By Larry Ellis
Pilot staff writer
For the most part, fishing for steelhead on the Chetco last week was rated PG (pretty good). At times it was rated R (rippin'), while occasionally it was rated X (X-cellent). That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.
Did I just hear a few boos? Yep, those were definitely boos.
OK, some folks who fished the Chetco last week might beg to differ with my aforementioned evaluation. There were a few people who said that the fishing was flat-out terrible. They had nothing to show for hundreds of casts and hours upon hours spent plunking from the bank.
On the other hand, there were some guides who had better than eight fish days and some plunkers who limited out. The fact is, this river is just plugged with fish.
Even the best fishermen have come up empty on occasion. The Chetco can be very good to you but in other circumstances it can bring the best anglers to their knees. Fishing is indeed a very humbling sport.
The question is, why is the fishing good for some people and terrible for others, on the same day, the same river and even using the same technique?
As the previous sentence stated, fishing is a sport. In order to be successful at it, you must be active in every sense of the word. After all, do they not call us sportfishermen?
Take the Chetco's own Monty Moncrief and Steely Dave for example. Both men bring true meaning to the word "sport" and "fishermen." These guys are legends at catching, as well as releasing, incredible amounts of steelhead every year, and most of the time they do it from the bank. And they catch big ones. Just last week Dave caught one over 20 pounds.
So what's the secret to catching what appears to be at times, the "elusive" steelhead?
It all boils down to three words: READ THE WATER!
"Fishing spots" are meaningless words. They're just basically guidelines. Although you may have heard that the plunkers caught two-dozen fish one day, I can guarantee that if they were fishing the wrong kind of water, or the same water on a different day, there might not be any fish caught at all. So don't fall in love with a fishing spot, no matter how good you did there yesterday.
I learned this lesson one day in 1981 when I first moved to Brookings. I was fishing on the Rogue when one of the locals asked me if I knew what kind of water I was fishing. Then she told me that I needed to fish the riffles.
At first I was taken aback. I had no idea what a riffle was, but I pretended to know what one was so I could save face. Luckily for me, this person stuck it out with me a few more minutes.
She told me that I wasn't anywhere near a riffle, and that I was fishing in fishless water. After I picked up my pride, I finally asked her what a riffle was.
She then proceeded to tell me about riffles, tail-outs, pocket-water and all that good stuff. I have to thank this lady for the education she gave me from that point on.
Even after she explained what a riffle was to me, she sensed that I was obviously not getting the whole picture.
Then she said, "See that guy wading out in the water in the distance? I guarantee he's going to catch a steelhead at the head of that riffle. He never fails," she asserted.
After two casts, he hooked up and landed a steelhead.
I was absolutely amazed.
"Do you see what I mean about riffles now?" she asked.
As I studied the water he was fishing, everything slowly began to sink in. All this time I was fishing in fishless water.
When water levels on the Chetco are under 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), that's the time to start driftfishing the heads of riffles and tail-outs.
The best time to fish the head of a riffle is before anyone else has hit the spot. That means being on the water and fishing at first legal light.
The head of a riffle looks somewhat like a sideways letter V. After making its way through turbulent water, a steelhead will rest at the pointed end of the V, where the water is calmer, before moving on its migration route upriver.
You want to make your cast upstream, so your lead, and lure (Puff Ball, Corky, Yarn-ball, small Spin-N-Glo), bounces into the pointed end of the V. Let your lead bounce to about the 2 o'clock position, reel up and cast again.
Often, several fishermen can fish the same riffle by timing their casts. We've done this on the Chetco with as many as three or four anglers. You don't want to be caught plunking at the head of a riffle.
Often there will be several fish caught at once, then the bite ends.
This is the most important part of fishing, and why they put the word "sport" ahead of it. The really smart anglers will pick up their gear and high-tail it to the next fishing hole.
This is where I used to get in trouble, by falling in love with a fishing SPOT! After the action is over with, it's time to move upriver and intercept the fish at the next hole.
That means if there is a good bite at the Market Hole and it suddenly stops, it's time to move on to the Highway Hole and wait for that same pod of fish to hit the tail-outs and heads of riffles. You can do this all the way up the Chetco.
Nobody said steelhead fishing was easy but, on the other hand, it's not rocket science either. If you simply learn to fish the heads of riffles and constantly be aware of their next move, sooner or later, you will be the person shouting, "Hook up!"
On a final note, I want everyone to take a good look at how Marc Eremian is holding the steelhead in today's photo. That is the proper way of gripping a steelhead intended to be released that you want a picture of. One hand is around the caudal pedunkle while the other gently lifts the fish underneath the belly, far away from the head and gills. Remember, a bled fish is a dead fish.