The secret's out
Historic Trinity River gives up its salmon, steelhead
Thom Gabrukiewicz, Redding Record Searchlight
October 19, 2003
"Think it's about time we blindfold him?"
"I was just thinking about that myself. Still pretty dark yet.
"I doubt he knows where he is."
There's a sense that Scott Stratton and Terry Simonis aren't kidding around.
And I have no clue where we are. All I know is that it's 6:30 a.m., we're in Trinity County and hurtling down a gravel road in the comfort of Stratton's Ford F-350 diesel.
"Actually, we're going to do a float called Sky Ranch," said Stratton, who has lived in Lewiston since 1987 and has guided professionally on the Trinity River for the past five years as the owner of Trinity River Adventures Guide Service (www.trinityriveradventures.com). "We're on Sky Ranch Road now. We'll put in near the Hoopa weir and float down to Junction City.
"Just don't tell anybody."
But the word is already out: For salmon and steelhead in an up-close, intimate setting, nothing beats the Trinity River. The fun starts in June for spring-run chinook salmon, then really starts cooking in August for the fall-run of chinook, followed closely by a steelhead run that lasts until March.
So many fish, so much time.
No wonder people are beginning to discover the Trinity's potential — in droves. Especially on the Sky Ranch float.
Even though we piled into Stratton's rig at 6 a.m., there's already what can be considered a traffic jam at the weir in this remote, rugged county. Here's a place that's 3,179 square miles of timber, mountain peaks from 6,000 to 9,000 feet and pristine alpine lakes. It has a total population of just 13,166 souls. That's four people per square mile.
And we're third in line to get Stratton's Fish Rite drift boat on the water.
"Guess the word's out," Stratton said. "That's OK, plenty of fish in the water. I feel good about this. We're going to have a great day."
In the blue-black glow of another day, the Trinity River shrouds its secrets in its inky-black depths. A breeze kicks up along the valley, and with the chill comes the unmistakable scent of fish. It's not an unpleasant, rotten smell, but the strong, clean smell of a healthy river.
Over the past 40 years, that hasn't always been the case.
The Trinity River is the largest tributary of the Klamath River, the state's second longest waterway. The Trinity starts in the rugged Trinity Alps Wilderness Area and flows south toward the community of Lewiston, where in 1963 its waters were first harnessed for thirsty farmers in the San Joaquin Valley in the form of the Trinity and Lewiston dams. Reduced flows let the riparian forest gain a foothold, thus choking off salmon and steelhead spawning grounds.
The dams also block 109 miles of traditional spawning habitat, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Interior.
After flowing from the Lewiston Dam, the Trinity continues its journey west and north 110 miles to Weitchpec, where it joins the Klamath River. The Klamath then flows another 43 miles west to the Pacific.
According to the Friends of the Trinity River (FOTR), as much as 90 percent of the Trinity's water a year has been siphoned out of the Trinity Basin to feed the San Luis Reservoir, 307 miles south of the Lewiston Dam. From there, it goes principally to the Westlands Water District — and a limited number of other Central Valley water users — for agriculture. About 1.2 million acre-feet of water a year are diverted by Westlands for its Central Valley customers.
Congress authorized the Trinity River Division, Central Valley Project in 1955. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Clair Engle, who told the Trinity Journal in 1952 that the project, "does not contemplate diversion of one bucketful of water which is necessary in this watershed.
"The argument that it (building of the dams) would ruin fishing is absolute nonsense."
Studies commissioned by the California Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior and the Hoopa and Yurok Indian tribes have shown otherwise.
The Trinity/Klamath Basin historically has supported between 660,000 to 1.1 million Pacific salmon, making it the third most productive salmon river on the West Coast, behind the Columbia and Sacramento rivers, according to Department of the Interior studies. The Trinity/Klamath Basin also is the largest producer of steelhead in California.
Today, salmon and steelhead runs are just 12 percent of their historic levels.
So important is the resource — not counting the Hoopa and Yurok Indians' historic link to salmon and steelhead for culture and sustenance — that tourism accounts for 75 percent of Trinity County's summer business revenue, according to the nonprofit Institute for Fisheries Resources' Klamath Resource Information System (www.krisweb.com).
There is hope.
Last week, the Westlands Water District made a settlement offer to the Bureau of Reclamation and the Hoopa Valley Indian Tribe to end a bitter lawsuit over flow requirements on the Trinity. Westlands said its proposal will restore a significant amount of water down the Trinity, and only slightly less than what the Department of the Interior called for in 2000, while still keeping enough to irrigate farmers' fields in the Central Valley, according to the Associated Press.
Westlands spokesman Tupper Hall said the compromise would replenish the Trinity, while still leaving enough water to grow crops. California grows more food than any other state in the nation.
It also would protect the river from future salmon kills. Last year, 33,000 coho and chinook salmon died on the lower Klamath River. DFG biologists placed the blame squarely on low flows, which caused the river to heat up and crowed fish into pools where a fungus called Branchiomyces Sanguinis literally choked the fish to death from a disease known as "gill rot."
"One of the reasons Westlands has taken the lead here is that a small decrease in water (siphoned from the Trinity) can translate into very large decreases of allocations to agriculture," Hull told the AP. "Westlands wants to put the Trinity River dispute behind it."
Guides and a legion of anglers hope so.
"It's hard to fish the Sac when you have this," said Mark Harris of Redding, who was fishing the Trinity for salmon and steelhead recently with his buddy, Ron Thomas of Shasta Lake. "This is ridiculous. I mean, this is a dream fly-fishing river for steelhead, the salmon are killer, It's just a monster river."
"You've got the best of both worlds here," Stratton said. "Your first cast, you had a salmon on. These are trophy fish.
"But fly fishing for steelhead is my thing," he added. "You get up a little later, fish a little longer and get to see a whole lot of beautiful scenery. Last week, we had a bear swim across the river, right in front of us, and we always see bald eagles."
Everyone, it seems, takes the Trinity Challenge — and become hooked for life.
"I have clients who are so rich, they can fish anywhere in the world and this is the ticket they punch every year," Stratton said. "They don't ever miss it. But, then, neither do I."
This year's spring- and fall-run of salmon on the Trinity looks to be one of the best in years, according to anglers, hatchery employees and DFG biologists. There's still not enough fish in the system to get a good sense of the steelhead run.
But one look under the drift boat and Stratton's hopes are raised. Darting from the shadows are the distinct silvery flashes of a steelhead, basically a rainbow trout that matures in the ocean and comes back to freshwater to spawn.
"I call them silver shadows," said Simonis, a Redding resident. "One minute you see them, the next you don't.
"Wow, there goes another one."
Soon, Stratton will whittle down the number of salmon fishermen he takes out — and up the number of steelhead fishermen. But for now, the salmon are still pouring into the river.
"These things are bright, fresh fish," Stratton said. "Let's get you hooked up."
It's still crowded at the put-in, but Stratton notices that two of the weir's panels are raised — meaning there's room for his drift boat to squirt by. The weir, basically a portable dam that allows water to flow though — but not fish — is used by the Hoopa Valley Tribal Fisheries Department to monitor fish in the entire Trinity River Basin.
"Usually, they don't open them up until the weekend," Stratton said. "We'll, it's our good fortune. This next hole is always full of fish."
As the dawn slowly turns blue, it sounds like someone's chucking river cobble from the banks into the hole.
Rounding a sandbar, the anglers know it's not someone simply skipping stones. Salmon are leaping from the water in a twirling display of power and grace.
"I've never seen them so acrobatic," Simonis said. "Oh, man, that was a gainer. That was a full flip, wasn't it?
"There he goes again."
The Trinity presents all sorts of new adventures for salmon fishermen. The gear might be the same — K16 Kwikfish and bouncing roe are the standards, just like on the Sacramento — but the feel is just different.
"We've got a lot faster water here," Stratton said. "Our fish get to be pretty good sized, but not like what you get on the Sac. Although, we caught a 30-pounder here last week. But mostly, the fish are smaller.
"We change the lines for that."
Fifteen-pound test Spyder Wire fishing line is all that stands between you and a 20-plus-pound bundle of muscle. On the lower Sacramento, the line is twice — sometimes nearly three times — as strong.
And on the Trinity, it's illegal to used barbed hooks — the barbs make it easier to keep a fish on the line, but makes them more difficult to release — and the hook gap can be no larger than half an inch.
"Here, don't set the hook, just start reeling," Stratton said. "Once you feel the fish on, then you can set the hook."
And watch out for a trick that every Trinity River salmon seems to know — and puts into practice. Once hooked, they'll make a run upstream, and head straight for the boat.
"They all do it," Stratton said. "And that quick, that fish will be off."
After five practice fish, I'm ready to land one. It's 9:30 a.m. and there are at least 100 salmon in the hole, stacked like cordwood into the gin-clear depths. It's at once frustrating — and exhilarating.
For salmon on the Trinity this year, anglers are allowed to keep a daily bag limit of one adult fish over 22 inches and two jacks — fish that have returned to spawn after two years — under 22 inches in length. Trinity River anglers must purchase a salmon punch card ($1.05) to record salmon and a steelhead report card ($3.95) to record their steelhead catch. Anglers also should check the sport fishing supplement available at DFG offices and licensing agents for further Trinity and Klamath Basin regulations.
There are places to wade and fish from the bank, and a full day with a guide for one person is about $250, including lunch.
Time for another cast.
The Kwikfish, a color pattern Stratton keeps calling "Purple Haze," wiggles about 30 feet downstream from the bow of the drift boat (motors are not allowed on the Trinity). The light is just right, and for the first time I get to see exactly how a salmon hits a lure. Instead of coming up from behind and swallowing the lure like a bass or trout, the salmon swims alongside the Kwikfish, then rolls onto the lure, nudging it and finally taking the five-inch plug into its mouth.
And for the first time, I understand why it's bad to set the hook so soon.
"Fish on," I croak. "It's a good one."
Once a salmon returns to freshwater, it stops eating. Every waking moment is geared toward finding its stream of origin and spawning.
So why does a salmon hit a lure, or pick up roe? Popular theories indicate that salmon hit a Kwikfish out of sheer anger and frustration, and will pick up roe and transport it back to a spawning bed, called a redd.
"Yeah, I've heard all that, but I don't know if I agree with the roe explanation," Stratton said. "I've cut open fish that were full of roe. I think they pick some of it up, but a lot of it, they suck up so their own eggs will have a chance."
After 20 minutes, the fish and I have reached a standoff. At least he's 10 feet closer to the boat. The buck simply heads into the fast water every time Stratton gets the dip net ready. The fight has been reduced to a game of inches on my part — I gain an inch, and he spools the line for a couple of feet.
After 30 minutes, Stratton mercifully decides its time to take the fish into the slack water.
It's another 10 minutes of cranking before he can get a net on it.
"That's a fresh fish," Simonis said. "What a beauty."
"It this your first Trinity River salmon?" Stratton asks.
It is. Twenty-one pounds of fight in a 36-inch-long package.
"That's the thing about this river," said Thomas, who watched the hookup while fighting his own 26-pounder. "Even a 10-pound fish will give you all kinds of hell. But your fish, man, that was a monster.
"Bet your arms were hurting."
Positively quivering, thanks.
Reporter Thom Gabrukiewicz can be reached at 225-8230 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also can be seen Friday mornings on KRCR TV's Good Morning Northstate program.
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