Steelhead size plug produces epic fight with trophy king salmon
By Andy Martin
Two hours into the fight with a massive Chetco River king, Brian Renner let out a sigh and disappointedly said “He just got off.”
His line was slack, and for the first time since he hooked what would turn out to be a trophy 54-pound salmon, the light steelhead plug rod he was using wasn’t doubled over.
Almost in shock, nobody aboard my drift boat said a word. Then, while trying to figure out what happened, I noticed the line from Renner’s rod and reel quickly moving through the water beside the boat.
“Reel fast,” I said, jumping up from the rower’s seat. “He’s still there. He just swam toward you. Reel. Reel!”
Renner picked up the slack and again the rod completely arched over. The giant Chinook salmon was still hooked, and the fight continued.
A couple hours earlier, Renner and his girlfriend, Jen Anderson had lowered their small steelhead plugs into the dark green water of the Chetco River near Pete’s Place, a hole halfway between Loeb State Park and the North Fork. It was Dec. 11, 2012, late in the season for kings, and at the beginning of the steelhead run. I hadn’t guided a customer into a salmon in more than a week, but was picking up a steelhead or two every day, so that was our target.
A few strokes into the back troll beside the rip rap at Pete’s Place, Renner’s rod was violently jerked forward. There was a big splash 50 feet in front of the drift boat, instantly letting us know a big salmon, not the typical 8- to 12-pound steelhead normally caught in the Chetco that time of year, had grabbed the plug.
The fish ran, came to the surface again, this time revealing the silver MagLip 3.5 stuck in its jaw, and then started heading down river after the second massive splash.
“Let’s try to keep it here,” I said, concerned about the logs at the bottom of the run.
The fish had other plans, and soon we found ourselves first dodging the logs above Mill Creek, then the pilings below. Above Moffit Rock, the stubborn king charged toward another set of logs. The entire fight, the 7-foot-9 Wright & McGill Hot Shot rod was pinned down. At times, more than half of the 12-pound-test monofilament line on Renner’s reel was out.
Anderson had booked the guided trip down the Chetco with Renner as a birthday present. Now Renner, from the small Northern California community of Ferndale, was hooked into the ultimate birthday gift, the fish of a lifetime, one most anglers can only dream about.
The back and forth tug of war between Renner and the lunker king reached its first hour just below Moffit Rock. There, in the slow, 10-foot deep flat, the fish dogged down. For the next 45 minutes, the linecounter on the reel showed the fish was only 15 to 20 feet out, hugging the bottom just below the boat. The light plug rod didn’t have enough power to lift the Chinook to the surface.
Concerned about the toll the long fight was taking on the light line, I began to slowly row downstream, toward the riffle, where the water would be shallow enough to hopefully net the salmon.
The 50-plus-pound king, however, had other plans. Feeling the pressure of the boat pulling it downstream, it began swimming back toward Moffit Rock. First it chugged upstream slowly, then accelerate and peeled off a couple hundred feet of line.
Renner braced himself against the front deck of the drift boat, trying to put just enough pressure to slow the fight without breaking it off. Without warning, the line went slack. For a few moments, we all thought the massive king was gone.
Once we realized the fish was still hooked, Renner began making real progress in tiring the slab of a salmon. We coaxed it toward the riffle leading to the North Fork, when the fish suddenly bolted through the tailout and splashed its way through the shallow north-side riffle. Seeing the opportunity to finally net the giant salmon, I pushed the drift boat after the fish, and made a swipe at it with the net. Normally during steelhead season I would have retired the deep-basketed Beckman, but knowing there were still a few kings around I still had the bigger salmon net.
Renner’s salmon filled the entire net. It violently shook back and forth as I pushed the boat next to the gravel, and hopped out to check out the fish.
Renner and Anderson celebrated. Bank fishermen drifting eggs beside the North Fork ran over to get a look at the big king.
We discussed whether or not Renner wanted to keep the trophy salmon, and after the exhausting fight he decided to take the king home. His previous biggest salmon, a 20-pounder, now seemed small compared to the 54-pound hawg that tested him for the last 120 minutes.
We put the plug rods away, and switched over to the side-drifting spinning rods on the next run. There, in front of the North Fork, Anderson hooked and landed her first steelhead.
Both anglers learned why fall and winter river fishing on the Oregon Coast is so popular. Renner had one of the biggest fish of the season sitting in the fish box, and an even bigger story to tell. He tells the true tale of the 50-plus-pound king he fought for two hours often.
“There isn’t a week that has gone by that I don’t think of that day of fishing or tell that story,” Renner said in an email to me a few months after his trip. “I told it today. An amazing fish on a great day.”
Editor’s note: Author Andy Martin is a full-time Oregon and Alaska fishing guide who resides next to the Chetco River in Brookings. His web site is www.wildriversfishing.com.