The rod bent violently, and the drag on the reel began to sing. A split second later, the day's host and unofficial guide said clearly, "This one's mine."
With that, the fight was on, and 10 minutes later the nearly 5-pound steelhead was in the drift boat, ready for a couple of quick pictures, removal of its ID tag and, ultimately, return to the cold water of the Trinity River.
"Is this great, or what?" asked Stan Williamson, a junior high school teacher in Redding who is a regular on the Trinity. "Beautiful. Beautiful."
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Dawn on Feb. 8 arrived cold and brittle as the boat was prepared for launching.
The party's third member arrived at the launch point near Junction City -- a collection of houses, a store and a closed bar, mainly, about 50 miles west of Redding -- clearly unaffected by the freeze. He bounded over from the cab of his pickup and opened a plastic container of still-hot "dollar dollops" -- silver-dollar-sized cuts of venison filet in a gravy he fixed for his breakfast -- offering a portion to his companions before embarking on a 10-hour day on the river west of Weaverville in Trinity County.
The Trinity is widely regarded as one of the best steelhead streams in the state, with a fall/winter run that produces numerous fish in the 5-to 8-pound range. Ten-pounders are not unheard-of. Anglers may keep one hatchery-bred fish, identifiable by their distinctively clipped caudal fins, each day, although catch-and-release is a common practice on the river. Wild steelhead must be released.
In addition, many fish carry tags inserted by wildlife authorities. Anglers who clip and return those tags to the address listed thereon will receive a history of that individual fish: how old it is, where it has traveled and other related information.
The Feb. 8 trip was relatively late in the Trinity's season for steelhead, the anadromous muscleman of a fish prized above all other river bounty by many anglers. The Eel, Mad, Smith, California Salmon and Klamath are heating up with strong runs, but for the steelhead bite to continue that late on the Trinity is rare.
The morning was dead clear, and the deep canyon that carries the river south and then ultimately northwest into the Klamath was devoid of any wind that might turn the morning's 20-degree temperature into something much worse. Conditions were excellent. The water was clear -- although lacking some of the "color" that might help encourage the bite, Williamson said -- and the water level was good, owing to a release from Lewiston Dam of about 300 cubic feet per second. Lewiston Dam is just below Trinity Dam, behind which forms Trinity Lake of the massive Central Valley Project.
Williamson was returning after a trip to the same area the previous weekend during which he and another friend piloted two drift boats, along with parties in each, and landed several steelies, including two 8-pounders.
Armed with licenses, steelhead stamps ($34 total) and an assortment of flies, plugs, roe and live bait, the party Saturday came away with three hookups.
"We're doing the same things we did last week," said Williamson. "They just aren't in there like they were earlier."
Another sign that action would be tentative was the lack of other anglers. During the height of the bite, many drift boats, both private and guided, along with bank anglers ply the Trinity's waters, chasing steelhead as well as Chinook salmon and German brown trout at various times during the year. Fly fishermen share the fishery with bait and lure anglers. During the spring and summer, the river's predominantly Class III rapids along this stretch and farther west make it a popular rafting area also.
But Feb. 8, the river from Junction City to where the North Fork of the Trinity joins the main channel was nearly empty. For a good part of the day the beauty of the river, the dramatic canyon and occasional wildlife -- including huge blue herons, ducks and on Saturday a solitary bald eagle -- provided diversions that each member of the party found compelling.
The boat's first action came about 9:30 a.m. when a steelhead tore into a pink glow-bug featured at the bottom of a riffle near a place called "John's Rock." (Williamson said that although some landmarks are widely known by a common name, others have about as many names as there are anglers on the river.) The nearly immediate calls by the man fighting the fish for someone to get the net ready were met with laughter from Williamson and the party's other member, Eric Vollmers, a teacher and outdoorsman from the Eureka area.
"Just fight the fish," said Williamson, who has seen about 60 fish landed in his boat this season, knowing full well that about half of all steelhead hookups result in the fish getting off clean.
Within about five minutes, the fish came out of the water, stripped line out as it headed downstream, came back up toward the surface about 15 feet from the bow of the boat and shook free of the No. 12 hook.
During the trip, the party worked the water with a variety of approaches: side-drifting as Williamson kept the boat moving at the same pace as the tackle; and "boondoggling," casting behind the boat as it drifted. That allowed all three anglers to fish at the same time, putting before any fish in the area what Williamson jokingly called the "curtain of death."
Later, the method used was pulling plugs, with Williamson working the oars to hold the boat in place as Wee-Warts shook -- "sizzled" -- downstream. Pulling plugs resulted in Williamson's late-day catch and another hard "take-down" by another steelhead that quickly got away.
Only coming darkness and the waiting truck and trailer compelled the party to call it a day, one that only whetted three appetites in anticipation of the next steelhead run on the Trinity.
"You can catch more fish than we did," Williamson said, "but it would be hard to have any better day."
Fishing the Trinity
For general information about the Trinity River, go to krisweb.com. The Web site provides information about the fishery, river restoration, geology and hydrology, the Central Valley Project and a concise history.
Fishing reports and links to guide services can be found at trinitycounty.com.
Other notable fishing Web sites: