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Don’t come to northern California’s Trinity River with your Oregon steelhead gear. Instead, downsize everything but your expectations. Winter steelhead in this tributary of the Klamath River tend to run smaller than fish farther north, but they compensate for their size with rod-bending vigor that can astonish first-time anglers.

“We’re catching fish that are just thirty miles out of the ocean and they have some serious spunk,” says guide Tim King of Douglas City, Calif.

King’s favorite spot is just above the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity rivers, stretching from the small town of Weitchpec on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation upstream to Burnt Ranch. Nearly all of the river is accessible from either State Highway 299, which runs from Redding west to Arcata, or Route 96, which follows the lower Trinity to the Klamath River canyon.

For much of the year, Trinity River steelheaders console themselves with small, football-shaped fish known locally as “half-pounders,” steelhead that loiter in the river after spending just one year in the ocean. They can be caught upstream to Lewiston Dam.

“The half-pounders are fun,” says King. “There are thousands of them, and we’ll catch them on every trip, but everybody around here waits for November. That’s when we start to see the first winter fish, which go anywhere from six to ten pounds. We’ll get a later run in January and February, and those steelhead weigh eight to fifteen pounds.”

PICK YOUR SPOT

Most of the Trinity’s steelhead pressure is in the 15 miles below Lewiston Dam. The reason is both access (it’s closer to population centers in the Central Valley) and consistency–the dam-controlled river is insulated from the fluctuating flows and runoff that plague northern California’s free-flowing steelhead streams. The lower river sees relatively light pressure, but wait a few days after a winter storm or you’ll encounter high, muddy water.

“The Trinity is one of the fastest-clearing rivers in California. That higher water can be a good thing, drawing fish out of the Klamath, and catch rates are better when there’s a little color to the water,” says King.

Bank access is good on the Hoopa Valley Reservation, where a California fishing license ($32.80 for residents, $88.20 for nonresidents annually, or $10.50 for one day) and a $5.25 steelhead card are all you need. If you have a drift boat, float the three miles from the Tish Tang Campground to the town of Hoopa for larger steelhead.

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Most boaters side-drift roe, adding some cured salmon eggs wrapped in gauze to the egg loop on a barbless 1/0 or 2/0 hook. Use just enough weight to tick the bottom without hanging up and drift tail-outs of holes and sandbars. When the flow comes up, many guides pull big-lipped diving plugs.

In Burnt Ranch Canyon, fish stack up below the half-dozen waterfalls that render this reach of the Trinity off-limits to boaters. Park off Highway 299 and walk the trails to the best pools, where anglers drift cured roe and bait shrimp. Use a three-way swivel with a pencil-lead dropper and a 24-inch fluorocarbon leader down to a Corkie and the bait.

All wild fish must be released. The daily limit is a single hatchery steelhead, identified by a clipped and healed adipose fin.

Contact: Tim King’s Guide Service, Douglas City (530-623-3438, www.timkingsfishing.com); California Fish and Game’s Northcoast Region office, Redding (530-225-2300).

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