Rich Denio from Arcata, Calif., only had one thought on his mind as he got up two hours before the crack of dawn last Wednesday. The only thing he wanted to do was to battle with a clan member of the Chetco's notorious November nookery.
When Denio eased his drift-boat into the Social Security Bar take-out, the scent of fresh ozone from a recent rainsquall pervaded the atmosphere. As he paused momentarily to draw in a deep breath of Mother Nature's purified air, the clouds separated and rays of 24-carat sunshine danced across his red beard.
I asked him if he had caught anything. That's when Denio hoisted out the monster king.
"I think it's about 30 pounds," he said.
FYI, you can perform all kinds of photographer's tricks to make a fish appear much larger than it really is.
Probably the best-known technique is to have the person hold the fish out at arm's length, as far out as they can.
This little antic, however, can turn around and bite you pretty hard. When a person holds a fish that far out you have to tell them to hide their hands, otherwise disproportionately oversized hands and knuckles which appear larger than the person's head become a dead giveaway.
You actually don't need a scale to ascertain the size of a large salmon. The way to tell how large a salmon or steelhead is in a photograph, is to look at the caudal peduncle, or that little skinny portion just in front of the fish's tail.
It won't look so skinny on a large salmon, and an average-size man's hands will not be able to close around its entire diameter. You can also look at the actual tail fin itself while a person's hand is wrapped around the peduncle.
That's how I knew Denio's fish was a 30-plus-pounder and then some. His hand couldn't encircle caudal peduncle, and there seemed to be an over-abundance of tail-fin rays being squeezed out of the back end. When Denio looked down the back of the salmon as if he was sighting in a 30-6, I pulled the trigger holding my 28-85.
It was only about 10 a.m. when I snapped Denio's photo. He still had plenty of time to make at least one more drift down the river to try for his second fish.
Another lucky early-morning angler that day was Brandon Chandler from Brookings, who single-handedly caught a bright 28-pound Chinook on a K-16 sardine-wrapped Kwikfish.
Wednesday was an all-around good day to be on the river. In less than one night, the river had dropped from 6,000 cfs to 3,000 cfs, and the color shifted from a coffee-brown appearance to a pea-green hue, the perfect color for drift-fishers, back-bouncers, side-drifters and plunkers.
Dee Shurtleff of Brookings was plunking that day at SSB and had lost a nice Chinook that had snapped his leader. Moments later, here comes Monty Moncrief with a real toad peeling off line. We knew this one was huge. It spent most of its time on the other side of the bank.
Although nobody actually saw the fish, we did see the signs of it. Everyone knew it was a hawg because of the way its tail was pushing water. That Chinook gave Monty an honest 15-minute fight before finally spitting the hook.
There were a lot of fish weighed in at Sporthaven Marina that day by yours truly. Every year I'm weighmaster for a series of derbies put on by Jack Hanson of jacksguideservice.com. The crme-of-the-crop of the river guides always participate in these events, with the likes of Bill Urie, Joe Whaley and Harvey Young.
On Tuesday, when the Chetco was too high and muddy, most of the guides were all over California's Smith River in the neighborhood between the Forks and the Tower. Tuesday's fish were extremely bright and healthy looking specimens.
On Wednesday, the second day of the Clearwater Classic, everyone was pulling plugs on the Chetco.
The largest salmon of the event, a 44 pounder, was caught by George Daves who was behind the oars of Bill Urie from Bill Urie's Guide Service in Medford. Second place went to Keith Van Amburg with his 38-pound king. Keith was guided by George Oachs of www.oachs.com. Third place went to Fred Wheeler who caught his 34-pound, 8-ounce Chinook with guide Gary Farley.
As you can see, there are still plenty of November hawgs in the Chetco. One would think that Urie's 44-pounder would have been turning colors, but this one was a chromer, complete with sea lice.
If history is true to itself then there will still be a second push of November fish ranging from 25 to 35 pounds.
At this time it is looking like a lot of the salmon runs could be late this year. Just the other day, Andy Martin and I were at Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery watching salmon jump over the falls to get to the fish trap. There were plenty of large salmon, and what's more, there were some chrome-bright steelhead in the mix as well.
Furthermore, the Chetco now has all of the fish needed for the Chetco Brood Stock Program. I wouldn't be surprised if we got a late shot of salmon this year, maybe even into December. A December run would be a little odd, but all signs are pointing to late runs this year.
As of 2 a.m. Friday, the Chetco was around 2,000 cfs and rising very slowly. However, this week's forecast calls for 100-percent chance of rain today, 90-percent tonight and 60-percent on Sunday, so don't be surprised to see the Chetco blown out again today. The rest of Thanksgiving week is supposed to be sunny and clear.
In an ideal weather scenario, it would rain just enough today and tomorrow for the river to rise for plunkers, drift-fishermen and drift-boaters to all enjoy fishing for the rest of the week.
Save a turkey stuff a steelie for Thanksgiving. Mouth-watering recipes are all over the Web.