February’s One-Two PUNCH (Knocking out Steelhead Rivers)

Dick Burton

Dick Burton with a Trinity River steelhead of a lifetime

While January will go down as one of the driest on record, February arrived with a furious round of wet weather and is a contender for becoming one of the wettest. The recent “atmospheric river” hosed northern California, flooding some coastal rivers and communities and, to date, blowing out every, yes all the above, coastal steelhead rivers. Smith R. topped over 50,000, Eel over 148,000 and the Trinity, at Hoopa, topped over 55, 000cfs.. Two rounds of unseasonably mild, freezing levels above 7000ft., systems delivered over 8 inches of rainfall to some Trinity County locations. Great news, Trinity lake inflows topped over 40,000cfs. and is rapidly on the rise; just shy of last year’s capacity at this time. Not so great news, both Trinity-Lewiston lakes are turbid. It’s going to be a while folks before lakes are fishable. Currently Trinity River flows are dropping and clarity is improving daily. We desperately need every drop of water and as my good friend the late Byron Leydecker would preach, “Fish can’t walk.” It could be worse. Consider what would be the effects of February’s subtropical storms if the Coastal range and the Trinity Alps supported an average or above average snowpack. Remember 97 “pineapple express” do’n its thing on a record snowpack? Or how about the devastating 64 flood, when TR flows peaked over 160,000cfs and Trinity Lake capacities rose within inches of toppling over a newly constructed earthen dam?

Since we are pivoted right in the height of winter steelhead season I’d like to take the time to answer a steelheading question many of you have asked, “What is my most memorable steelhead to date?”
First, I believe all steelhead are a rare gift. They do not exist simply to crush your fly or to be caught, but rather fulfill a remarkably challenging lifelong mission; extraordinary bolts of lifeforms committed to perpetuate future stocks. Each and every one is unique, never from the same mold; turbo powered remarkably honed and driven, since birth, and reflect the beauty of their complex and diverse environments. In the process not just anyone can experience or have the great fortune of intercepting their journey and catch them. A mystical and legendary super breed that eludes most and provides rare opportunity for only a small percentage to engage, appreciate, respect and hopefully protect.

Two steelhead experiences come quickly to mind and although I, personally, did not catch them, I was fortunate to be there and share the stoke that is deeply embedded and become personal lifelong steelheading highlights.
Our son, Chris Burton, is a natural born fisherman. Right from the get-go, six mos., he received his first fly reel and learned to retrieve, both right and left hand, and on occasion, managed to get fly line tangled in most everything, including the dog. One year old, Chris landed his first half-pound steelhead at Tish-Tang. By the time he started grade school he excelled at all kinds of fishing and time after time demonstrated he could hold his own, against anyone, not just fishing but also catching. No doubt, Chris was blessed with both athletic abilities and good luck; rare combo that is hard to come by.

Late March, it was a sunny day and despite a high flowing Trinity River, waters were clear and inviting. Chris, my brother Glenn and I had cabin fever and chomped at the bit to wet a line. The hatchery had recently planted the annual steelhead smolts and we thought it would be cool to take a couple lightweight sticks and let Chris go to town. We floated down the TR and arrived at the mouth of Grass Valley Creek. Below the junction was a beautiful, long-drawn, soft edge that looked promising and provided a sweet line and refuge from the 2,000cfs. flows. Well before the TRRP (TRINITY RUIN a RIVER PROGRAM)) had their way with this section of the river, the junction of Grass Valley was notoriously productive for all staging native fish stocks and a favorite for most all anglers that dialed in. A small Golden stone was the fly of choice and Chris wasted little time, lighting it up, catching-releasing smolt after smolt while my brother and I enjoyed the mellowing warmth of the sun and sipping a refreshing brew. After a few minutes of tallying double-digit smolts, Chris shouted out—“Fish On.”

Trinity River Steelhead

Through the eyes of a child, Chris, age 4, into his first TR adult steelhead

Rod bent, reel screaming, and a bright chrome steelhead high coiled in an aerial leap reveled Chris was into the real deal. Laughing, shouting yet staying focused and maintaining proper tension, Chris followed through with all the right moves. He carefully proceeded to ease a beautifully bright, late winter (and or possibly a springer) native, two and a half pound steelhead, into the deep slow waters. We all admired his prize before the steelhead responded with one last ditch effort and pulled free from the barbless hook. When you least expect it, yet to no surprise, at four years old Chris Burton hooked and landed his first adult steelhead.

The other steelheading experience was the year 2000, the day after Thanksgiving when the tryptophan finally wore off and we all were tired of food, football and felt like getting off our asses and going fishing. A dominating mild high pressure had settled in and the TR was low, clear and full of spooky steelies. I had been guiding down low, Del Loma, and fortunate to find water void of pressure, fish not pestered and willing. Keep in mind this was over 15 yrs. ago, when most everyone thought the TR was Lewiston down to Junction; few, only a small clan, targeted and seldom, if ever, floated these waters. My father Dick, brother Glenn and son Chris, a family affair, had never floated or fished these waters. I was stoked for the opportunity to escort their maiden voyage. However, Dad was a bit concerned with the time of year, possibility of getting cold, unfamiliar waters and summed up his feeling with the comment, “Do you boys really think one more fish would make any difference.” Hell Yeah!!!

Mid-morning we arrived and launched the raft while the sun burned through the lingering fog that hovered above the river canyon; warmth was just what the Doc ordered for us all. We strung up the fly rods and tied on two favorite plugs, Dad’s “old Betsy” (metallic Red) and “the after dinner mint” (metallic green). Everyone could feel the vibe and excitement of floating new waters. Just about the time everyone began to settle into their comfort level French Creek rapids caught my passingers off guard. Wide-eyed, white knuckles they hung as we safely navigated through the boulder strewn pocket waters. Shouts of joy and relief blurted out when we finally shot through. Regardless of river height, these waters are always challenging; you do not want to blow it, especially late November with your family aboard.

Glenn Steelhead

Not to leave this guy high’n dry, Glenn Burton is generally in stew and doing what he loves to do best, gett’m on top

The river was gin clear and we had fished several runs with no success, yet fortunate to have the sun heat the canyon to a comfortable temp, keeping Pops happy. We lined out at the Ranch Run, another beautiful long draw of endless fishable water fed by a perfect tapering riffle, progressive midsection and banner tailout; you cannot design a better piece of steelhead water. Everyone maintained high spirits, enjoyed the beauty of the canyon and while commenting about the action, Dad’s rod slammed down, tip penetrating surface waters, and he slammed back. The old 9 ½ ft. Fenwick glass fly rod buckled, tip to butt, before the reel sounded and line spooled, deep into the backing. The chrome heavyweight busted downstream, well into the mid-section of the run before deciding another move was on his agenda. Our Hoots, hollers could be herd in Cedar Flats, the excitement was intense. Dad knew he had a slab and if there was with any hope of getting control and landing a fish of this caliber we needed to get to slow water and fast. Drifting down, I stroked away from the riffle and fortunately, both Glenn and I had wadered up and was able to pull the raft along the soft edge of the run, directly in front of Carrie Hayden’s beautiful riverfront home. We both got out, wading the shallows and let the tug of war continue; this was not your usual steelhead. Dad held on, applying pressure and retrieving whenever possible to gain line and control. Our cheers and commotion had invited Carrie Hayden to come down and join the party; he was every bit as excited as we were. Glenn fired off photos and with jittering hands, I held the net and attempted to size up our encounter while trying to and convince myself we don’t need a bigger net. After retrieving two deep spools and a sold fifteen minute tug-of-war, the large steelhead was landed; half in the net and half beached at Glenn’s feet. It was surreal and for a moment, as we all marveled at the beauty, was strangely quiet before celebratory shouts blurted out and echoed throughout the canyon. Carrie indicated it is the largest TR steelhead he has ever witnessed caught. It was a Trinity steelhead of a lifetime. The native buck was 34” and sported a hunk torso and overall broad profile, estimating the slab at 16lbs.. We carefully revived and released him unharmed. Yes Dad, one more fish did make a difference— It is the largest steelhead three generations of Burtons have caught during their forty-seven (47) yrs. of fishing the Trinity River.