By Larry Ellis

Pilot staff writer

Ding - ding! Sound the steelhead bells. On January 1 at 7:58 a.m. under picture-perfect water conditions, Ricky Mason rang in the New Year with a gorgeous 9-pound steelie that fell for a Spin-N-Glo at the Chetco's infamous Social Security Bar.

On Monday the river feverishly crested at 51,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) spewing chunks of mud, silt and debris from Low Water Bridge down to the mouth. For the rest of the week plunkers fervently waited for the river to drop and turn from chocolate milk to pea soup so they could try out their Spin-N-Glo.

The river dropped remarkably fast and on Wednesday, while just under 10,000 cfs, fishers were already taking their chances at Social Security Bar and at the North Bank Pumphouse just immediately downriver from the North Fork.

And there were a few fish caught, too, even though most of the river resembled a cup of coffee loaded with cream. That's when I took a trip up to Nook Bar to see what the upper river was like. It was worth the trip.

Nook took on an emerald green appearance and there were signs of fish moving up the frog water at the upper end. Although you couldn't actually see the fish directly, you could easily see their wakes and vees as they moved upriver in the slacker water.

There were reports of quite a few fish taken at Nook earlier in the day and the river was continuing to drop, which meant that the same timbre of visibility would be manifesting in the lower river the next day.

I arrived at Social Security at about 5:30 a.m. on New Year's Day, staking my claim at the upper end of the run and pounded my rod holder into the ground. By 7 a.m. about a dozen rods were locked and loaded.

Fishing on New Year's Day is a time-honored Chetco tradition as American as apple pie. Year after year the same gang shows up, hoping to start out the New Year battling a mint-bright steelhead fresh from the ocean.

On this first day of 2009 the water conditions were ideal. The river had dropped from 10,000 cfs to about 7,400 cfs and the river possessed a pea-green texture. Everything was perfect except for one thing. It was raining hard and it was evident that the river was going to be rising soon. The worst time to fish the Chetco, of course, is on a rising river, no matter how small the rise.

Still, there was some action early in the day. My rod got rattled and the line went slack, signs of a fish inhaling my offering and moving toward shore. But this fish didn't stick.

Moments later the guy just downriver from me had a good take-down that didn't stick and an hour later Ricky landed her steelhead in the midst of a full-blown cloud-burst.

By one o'clock the river was definitely coming up. Yesterday at midnight it was at 9,000 cfs and at 6:30 a.m. it was approaching 19,900 cfs. From now on, the river level will tend to spike fairly rapidly, since the ground has reached its saturation point.

For judging the river's height first hand, the best thing you can do is to visit, click on andquot;recreational river flows,andquot; then click on andquot;Chetco Riverandquot; and look at the graph for yourself.

If the river is rising, stay home. But when that line on the graph starts plummeting and is below 10,000 cfs, break out your plunking box and get ready to sock it to some steelies.

Make your own rod holder

One item the consummate plunker cannot do without is a sturdy rod holder. You can make a really good one for less than 5 bucks. The photo in last week's column shows mine and it's lasted me for years.

All you need is a 3-foot construction spike, available at any hardware store, an 18-inch piece of PVC tubing (1 1?2-inch inner diameter) and some duct tape. You'll also need a small sledge for hammering into the rocks and/or sand.

Wrap the PVC tubing onto the construction spike with the duct tape at the top, middle and bottom of the tubing, leaving about 1?2-inch of the spike sticking straight up. Hammer the rod holder into the ground by pounding the spike, not the tubing.

Brookings loses a most favorite son

It is with great sadness and with a heavy heart to inform you that Dave Lehton, the icon who will forever be known as Charthouse Dave, passed away Tuesday.

I cannot even begin to express the positive effect that one man could have on an entire fishing community.

Having spent a lot of time in the ocean outside the Port of Brookings Harbor, and from close monitoring of both VHF and CB radios, Dave was called upon with regularity by most salmon fishermen, asking frequently how his boat was doing.

It goes without saying that Charthouse Dave was one of the most successful fishermen in the fleet. If he was not catching them on any given day, the fish simply could not be caught.

Dave was an unselfish man who freely gave away his location, depth, manner in which he was fishing and the amount of salmon he had on board.

He was the same way when he fished on the Rogue River as well, whether it was from his boat or from shore.

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending the day with him, fishing on the Rogue River for winter steelhead. Little did I know that it would be the last time I would spend with him.

Among other things, he showed me his little tricks of the trade that he employed to catch these finicky steelhead, and expressed to me his desire in imparting this covert information to the public, because it was his wish that the masses partake in the same joy that fulfilled his life.

This gentle giant went to great extremes to ensure that even the smallest steelhead was released with care.

Such was the unselfish nature of Dave Lehton. Anyone who was lucky enough to talk with him one-on-one was a better person because of it.

I want to express my condolences to his wife Dorothy, who he lovingly spoke about often, and to his former partner Captain James Bithell, a lifelong friend who he deeply respected and admired.

Tight lines my friend. You will be deeply missed.