The Fish Sniffer - Highway Steel On The Trinity River
Highway Steel On The Trinity River

Written By: Mike McNeilly, January 23, 2014
Species: Steelhead
Location: Trinity River,

Highway Steel On The Trinity River
Highway Steel On The Trinity River

I caught my first ever steelhead back in the old days of -02. Way back in those days, around the turn of the century, I was a 16-year-old Anderson High School student with a driver’s license and a 2wd Toyota Pickup Truck.

Luckily for me, we had a student by the name of Evan, whom transferred to my school from Willow Creek, on the Lower Trinity. Evan found out that I liked to fish. One October morning he forever changed the direction of my fishing career when he invited me to swing Little Cleos on the gravel bar just below his boyhood home.

I remember that morning like it was yesterday. I got up at the crack of dawn and sped my way towards Willow Creek on Highway 299. In fact, I decided to blow right through Weaverville at about 45 M.P.H, and I got a nice speeding ticket for my efforts.

Eleven years later, that’s just one of the things I remember about that day. The thing that sticks out the most is that Evan calmly walked to the pool below his house and said, “There is going to be a steelhead in that hole. I guarantee it.”

Sure enough, Evan made two casts to show me the procedure of how to swing a Cleo. His first cast was uneventful, but the second one resulted in a crushing grab from a chrome 6 lb hatchery hen.

At that point in my career, I was used to flossing a bunch of extremely dark salmon. This fish was like nothing I’d ever seen. It shined like a mirror. When I cut it open, its meat was a brilliant orange.

On that late October day, I failed to catch squat. Meanwhile, Evan caught another beautiful steelhead, and he even enticed a half bright Chinook to eat his Cleo.

I was skunked on my inaugural trip, but it did nothing but stoke the fire. Like so many fisherman afflicted with the steelheading disease, those mystical fish were all that I could think about. I stocked up on gold 1/3 oz. Little Cleos, and I set out again the next weekend.

Evan and I fished the same gravel bar below his house, and we managed a bunch of big half pounders, but we failed to find any adult steelhead. That afternoon, Evan decided to stay with some family in Willow Creek, and I decided to fish my way back towards Anderson on 299.

I pulled over at every spot that looked “fishy” to my untrained eyes. Eventually I found my way just below the town of Del Loma and a 50 yard long run that was approximately about 4-6 ft. deep and moving at walking speed. I let a cast unfurl all the way across the river, and I began to feel the rhythmic thump of my Cleo as the current made her seductively dance.

Then a big wild buck steelhead climbed onboard, and the drag on my Abu Garcia squealed. Back in those days I was a real cave man, and I remember the disappointment of seeing that big beautiful steelhead with its adipose fin fully intact.

I admired the fish, and I released it without even snapping a picture. I was a poor high school student, and I barely had enough money to buy the spoons that would enable me to catch these enigmatic fish. There’s no way I could afford a camera that would most likely get dunked anyway.

That year was quite the season for me on the Trinity. I went every Saturday during November and December, and I managed at least one fish per trip.

The high point of the entire season came on Thanksgiving weekend when I bagged a huge for the Trinity 31.5” hatchery buck steelhead. It walloped my little Cleo in a hole just below Del Loma. That same day, I caught a nice brown trout, and I also caught and released a huge fire engine red buck Coho right below the confluence of the North Fork Trinity. To this day, that will go down as one of the finest days of angling I’ve ever experienced.

Nowadays I usually drive right past the Trinity on my way to the coastal rivers after a freshet ushers in big winter run chromers. I reminisce as I drive by the Trinity’s pools like talking with an old friend. “There’s the hole I caught those two Coho in that day. There’s the spot I had that big red buck steely follow my spoon to the bank without hitting…”

This year I paid the river a visit after not fishing it since 2006. I’ve come a long way as a fisherman since those days, and I was pleasantly surprised with the results, and all I could think to myself was, “Man, I wish I would have known what I know now back in high school.”

Most importantly, I’m amazed with the vitality of the river and its fish. Just like in -02, the bulk of the run is of wild origin, and there seems to be plenty of them.


How To Get The Job Done On The Trinity

Gold 1/3oz. Little Cleo’s will still catch fish today just like they did for me back in the old days. Since then, I’ve caught steelhead on almost every technique imaginable. The Trinity is one of the rockiest rivers you’ll ever fish. Where it doesn’t have huge tackle eating rocks, it has huge tackle eating trees.

That means that the least effective technique is drift gear since your line is in constant contact with the bottom. Spoons and spinners are great because you can keep them just off the deck, and the fish will come up and do the rest.

Back in -06 (in case you are wondering, I’m writing that as ought 6 to make it seem old timey) I had a fling with jigs under a slip bobber, and they too will work. I like small 1/8 or 1/16 oz. jigs on a size 2 to 4 hook in light pink colors for the Trinity. You can also fish your bait of choice under the same slip bobber; just be sure to tick bottom more often with the bait than you would the jig.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention that the Trinity is possibility the best river in the world to catch a steelhead on the fly. It’s a small river and easily managed with a fly rod. You don’t need to make long casts like you would on the Smith or Eel. Trinity steelhead are notoriously “trouty,” and the longer they are in the river, the more they shun traditional steelhead tactics and go back to their roots.

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