Discovering Trinity

February 4, 2009 by  

By PJ Maguire

Easter weekend, with most of my peers hunting snow geese somewhere from Nebraska to North Dakota, I was in Northern California. My father and I had made the journey from St. Paul together by plane. We were going to visit my sister and her fiancé and their new child my first nephew Martin. I was a trip that was full of new discoveries.

A nice Trinity River Steelhead

A nice Trinity River Steelhead

It took 3 planes, 2 layovers and one rental car to make it to there home in Manila, California. Manila is a small town located on the peninsula that separates the Pacific Ocean from Humboldt Bay. From the front porch of their home you can hear the waves of the ocean crashing just over the sand dunes.

Although my sister’s fiancé, Michael Sonn, and I are separated by distance, we share a passion for fishing. He is the kind of guy that keeps his G-Loomis rod in the back of his car in case an opportunity to do some casting presents itself.

When we first arrived we inquired if we would like to do some fishing, and made a quick call to his friend Alex who happens to be a local guide. Luckily for me Alex was available to take us out for a float trip the following day on the Trinity River in search of Steelhead.

Before we all went out for dinner Michael and I went to a local sporting goods store were I purchased the proper licensing. There we also picked up some Roe to use for bait. After dinner with the sun setting we all went for a walk along a coastal marsh in Humboldt Bay. There we saw Greater Canada geese, buffleheads and a few flocks of green-winged teal returning from their wintering grounds.

It was dark when Michael picked me at my hotel the following morning. In northern California it was 5:15 am, back in Minnesota it was 7:15 am, about the normal time I wake up for work. We picked up some coffee at a drive through and headed for the mountains.

To get to the Trinity River from Manila you must drive over a mountain pass through parts of the Redwood Forest. Taking this route you pass by the areas where some of my favorite scenes from the Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi, was filmed. It is an eerie drive in the dark, with fog clinging in the clearings and clouds at eye-level.

We met Alex in a small town near a public landing along the river. We dropped his truck off at the landing and made our way along the river to his house. Alex is fortunate enough to live along the river and has the opportunity to keep his drift boat down the bank from his house. One day he launches the boat upstream and does a float to his house. The following day he does a float from his house downstream to another launch. Fishing all the way.

It had just lightly rained the night before in the mountains and the water clarity was perfect. Too much rain and the Trinity becomes green and Steelhead cannot see your bait. Too little rain and the water is crystal clear and the Steelhead flush at the approach of the drift boat.

Alex explained that steelhead fishing was a lot like muskie fishing in the sense that it takes a lot of time on the water to land a fish. He also went through the various techniques we would be using to entice them. He explained these things all while tying up multiple fishing lines on the bank of the Trinity before we pushed off.

Once we got out into the current, you could feel the power of the Trinity. Throughout the river there was steep ledges, powerful curves and deep channels. You have to fish using the current. My impression of steelhead fishing is a mix of cat fishing and walleye fishing. One must play the current like you do for cats, with the finesse you need for walleyes.

The first couple breaks in the river we practiced the routine we would be going through to present our bait to the Steelhead. The drift boat captain and fisherman must work as a team, playing the current with the boat and bait, to be successful. The object is to have the boat drift through the breaks at the same speed as the bait. This way you can cover the most ground, presenting the bait in front of the fish that are suspended in the strongest current.

We were anchored, casting into a good break just a mile into the drift when I hooked into my first Steelhead. Steelheads have a strong backbone like pike; dig into the water like walleyes and jump like bass. On the Trinity fisherman are required to use barb-less hooks, which makes landing a fish tricky. I fought the fish I hooked for several minutes before losing it at the boat. I was disappointed but felt lucky to have fought a Steelhead.

Shortly after that I would briefly have another Steelhead on the line. We saw the fish roll and flash in the river before spitting the hook. Alex told to me that he saw me set the hook upstream and explained that with Steelhead you want to set the hook downstream, going against what would seem natural.

Later in the day Michael would hook into another Steelhead that would break his line and that would be our only action of the day. Pretty typical explained Alex, usually you hook into more fish then you land. He said on the best day he has had on the river his boat hooked into twenty fish and landed fourteen.

My father, who I would coin as a luckier individual then myself, landed a nice native Steelhead on an earlier trip with Michael and Alex. The beautiful fish was returned into the powerful Trinity in compliance with the regulations. That evening when Michael and I were driving back into Humboldt Bay we saw thousands of Aleutian geese feeding in the green fields surrounding the water. It was another awesome sight, some of the flocks of these sub-species of Canada geese were feeding right off the road. For this old waterfowler, these simple pleasures are priceless. I am already looking forward to my next trip to Northern California to fish for Steelhead again.
For information on fishing with Alex check out


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