When Jack Duncan, my buddy from the San Diego Fly Fishers Club, emailed me that he wanted to chase steelhead on the Trinity river in Northern California I replied with a simple “In!” I had fished the Trinity about a decade ago for a single day…and that day the Steelhead Trout lived up to its moniker: “the fish of 5000 casts”. I did not get a single take. Since that time, I have been lucky enough to fish steelhead a number of times during my stints up at Microsoft in Redmond, WA where I did do better; mostly on the Olympic Peninsula. But, I had been itching to get back to California steelheading on the Trinity for a long time. Gary Strawn and Paul Woolery from SDFF completed the foursome.
In Steelheading terms we did well. For the two guided days we had, we boated 13 fish. The average steelhead day is hoping for one grab; let alone getting a fish to hand.
The Steelhead is just a giant rainbow trout. What makes it different from a regular rainbow trout is 2 things:
- it’s anadromous nature: After maturing, the steelhead travels the river downstream hundreds of miles to the ocean, feeding heavily for a year to 3 years before entering back into the river it was born in… frequently spawning within a 2 inch radius of where it was originally hatched! There still is no science to explain how the steelhead does it; only conjecture. The Trinity River Steelhead travel just short of 100 miles up the river to their original spawning grounds. God only knows how far out to sea they go. But, the Steelhead in the Columbia River system can travel over 800 miles to the Idaho rivers there were born in. 800 miles to spawn in a 2” radius of where they were hatched. Had we not screwed up the environment around a hundred years ago by installing dams (with the incredibly efficient production of hydroelectric power), the steelhead (like the salmon) would still be travelling over 1000 miles to Montana and beyond.
- The steelhead gets abnormally huge. Like 3 feet long and over 10 pounds huge. They get abnormally big eating shrimp and fish in the ocean. A wild steelhead that size is difficult to land. They frequently do spectacular jumps combined with runs of over 100 yards in either direction.
The steelhead is a fish of lore that has ruined marriages and destroyed finances. I’m not kidding. Once you catch a big wild steelhead it changes your life.
I have been lucky enough to use a number of fly fishing guides in my 30+ years of fly fishing. I feel like that is a well spent investment because I have learned so much from guides….and continue to. I have only had one bad guiding experience in that 30+ years. That was the last time I was at the Trinity over a decade ago. “The Fly Shop” in Redding gave us a really hungover, cigarette smoking guide that spent more time throwing up on the river bank, combined with long stints in porta potties than he did fishing with us. You don’t judge an outfitter by one guide. So, of course, our first stop after landing in Redding, CA was “The Fly Shop. “The Fly Shop” is the largest fly fishing internet retailer in the world for a reason. Like Costco, you just can’t get out of there without dropping a hundred….which we all did.
On Jack’s advice we used Confluence Outfitters for the guides on this trip. Jack had used them before. Jack and I fished together both days and Paul and Gary fished together both days. But we alternated the guides (and the river sections):
- Luke Geraty 530-526-1918 firstname.lastname@example.org – Read Bio
- Peter Santley 530-318-7073 email@example.com – Read Bio
Luke is a young guide with 2 masters degrees that fished us on the Upper Trinity River. And Peter is a long time guide, very well known who fished us on the lower Trinity River. Both guides were excellent and 13 fish to net is a testament to that. I strongly recommend you contact them if you want to check the California steelhead thing off your bucket list.
Using a guide on the Trinity is almost a must. Not just to learn techniques. But, because of the drift boat. Accessing good steelhead holding water is easy with a drift boat. It is quite difficult without one at the Trinity River. So much of the Trinity river is overgrown, on private property, or too deep to wade.
You are either trying to catch a steelhead on their way to spawn or on their way out to the ocean. In both cases because they are on a mission; they are not eating much. You are basically trying to piss them off enough with an artificial to instigate a genetic reaction. There are small (12” to 20”) resident steelhead that are too juvenile to head out to the ocean. They call them, “half pounders”. They do eat and we did catch a few.
The Fly Fishing Techniques for Steelhead
- Staring at the Bobber – 10 to 1 the most effective way to fish for steelhead is under the indicator. Yep, arrogant dry fly dumb asses like me just have to get over the bobber thing. And I did get over it pretty quickly. There is definitely skill involved in casting and getting a good drift on flies that can get 12 feet or even more below the bobber. I examined the way Peter Santley rigged my 10 foot 8 weight Orvis Helios II with an indicator set up and it was quite elaborate. They use a balsa wood indicator that is shaped like a football so that it points down to where your flies are. that helps in mending to get a good drift. That indicator sits between tiny little rubber “bobber stoppers” on a 6 foot section of 20 pound mono. Those bobber stoppers allow for easy adjustment of the indicator to water depth. It allows the guide to adjust the bobber to the depth of the holding water where the steelhead lie resting between runs up or down stream. Below the section of 20 LB is a tippet ring. Tied on the tippet ring is 10 or 12 pound flouro with a small weight attached then the first fly. Below that is 6 lb flouro to the bottom fly. For this trip the typical top fly was a rubber legs or large yellow stone fly nymph. And the bottom fly was a size 14 copper john.
- Swinging – Traditional steelheaders fish streamers. And most of the time on sinking lines or sinking tips. It’s called swinging because you cast 45 degrees downstream and hang on as the fly swings across the river getting tight. You pause at the end because when you have success it’s because the steelhead has chased it across the river and when it slows down and stops that is when you typically get the strike. And those strikes are violent because the steelhead takes the fly in shallow water downstream from you and heads like a rocket back to it’s holding water. Typical swinging flies for steelhead look nothing like anything in nature. They are colorful, long and skinny. On the pros recommendations, I used “Hobo Speys” and “Burnt Chickens” on this trip (unsuccessfully I might add). You can use traditional single handed fly rods; typically with a sinking head or a versileader. But, typically you use a spey rod in swinging for steelhead. I spent a good amount of quality time in lessons with SDFF’s John Wiley who taught me how to cast a spey rod proficiently. But, alas, my spey rod is still a virgin. Although I have to tell you I am hooked on the spey rod thing. Using a Double Spey cast over either shoulder I was casting 80-100 feet effortlessly…which allows you to cover a lot of water. There is no back cast in a spey cast so you really can do it anywhere.
- Dries – As crazy unlikely as it seems you can fish dries for steelhead. You can even skate them with a Spey Rod. It’s quite the long shot. I have only caught one steelhead in my lifetime on a dry and it was because of a guide, the world famous Jim Kerr of the OP on the Bogashiel river. It was 25 years ago and I have been obsessed by it ever since. Gary, Paul and Jack gave it their all for sure… and had as much success with dries as I did swinging. While I was swinging the spey rod those guys were fishing “like men”: big dries.
One of the pleasant surprises on this trip is the place Paul inked us to stay: The Old Lewiston Inn. It’s a set of buildings right on the Trinity River. It is set in the Historical part of the area from the gold rush days with most of the buildings originally built in the middle of the 19th century. It has an awesome view of the river and of the “Old bridge”. “Jess and Dave” are the proprietors, the most friendly people in the world. This is the type of place where I kept saying, “My wife would just love this place.” I will definitely coming back and staying there.
The only…and I mean only… negative was that we were looking forward to eating (and consuming large amounts of whiskey) at the fairly famous Lewiston Hotel Restaurant which is just steps from The Old Lewiston Inn. But, darnit, the owners decided to go on a vacation the week we were there. So, it was closed. That made going to dinner a little bit of an ordeal because we had to drive the 25 minutes to Weaverville and back for the first 3 nights. The hot tip for eating is at the Weaverville Golf Course, “The best Prime Rib north of the Bowling Alley in Bishop is at the Golf Course Restaurant in Weaverville”, said Jack.
On the last night Jess and Dave offered to set up a BBQ for us so we could “cook at home” and we gladly took them up on it. That’s the type of people they are.
FYI: Upstream of the old bridge fishing is closed during spawning season so we were not able to fish right in front of the hotel. But we fished just downstream a few hundred feet from the hotel; just behind the old bridge where it was legal. It’s great water there too for about ½ mile. We saw steelhead; we just couldn’t fool them.
Unfortunately, we did run into poachers on this trip sightseeing up stream of the bridge. It was a shame.
My Favorite Moment
Well, my favorite story of this trip was definitely how Jack landed a huge steelhead after losing one right at the net just an hour earlier…after fishing hard the day prior without landing any.
Why do we remember the fish we lost more than the fish we catch? For me, my 2nd favorite moment was a big wild steelhead I snapped off and lost. It went down like this: I had only caught a ½ pounder on the first day and it was slow. We approached a rapid and Luke (the guide) said something like, “stick it in that soft water on the left at the edge under the bushes”. It was only a ten foot long drift in fairly fast water so kind of a tough cast with a ten foot dropper under the indicator. But, sure enough I got it in there and my line tightened, I set, and the big fish flashed. I set again. It jumped. it was huge. Well, I was in the back of the boat (Jack in Front) and now I was dragging the fish through the rapids behind me and it was taking a ton of line. In the rapids Luke couldn’t slow the boat (God only knows he was trying) and anchoring was out of the question we were going so fast. I was well into the backing when I saw a rock in the middle of the river on my right (facing backwards). I manage to pull the fish out and around that rock back into the current. But, my reel was still screaming as the fish was really not into taking a ride down the rapids.
To make it worse, out of the corner of my eye on the right I could see another rock coming fast and it was bigger and taller. The reel was screaming and two things occurred to me quickly: 1. I could spool this fish and 2. Maybe I could flip the line over the rock. But we were now around 150 feet downstream from that steelhead and going fast through the rapid. There was no way to flip the line. So I pulled hard again and snap! I broke him off. A 10 pound fish on 6 pound flouro. I smiled because the battle was fun. I was not bummed because luck is a huge part of steelheading and I just happened to hook a good one in a bad place. I said, “I lost him.” Luke looked back at me and I could see the heartbreak in his face because he couldn’t help with chasing that fish with the boat.
‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
There are tons of different types of fly fishing in thousands of waters that are just great for beginners. Steelheading is not for beginners. You really need to be a skilled fly fisher to get a shot. The guides both told us that over and over. And when you do get a shot at the “fish of 5,000 casts”, those shots are long shots because the steelhead is hard to hook and even harder to land. I have heard it a thousand times, “Why would you fish all day long to only get one chance of hooking a fish on a barbless hook…only to let it go?” Add to that, most of the times you are setting on a fish that is downstream from you making your odds even worse. Add to that if you are lucky enough to land them it’s typically hundreds of feet, if not yards up or down stream from where you hooked them with herculean head shaking jumps that frequently shake a barbless hook. that means either chasing them on foot or in a boat. Who would do that? I would. We would. I can’t wait to do it again.