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Event Article: Fishing the Klamath River

the Klamath River for Salmon and Steelhead with Gary Hix (continued)


The Tackle: Though we did pack our Sage and Loomis 5 and 6wt. fly rods we focused primarily on spinning gear this trip since we would be fishing for two days out of Gary’s jetboat. Spinning gear is preferable over casting gear because many drifts require very little weight for the optimal presentation, but anglers with baitcasters designed for casting smaller baits can get by with a baitcaster, just make sure it has enough line capacity to deal with a 20lb Salmon if you are lucky to hook into one.


Cal and Gary work a side drift along a ledge

Because the fish here are medium in size 12lb mono tipped with 10lb fluorocarbon is a good way to go. For spinning reels a 3000 or 4000 size reel will have enough power, drag, and capacity to deal with both salmon and steelhead. Shore anglers will want longer rods but out of a boat a 7’6” or 7’9” medium rod with a flexible tip and reasonably powerful butt section is ideal for both casting and fighting fish. A number of manufacturers specialize in these type of rods, and when we polled the guides on the Klamath they preferred Rogue Rods, G.Loomis, and Lamiglas (in that order).

The fall colors on the river were absolutely stunning...

The Fishing: The town of Klamath is perched on a ridge overlooking the mouth of the river as it empties into the Pacific. As I mentioned earlier, the town doesn’t have much in terms of conveniences, but it does have a rugged charm to it, and the whole town seems centered on the river itself. We rested for a few hours at the Ravenwood Motel before driving to the Terwer launch ramp to meet our guide, Gary. With the river still clouded in darkness we set out in Gary’s jetboat nine miles upstream to get into some deeper water. The area we fished would still only be six to nine feet in depth.

...as was the view over the mouth of the Klamath near sunset

If you haven’t ridden in a jetboat your missing out. These aluminum boats are like tanks, able to plow over rocks and guides routinely beach the boats against sand bars and rocks. The Klamath has many areas with only six inches of water, and Gary navigated these short areas by building momentum and plowing right over them. At times we could hear stones assault the bottom of the jetboat as it bounced over the rocky minefield.

Gary plows the jetboat over a shallow riffle

We started side drifting in which you cast roe parallel to the boat and the bank and allow it to drift at the same rate as the flow. We added a “Fish Pill” to the roe to give the bait some more buoyancy, and a small slinky weight above the fluorocarbon  leader to get the bait down. Slinkys work just fine for light to medium structure, but if the drift is very slow or there is a ton of structure larger ball weights are a better choice.

Cal holds out the rod to prevent the line from getting cut by the boat as a Salmon goes right under

On the very first drift  I landed a trophy steelhead, just over 12lbs in weight. The fish went aerial twice as I reeled it in, and the drag on the new Shimano Stradic I was fishing sung a chorus on this fish. “Good way to start the day,” Gary said, “we drift just like this all day and we are into them.”

Zander rests as Gary moves further upriver

In the next few hours Cal and I endured heartbreak after heartbreak as we hooked into our share of fish, but lost all of them due to poor sets or pure misfortune. Gary did everything he could to put us on fish and we started mixing up our techniques moving from side drifting roe to boondogging (also known as dragging) our roe. “Shift out the Slinkys,” Gary said as he handed us much longer weights, “were going to try and get into them a little harder.” Sometimes the most subtle changes can make all the difference, and Gary’s knowledge of the river made all the difference. Within minutes we were back into fish, and starting landing more 10-12lb King Salmon.

Gary with one of the Kings caught on day two

We had one fight that lasted over five minutes, this particular fish just refused to get into the boat and did donuts around the boat as we tried time and time again to extend our reach and net the fish. After a few minutes we basically ran out of river and began to drift down fast flowing riffles. I continued to fight the fish as Gary lifted the kicker and maneuvered the boat with the big engine. Once we dropped into calm water the salmon finally ran out of fight as Cal netted the fish and the hook popped right off the fish’s lip! Close one! Truth be told, it took me another five minutes just to calm down after the fight.

This buck did a real number on us, and took us over a riffle as we landed him

The Best Time to come: In between fishing we took time to absorb the sights of the river. The fall colors were in and unlike many rivers the Klamath still feels wild, and there is plenty of native wildlife to constantly remind you of that fact. The river is still home to bears, feral cows, and even bald eagles. If you are coming to the Klamath to soak in the sights each season offers a unique opportunity to explore nature, but if you are coming here to fish the prime time for Salmon is June through July, and September through November.

Gary and Zander after a successful day on the Klamath

If you are targeting Steelhead the hottest time is from November through March. The first rain in any period improves the steelhead fishing. The mouth also has a lot to do with how hot the fishing is. At times the mouth can be nearly closed up completely by sand on the coast. When a storm comes through or flows reach a peak the mouth can blow open and thousands of fish waiting just outside the beachhead come rushing in. On days like these anglers routinely get into double digit Salmon. 

Zander snaps a picture of the sunset at Klamath before heading back to San Francisco

Conclusion: I can still hear the drag “sing” from the Steelhead that took my line on that first drift in the Klamath, and it is likely something I will never forget. The Klamath is a picturesque river, one filled with history, and though the river has endured a few hardships the fish have endured. During our trip we never did get into the monster salmon, but there were other anglers on the river that day that did land fish just shy of 20lbs. The fish fight hard in the river, harder than the larger ones I have caught in the ocean. Perhaps it is the added excitement of fighting fish on light tackle, or trying to land fish as your boat rolls down riffles, or maybe it’s the spawning instinct that takes over salmon as they swim upstream that gives them more fight. Whatever it is the Klamath is a “must fish” river for any angler in California, and is even worth driving to if you reside in any of the surrounding states. I can now cross the Klamath off my list of “must fish” waters, but you can bet I’ll be back. Now I hear the Smith River just and hour north of the Klamath is even more picturesque and is home to even bigger fish. Looks like it is time to prep the truck yet again… Road Trip!

Looking for a guide for the Klamath or the Smith River?
Contact Gary Hix (707) 954-1004, or via email and tell him you want the TackleTour treatment.










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