The 36th Annual Rowdy Creek Steelhead Derby saw some of the slowest fishing over the two-day event last weekend, with fewer than one steelhead per boat — a grand total of 34 all weekend and about a quarter of last year’s catch — hauled in.
The derby, a benefit for the Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery in Smith River, hosted 20 teams this year, totaling 40 boats. Each boat, comprised of a fishing guide and two participants to man the fishing poles, spent one day drifting the Chetco River and the other, the Smith.
The problem was that both rivers were running particularly clear and low.
“It is very slow,” said participant Kevin Lee of Napa, who has been attending the derby with friends for about 10 years. “There are very few fish in the system compared to other years.”
That didn’t seem to have much of an effect on the winning team, consisting of husband-and-wife duos Kathy and Bob Figas of Eureka and Garth and Linda Sundberg of McKinleyville. The men fished with guide Phil Desutels on the Smith River on Friday and the Chetco on Saturday, while the women floated the opposite river each day with fishing guide Mick Thomas.
The Figas and Sundbergs combined to haul in six fish totaling 170 inches in length, but it was actually the women who did all of the work.
“We caught them all,” Linda Sundberg said. “The guys caught zero. Kathy, my partner, and I were the A team, and we caught every fish. We hooked seven and landed six, and each of us had three apiece.”
Kathy Figas said they had a lot of fun lording that over their husbands’ heads for the past few days.
“Absolutely,” Kathy said with a laugh. “They had to live it down from everybody who knows about us winning and them not catching any. So everyone is razzing them — everybody. They’re really good about it though. They’re the ones that usually catch all the fish and we don’t contribute as much. But it was our turn this year.”
Both women credited their guide, Thomas.
“I was apprehensive going into it just because the weather report and the conditions, knowing it was going to be a rough weekend, but our guide pulled us through the whole weekend without a hitch,” Linda Sundberg said. “He made it comfortable, took care of us, and I feel like we were able to do a great job and had a fantastic weekend.”
Thomas said he didn’t do much.
“It was low and clear conditions. You just have to get lucky out there,” he said. “I had some good fishermen on board, and that changes all your luck.”
Thomas has been a guide for the derby for more than 20 years and his teams have finished in the top three positions many times.
“A lot of it is luck and timing,” he said. Nothing changes, it is just another day of fishing. “You just have to be in the right place at the right time and the fish have got to bite. If you don’t get a bite, you aren’t going to catch a fish. It is that easy. We don’t have any real secrets. When you’ve got 20 boats on clear rivers the fishing is pretty tough.”
He admitted he has the home-river advantage.
He, Kathy and Linda started the derby on the Chetco River Friday, and finished the day with four of the eight fish caught in Oregon for the day. Only five fish were caught on the Smith.
The women knew the rest of the field was struggling, too.
“It is pretty funny; it’s sort of like this little hen session — a gossip session — you hear everything by the end of the day,” Linda said. “With cell phone availability you kind of know what is going on in different places. We knew there had been a few fish caught, but not a lot.”
The women went into the second day of the competition confident, but quickly heard tales of a boat making a big run.
“We knew we had to catch at least two fish to stay in the lead, but halfway through the day we heard another boat had caught four,” Kathy said. “So we didn’t know we had actually won until we walked in that night.”
Figas caught another steelhead Saturday morning on the Smith, and Sundberg got another one that afternoon.
“Our lines were in the water from start to finish; we barely took a break,” Sundberg said.
The two ended up in first place by one fish and 40 inches. Second place went to Chuck Howard and Darin Bradburdy with guide Rye Phillips, and Chris Howard and Tom Bessette with guide Frank Duarte.
The Chetco River yielded eight fish totaling 225 inches Friday compared to five fish measuring 129 inches on the Smith. That flipped on Saturday, however, as anglers on the Smith River caught 12 steelhead totaling 331 inches, while nine fish totaling 265 were caught on the second day on the Chetco.
Marc Scarr caught the biggest fish — a 38-inch monster he hauled out of the Chetco River with guide Chris Griffeth, and the first steelhead he has ever caught.
Last year’s champions Tyler and Troy Travis floated with the same fishing guide as last year, Kim Hagen, but couldn’t replicate their results from 2017. Tyler said they hooked a small steelhead on the Chetco Friday, and managed to get two on the line and land both Saturday on the Smith.
Despite the struggle, spirits stayed high.
“Of course everybody wants to win, but it’s not like we are winning a million-dollar purse here,” Thomas said. “It’s more about the camaraderie. The participants are great. They know what the conditions are going in and they keep a positive attitude. That really makes it all worthwhile. The people really have a good attitude coming in whether it’s high water like last year and there is no chance of catching fish, or low water like this year, and no chance of catching fish.
“It’s a group coming together to raise money for something they believe in. That’s the highlight for me. It is just good people supporting a good cause.”
Organizers believe the derby brought in about $40,000 for the hatchery, the only privately-funded hatchery in California.
“I like everything about the derby — the camaraderie, the other guides, the participants who come,” Thomas said. “It brings in a lot of money for the hatchery. Hopefully we are going in the right direction to help restore some of our fishery and make it better for future generations.”
Kathy Figas and Linda Sundberg contributed to the hatchery more directly.
“One fish we caught went right to the hatchery,” Sundberg said. “I landed it and the guy from the hatchery was right there. We didn’t even get a picture of it; he came down and put it in a tube and away he went. We felt really good about that.”
The two also felt pretty good about their bragging rights they hold for the next year.
“I figure when the guys win, nobody remembers who wins,” Figas said. “But when the girls win, they’re going to remember that. We probably won’t catch any then, but that’s the way that it is.”
Reach Michael Zogg at email@example.com .