Archive for the ‘Salmon and Steelhead’ Category

Deep in the Coast Range, it wasn’t Saquatch that inhaled my roe. My friend Jason and I were catching lots of salmon and I do mean lots, every couple casts type lots of salmon. We even had a simultaneous bobber down double . . . . But we were catching mostly dusky chinook and the occasional bright hot coho thrown in and we were sorting through those fish looking for a chrome chinook or two.

‘Bobber down’ and I set the hook into a pretty hot fish. Hooked not far off the bank, I instantly caught a flash of purplish red tiger stripes. “Dude, this thing’s a chum!”

“Are you sure?” Jason asked incredulous.

“I think so.” While not so for folks in Alaska, BC or Washington, in these parts calling “chum” is a big deal. I had never caught one in Oregon. There are two stable populations, one in the streams draining into Tillamook Bay and the other in the Yaquina. According to the Oregon Native Fish Stock Status Report, the Oregon Coastal chum SMU consists of 13 populations, eight of which exist, three of which are extinct and two are presumed extinct. In the river system we were fishing, the chum is presumed extinct. Does this look extinct?

Rare Oregon Coast Range Chum

Rare Oregon Coast Range Chum


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Almost eveyone who fishes salmon is inspired by their lifecycle and during spawning season goes voyeur. I’m no exception and spent a couple hours doing my best (which isn’t very good) National Geographic imitation.

This year, I switched things up and took my first underwater point-and-shoot pics. I discovered quickly that in a such small stream, light interference from the reflection on the surface makes underwater shooting tough and the camera doesn’t have much range. You have to be really close to your subject. Now, big ocean fish who migrate into tiny tributaries are pretty darn spooky which ups the difficulty level further. Lest I forget, I also couldn’t view the display to see what I was shooting. I ended up crawling on my hands and knees through the mid-forties water inching the camera towards a group of chinook. I spooked a couple but was sure not to tread on any redds. Does this make me a bad person? You can be the judge.

Salmon Spawning Stream, Central Coast Range, Oregon

Spawning Salmon, Central Coast Range, Oregon

Spawning Salmon, Central Coast Range, Oregon

Spawning Salmon, Central Coast Range, Oregon

Spawning Salmon, Central Coast Range, Oregon

Spawning Salmon, Central Coast Range, Oregon

Spawing Chinook Salmon, Central Coast Range, Oregon

Spawing Chinook Salmon, Central Coast Range, Oregon

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Wednesday marked a milestone and it couldn’t be a bad trip unless I sank or otherwise messed up the dory. See, Oregon’s fall salmon returns were in a serious trough, a downturn of epic proportions. Coming off the huge runs of wild chinook and coho it seemed the good times would never end but . . . ocean conditions crapped out worse than the only time I ever went to a casino and the salmon disappeared. I mean, we are talking going from over 100,000 salmon in the Siuslaw to probably 15,000 fish and even what we considered huge was was down from historic returns of 300,000-450,000 fish.

So, I made what I considered a self-less decision. Well, almost self-less (I did hope my decision would please the fish-gods and bring me good karma in years to come). I decided not to fish for salmon until we started to come out of the trough. I figured the fish I would likely catch were more needed on their spawning grounds than in my gullet, a decision made easier by the plain fact that there weren’t very many fish to catch anyway. I did fish for salmon once last year on a river that has a hatchery run of coho and I caught a wild fish that was released by my nameless net man who contrary to instruction took a stab at the fish while it was still hot. Whatever. It would have been released anyway.

So it has been a full two years since I really fished salmon. But everything indicates that we are climbing out of the trough and recent heavy rains brought the Siuslaw up a boatable level. The environmental conditions all indicated a bonanza, a salmon stampede. I called my friend Mike, “It’s gonna be on like Donkey Kong.”

“Count me in.”

It was then I realized how my self-imposed exile was effecting me. As soon as I decided to fish my mood improved.

We put in just at first light and floated down to the Forks. I noticed right away one of my enemies in the Mckenzie wild fish fight on the water and I wondered if he noted my “elitist” fly guy gear: plugs, spinners and a bobber and jig set-up. Whatever. Strangely, there weren’t any fish around at the beginning of our float, we weren’t even seeing any “rollers” and no one was catching anything. The first salmon we saw was the buck Mike hooked:

Buck Chinook, Siuslaw River, OR

This was Mike’s first salmon! A very respectable buck chinook, nice work, Mike! I think he was happy about it:

Mike with a buck Chinook, Siuslaw River, OR

I’ll be darned though if the fish weren’t doing what the textbooks said they should. We kept working. Most boats and bankies had zero fish. Some had one. We worked down the second to last pluggable run on our drift and the left rod popped off in some heavy current. Fish on! We manuvered into some slack water and dropped anchor and the hen chinook took the fight to me. She kept using the heavy current to the river right to her advantage making repeated runs with the help of the fast water. The first time I saw her, she had the whole plug in her mouth. A few minutes later when she surfaced again I saw that only one tine of the rear treble was between me and a broken heart. But things went my way and we landed her. A quick inspection revealed why it had been such a battle, she still was strong with her sea-spirit:

Sea-Lice, Hen Chinook, Siuslaw River, OR

Hen Chinook, Siuslaw River, OR

We had to really work for our fish but it was great day on the water, not in numbers of fish, but it’s awesome to be back in the game!

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Last week I fished the “Town Run” of the mainstem Willamette river in Eugene-Springfield several times.  The herd has been thinnned by now and fish are harder to come by but there were no skunkings.  This is the story of the last of those trips.

Friday morning, I awoke with a bit of congestion in my upper chest. I knew the crud was coming on fast but I supressed my cough, hitched up the boat and met my clients for a day of urban flyfishing fun. I knew it would be hard work. Almost all of the fish seemed to have moved into one spot at the end of our run and the put in was a circus . . . there were at least four other boats. ugh.

I backrowed hard, all day, because missing those upper spots meant we had to spend more time in areas that were productive earlier in the season but hadn’t been so lately. Besides that, I knew of another guide trip that would be focusing on the area in which the fish were kegged up and I didn’t want to follow too closely behind that hoover. We were plucked at twice early in the float.  Could have been steelhead.  The clients said they were.  That early action was followed by a loooooooooooooooong lull.

Finally, we were in the spot were the fishing has been most productive. We swung across the tailout and one of the clients’ flies was eaten. He reefed back hard (NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and the fish was off but it also grabbed the next fly to swing into its lair and the fight was on. This fish broke off and it was my fault. I felt terrible. It was the first time on a guide trip that I can place the loss of a fish squarely on myself and I didn’t like it at all. Thankfully, my client was more circumspect. We continued to work the tailout without any more grabs until I was too exhausted to row any more and I asked if the guys minded if we took a break to “rest the fish?”

“and rest the rower?”
“Yes. To rest the rower.”

We headed over to the bank and anchored up, stretching our legs, drinking from our canteens and swapping stories of our lives and times, fishing and families. Finally, I thought I was well enough rested to give it another go. We worked tenaciously in the tailout to no effect. After twenty or so minutes I couldn’t hold it much longer. “Last pass guys.”

“That’s okay Karl, maybe today just isn’t our day . . . . FISH ON!”

This one was hooked solidly and wasn’t going anywhere.  A bacon-saving redemptive last pass fish! Steelheading takes determination to be sure. I backed away from the swift tailout, dropped anchor and Mike worked:

Willamette Mainstem (Town Run) Steelheading

Willamette Mainstem (Town Run) Steelheading

Willamette Mainstem (Town Run) Steelhead

None of these photos show scale but I’d estimate the hen at a solid six pounds. I asked Mike if he wanted a grip and grin shot and he said “no” and before I could say much else he had twisted the hook free and released the fish. Fred’s eyes were as wide as saucers and I was a bit surprised myself. Mike, from Nevada had only fished steelhead in BC where everything is catch and release and it never crossed his mind to keep it. As for me and Fred, the idea of releasing a hatchery fish rarely crosses our minds. But hey, it was his fish after all and so his call.

As soon as Mike and Fred and I shook hands and they were on their way I realized …. My head was light, I felt faint and fatigued, my muscles ached and bones hurt, my skin was hot but my body chilled, I swooned with any exertion. Somehow, I hadn’t realized any of this as I worked to get these dudes into fish and in the end, despite the adversity, I did. That’s why my friends call me the Mule and why One Mule Team Guide Service is one of the hardest working outfits out there.

No matter what, I will work hard for you and you will catch fish!

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I decided to test my prediction from my last post and today, I guided another father-son trip on the town run of the Willamette. This time both guys were flyfishers and we used flies exclusively. We put in early and began swinging our flies through likely runs. A fish rolled in a tailout and I thought to myself, ” I spot ’em, I got ’em . . . ” Well, the fish grabbed twice without getting stuck but the third time, she wasn’t so lucky:

Town Run Steelhead

Town Run Steelhead

Casey caught this fish forty minutes into his steelheading career. It took me months. We got grabbed four more times but none of them resulted in a solid hook-up. Still, a fish in the boat on a flyfishing only trip, you’re winning.

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It certainly isn’t in a National Forest. Age old firs and bulbous ancient cedars don’t line the banks. But this float through the second most populous urban area in Oregon is not without its charms: principally, Summer Steelhead and lot of them. Sunday, I guided Dan and his father Dean on the mainstem of the Willamette. We launched in Springfield, floated through the netherworld of Glennwood and into Eugene. Dan is strictly a fly angler, his father a gear guy but I have ways to make the two diverse fishing styles play nice.

The first thing we did was drag flies without effect through the upper section of the float. I decided to switch Dean over to a gear set up, a fixed float with a jig. I showed him the ropes, to keep the bobber upright and to extend his drift by freespooling. He had the touch and within 20 minutes Dean had his first hook-up. The fish fought strangely and stayed near the boat:


The fish leapt near the bow and broke Dean off. But he had the hot hand at least as far as hook-ups went and hooked four steelhead within a couple hours. Unfortunately, he had one of those runs where despite hooking lots of fish perhaps the hook-ups weren’t all that solid and the all sea-run trout escaped.

But Dan was like Alcatraz. While Dean had been drifting jigs, we were also swinging Dan’s flies and in a tailout near the end of the float after attaining some garbage collecting Kharma a steelhead hit Dan’s MOAL leech with a thud. This time there was no escape:

Town Run Summer Steelhead

It was a good few hours of steelhead fishing, we had hooked five “fish of a thousand casts” in just a couple hours. The town run has good amounts of steelhead and water and should continue to fish well.

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Tuesday, I lay in my sickbed contemplating the waning days of winter steelhead season.  My body ached, even my eyeballs hurt and my throat was raw.  I defintely would be too sick for an office job but too sick to fish?  Hell, it’s a sore throat not a death rattle and even then . . . .

I threw the gear together and decided to explore a nearby small stream reputed to have a late native run that I’ve never fished.  I was reminded there is nothing like the excitement of fishing new water, especially if you connect with a steelhead.  Parking along the limited access points, I worked my way downriver until I reached private property and headed back upriver. Bushwhacking past the car I found a really good looking spot and run my fies though 10 or so times.  Nothing.  I pitched a spinner.  First cast, fish on . . . .

Oregon Small Stream Winter Steelhead Buck

It was a smallish winter steelhead buck of about 5 pounds and he didn’t put up the best fight. Once landed I saw why:

Wounded Oregon Small Stream Winter Steelhead Buck

I handled him carefully, gripping his tail wrist. Never removing him from the water I twisted the hook free. He darted off. I’ve caught one other steelhead with almost this exact wound on the same part of the fish and Chris Daughters just caught a trout with a similar injury. I wonder what could cause that? Another cause of wonder, I didn’t see any signs of spawning. No redds at all. Maybe they spawn further upstream. I only explored a couple miles of nine or so miles that are public and open to steelheading. Less mysterious was how silty this little stream is. The deforested mountain slopes pump sediment into the stream that isn’t any good for the fish, burying their spawing beds.

It seemed like it could be an epic day what with the early fish and all but I didn’t find any other steelhead and bushwhacking along this small water’s banks I had a thought, “Oh crap, Jaden’s practice.” It’s a minor miracle that I even remembered while steelheading, I raced home and got him there.

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