It comes slowly. The ice gradually breaks from winter’s embrace, and there is the first loon on the lake, spending but a week or two before it flies north to British Columbia, the Yukon, Alaska and the Northwest Territories. Spring. The PMDs will be happening soon. Pale Morning Duns and a new season to cast the fly in Oregon’s Great Klamath Basin.
World Class fly fishing. I’ve known it my entire life, though I didn’t start with the fly. My dad, brothers, and I all fished with bait and spinners. We learned early that Spring fishing is worth braving the elements, as the ‘early bird gets the worm’ so to speak. Born and raised in the Basin, I’ve fished my front and backyard my entire life. In my teens, I switched completely to the fly rod and reel and I haven’t looked back. Dad is gone now. My brothers and I still fish. My son Steen was raised only with the fly rod. He’s 34 now.
When the ice breaks at Lake of the Woods, there is potentially great action for brown trout, trolling large flies that simulate a minnow pattern, twitching it periodically. If spin fishing, Rapala lures are the secret. My friend Darren Roe knows the secrets. He has created many of them by trial, error, and listening to the fly fishing sages of years before. He and his wife Jennifer own Roe Outfitters, and make a living outfitting hunters, anglers, kayakers and those who love the thrill of ziplining at Crater Lake Zipline. But most specifically he’s a fly fishing guide.
“The Basin comes alive again for fly fisherman in the Springtime,” says Darren. “In the winter we tie flies, read, ponder, anticipate the offerings of Spring and the new season. I embrace it as the start of something beautiful, with all of the potential of excitement, thrills, discovery, time with family, friends and clients.”
The Klamath Basin is known for trout fishing, but that’s just the tip of the fishing iceberg. Warm water fish thrive here also, including bass, catfish, bluegill, perch, pumpkinseed, crappie, catfish, and yes, sturgeon, though I know of no one that fly fishes for these ancient leviathans.
The Williamson and Wood Rivers are world class trout fisheries, as is Klamath Lake, the largest body of fresh water in Oregon and which for a long time held the state record for the largest trout. Venerable fisherman and author Denny Rickards stated in his book Fly Fishing the West’s Best Trophy Lakes that, “Upper Klamath Lake is considered by many to be the best trophy rainbow trout lake for fly fisherman in the country.”
I have fly fished the lake successfully many times with my brother-in-law Rob Crawford, often landing and releasing trout in the 5-9 pound range. We generally fish leech patterns in the green, black, brown, and burgundy color spectrum on hook sizes 6 and 8. We boat fish the lake near the mouths of Wood and Williamson Rivers. If fishing Pelican Bay at Rocky Point, callibaetis nymph patterns do well as do dry fly mayfly, damsel fly, caddis and midge patterns. May and June can be very productive. Klamath Lake is open year-round. In the Klamath Lake feeder creeks and streams, brook trout can be caught, especially in the Fort Klamath and Chiloquin areas.
Williamson and Wood Rivers open in the Spring and close at the end of October. Both have trophy rainbow and brown trout. The PMD hatches come first. In the Spring try black drakes on the Upper Williamson and green drakes on the Wood. In June the famous Hex (hexegenia) hatch begins on both rivers. These large mayflies send trout into a feeding frenzy. The more selective large trout can’t resist these gourmet treats. Polly Rosborough, my late friend and author of Fishing the Fuzzy Nymphs, looked at fishing the Hex hatch as the Holy Grail of Fishing the Williamson. You can float both rivers and wade where you find public access. Our favorite float is just below Chiloquin to the Hwy 97 Williamson River Bridge, taking out at Waterwheel RV Park (a great place to stay, by the way).
The Klamath and Sprague are two other rivers of note in the Basin. The Sprague empties into the Williamson just above Chiloquin. The Klamath begins at Klamath Lake, though technically there is the ‘shortest river in the world’ Link River that connects the lake to Klamath River. It is the same water.
As a kid, I have beautiful memories fishing the Klamath River on the California-Oregon border. We would drive from our Malin home down Topsy Grade outside Dorris, California to access the river. We always caught an abundance of trout in this unique landscape of oak, pine, juniper, fir, aspen, alders, and red osier dogwoods. We often had the river to ourselves. I remember fishing the swift water near present day Bill Scholtes Klamath Sportman’s Park before John C. Boyle dam was built. Twenty-inch Rainbows were common. There is still excellent fishing below Keno and John C. Boyle dams. These stretches have a great Spring caddis hatch and on the lower stretches of John C. Boyle, salmon and golden stone flies in June. Roe Outfitters now have a permit to take folks on UTV tours of this area, a wise way to go as rough roads present a challenge to vehicles.
When trails open in late Spring and the ice breaks up, make a dash to the Mountain Lakes Wilderness. The brook and rainbow trout have a rapacious appetite after the thaw. As Darren Roe attests, “They’ll eat anything!” I recommend caddis and small copper john patterns and mosquito dope for the fly fisherman! If you don’t like to hike, try the Upper Sycan country where you can drive to this brook trout heaven.
The Klamath Basin is filled with warm water fish species, with ample lakes and streams to fly fish. Lost River, Sprague River, Lake of the Woods, and Gerber Reservoir are noted for bass. I have a childhood of memories of fishing Gerber for crappie. Crappie, bass, bluegill and pumpkinseed respond well to flies. Klamath Lake has an abundance of yellow perch and pumpkinseed. I love fishing for bluegill with a 6-weight rod. All of these species, by the way, are a great way to get young children hooked on fishing and the great outdoors. Start with bait fishing to get them hooked, then add spin and fly fishing. I started my son with a small fly rod on tiny creeks filled with brook trout where you didn’t have to cast, more of the Japanese tenkara technique. Once they’re hooked, they’re hooked for life.
Spring is here. Get out your gear. The mountains, streams, lakes, rivers, brooks, reservoirs and ponds are calling. It’s fly fishing time in the glorious Klamath Basin!
Larry Turner is a life long resident of the Klamath Basin and travel writer. His photography has appeared in publications around the world. Co-owner of highonadventure.com, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook @Larryturnerphotography