By Larry Ellis
Pilot staff writer
December's my favorite month of the year, and it's not just because Santa's coming. It's because it is a key month to hook into a steelhead with some serious shoulders. If you're the betting sort with the objective of battling one-on-one with a trophy ironhead, definitely put your money on December.
"The largest fish usually came in the earliest," says Don Hawk, who owns the current Chetco steelhead record at 28 pounds. "Early December we would start catching the biggest fish on the Chetco."
Although Hawk's record came in January of '73, he's caught enough fish over 20 pounds that would send a seasoned test-pilot into a tailspin. Most came in December, and I firmly believe that the Chetco still has the potential of putting out another steelie approaching 30-pounds.
That's why the locals around these parts merely give 15 pounders an eye-roll. It would take a 25-pound chrome missile to give the native neighborhood a case of whiplash.
This is exactly why a percentage of fish used for the present Chetco broodstock hatchery program are native fish. Interestingly, almost all of the fish caught this week weighing between 15 and 20 pounds were missing an adipose fin, the tell-tail sign denoting hatchery steelhead. That alone speaks volumes for the success of our hatchery program, and we must do everything in our power to insure that it keeps going strong.
Other Oregon rivers' fish don't hold a candle to the Chetco's native strain, with exception, of course, to the Umpqua, which has had sightings of 30-pound steelhead. Anecdotally, starting January 1, the retention of all wild steelhead in any section of the Umpqua, including the mainstem, will be prohibited. California's Smith River kicked out the present California state record.
Although I'm getting a little off-topic, my point is that these three big-fish river systems have one thing in common: they use their own native stock with their own river's superior genetics for their hatchery programs. The closer you can maintain a river's hatchery stock so that it is no more than one generation removed from the parent strain, the better your chances are at getting back healthier fish.
The big boys on the Chetco this week have been running between 15 and 20 pounds, although the average has been closer to 12. Side-drifting Puff Balls and roe has been the way to go. Although the fishing has not been red-hot every day, there have been strings of days where boaters have been posting up to seven-fish days. The fishing seems to go in spurts.
Wes Heinrich gave me a call and had two consecutive four-fish days, and Jack Hanson of jacksguideservice.com had three good days in a row as well. Hanson also told me that the ratio of hatchery to wild steelhead has been about 50-50. Most of the fish have been caught from the North Fork downstream, which means you need to put in either at The Piling Hole located on the south bank, or put in at Loeb, located on the north bank
The wild fish will gradually work their way further upriver, although many have already been caught downstream from The Culvert Hole. In order to access The Culvert Hole, put in at Miller Bar.
Although the Smith River has been getting low and clear, there are still a few scattered salmon being caught, but the spotlight has been on steelhead. In addition, the river's also been kicking out precious metalheads approaching the 20-pound class.
"They're pretty good quality fish this year," says Mick Thomas from Lunker Fish Trips in Hiouchi. "We've been getting quite a few hatchery fish at the moment in the upwards of the high teens."
Thomas has reported several monster hatchery ironheads. The weights boggle the imagination 15's, 17's, a 19, a 19 1/2 and a couple 20-pound fish to boot.
"I would say truthfully that two to five fish per boat has been about average here the last few days," notes Thomas. "The fishing's been pretty darn good; I'm not complaining."
Thomas says most of the boats have been putting in at The Forks and floating all the way down to Ruby Van Deventer County Park.
"I don't think there's any larger concentration in the upper half than there is in the lower half," notes Thomas. "It seems like there's a pretty good mix of fish throughout the system."
Mick says that side-drifting has been the most productive technique with a reading of 7 1/2 to 9 1/2 feet at the Jed Smith gauge being optimum.
"I don't mind the low, clear water as long as there's fish. You just have to be a little stealthier," Thomas stresses.
Thomas says the most productive way to fish the Smith River when the conditions are low and clear, is to stay to one shoreline or the other and slowly side-drift your way outward.
"If you fish out 2/3 to the middle, you're usually going to have pretty good luck," Thomas advises. "Don't go down the middle of the river and go for a boat ride."
Going down the middle of the river tends to spook the fish and breaks up the concentrations. After that happens it could take them the rest of the day to re-group.
How do they find their way home?
While spending a few hours at the Millicoma Interpretive Center last week, Larry Lundquist from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife gave a fascinating classroom presentation on how steelhead find their way back to their native streams, a term called homing.
Steelhead find their home rivers through three intrinsic methods: 1. Their powerful olfactory (scent) organs which smell in parts per trillion; 2. Their built in compass due to a chemical in their brain, orienting them magnetically to the earth; 3. Navigating by using the stars, a.k.a. celestial navigation.
Steelhead typically migrate outward to Kamchatka, where coded wire tags have been detected. When the time is right, they orient themselves to the constellations and head for home. We don't catch them in the ocean along with salmon because they dwell much deeper, even though their diet is largely in fact, baitfish.