Bittersweet Klamath Falls

Some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen and one place that I used to frequent during my Navy career but never really wrote a whole lot about was my time visiting Klamath Falls, Ore. There was a time when I thought that I wanted to retire in the area after fishing the Klamath River, the wild streams and the majestic mountain lakes for trout during our squadron visits. Klamath Falls, the town itself was small and nestled along the the Klamath River in south central Oregon. Some of the biggest trout that I’ve ever caught were out of the Klamath River and the best smoked trout I’ve ever tasted came from the trout we caught in the river and flew back to San Diego. My friend and our squadron Maintenance Officer, Lt. Dave Lopez was one of the guys in the squadron that loved to fish so he and I would visit a few streams in the mountains so he could fly fish. I was more of a conventional tackle guy but I enjoyed tagging along with Dave and throwing a rooster tail while he whipped that fly rod around. I also enjoyed fishing for trout along the shores of the Klamath River and we caught some monster trout using a floating cheese bait and nightcrawler combo from the shore while freezing our butts off.

I also like to play billiards and I was very comfortable in an old smoky bar and pool room trying to hustle a little pool to offset my bar tab and compare my skills against the locals on their turf. While a squadron buddy and I were spending an evening at a pretty rough local bar I befriended a female under cover narcotics officer and spent a little time playing her boyfriend and cover for her while she worked undercover in the town to bust some local drug dealers who were dealing out of the bar. It was pretty interesting and she was very upfront with me from the get go about what she was doing. She showed me her badge and her gun while explaining what she was doing and asked me if I would help her by just pretending to be her boyfriend for a while. I agreed, hoping maybe it would lead to being her real boyfriend but she was all about business and wasn’t looking for romance at the time. She was very fit and pretty and looked a little out of place in the biker bar scene so that’s where I came in. There’s a lot more to the story including late night car rides to the countryside for her to make drug deals with me waiting in the car strapped with a Glock she gave me. She had just moved to the Klamath area and the police force from south Florida where she was in the narcotics division and since nobody knew who she was in town, she was perfect for the undercover police work. She was very determined in her work and I was amazed at how fearless she was when it came to dealing with a very bad element. A true badass.

The year was 1988 and I was assigned to a F-14 Tomcat squadron at Naval Air Station Miramar, just outside of San Diego. Travel and training is something we did a lot of back then and it seemed like we were always on the road with the squadron. I’m not sure how it all started but my squadron got an invite from the Air National Guard unit at Klamath Falls, Ore. to come up for a couple weeks and do some dog fighting with the Air Guard and their F16’s. At the time the Air Guard had plenty of funds and offered to provide us with full per diem if we came up and played with them for a couple weeks. The story is that our Commanding Officer was single and met a lady friend up in Klamath so our trips up to Klamath became very frequent for a while. I was perfectly fine with that because I really liked the laid back area and the fishing was awesome. Every time we went up to Klamath, which was about once every couple months for 2 years, the Air Guard would roll out the red carpet and we were treated like royalty. I can remember a few trips up there where we had a party just about every night complete with steak and lobster meals prepared and guests (mostly female) were bussed in from the local area to have dinner and meet single sailors from a Tomcat fighter squadron. Keep in mind that this was just a year or two after the release of the movie “Top Gun” and everyone wanted to meet fighter squadron folks. Beer trucks were on hand and the taps were always flowing for about 40-50 of us young sailors. It was a party every time we went and we got to be good friends with some of the locals. There were also dance bars that we frequented and I still have to shake my head at some of the antics we pulled while running around town back in the late 80’s.

One of the most memorable trips and my last was a trip to Klamath was after about a 6 month period of no trips to Klamath for the squadron. Just 6 months prior to us returning my good friend and fishing buddy Lt Dave (Lucky) Lopez passed away as a result of a car accident while he and one of our technical representatives were returning from a fishing trip to the mountains outside of Klamath. It was a trip that I could have easily went on but because I partied the night before I just wanted to get to my rack for some much needed rest after my shift was over. I learned of the car accident the next morning and Dave was in critical condition at the hospital. Dave had a massive head injury and he passed after a few days. It was hard on all of us in the squadron but loss is something you learn to deal with in fighter squadrons. It happens and you just have to put it behind you and move on.

On my last trip it was late October and I wanted to fish the Klamath River in a section I had never fished before. I didn’t know much about where to fish along the river but a trip to the local bait and tackle shop can do wonders for a fishing trip. I was able to borrow one of the squadrons rental cars and head into town for some tackle for the borrowed rods and reels. The tackle shop was in town and it was a rainy day in Klamath. I found the tackle shop and talked with the guy running the store about a good location along the river that a friend and I could fish from the bank. The fella behind the counter was more than happy to give me a little information as soon as I told him that we were visiting town from the Navy. He told me of a little access road along the river outside of town where we could go and fish along the bank. It sounded like my kinda place so I bought the trout buffet of yellow floating Powerbait and a couple dozen night crawlers. If I needed to catch a trout out west, those two baits would be all I needed to get the job done just about anywhere.

After getting the 411 on the fishing I left the store and drove through town. When I was stopped at a light in town a police cruiser pulled up next to me and as I looked over danged if it wasn’t my old friend, the undercover narcotics officer driving that cruiser! I honked the horn and at first she stared me down and then realized who I was. We pulled into a vacant parking lot up the road and she told me the story of how they busted the drug dealers in town and how she had met a local man and they were getting married. During the bust, she had done a few shady things and instead of firing her they put her on the street instead of the narcotics division. It was cool seeing her again and it was the last time I ever saw her.

It was a Friday morning and we had till 2pm to fish until we had to go to work. We worked the night shift and got up early on Friday to hit the river. There was 3 of us going fishing, Les, Doug and myself and we had commandeered a rental vehicle for the morning. It was in the lower 40’s when we drove out to the access road in the cold rain and tried to find a good spot to set up a few shore rods. It didn’t take long and we spotted another fisherman along the shore in a rain suit with a line in the water, sitting on a rock. We stopped the car and I walked down to the rivers edge to ask him about the fishing. He was an older fella and told me he hadn’t had any luck but he shared his secret bait with me which was a old tin with some dried and salted shiners. They looked and smelled pretty rough so I decided to stick with the tried and true floating cheesebait and nightcrawlers. I asked if he minded if we set up down the shoreline in an opening about 20-30 yards away and he gave us the go ahead so off we went. The rain was cold and blowing and it didn’t take long for us to get uncomfortable, standing around in the wet and cold after we baited up and put the 3 rods we had in rod holders. I had rain gear and I found a good place to sit down around the rods while Les and Doug went up to the car to dry off and run the heater for a few minutes. I’m glad I hung out in the cold rain because a few minutes after my buddies left I looked at one of our rods as it doubled over and started pulling drag. This fish managed to tangle the other 2 lines on the way in but we had our first trout, a very large rainbow around 5-6lbs. It was a blast to fight the fish and I couldn’t help but think our old friend Lucky was with us that morning along the shoreline.

After we caught the first big trout that cold rainy weather didn’t feel so bad to Les and Doug so we were all 3 hovering around the rods shivering and waiting for the next fish after untangling the mess from the first fish. It didn’t take long and another rod went off and Les was fighting another good trout. We got that one in and baited back up. Again and again we caught these large rainbows until the 3 of us had 2 nice trout a piece and we headed back to the base all proud with our catch. The funny part was that the old man fishing down the bank had paid us a visit just before we left to ask what bait we were using so we gave him the nightcrawlers and our left over cheese bait. The plan was to freeze the fish for the trip back to San Diego and then slice them into steak slices and smoke them on my buddies Weber. As it turned out, we had to replace my buddy Les’s water heater right after we returned from Klamath on that trip so we spent the day smoking trout and replacing his water heater. We had a lot of smoked trout and it filled the smoker from top to bottom so we bagged up a bunch and took it to the squadron for everyone to enjoy.

Just after that trip to Klamath it was the start of the first Gulf War and things changed fast. There were no more trips to Klamath and the focus of just about all the fighter squadrons was the Gulf War. I never went back to Klamath after that trip but I’ll never forget the beauty of that area. To me, the air was always fresh with just a hint of the pacific ocean in the mix. Unfortunately, when I think of Klamath I also think that I had a good friend who’s life ended in that place, so young and so far from home.

Lt, Dave (Lucky) Lopez

2 thoughts on “Bittersweet Klamath Falls

  1. Love that area of country. Fished many rivers for cut throats & rainbow trout in Eastern Washington state, & Oregon. My favorite were the rivers of the Idaho panhandle.

    George T. Miserendino

    gtmgofish@gmail.com

    952-210-5563

  2. Jim, That was an awesome story and brings back a lot of memories. Lt. Dave (Lucky) Lopez is definetly missed. If you remember the squadron made the David J Lopez inspirational Award to honor him and I was the fortunate first person to receive that award. Miss those memories. RIP Lt. Lopez. And Jim thank you for posting all of these memories. Lane O’Neill

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