If you’re up for an adventure and want to experience the pristine beauty of the North Coast, try a river fishing trip. It’s sure to hook you.
Yes, you may grumble at getting up at 4 a.m. or because you might get cold and wet, but once you get out on the placid water, it's all replaced with a fishing high.
Unless you're going to wing it yourself (not recommended for newbies), you'll need a guide who knows the rivers, the landscape and good fishing spots for salmon and steelhead trout. In these parts, Alan Borges of Alan's Guide Service out of Klamath, is your man. For 25 years, he's taken novice and experienced fisherfolk on guided trips. His services are used by locals and tourists.
"I still get an adrenaline rush every time I take people out," he said.
Borges is a local guy who turned his passion into a career. He grew up in Arcata and attended school at St. Bernard's Academy in Eureka. While working at Britt Lumber Mill, he started his guide service part-time and jumped to full-time 13 years ago. During the height of fishing season in early fall, he works seven days a week. In his off season in early spring, he spends more time with his family and coaches high school softball.
He's meticulous, patient and calm — all good qualities for a guide. Before the trip he gives you the lowdown on pertinent info and quells anxieties, especially for novice anglers.
"We're out here to have fun and there's no need to stress," he said. "Get excited, but don't worry. I teach you what you need to know. And, if you already know how to fish, I make the day more enjoyable by taking care of the details and providing equipment."
Most river fishing excursions are day-long outings starting well before dawn, while the sky is still black and the air chilly (or cold later in the season).
Borges launched his 24-foot jet boat on the river at 5:30 a.m. to give our small group a head start. The goal is to get in as much fishing before the sun gets bright and the fish drop down to cooler waters, making fishing even trickier.
The Lower Klamath River was tranquil. Thankfully, unlike ocean fishing, large swells and motion sickness are a rarity on the rivers. Borges parked down river along the bank, where he readied the fishing rods and baited hooks with red-dyed salmon roe under a headlamp. Meanwhile, others on board took a "nature break" in nearby bushes, not veering too deep in the darkness.
At the first hint of daybreak, we were back on the water and ready to fish. For the next several hours, as the fog rolled around us and we soaked up the breathtaking view, we watched our rods intently while he baited hooks, cleaned fishing lines of tangled moss and maneuvered the boat for optimal drifting.
A thick landscape of trees filled with wildlife lined the river. It's common for trip goers to see osprey, bald eagles, blue herons, mergansers (river ducks), raccoons, coyotes, deer, black bears and seals.
Reeling in my first catch of the day was a sight. Full of excitement, I tried to follow Borges' calm instructions — "reel down, rod up." It wasn't graceful but I pulled it in. My first-ever catch was a sucker, which I sadly learned is not good eating. Back into the water it went.
Keepers are Chinook salmon, which are native to the Northern Pacific Ocean and the North American western river systems. The granddaddy of them all, the king salmon (adult), is prized for its large size, firm texture and rich taste. The jack salmon, though smaller (under 22 inches), are tender and milder tasting. Anglers also get to keep steelhead trout — hatchery only, the wild ones are released. Catch limits per person are three salmon (maximum two adults) and two steelhead.
Not all anglers, experienced ones included, always hook and reel 'em in. "It's part of the game," said Borges. "That's why they call it fishing."
The excitement did pick up, and at one point I was in a "double hook up." Sounds fishy, right? It's when anglers on the same boat are simultaneously reeling in fish. Adrenaline rushes when two, three and even more have fish on their lines, each angler trying their darndest not to tangle with each other or have their lines break. I didn't get to keep that fish, either. Later I did hook a jack, though.
At day's end, around 2 p.m., Borges gutted and bagged all our fish. Sorry, no filleting allowed. It's whole fish only.
A river fishing trip is not just about snagging fish. (But a catch does make it sweeter.) It's about the entire experience — the occasional excitement of near catches and snares, a few actual hooked fish and a stunning perspective of nature from the middle of a vast river. It certainly makes for a memorable experience ... and of course some tall fish tales.
What's Biting/Which Boat:
Anglers can cast for salmon and steelhead trout through October on the Lower Klamath River in Borges' jet boat. It's a primo ride and roomy for up to five or six. Through November, salmon can also be had on smaller rivers like the Smith near Crescent City and Chetco near Brookings, where catches can be bigger (25 to 50 pounds). For these rivers and winter fishing on the Van Duzen, Eel and Mad Rivers for steelhead trout, you'll ride in his 17-foot drift boat.
What to Bring:
A valid California fishing license. Single day licenses are available.
Steelhead/salmon punch card
Sunscreen and lip protection
Lunch, snacks and beverages
Cooler to take your catch home
What to Wear:
Layer up. Early fall mornings are chilly but may give way to warm afternoons — a base layer of a T-shirt and shorts would be welcome; in late fall/winter when it will be cold and wet, you'll need layers of waterproof, breathable clothing and footwear.
Gloves and hand warmer packets for late fall
Cost Per Person:
Drift Boat – $225 each for 2 or more people, $350 single person
Jet Boat – $225 each for 3 or more