After spending a lot of money and traveling 3,000 miles, you'd think any self-respecting fisherman could at least stay awake so that when the first bite came, he'd be ready to land the fish. Well, I was too tired. We had stayed up late -- in this remote northern California town of Klamath River -- shooting eight ball in the cold on the outdoor pool table at Beaver Creek Lodge.

So when we went out the next morning, taking a driftboat to fish for steelhead on the Klamath River, I was sort of dozing. And suddenly what I'm sure was a record fish tugged on my line. That fraction-of-a-second lapse was all the big steelhead needed, for steelies are not only the fiercest fighting but probably the smartest of all the game fish in North America. He spit out the hook before I could set it.

The loss wasn't total, however. It gave my three companions a chance for some spirited ribbing, and by mid-afternoon even I thought the friendly joshing made the miss worthwhile. Such ribbing, along with inspired storytelling and immoderate drinking, is as much a part of our trips as the fishing.

The four of us meet once a year in San Jose, Calif., and drive north to the rivers of northern California or Oregon, our goal the winter steelhead run. We boat through some of the wildest country in the continental United States, with its jagged, snow-capped peaks and thick stands of redwoods and Douglas fir.

The Klamath, our destination on this trip, flows from Upper Klamath in southern Oregon southwest for 263 miles into the mountainous country of far northern California until it empties into the Pacific. The area is full of bears, deer, bald eagles, beaver, otter and herons.

This year we saw three bald eagles. Last year, two of us were fishing on the Klamath about 100 miles inland when we spotted four sea otters frolicking in the water. In synchronized motion, one would bob up on the surface followed by the other four in succession. The otters showed off for perhaps 20 minutes, incorporating into their routine a falling-off-a-log act and tag team wrestling on the shore.

Our guide, who rows with the current while we sightsee, fish and drink beer, didn't think the otters so cute. "We'll never catch fish in this hole," he said, explaining that otters consume so much fish each day that they spook steelhead.

Just then, wham! My pole shot down, the line went screaming out and a five-pound steelhead launched a battle he couldn't win.

Steelhead are an ocean-going rainbow trout that in the words of naturalist writer Trey Combs, "migrated to sea to grow large and turn silver . . . when they returned to freshwater to spawn, nature's temporary deception was uncovered, the rainbow trout's colors were revealed . . ."

Fishermen in the Northwest think of steelhead as a sort of blend of rainbow trout and Pacific salmon, because the two fish spawn in the same rivers and have similar colored meat. Actually, though, steelhead are related genetically to Atlantic salmon, not their Pacific friends with whom they share the river.

Both steelhead and salmon, born in river beds, migrate to the ocean, where they live from one to four years, travel thousands of miles and avoid predators that include great white sharks and sea lions, before returning to the river where they were born to spawn themselves.

Unlike the Pacific salmon, however, steelhead and Atlantic salmon do not die after spawning, but return to the ocean. Steelhead are found only along the Pacific Coast, specifically in the rivers of northern California, Oregon and Washington, a few rivers in Idaho and in British Columbia.

In good weather, natives of these parts can land steelhead on flyrods from the bank. If you live in the East, however, and get to steelhead fish only two days a year, your best bet is to hire a guide, who for about $140 a day will take two fishermen per driftboat down the river.

There are guide services for all the major steelhead rivers, including the Klamath, the Smith and the Eel in California; the Chetco and the Rogue in Oregon; the Columbia and Humptulips in Washington, and others. (For information, contact Beaver Creek Lodge, P.O. Box 121, Klamath River, Calif. 96050, 916-465-2246; or Yu-Kan Canoe Sport Center, 2505 Park Marina Drive, Redding, Calif. 96001, 916-243-9272.)

Though the fish are not large -- four to eight pounds -- they have a mystique. Zane Grey fished for steelhead on the Rogue River -- and wrote about it with spirit.

One year we had a guide who was working extra hard to support his two wives. Another showcased his outdoorsman's ingenuity by improvising a workable pipe out of a Coors beer can.

At the other end of the spectrum is Neil Rucker, the owner of Beaver Creek Lodge on the Klamath, who neither drinks nor swears while on the river, so devoted is he to the true purpose of the expedition -- which is, of course, catching fish.

Beaver Creek is one of the few old-fashioned fishing lodges left in California. Located right on the river, it is home to Neil and his family, who live in the main lodge. Small cabins are rented to the fishermen, who usually bunk two to a room. The cost of the cabins this winter was $20 per person per night.

Breakfast and dinner are served in the lodge's Great Room, a comfortable room with a cathedral ceiling and wooden floors. The huge stone fireplace there heats the entire house.

Contributions toward the food are made on an honor system; each fisherman puts $5 or so into a coffee can at the end of each day. Lunches are provided out on the river and are part of the daily guide fee of $140 per boat.

After the day's fishing, there is a choice of two saloons in the town of Klamath River. Fishermen from the city are welcome in either, but one of them, the Oaks, is the home for local pool sharks, and an outsider is going to have trouble holding the table for more than one game.

When we first arrived at the lodge this winter, I was recognized because the 8 1/2-pound steelhead I took out of the river last year has not been matched since.

On that trip, I had already hooked the big steelhead, and the guide had rowed to shore and tied the boat to some branches. But as he stood in the boat, the fish abruptly headed downriver, pulling the boat from its moorings. We finally landed it after a 45-minute fight that was by far the highlight of my fishing career.

I was flattered anyone else would remember a year later.

The legal limit for steelhead is two per fisherman per day, which means that with the guide, six steelhead can be landed in each boat. And though each day of fishing begins with terrific optimism, this almost never happens.

In fact, once in a while someone in our party goes two solid days of fishing -- eight hours each day -- without catching a single fish.

It is on those occasions that we become philosophical and say that our goal is really to escape the city, to see each other once a year, to get out on the river. But those are hollow rationalizations -- and we all know it. The goal is to catch fish. And the fishermen who don't catch anything get tense with each passing hour in the short winter day.

This year, my boat partner and I didn't have a single bite our second day of fishing -- though we had landed good-looking steelhead the day before. It can be an exquisite form of torture because you can never indulge your anxiety, never give up, never resign yourself to not catching fish. First of all, that is bad luck; and secondly, if you did relax for a second, or stood in the boat and screamed an oath at the dark green river, that would surely be the moment a steelhead would strike and you would lose the fish.

We also learned this year that it never hurts to be magnanimous toward the river. I surprised our guide -- and myself a little -- by returning a "half-pounder" to the river, even though it was the first steelhead I landed. Half-pounders is the jargon for a fish that has been in the ocean only one year, though typically the fish weigh from one to three pounds. The fish I threw back was about a pound and a half, and, looking just like a rainbow trout, was a fish you would die for on an inland river.

As a reward, a half hour later I landed a fresh 3 1/2-pound "hen," an unspawned female.

All of us caught fish this year. And when that happens the talk comes easy, the needling has a better edge to it and the storytelling finds a more willing audience.

Make no mistake, the camaraderie is a big part of the allure of the trip.