LOCAL SEALS GUILTY OF STEELHEAD ABUSE; CHETCO FISHING ACTION FAIRE

February 16, 2008 12:00 am

By Larry Ellis

Pilot staff writer

Steelhead were caught in the Chetco basin last week. I know for a fact that they were caught because I saw the seals that caught ‘em. And these weren't Navy Seals either, we're talking the original merchandise: California and harbor seals.

The action's actually been taking place near the launch ramps at the Port of Brookings. Mike Ramsay from Sporthaven Marina has also witnessed them flipping steelhead in the air, that is, when he wasn't busy flipping burgers.

It is not unusual to see steelhead, or even salmon swimming around in the boat basin. Sometimes the fish get a little confused when they cross the bar. They come to that middle jetty, the one that separates the boat basin from the river, and instead of heading upriver, they wander off to the right and end up near the transient dock.

Frankly, I don't like it one bit when the seals are eating our steelhead. I've seen huge wakes created from frightened steelhead running into the jetties, caused by being chased by these vicious whiskered mammals.

OK, I know seals are protected by the Marine Mammals Protection Act (MMPA). The MMPA was created in 1972, making it illegal to hunt or harass any marine mammal in U.S. protected waters.

Steller sea lions even have achieved one additional level of protection from being considered a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, so you can't even mutter a four-letter expletive at one of those without getting someone's permission.

But gosh darn it, what do you call it when a steelhead gets chased around relentlessly be seals and sea lions? In all honesty, I think that's just plain steelhead harassment. At the very least, it's steelhead abuse.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to make a diagnosis of steelhead abuse. About half of he steelhead coming to the nets have at least one set of bilateral teeth marks on them.

There are also a significant portion of steelhead demonstrating visible crush marks, or indentations in their bodies, without overt signs of skin penetration. This type of wound may look superficial on the outside, but many anglers who have eaten these fish have told me that beneath those crush marks are patches of blood that they have to cut out from the meat.

I think it's safe to say that a fraction of those fish might not even make it through one complete spawning mission, whether they are released or not. There are other forms of medical trauma caused by seals and sea lions that the poor bulletheads may not ever recover from, such as internal injuries.

I can only dream that somewhere, possibly at the National Institutes of Health, a mad scientist is trying to figure out how to genetically engineer a seal so it will taste like a sockeye salmon. If I can find the guy conducting that experiment, I'll be the first to donate a Bunsen burner, a lab coat and a pocket protector.

Fishing on the Chetco

All in all, the fishing on the Chetco was fair, not great, but the onesey-twosey action kept side-drifters with two to three fish per boat, or about one steelhead per person. On any river, one metalhead is OK.

The snow pack kept the river above 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), creating just enough turbidity to keep the river with perfection visibility.

The average steelhead ranged from 8-14 pounds, and the sunny weather kept anglers dry for the most part of the week.

This weekend is calling for clear, sunny skies as well, but runoff from the snowpack should still keep the river from becoming too low and clear.

The forecast calls for rain starting around Presidents Day. Hopefully there will be enough precipitation to bring another batch of fish into the river.

I did notice a significant amount of bluebacks in the mix. This refers to a steelhead that has a distinctive bluish back who's scales sparkle like individual sapphires when struck by the sun.

Bluebacks are normally a smaller fish, 6 to 8 pounds and denotes the end of the run, however, in this case, these were large bluebacks, so I think the run is far from over. The Chetco normally heralds in fresh runs of fish all the way through March, and even into April, when the season has ended.

There were also quite a few downers caught, which are the steelhead finished spawning, heading back to sea. Unlike salmon, steelhead don't usually die after spawning and can often spawn four or five times. The downers, often referred to as tubes, gun-barrels, gunnies and snakes can be spotted by keeping your eyes peeled on the surface.

A Puff Ball, Corky or piece of roe thrown within 50 feet will often get one strike because these fish have gotten their appetites back as they start putting on weight as they head out to sea for another year.

Herring in Crescent City

A lot of anglers last week have been going to Crescent City, filling ice chests full of large herring. These guys are fun and easy to catch (it's so easy, even a caveman can do it) and provide excellent bait for lingcod, large snapper and salmon, and if you get one that's 12 inches or larger, they'll work great for halibut when the season opens.

I suspect the action will still be good this weekend because it was wide-open every day last week. On Thursday, Mike Ramsay had a 6-gallon bucket filled with them.

It didn't matter which part of the harbor you were in. The herring are everywhere.

Rockfish and lingcod action picking up

When the seas laid down, anglers were able to pick up a few quick limits of black rockfish, blue rockfish, quillbacks, China cod, vermilion rockfish, cabezon and lingcod.

Watch out for small craft warnings. It's best if you time the tide so you are fishing just a few hours before high tide, on the incoming tide.

There were a few boats towed in last week by the U.S. Coast Guard because of the wind. So if you decide to head out to sea, get out at first light and don't venture too far, in case you need to get back in a hurry.

Tight Lines!