, and a guide will vastly improve your chances of both getting into and landing salmon or that trophy steelhead.

A deeper pool, and a slower flow

If you prefer to fly fish over drifting roe the Klamath is far enough from major cities that you can fish certain spots without ever seeing another fly fisherman all day. Getting to these spots requires some off-roading, but nothing too hard core. There are plenty of areas suitable for wading, but the Klamath can be slippery so make sure to pack a boot with spikes and a wading stick for safety. Most fly fishermen target steelhead on the Klamath, and work the mouths of creeks, holes, and riffles, all of which can hold trophy class fish. As with bait fishing we recommend that on your first trip out to hire a guide with a drift boat.

A 12lb Steelhead landed early in the morning

For our trip we called on Gary Hix, who has guided on both the Klamath and Smith rivers for the better part of a decade. Gary specializes in both fly and bait fishing, and runs a Willie drift boat on the Smith, which has restrictions against gas power, and a North River jetboat on the Klamath.     

Anglers employing the Boondogging roe technique

Next Section: What tackle to bring to Klamath









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