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Steelhead angling on Trinity

Denis Peirce

Warm afternoon winds, shortening daylight hours, cool mornings requiring a jacket, leaves turning colors along stream beds, baseball playoffs on TV and football games on weekends, all of these are signs that steelhead fishing has begun.

My brother from Colorado was in Eureka on the north coast for a meeting and would be driving to Redding up Highway 299 on Wednesday.

With a little advance notice I was able to arrange my schedule to meet him on the Trinity River for a day of steelhead fishing. I finished my business in Redding and headed over the hill to Weaverville Tuesday evening.

I spent the night at the Red Hill Motel in Weaverville. It is a hold over from the middle of the previous century.

It has hosted many a fishing party over the decades and it still is home base for many anglers fishing the Trinity River. Old but clean, and priced to make fishing trips affordable, this place has the feeling of a fish camp from long ago.

Up before dawn, I headed down river an hour to Willow Creek.

I had made arrangements to meet up with Ed Dugan for breakfast. Dugan guides the area and writes the online fishing report for Willow Creek’s Chamber of Commerce.

He had been catching steelhead consistently for the last few weeks guiding clients in his drift boat. Today we were going to “walk & wade” using the car to move to various access points.

My interest was learning the area for future fishing trips as well as catching fish today.

My brother was delayed and the early morning bite passed us by. The river is “gin clear” until the rains begin, and the No.1 rule now, for catching steelhead on flies is to fish in the shadows.

Fish do not have eyelids and they avoid bright light. This is where local knowledge pays off.

What stretch of the river is in shadow at what hour of the day is the key to success.

The Trinity River winds through the mountains at the bottom of a deep canyon. Now that the sun is much lower in the sky, there are always stretches of water that are shaded.

Dugan knew where to be at any given hour.

The drill was to pull off the highway and park as close to the river as possible. We would jump out grab our rods and head down to the river.

Starting upriver of the shaded water we would cast across the river and “swing” the flies down and across the water.

When the swing is complete you take a step or two down stream and cast again. This way you can systematically cover the water.

The first angler is expected to work quickly down river so as not to slow up the following fishers. All anglers in the line use different sizes, weights and colors of flies trying to cover most possibilities, looking for the “hot setup”. If there are no “grabs” from the fish, we march back up to the car and jump in, wet waders and all.

If the assembled rods do not fit in the car some guys will put the fly reel and rod handle under the wind shield wiper, rod pointing up over the roof. Then off we would drive to the next good water to try again.

Steelhead are migratory. They are where you find them, and for that you have to cover a lot of water.

Both cars and boats work for this. The fishing is serious when your line is in the water.

The social banter takes place during the travel between prospective spots. This is my favorite type of fishing. As the fly swings across the current on a tight line, the “grab” is any thing but subtle. These fish do not sip the fly but rather they smash it.

We finally caught up with the fish at the mouth of the south fork of the Trinity. Often times steelhead wait near the mouths of tributaries for the rains to raise the water levels.

There was a cliff dropping into the river on the south side of the river with 10 yards of shadows extending onto the water. We had to wade across the river to get at this run, but the fish were there. Dugan caught the largest, a five-pound female.

He had switched to a spinning rod with a chrome & blue spoon to get deep. I caught mine on an October Caddis Pupa. My brother struck out this day.

The fall run of steelhead are up to the middle Trinity River. We saw many traveling salmon and steelhead moving up river. More and more fish will be coming into the river with November being the best fishing month on the Trinity.

The colder it gets the less active the fish will be. Now the water is in the high 50s and the fish will chase after a fly. By the time the water drops into the mid 40s you will need to “bump them on the nose ” to get a grab.

The Trinity is a three to four hour drive from here. There are affordable warm places to spend the night in cold weather. From now to Thanksgiving is the peak of the season. You need to go.


Denis Peirce writes a weekly fishing column for The Union and is host of “The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report,” which airs 6-7 p.m. Fridays and 5-6 a.m. Saturdays on 830-AM radio. He may be reached via e-mail at denisp@theunion.com.


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