By Larry Ellis
Pilot staff writer
After having interviewed hundreds of river guides, it has been my experience that although the vast majority can catch fish with their hands tied behind their backs, very few actually understand the idiosyncrasies of a steelhead. Two guides who I hold in high esteem for their comprehension of steelhead characteristics are Jack Hanson of Jack's Guide Service and Mick Thomas from Lunker Fish Trips.
Jack wrote the embodiment of bobber fishing for salmon and steelhead in a series of articles for the prestigious magazine Salmon Trout Steelheader, and you could fill a library with volumes of knowledge from Mick regarding the habits and routines of a steelhead.
Every word that comes out of their mouths is a nugget of information. So whenever fish-whisperer-types like Jack and Mick start talking about what makes a steelhead tick, the best thing you can do is to sit down and shut up.
It's a little problem that I've been working on. I haven't got all the bugs worked out yet. I find myself talking when I should be listening.
I first learned about blueback steelhead from Jack. I had never really noticed their distinct differences until he brought them to my attention, and started talking about how they always seem to come toward the end of the run.
And it's true. The peculiarities of a blueback are such that, in short order, I too began noticing their appearances toward the end of the season and, sometimes, toward the beginning.
This phenomenon has led a lot of anglers to believe that if bluebacks show up early, it is a sure sign that the general steelhead run is over and done with. That is one of the biggest misconceptions regarding steelhead. People need to understand the basis behind a blueback's arrival.
The reason I'm bringing it up now, is because a lot of bluebacks have been showing up the last few weeks in both the Chetco and Smith rivers, and that has gotten a lot of folks worked up, thinking that the run is kaput. Actually, we haven't even seen the beginning of the March run yet, so there really is nothing to worry about.
Now, I am not just fond of a steelhead, I love, cherish and admire them, as we all should. So when a blueback steely shows up, at first sight it is at the very least, "eye candy." When sunlight strikes its back at just the right angle, every scale sparkles like a blue topaz gemstone.
So why were they showing up early? Mick recently shed some light on the subject.
"They're actually a summer steelhead that come into the smaller coastal streams and take advantage of the snow-melt, the spring runoff," explained Mick. "They use that cold runoff water to get up to their destination point, where the winter steelhead use the winter rainfall.
"The bluebacks are a little smaller in size, between 4 and 7 pounds, and they get up the system a little easier than the big winter fish that require larger amounts of water."
Mick also pointed out that the bluebacks basically shoot up the system, do their spawning and come back just as fast. They also fight like the dickens.
They utilize the spring runoff from the snow-pack just like a rain. The runoff keeps the river at a higher flow, even though there may not have been any rain to raise the river, which was the case here in the last few weeks.
You may be saying to yourself, "Well, it's not spring, so how could there be spring runoff?"
True, spring has not arrived; however, we did have some unseasonable snow flurries that hammered the coast about three weeks ago. And when warmer air temperatures kicked in, the snow started melting earlier than usual, creating a false spring in the river. Then came the bluebacks, three weeks ahead of schedule.
The good thing about the snow-melt is that it has been keeping the river flowing at a steady 2,000-plus cubic feet per second. You can recognize a river fed by snow-melt because it develops a milky-green texture, keeping the river a little more colored up than it normally would be.
True, the fishing on both the Smith and Chetco rivers was slow last week, but as soon as we get another rain, the last run of mint-bright winter steelhead should be showing up, and probably a few more bluebacks mixed in with them to boot.
One comment needs to be pointed out. The word "blueback" is also used to describe other species of fish, like sea-run cutthroat trout, for instance. The further north you get up the coast, the less you will hear the word blueback describing a steelhead.
So the next time you witness a fresh steely being caught, try and become more aware of the color of its back. You will develop an entirely new appreciation for the fish that makes the Wild River's Coast unique from the rest of the country.
Surfperch are in
As usual, February can be one of the best months to score limits of surfperch. The limit is 15 surfperch, and that makes a lot of fish tacos.
On Tuesday there were two fellows cleaning the flat-siders at the cleaning station. One guy was fishing the Brookings south jetty when he got his 15 striped perch.
The other angler was cleaning a limit of redtail surfperch.
This is the third year in a row where I've observed solid surfperch action in the Brookings area, so take advantage of the bite and hit one of the popular beaches. McVay Beach is a good spot and so is the beach about one-half mile uphill from the Winchuck Wayside.
Small pieces of ordinary raw shrimp work great. The best time to fish is on an incoming tide. Scout out the area at low tide and look for steep, sloping beaches, or depression in the sand, and come back on the incoming high tide to fish those pools.
Rockfish and lingcod fishing excellent
Mike Walker, one of Taylor Freeland's deckhands on the 50-foot Angler, reported that 19 passengers caught their limits of lingcod and rockfish while fishing one day last week. This is the time when the male lingasaurs start guarding the nests, and they are very aggressive biters.
You don't have to go very far to find reefs in this area. Find a pinnacle, drop a leadfish to the bottom, and start jigging.