You hear the stories of the Klamath Basin’s six- to 10-pound rainbows. You know the potential of that fertile water to produce some of Oregon’s biggest trout, but where do you start?
That was the question I asked myself a dozen years ago, when I looked out across the lake for the first time. Seeking answers, I sat at the feet of the master, Denny Rickards. In two hours of conversation, I learned more about stillwater fly-fishing than I had learned in the previous two decades.
At the core of his teaching was a different way of thinking, suggestive presentations instead of hatch-matching. And a conductor, a fly line that was clear, and sank slowly, for a long-distance, stealth presentation.
In the lore of Klamath angling, you hear the names of tributaries — the Williamson, the Wood, Spring Creek and Sprague River.
Sometimes you grasp the words Crystal Creek or the names of other tribs, spoken just above a whisper.
Craig Schuhmann (www.guidedwatersflyfishing.com) had whispered Crystal Creek to me when I met him last February.
It was June when we emerged from the forest of Ponderosas onto a meadow carpeted with buttercups and iris. There were the fabled waters, bending in dark reflection, puffy white cumulus and darker thunderheads from the south.
Bubbling from coldwater springs at the base of the Cascades, Crystal Creek emerges from the ground, a stream the size of a small river. There is little bank. Instead, the creek is bordered by marsh, defined by grass, lily pads and tules. In some stretches, the open water is 50 yards across, then narrows down to 10 yards between the margins.
Schuhmann pointed the bow of his Clackacraft drift boat upstream. I was in the front seat, Peter Bowers was in the rear. Craig kept the boat a long cast away from the tules. For two hours, we prospected the edges upstream. Once or twice, trout swirled behind our Seal Buggers. We drifted back down and began to search out the stream channel and the flats.
The ultimate searching pattern is a Seal Bugger, a Woolly Bugger variant developed on Upper Klamath Lake by Denny Rickards.
Tie it with a seal substitute for a narrow profile body and weight the fly at the head for the most realistic action. A clear, slow-sink line with a long leader does the best job of setting the table for a strike.
Every cast was as far as we could reach. In eight feet of water, my fly sank to a 10-count. I began to strip in again as I had done on countless other casts, but then there was resistance, electricity in my line as a 14-inch trout grabbed it, streaked away and went airborne.
Schuhmann was almost embarrassed by the size of the fish. Crystal Creek didn’t earn its reputation for 14-inchers. Peter caught the next one, a 17-incher that grabbed his claret Seal Bugger and battled hard to throw it. The next fish was mine, a 10-incher. Peter said it was OK if I caught all the little ones and left the big ones for him. Less work for me that way, too.
A few casts later, a 26-inch rainbow slammed his fly on a downstream presentation. Peter felt the jolt and set the hook. Like lightning, the fish rocketed under the boat and cleared the water by two feet on the other side. I can still see it hanging in the air, pinned on Peter’s line by a tiny hook. A few minutes later, Schuhmann slid the net beneath 26 inches of Crystal Creek rainbow.
True to his word, Peter caught all the rest of the big fish. One made a mistake and bit my fly when he thought it was Peter’s, but we quickly disconnected. He rolled just under the surface as the line went slack — two feet-plus of rainbow, chrome and power.
Most trout would not survive in the highly alkaline Klamath Lake, but the Klamath Basin redband trout have adapted. There are three distinct life history types — stream resident redbands in the upper tributaries, lake resident redbands and lake-migratory redbands. The trout in the lake can grow to immense proportion, up to 20 pounds.
Good action can be found in the tules, especially in and around the mouths of feeder streams. Sometimes you can see the reeds shake as fish bash their way through. Cast right to the edge, let the fly sink, then spark the retrieve with 10-inch strips punctuated by long pauses.
We were a long way down the creek when lightning crackled. I counted to 25 before I heard thunder. We had a mile to go to make it back to our meadow.
Peter broke down his graphite rod into its four sections. I waved my lightning rod a little longer, but the energy in the air soon overpowered the potential of another rainbow.