[env-trinity] SF Chronicle Magazine

Byron Leydecker bwl3 at comcast.net
Sun Feb 4 14:31:18 PST 2007

What's not shown is a great picture of Herb on front cover of magazine.

Into Cold Water 
Winter steelheading on the Trinity River

 <mailto:swhiting at sfchronicle.com> Sam Whiting

Sunday, February 4, 2007

DTL&o=0> Trinity Fly Shop owner Herb Burton fly fishing in the Tri...
DTL&o=1> Herb Burton, a 24-year river guide, on the Trinity River,...
DTL&o=2> A view of Herb Burton, 24-year-river guide, and the Trini...
DTL&o=3> A two-year hatchery steelhead is caught on the Trinity Ri...



It is 41 degrees in the water and 42 in the air, and Herb Burton is halfway
in each. His toes are numb and his fingers are getting there and a 5-pound
steelhead has just risen from the rocky bottom of the Trinity River and
grabbed his dry fly off the surface. Instantly, the angler is in a
tug-of-war with something as wild and jolting as electricity. Just as
instantly the big fish has snapped the line, taking the fly back to the
bottom with it. 

Burton is left standing there with nowhere for his adrenaline to go. A
rod-snapping rage would be in order, but he only laughs. He's been a fishing
guide on this river for 24 years, but today he is fishing, not guiding, and
the start of his 25th year may as well be the start of his first. 

It's the last day of fall and thousands of oceangoing rainbow trout are
making their run up the Trinity from the Pacific. Last year's heavy runoff,
combined with a legal victory for the fish after a 23-year battle, has
allowed for the highest flow release for fishery purposes since Trinity Dam
was built in 1963. Between 20,000 and 40,000 steelhead, as large as 19
pounds, are estimated to be in the 110-mile river, some of which swam to
Japan and back just for the honor. As one California Trout board member
explained, the renewal of the Trinity can be summarized in three words:
"Just add water." 

"There aren't many rivers that I can step into and say it's every bit as
good as it was when I first fished it, and probably better," Burton says,
even though he has reasons not to want to say this. The Trinity, which can
be as narrow as a trout stream in places, has been discovered by the big
river guides from Alaska and Canada. In winter, their clients are dressed up
like Minnesota ice fishermen, riding in drift boats as if they were
taxicabs, stacking up wherever the fish are. 

When Burton arrived in 1982, he had the second guide permit on the river and
"for six years I could fish anywhere I wanted with my customers," he says.
"There was nobody." Now there are at least 60 permits with who knows how
many guides working under them. 

Pressure on the water doesn't help a guy like Burton, who has kept his
operation small to protect the resource. It is a two-man outfit -- Burton
and Kit Kreick -- and their bookings are passed down through generations the
way 49er tickets were in the late 1980s. Reluctant to take out a writer and
a photographer, Burton is vague with the directions he gives over the phone.
First there is a scavenger hunt for a fishing license and steelhead stamp at
a Longs Drug Store off Interstate 5 in Redding. An hour west on Highway 299,
there is a missed turnoff, which leads to a 14-mile overshoot. 

Back up the hill and down Old Lewiston Road, the Trinity Fly Shop is marked
by a 20-foot cedar plank carved into a steelhead and a yellow lab named
Buddy lounging on the plank porch. The first thing you notice about Buddy is
that he's an in-and-out dog. You go in, he goes in. You go out, he goes out.
The first thing you notice about Buddy's owner is that he looks younger than
his old-timer's fishing name, Herb Burton. 

The going rate for a guided day on the Trinity is $350 to $450, plus tip.
Other outfits allow their clients to fish from high-sided drift boats and
use brightly colored strike indicators. When the little colored ball
disappears underwater, the client pulls up and has a steelhead. The guide
gets the boat into position to net it for the photo and the result might
make the brochure. 

That's not how Burton does it. "We'd rather take the time to teach you how
to properly fish," he says, "than run you down the middle of the river and
catch fish for you." 

In place of a drift boat he uses an inflatable raft, which is prone to
taking on water, and makes his clients get out and wade in the cold, stiff
current, numb feet feeling for purchase on the rock bottom. When he sees
fear in the eyes of a guest, he steps in and leads the way, making it look
as easy as strolling the sands of Waikiki. 

The essential promise of fly-fishing is that when done correctly, it is
impossible for the mind to wander, especially when there is the fear of
falling into the cold water and being swept away. The promise of the Trinity
is that if you do it for a day, you will hook into a steelhead, pound for
pound the toughest fighting fish there is. 

In the water, Burton becomes poetic when describing how the steelhead leave
their ancestral waters as 5-inch smolts and head out to sea for two, or
three, or four years of strength training. 

"They mature out in the ocean, then they sniff out these freshwater arteries
that bleed these mountains and woods, and they migrate through," he says.
"They are the ghosts of the coast. You can't ever seem to get a full handle
on them." 

The ghosts come upriver to spawn in all four seasons. What separates the
winter run is that the fish are bigger, fatter and shinier, and the people
are fewer -- fly-fishing doesn't have the same appeal when your fingers are
too frozen to clear the ice out of the guides on the rod. And don't expect
Burton to do it for you; it's not part of his traditionalist approach. 

Flies are known for elegant names, like Royal Coachman and Gold Ribbed Hares
Ear, but Burton's winter favorite, tied by his wife, is a wet fly he calls
Mr. Pimp, which he describes proudly as "big and gaudy and full of motion." 

Burton ties on Mr. Pimp and hands over the rod. The required cast is
straight across the water, then letting the fly sink a few feet and run with
the current in a "dead drift" until it runs out of line and swings across
toward the angler. After making two casts you are asked to give up that
hard-earned foothold and move two wobbly steps downstream, the "two and two"
strategy for covering water. 

A fish has been seduced by Mr. Pimp. It clamps on and, almost unnoticeably,
ticks line off the reel like the shark in "Jaws." Suddenly it takes off and
the reel sings. A brilliant silver specimen leaps out of the water,
attempting to throw the hook. While it makes a run, the fisher must pay out
line, wait until it slows down, then reel it back in, maintaining the right
tension and keeping the rod's tip up. All this while backing toward the
shore over those same slippery rocks that were hell on the way in, before
you had a fish to disrupt the balance. 

When the fish tires enough to be landed, Burton gets actively involved, only
because he doesn't want the fisher to hurt the fish by trying to grab it. He
wets his hands, snags it by the tail and cradles it. A net might do damage.
He doesn't even like it to be lifted out of the water for a picture. 

The steelhead is silver with black spots, indicating it is "fresh," or still
making its migration. A fish that has been around awhile or is making its
return trip to the ocean will have red sides and an olive back, more closely
resembling a resident rainbow. He judges it a 2-pound hen and releases it. 

Burton knows that where there is a hen there is a buck, so he gets out his
rod and says, "Let me tiptoe through that one more time." Immediately he
engages the buck. He works it over to the bank before the buck makes a
vicious head shake and spits the hook. "The fish got the best of me," he
says, smiling while reeling in a mournfully slack line. 

Later that afternoon, a hatch of the blue wing olive comes on, and that
inspires Burton to anchor his raft and step overboard. Some fly-fishers
swear a steelhead will not rise to a dry fly, but he doesn't believe it.
"It's the ultimate, ultimate," he says, tying a tiny Quill-Body Parachute on
a 6x line no thicker than a hair. "The fish don't know they're not supposed
to take a dry fly." 

First he studies the water and notices a pattern of ripples, or rises,
moving in a rhythm. It is one fish, feeding on the bugs. With a motion that
looks effortless, he increases his line with several looping false casts
before setting the fly down 60 feet across the water and 3 feet above the
rise. Sitting high, just like the live bugs on the hatch, his artificial bug
floats over the ripples. A small fish would leap out of the water to take a
fly, but the big ones don't bother. They just suck it under, and that's what
happens. A lunker pulls down, Burton pulls up, and there isn't enough
strength in the line to hold the equation together. He never gets a look at
the fish, though later he claims to have seen the word "HOG" written on its

"Most steelheaders realize that it's a fish a day," he says. "Anything above
and beyond that is a bonus." The bonus on this day is tightening up on three
fish, seeing two flyovers by bald eagles, and watching a three-point buck
swim in front of the raft. 

"The river has been good to us," he says. 

A storm is coming and the atmospheric pressure is dropping. "Fish like the
sag in the barometer," he says. He mentions that he has the next morning
free, but first his guests have to get through the night. 

The entertainment and lodging options in downtown Lewiston are limited. If
you're not the B&B type, there is the Lewiston Hotel, built in 1896, which
seems to be perpetually for sale. It's tough to clear a profit on room
charges of $50 a night, single occupancy, breakfast included. There are five
rooms on the second floor, with the bathroom down the hall and fishermen
snoring it off above the bar like prospectors on "Deadwood." 

To upgrade the options, Burton's brother Glenn and his wife, Kristyne, have
opened the Old Bridge Cabin in one of the newer buildings, which dates to
the 1920s. Originally a one-room miner's cabin, it was enlarged over the
years and has two bedrooms, a kitchen, a view of the Lewiston Bridge and
warm chocolate chip cookies on the table when chilled fishermen arrive. The
charge is $125 a night. 

Fittingly, the cabin sits at the crossroads of Turnpike and Deadwood streets
and there is a front porch in view of a hand-lettered picket sign that reads
"San Francisco -- 249 m." The action is 200 yards uphill at the hotel, where
it is Spaghetti Night, $7.98 for an unfinishable plate. Burton recommends
splurging and adding the sausage -- "it's only 50 cents more" -- but by 7
p.m., the special has been wiped from the chalkboard and the room is all but

Outside on a smoke break, men can be heard arguing about who has better
Lewiston cred. "I wasn't born here," argues one, "but I was definitely
raised in Trinity County, which, if you haven't noticed, is far removed." If
you go into the hotel bar to make small talk with the tender and ask about
life in the big city, she responds, "The city is Weaverville and the big
city is Redding." 

The night keeps getting colder, and by dawn of the first day of winter there
are 4 inches of slush on the ground. By 7:30, a light snow is falling as
Burton steps into a favorite riffle. The water temperature has remained at
41, but the air is down to 34. Casting a Coppertone Stone (one of Pat's
wet-fly creations) in the traditional down-and-across method, it takes him
10 minutes to hook and land a 5-pound steelhead, making up for the one lost
the day before. 

After 24 years of floating and guiding 800 to 1,100 miles a year, the thrill
hasn't diminished. "The more and the longer I do this, the more I realize I
don't know about the fish and the fishery," he says, later, back in his
shop. "It's the unknown that keeps me out there." 



Byron Leydecker

Friends of Trinity River, Chair

California Trout,Inc., Advisor

PO Box 2327

Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327

415 383 4810 ph

415 383 9562 fx

 <mailto:bwl3 at comcast.net> bwl3 at comcast.net

 <mailto:bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org> bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org

http:// <http://www.fotr.org> www.fotr.org

http:// <http://www.caltrout.org> www.caltrout.org 


-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://www2.dcn.org/pipermail/env-trinity/attachments/20070204/bb1f1bdd/attachment-0001.html
-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: not available
Type: image/gif
Size: 2487 bytes
Desc: not available
Url : http://www2.dcn.org/pipermail/env-trinity/attachments/20070204/bb1f1bdd/attachment-0004.gif
-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: not available
Type: image/gif
Size: 2597 bytes
Desc: not available
Url : http://www2.dcn.org/pipermail/env-trinity/attachments/20070204/bb1f1bdd/attachment-0005.gif
-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: not available
Type: image/gif
Size: 2516 bytes
Desc: not available
Url : http://www2.dcn.org/pipermail/env-trinity/attachments/20070204/bb1f1bdd/attachment-0006.gif
-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: not available
Type: image/gif
Size: 2432 bytes
Desc: not available
Url : http://www2.dcn.org/pipermail/env-trinity/attachments/20070204/bb1f1bdd/attachment-0007.gif

More information about the env-trinity mailing list