Between 1918 and 1965 five dams were built on the Klamath River, cutting off access to the upstream spawning habitat for Steelhead, lamprey and five species of Pacfic Salmon.
In 2021 crews will begin removing four of the five dams, reestablishing access to the upper Klamath for anadromous fish and restoring natural flows to one of the largest salmon and steelhead ecosystems on the West Coast of the U.S.
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I need a fishing license. At the Double J in Happy Camp, CA, a woman behind the counter is having a bad day with the license machine. Quiet sighs and dangits make up most of the one-sided conversation. A man arrives and interrupts, wanting to exchange a Penthouse magazine for a Hustler. The license lady kindly tells him he already bought the Hustler last week. She remembers these things. But she doesn’t remember how to issue a nonresident California fishing license. After 15 minutes, the machine finally prints out a mile of California Steelhead and Salmon report cards. The woman goes back to her sleepy afternoon in the Double J, the man is all set to smut, and I am ready to fish.
We’ll be alongside the Klamath River for most of its driveable course bisecting the State of Jefferson, the Pacific Crest Trail and Humboldt County. The wilderness setting, the remoteness of the area, the local characters—it’s distinct country here. Klamath country. Bumping and swaying along the Bigfoot Highway all afternoon, we invent a new driving game: “Weed Farm or Skunk?” The weed farms win in a blowout.
The river brings everything. It has brought life to people before us for thousands of years. The Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, Klamath, Shasta, Modoc and Yahooskin to name a few. It’s brought us to explore and meet the people who know it best.
In the time I’ve spent around the Klamath River basin, one point always stands out: Whether you’re heading upstream to the headwaters or downstream toward the Pacific Ocean, the farther from the dams you get, the better the ecological health of the system becomes.
The Klamath River is broken. What was once one of the greatest wild salmon and steelhead producers on the West Coast and one of the most diverse river systems in the United States is now a subdivision, separated by five main stem dams that lie between Klamath Lake in Oregon and Interstate 5 in California. They cut off passage for salmon and steelhead, as well as other migratory fish including sturgeon and lamprey. The 257-mile-long river is essentially two separately functioning ecological systems: the spring- and snowmelt-fed headwaters and lake ecosystem above the dams, and the main river and tributaries below, which function more like a coastal system as the entire watershed did once upon a time.
Luckily, those dams have a life span, and that life span is coming to an end. The dams were built between 1912 and 1967 for flood control and power generation, and their age eventually contributed to their undoing. As soon as 2022, four of the five dams will be removed and once again the main stem of the Klamath will be mostly wild and free. The fifth, Keno Dam, is staying, but it is a small dam with an operational fish ladder. Once the dams are removed, it will be the largest river-restoration project in U.S. history. Native fish will be reconnected with more than 300 miles of historic habitat after nearly 100 years away.
Videographer Liam Gallagher and I meet the rest of the crew at camp: Chuck Volckhausen, John Rickard and Michael Wier. After afternoon pleasantries, leg stretches and multiple refreshments, it’s time to fish. The half-pound steelhead are in and it’s swing time in shade town on the Klamath. Chuck gets first go because Liam and I are running cameras and banking thoughts. It doesn’t take long; the half-pounders aren’t shy. It is steelhead training at its finest because we actually catch fish, albeit small ones compared to their larger wintertime siblings. They’re not as big, but they slam flies and shake heads just the same. Creative nicknames for the beefier fish roll off of Chuck’s tongue—“Superpounder,” “Overpounder,” “Double Patty.” Soon we replace cameras with rods. Each fish showers us upon release, providing a welcome road-grit rinse-off. At one point, I hook two fish on two casts, both of them strong fighters that go airborne to eye level and shake hooks. I laugh and tip my hat.
Chuck and John run Wild Waters Fly Fishing, a guide service based in Mount Shasta. Their knowledge of these waters and the guiding lifestyle leaves me envious. But it’s hard work. “Ain’t nothing easy down here,” Chuck says after bouncing a trailer down a cobble clearing to the put-in. He’s right, and we don’t know the half of it. Chuck and John are gearing up for their fall Klamath season, guiding camp trips for half-pounders and adults in the middle river. The summer steelhead follow the salmon upriver.
At a gas station in Hoopa, I briefly meet Bill who has a bomber breakfast sandwich from Straight Arrow Cafe. He saw us fishing and tells me he caught a nice buck on a Blue Fox this morning and about 20 half-pounders. He says more fish are on the way, be here next week. We won’t. We fish Juice City on the Trinity, Chuck racing to fish the shade, eyes and ears out for cats and bears. We don’t find either, and we don’t find fish, but the river is beautiful, the roads bumpy and just being here is enough—almost enough. We want to find fish, and our search moves on.
After chasing half-pounders for a couple of days we decide to head downstream in search of some “adults.” Downriver from Iron Gate Dam, the lowest on the main-stem Klamath, the tributaries start to flow in. Most of the tributaries to the Klamath are free flowing and relatively wild, with the exception of the largest tributary, the Trinity River, which has a major dam along its north fork at Whiskeytown Reservoir. The headwaters of a few tributaries still struggle under the impacts of agriculture, but many of them—especially those that come in from the north—flow out of wilderness or undeveloped areas and remain pristine. As each one of these clean tributaries flows into the main stem, they increase the flows and help dilute the murky water coming out of the dams.
The problem is that the dams are big, but not big enough; there’s not enough water to really create the deep-water, cold thermocline that is associated with many quality tailwater fisheries. On top of this, with so much agriculture above the dams, an unnatural amount of high nitrates and other particulates come into the systems. This nutrient imbalance coupled with warm water temps in midsummer can create toxic algae blooms on the reservoirs, which also affect the river below the dams. Studies have found these blooms from the lakes can pass through the turbines and move over 180 miles downriver in less than three days, posing a serious health risk to people and wildlife.
This issue gained national attention in 2002 when poor water quality and overly warm temperatures led to thousands of fall-run Chinook dying in the Klamath. The tribes on the lower Klamath called for the California Department of Water Resources to release cold water from Whiskeytown Reservoir on the Trinity to keep the conditions from reaching lethal levels, but they did not. Estimates vary, but some say as many as 70,000 salmon died as a result.
Closer to the dams, the cobblestones are sealed in an apocalyptic zombie-like moss/algae combo bleached a whitish tan from the California sun. If I were to hook a fish right now, I’d surely be swimming. I make mid-river Bambi steps over the slickest rocks I’ve ever waded. The moss covering them could be toxic. Dormant muscles in my feet and legs will be sore in the morning from sliding and balancing awkwardly.
Signs are posted along the Klamath warning that toxins from the algae present in these waters are harmful to humans, pets and livestock. Skin rashes, eye irritation, diarrhea and vomiting are listed as potential side effects from contact with the water. The levels of the cyanotoxin microcystin present in the blue-green algae floating downstream are consistent with the Karuk tribe’s toxic algae level meter in Orleans, which reads “Medium.” The upstream reservoirs and their warmed waters are breeding grounds for the algae blooms, which are flushed downstream toward the fish, the wildlife and the people of the lower Klamath.
As you work your way down the canyon a couple things become apparent. First, with each tributary that flows into the main stem, the water quality gets a little better. Second, there are a lot of old rundown and out-of-business fishing lodges along the river between Interstate 5 and Happy Camp.
A large sign greets you with unintended irony outside the town: “Welcome to Happy Camp. The Steelhead Capitol of the World,” in faded, peeling green and white paint. The next thing you pass is a large metal sculpture of Bigfoot. Both fishing and Bigfoot-hunting tourists used to make up a large percentage of the business in Happy Camp. Neither brings in the revenue it used to. A few whitewater rafting outfitters and fishing guides squeak out a living during the fall and winter months, but a lot of that business has fallen off in recent years. Along the old main street every business on the block is closed and the buildings are in disrepair. In a layer of irony, the centerpiece of the community park is a massive hydraulic mining cannon, a piece of equipment that caused untold amounts of ecological damage to the region’s watersheds.
In contrast to rundown Happy Camp, the small towns of Weaverville and Junction City on the Trinity River are bustling in the fall with guides and anglers. The colder, cleaner water makes a noticeable difference in commerce. It’s the same river system, with the same runs of fish, only more of the fish head this direction in the fall for the better water quality. Anglers, it seems, are also more attracted to the cold, clean water of the Trinity River.
At Weitchpec we leave the Klamath and head up the Trinity to Willow Creek and then over the pass to Arcata. A road follows the Klamath down for a bit from the confluence, but then dead ends, leaving a roadless section for many of the lower miles of the river. It’s here the character of the water changes into more of what you would expect from a coastal steelhead river. The coastal climate lowers into the valleys and soon you’re in the rainforest with giant redwoods and firs looming overhead.
It’s dark, we haven’t had coffee yet and we’re late for fishing. Not a cool start. I ask our Yurok fishing guide, Pergish Carlson, if we have time to make coffee. He laughs, shrugs shoulders and says the best bite is now. Coffee will wait. We quickly, groggily and poorly pile gear together and hop into his boat. I feel unprepared. As the morning light grows, we speed upstream to one of Pergish’s lower Klamath honey holes. We’re not the first ones there and he heckles us for being late. If we had been on time, we’d have had five drifts by now. Still, on each pass we hook fish. Watching Pergish position our drift with the kicker motor, loop eggs onto hooks and coach rusty bait-casting skills, it’s clear this is his element. This morning wins the medal for earliest and worst wakeup call (4:30 a.m.) without coffee for the longest amount of time (five hours). We ditch the bait fishing, find some nice fly water and boil coffee on the boat. There is nothing like being prepared to fish.
After stints in commercial fishing and construction, Pergish realized he could make a living taking people fishing. When he began saving money to buy a boat, the boat builder laughed at him, telling him he could never afford it. He’s the only Yurok recreational fishing guide on the Klamath, and a well-known, recognized and respected member of the community. He grew up on this river. It has brought his family and people life and meaning for generations, he tells us, from the nourishing fish and flows that bring firewood, to the eagle he’s named after. It’s a connection to place we all envy.
We swing for kings, but other than a few short hookups, we have little success. They have lockjaw. We caught plenty on Pergish’s home-cured eggs and 60-year-old gold-plated spinners, but this isn’t a bait-fishing journal. The sting of failure follows our two-steps down the runs and we don’t like it.
A fish catches me off-guard and peels off 20 feet of line in two seconds. It comes unbuttoned. Or maybe it just opened its mouth. I check my fly and the stinger hook is wrapped around the tippet, a good way to not catch fish. Two swings later and my line stops. The hook sticks. I don’t know what it is, maybe a jack. This fish runs and jumps and zags all over the pool. Once close, it is clear to Pergish that I’m into an adult steelhead. Fat, football-shaped and bright—Trinity bound. I hook one other steelhead on the lower river. After seeing it come clean out of the water downstream of my swing, in time it eats. I get a few good runs and jumps before the fly pulls loose and I crumble back into reality.
The mouth of the Klamath is known as Requa, which is the native Yurok word for it. Near the end of our trip, we go to see the terminus of this mighty river, heading down Klamath Beach Road to the estuary. We walk past a Yurok ceremony site and realize something special is taking place. A little farther up the trail we turn the corner around a big rock and get our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. It is pure chaos. Sea lions slap salmon on the surface of the water in their efforts to tear them apart. Chunks of flesh fly every which way and hundreds of seagulls dart around and swoop in to grab the scraps. Native fishermen line the banks, some with the more traditional dip nets and others with throw nets. Toddlers are playing and teens are helping to manage the nets. Women untangle fouled nets and carry the haul up the beach. When the salmon return, the beach buzzes with activity. When the salmon return, everyone is happy. When the salmon return, for a little while at least, the Klamath River is whole again.
This article was first published in Volume Ten, Issue Two of The Flyfish Journal.