By Larry Ellis
Pilot staff writer
It's that time of year again, when steelhead start entering the jaws of the Chetco and begin making their annual migration to their spawning grounds. Usually December is what most anglers would call a transition month, when the salmon runs start winding down and fishers begin gearing up for those heavy metalheads.
But Thanksgiving rains have sparked a few of the silver torpedoes to enter many Oregon river systems earlier than usual and anglers have been able to reap the harvest of both late fall Chinook and a few early bulletheads.
Just the other day, Thursday to be specific, I pulled up to one of the Chetco's take-outs to find a few drift-boats ending their day on the water. The first guide to slide his boat onto the bank was Greg Nicol.
Now, every week I like to present a current photo in the column that represents a significance that occurred during the week. So far, I've been extremely fortunate in being able to do that, whether the fish was a guppy or a grouper.
Greg had two clients with him, both of whom were grinning ear-to-ear. He maneuvered his driftboat onto the shoreline while the rest of the herd followed suit in order to catch a closer glimpse at what Greg had in his fish box. Naturally, I had my Minolta cocked and loaded.
Now you have to remember, this is the 29th day of November, a time when steelhead are just starting to trickle into the Chetco. Steelhead don't normally start showing up in fishable numbers here until the middle of December, so I was really expecting to see an old spent-out salmon, maybe a small steelhead.
What Greg pulled out of his fish-box was no guppy, and it certainly wasn't a grouper either. And whoever said that the Chetco doesn't kick out hatchery steelhead over 20 pounds (and there have been plenty of them) were just about to eat their words.
Greg hoisted a steelhead out of the box that was not only bright, it was big as well. One of his clients, Russ Peck from Palo Alto, Calif., landed the trophy buck.
Guide Joe Whaley brought out his scale. The beast weighed 20 pounds, on the nose. It looked like there might have been enough blood in the fish box to fill several shot glasses, so it probably lost at least 4 or 5 ounces just from being bled.
Factor in a little shrinkage due to dehydration, and that fish might have been 21 pounds when it was first caught. In addition, it had a healed over adipose fin, proving it was a hatchery-raised fish.
A few minutes later, Greg reached in the fish box and pulled out another steelie. This heavy metalhead was as bright as a freshly minted silver dollar. This fish was no slouch either. It was easily 15 pounds, maybe 16, and it had sea lice all over it.
Then someone made a comment that the fish was a blueback. In this neck-of-the-woods, a blueback refers to a steelhead that has a bluish back, as opposed to its typical mint-green back. A blueback's scales actually sparkle like blue sapphires when the sun strikes it a certain way - no exaggeration!
In steelhead nomenclature, bluebacks signify the end of the run, which normally occurs sometime in late February or March, the bluebacks usually running less than 10 pounds. But this fish, being as large as it was immediately brought back memories of the beginning of last year's run, which started out with a lot of large bluebacks as well.
Consequently, I would say that this season is getting off to an extraordinarily impressive start. Even though the runs aren't thick yet, the numbers should steadily increase week by week.
December is also a good month to catch a steelhead over 20 pounds. Nicol's late-November fish could be a sign of bigger fish yet to come. And the fact that this steelie was a hatchery fish is proof that the Chetco Broodstock Program is working.
As of Friday, the Chetco's flow was around 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The river's starting to get a little bit low and gin-clear, and the fish are getting pretty spooky and harder to catch. Luckily we're in for some rain today, tomorrow and Monday.
That could be just enough precipitation to raise the river back to fishable levels so that plunkers, side-drifters and bank fishermen might all be able to enjoy the river by the middle or the end of the week and bring some steelhead lovin' back into the Chetco.
Although this next section might be sounding like a broken record, it is always worth repeating because it is absolutely critical if you want to be successful on the Chetco.
If the river should rise above 4,000 cfs, it will probably blow out and turn a chocolate brown color. When it starts dropping and changes from a brown to a slate-gray or pea-green color, and if it's still over 4,000 cfs, break out your plunkin' box and enjoy some of the most exciting non-technical fishing there is.
First-time plunkers often comment that they never knew steelhead fishing could be so easy.
When the river drops to 4,000 cfs, then hop in your driftboat and side-drift Puff Balls and eggs, or yarnballs dipped in Pautzke's Nectar.
At this water flow and at this time of year you can still catch a few salmon pulling sardine-wrapped Kwikfish, but if everyone's side-drifting, don't pull plugs. Go with the flow. If you want to pull plugs then either wait for everyone to pass, or do it in a part of the water upriver from everyone else.
Bank fishermen can still catch steelhead by driftfishing lead with Corkies and yarn, Puff Balls and yarn or the aforementioned combinations using roe. You will find more steelhead at the head of a riffle.
When the river starts getting toward 2,000 cfs, start back-bouncing roe, or even sand shrimp and roe.