Young angler catches a steelhead worthy of legend status

Monday, July 29, 2013


Young angler catches a steelhead worthy of legend status


By Andy Martin

Emma Winter’s first steelhead is more than the fish of a lifetime. Aside from being one of the biggest fish of the season in 2013 on Southern Oregon’s Chetco River, the trophy steelhead produced the heartbreak, and for Emma, the triumph, that draw anglers to Northwest streams each winter.

Emma’s first steelhead is the kind of extraordinary fish that makes the sea-going rainbows legendary. The incredible fight, sheer size and surprisingly aggressive strike are only part of the story. The surprise the young angler discovered after the fish was netted makes her prize catch even more epic.

A week before I guided Emma to her 22-pound Chetco steelhead, I was on the river with another group, a four-angler, two-boat party drifting through the wild and scenic upper section of the river. Near Miller Bar, the other guide in our party, Randy Wells, side-drifted one of the customers into a fish in the flat below Wilson Creek. Like most big steelhead do, the fish held steady in the middle of the river for a few minutes, and then bolted upstream. It ran straight into the riffle, nonstop, and then continued upriver. The angler in Randy’s boat could do nothing as the line on her reel steadily disappeared until the fish had spooled the surprised fisherman.

“That was a really big fish,” Randy said. “That’s the first time a steelhead has ever spooled me.”

My clients and I watched in amazement as the steelhead charged 200 yards upriver without slowing and then popped off right next to our boat.

A week later, I was making my way through the same run with Emma, and her father, Orie. We had launched at Nook Bar, where Orie caught a steelhead on a small cluster of roe and a pink Puff Ball. As we approached Miller Bar, I was beginning to tell the story of the big fish that had spooled Randy’s customer several days before when one of our rods dipped down, fluttered and then buried over. A big steelhead had nailed the bait and was racing across the river. The fish had pretty much hooked itself.

As the steelhead splashed a couple hundred feet downstream, Emma could barely hold onto the rod as the massive fish chugged toward the opposite bank.

It was Emma’s first ever steelhead trip, and the student at Western Oregon University had hooked into a trophy fish. The fight was typical for a big steelhead. There was a lot of give and take, the fish dogged down in the heavy current, and Emma slowly tired the steelhead. The Wright & McGill 9-foot side drifting rod was completely doubled over the entire fight. I pushed downstream with the oars while Emma continued to fight the fish. When it got close to the boat, it shot underneath, surfaced at the opposite side, and then sounded again. Emma had managed to work the rod around the bow before the fish could break off by rubbing the line against the chine of the aluminum drift boat.

The fish started making its way to the tailout. Emma made a few more cranks and turned it. About 20 minutes after the lunker steelhead was hooked, I slid the net under the fish.

Emma and her father were both ecstatic. “I can’t believe how big it is,” Emma said. The fish was double the size of Orie’s steelhead, a very respectable 10- to 12-pounder.

The first thing I noticed was the steelhead, a large buck, was a hatchery fish. It was unusually large for a Chetco hatchery steelhead, which generally run 6 to 12 pounds, but not unheard of with the improved broodstock program on the coastal river located just a few miles north of the California border. As I hoisted the fish into my drift boat, there was no doubt it was over 20 pounds. Caught on Jan. 5, it was the first 20-pounder of the season on the Chetco.

While taking the fish out of the net I discovered about 20 feet of line hanging from the steelhead’s mouth. Somebody else had caught the fish before, I thought. I then looked inside of its mouth, and not only found the hook and leader from Emma’s rod deep inside its throat, but a second leader with the swivel and 20 feet of mainline, and then an astonishing third hook. The big steelhead, which weighed 22 pounds, had broke two other anglers off.

My bait, a cluster of roe cured in Pautzke’s BorxOFire fished with a size 2 Lazer Sharp octopus hook, was in the fish’s gullet. In the top of the jaw was a yarnie with the leader and section of mainline attached. In the corner of the mouth was another hook, a larger size probably from a plunker who first hooked the big steelhead on the lower river.

After Emma proudly held up her catch for several photos, we continued down river, where I ran into Randy with his customers. We pulled to shore for a break, and I showed Randy the hook and section of mainline. It was the same fish that had spooled his customer the week before. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Giant steelhead have made the Chetco one of the Northwest’s top steelhead streams. The river record is a 28-pounder caught in the 1980s. Each year a handful of steelhead over 20 pounds are caught, but it’s the large hatchery run, and healthy state of the wild population, that make the Chetco a favorite among steelheaders. Aside from the strong possibility of a multiple-fish day, it’s the occasional trophy fish like the one Emma caught that draw anglers from throughout the Northwest to the Chetco.

For Emma and her father, they’ve already booked a trip to come back. Orie is still in pursuit of his trophy winter steelhead, and Emma is now hooked for life on steelhead fishing on the Oregon Coast.

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