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Hot California Winter Steelhead

California Winter SteelheadI did a little scouting on a new California river last winter while on a North Coast steelhead trip. It was blown-out at the time, but I was still able to identify some good access points and make a local contact for future trips.

Fast forward to this year… The river had been out from recent storms but according to the USGS site it was on its way down and looking like it should be crossing into the magic-window in a day or so. I called my local contact and he confirmed it – with the added tease that he’d got a fish that night on gear in the upper river.

Late the following day, I pulled the truck onto the gravel bar to check on the clarity near the mouth.

It was a brand new river, and I knew I had a lot of exploring ahead of me and dues that would need to be paid over the next few days. The clarity down here would dictate where I’d start paying those dues in the morning.

I walked down to the water and was pleasantly surprised. It still had a lot of color, but it was marginally fishable – good enough for me.

I only had an hour before the sun set so I quickly tied on a fly and jumped into the top of the nearest run. It was interesting water and appeared a little too fast, but there was a decent current seem on my side. The bottom had big rocks and the whole thing riffled-out in a huge tailout below. It had all the ingredients.

I was a little past the halfway mark when I started questioning whether or not it was getting too dark to continue. The run was still fishing nicely but the light was fading fast. “One more cast”, I must have told myself half a dozen times. On the 7th or 8th “last-cast”, I felt a playful tap on the fly. Then another…

…and then a solid hookup.

The fish surged heavily 3 or 4 times, and came off.

I stood motionless in the river for a few minutes in disbelief and then reeled-up.

I knew exactly where I’d be starting the next morning.

California Winter Steelhead Water

I hit the same run at first light in the morning and was actually surprised not to get a grab. The run is that sweet.

After that I spent the day prospecting for new runs, wearing the felt off my boots hiking up & down every access point I could find. The sun was bright so I wasn’t expecting much but did find a number of good spots for later and even hooked another fish, momentarily…

…It was more of a slot, than a run – one of those, “you never know” spots you just have to put a fly through when you pass. The fly barely hit the water and the fish exploded on it and sailed into the air. It looked to be around 5 pounds. The hook didn’t stick.

The Next Day Was Epic – These Fish Are HOT!

I started the next morning back at the first run I’d fished. I hadn’t found anything in it yesterday, but like I said, it’s one of those runs that are just too sweet to pass up.

It was a gorgeous, peaceful morning that felt more like a summer morning on the coast than the February morning on a steelhead river that it was. There was virtually no breeze, and you could hear the surf gently pounding in the distance. The water clarity had improved considerably and would only get too clear from here on out.

I had a nice cadence going by the time I got past the halfway point and had just cast a full line nearly across the entire river to cover the whole tailout.

The fly swung 5 feet… and got hammered by a big fish.

…I’ve hooked into some pretty hot fish in the past, but this thing was ridiculous. The Hardy was in hyper-grind, line was burning off down river – a mint-bright 10 pound steelhead was cartwheeling up river – then down river – then across the river – then down river again. Line continued to spew and all hell was officially breaking loose…

…Then suddenly the hardy silenced and the line went limp. I reeled as fast as I could as I backed up river trying to regain some tension – but the fish was gone.

As I stood there for a moment letting my brain catch-up with what had just happened I could feel the familiar tingling of butterflies starting to make their way up my throat. It’s that same feeling you get a few moments after nearly having a high-speed head-on collision.

The fly was still attached and the barbless hook was plenty sharp, so I simply retied the knot, stripped-off some line, and began working out my casts to where I’d left off. I’d considered just heading for the next run, assuming the water would need to be rested, but there was only a few casts left in the run and the OCD in me wanted to be consistent.

I was still jittery when my fly swam back over the spot I’d hooked the fish. I took one short step down, repeated the cast and was hooked-up, again.

This time the fish immediately porpoised a good 3 feet in the air, and it was even bigger than the previous one. It crashed back into the water and instantly bore straight up river, while the long line continued to pull from down river.

I couldn’t believe how hot these steelhead were!

A second later and the fish was back down river – the hardy grinding away the whole time. It was another insane performance like the previous fish, but with longer runs and less white water thrashing.

Eventually the fish got directly down below me and appeared to sulk. I reeled as fast as possible on that little spool to try and close the gap, finally thinking I might actually be in the game.

I was wrong. It wasn’t till I got the majority of my running line back that I realized the game had been over for some time. The line was wedged under a rock in 12 inches of water. The fly was gone.

Later that afternoon I was fishing a really interesting run I’d hiked-into a few miles upriver. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun was bearing down on the water – but it was behind the fish, so I had a little confidence. I’d had what could have been a bump, but wasn’t sure. I backed-up, scaled down to the smallest fly I had on me, and went through it again…

…I hooked-up with an acrobatic little 4 pounder, that I would have sworn was bigger, had I not seen him jump numerous times, and eventually landed him…

California Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing

He was quite a bit smaller than what I’d been hoping for, but he was an awesome little native fish, and he stayed on the hook long enough for me to get a picture.

It was the end of the week and the weekend crowds would soon be showing, which meant it was time for me to leave.

I fished the following morning without any action and headed home before noon. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the weather forecast and USGS streamflows the next few weeks.

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