One of the best ways to alleviate the harsh reality of the long week of work is to get away for a stress free weekend of fishing.
Throwing my nursing scrubs in the laundry basket while picking up my boots and winter jacket, I headed out to the Chetco River in Brookings, Ore.
My friend and pro fishing guide, Andy Martin of Wild Rivers Fishing, had recently returned from his charter fishing duties in Alaska and by luck had an open spot just a few weeks after a busy holiday season.
What a gift.
The Chetco is one of few rivers untouched by the hydroelectric needs of California, running wild and free for over 55 miles throughout the Redwood and Siskiyou National Forest, finishing up in the Pacific Ocean. Noted for producing some of the best trophy Salmon in the nation, the River’s unofficial record is 65 pounds, which was caught on one of Andy’s guided trips back in 2011.
On this trip, our target is steelhead.
A steelhead is commonly thought to be a salmon, but in fact this species is a rainbow trout native to the Pacific area. Steelhead is known for spawning several times before dying, unlike its Pacific salmon cousins. The average size is anywhere from 6 to 12 pounds, but can grow a lot larger.
The common strategy to snag these small monsters is by a technique known as drifting. This usually means entering the Chetco in the upper part of the river via Andy’s 18-foot (flat bottomed) Willie drift boat which only needs six to eight inches of clearance.
These boats were initially used by the Chetco Indian tribe that depended on the river as a primary source for food.
You slowly float downstream and get a scenic view of the Siskiyou National Forest and numerous opportunities to snag steelhead — which kind of reminded me of my days canoeing down the Rockcastle River.
The key to this strategy is being able to drift, steer and row while using the eight-horsepower outboard motor to position the fishermen into the optimal spots and avoiding small rocks and boulders dotted throughout the path.
We hit the river at 7:30 a.m. on a cool Saturday morning. With the fog rising off the water, it was picture perfect setting. Andy took us to the upper Chetco, which is restricted to only a handful of professional guides.
Luckily, Andy had the permits and knowledge to navigate the river.
Our drift boat consists of two seats in the front with Andy in the back of the boat to guide us through the river currents. It’s a mild 28 degrees. But not sparing comfort, the upper part of the boat is outfitted with a warm propane heater.
So, I guess we are actually not roughing too bad.
Right off the bat, my fellow fisherman in the number two seat, a retired engineer from the tech industry, snagged a pretty nice fish. But, he failed to get it into the boat. Two splashes above the boat’s water line, the excitement built up. But the monster was able to break free, to everyone’s disappointment.
The method for fishing steelhead is with spinning reels, which took some getting used to for me. I’m a typical rod and reel type guy looking for bass. But with some practice, along with several hundred casts, my arm and elbow were pretty sore by the end of the day, I managed to get it down pat in only a short time.
Our bait consisted of natural caviar known as roe, which is a fully ripened salmon eggs designed to lure steelhead to a quick meal. With roe attached to a heavily weighted tackle, the object is for the bait to float down river bouncing off the stream bottom, mimicking eggs going downstream.
The hardest part of fishing for steelhead is being able to differentiate between your bait bumping the bottom of the river and an actual strike of a steelhead ripping off your eggs. Initially, it took time to figure out the difference, but within minutes I managed to pull in a couple of baby steelheads, which we tossed back for future fishermen. But honestly, after I pulled in about six more, I was ready for something bigger.
The only good part was knowing I wouldn’t go home being skunked.
With the pressure off, I admired the murky green water color, a typical sign for steelhead fishing. Midway down the river, I hit pay dirt.
Noticing a big bend in my rod I jumped with excitement to realize I had finally snagged a keeper. Wrestling a steelhead can be a waiting game. You have to let him wear himself out, eventually luring him toward the boat along with a waiting net.
The key is to guide the fish into the net, which happened some 10 minutes later as Andy carefully managed to snag the fish and produce a nice eight-pound steelhead.
Two days later, this salmon was on my kitchen table as part of a beautiful dinner, that was enjoyed by four people, two cats and a dog.
Before leaving the tranquil setting of Brooking, I stayed another day to admire the huge redwood forest, along with Mother Nature’s scenery.
Overall, the forest and fishing made for a good break from a stress-filled holiday season. But then again, even a bad day fishing beats a good day at work.