Steelhead and dry flies

The Trinity River and the harrowing Highway 299.


By Sam Davidson

The best thing about rivers – beside the fact they may harbor trout -- is that they’re paths into the future, and the past. Always drawing you around the bend, to something new. Or old.

Roads, sensibly, often follow rivers. California’s state highway 299 is one. It hugs the Trinity River from near Lewiston all the way to Willow Creek, where this iconic steelhead river jogs north to join the Klamath.

For the angler, Route 299’s blind curves and alluring peeks at the emerald water below make it as dangerous as it is captivating. If you survive the drive, and find yourself at one of the famous fishing spots with names like Lone Pine and Squeeze Hole, you can wade into some of the most exquisite water anywhere and cast for river ghosts.

“The Yeti” and I recently did this, toward the end of the winter steelhead season in most of northern California. It hasn’t rained much in this state for more than a decade, and the winter of 2014-15 was historically terrible here in terms of precipitation, but as we met in Redding in mid-March one of the few storms to come through northern California this season dropped some good rain on the lower Trinity.

Locals with more sense told us to chase ‘bows on the lower Sac rather than waste time hunting for chrome in a played-out Trinity. But we imagined the rains lower down might have coaxed some fresh fish to move up river. Delusion is a potent intoxicant. So we ignored the advice and charged for the faint hope of bright, ten-pound gladiators.

What we found instead were “half-pounders,” feisty and acrobatic, chomping on dry flies in bright sunshine and t-shirt temperatures. Not exactly typical steelhead fishing conditions.

The Yeti kept saying, “This is crazy,” as he made gorgeous, difficult casts with a size 14 Adams to the far side of the river, across boils and swirls, to achieve a two-second drag-free drift among rising steelhead. And it was.

All rivers are metaphors, of course, and as a remarkable hatch came off in the early afternoon and big March Browns helicoptered off the water I kept thinking the Trinity is a symbol of hope in a region where many anadromous fisheries are declining. Some of its waters are diverted by a major plumbing project into the Central Valley, and thirsty interests are scrapping for more. But anglers have helped hold the line, supporting water management decisions that provide enough flows to keep steelhead and salmon moving throughout the watershed until they bump up against the Iron Gate and Lewiston dams.

And the Trinity flows through some really nice country, much of it still relatively unscathed by the mining and timber harvest practices of yesteryear. Trout Unlimited is engaged in an effort to better protect the fishing on these lands and in the waters that flow from them. The Northwest California Mountains and Rivers campaign aims to bolster protection of high quality habitat across some 405,000 acres of public land.

I thought, too, of an optimistic new initiative led by TU called Wild Steelheaders United that intends to protect and restore wild steelhead runs across four states by leveraging the passion of steelheaders to improve policy, habitat conditions, and management practices. While this initiative is focused on wild steelhead, it also works to protect steelhead and promote fish-friendly conditions in rivers like the Trinity, where wild runs are supplemented with hatchery fish to mitigate for habitat loss due to dams.

Relentless optimism is the sine qua non of the steelhead angler. On the Trinity, this optimism can be cast into heartbreakingly beautiful water year-round. It can also cause you to do things you know a steelhead angler shouldn’t – like stop deliberately covering a piece of very fishy water to see what’s just downstream, around the next bend.


Sam Davidson is California Communications Director for Trout Unlimited. Most photos by The Yeti.


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