As I write early into the morning of September 10th, 2012, I am spending my final evening in Newport. On the morrow I will be checking out of my apartment at Hatfield Marine Science Center, moving back to Corvallis and continuing on with the last two weeks of my summer, my education, and my regular life.
I sit here reflecting back on the summer of 2012, and I can't help but think about the great friends and memories that I have made while spending my summer here. In this moment I'd like to dedicate this entire blog post to those people. They include the fantastic family of coworkers I had at the Mid-Coast District Office, and all of the lovely folks I had the pleasure of meeting along the way. You all know who you are, and I wish you the best of tidings into the fall. It has been an absolute pleasure being here, and I will take these experiences forward with me into my career in Fisheries and Wildlife.
The last month has been a bit of a blur. I intended on writing more frequently then I actually did, but when life starts coming at you with opportunities - you tend to spend a little more time away from the computer. That is perfectly fine with me, so I opted to wait and make one final "mega" post. I am going to present another string of photos from my experiences in the last month, and explain as I go. You all know the drill... so sit back, enjoy a tasty beverage, and enjoy some of my final moments as the Mid-Coast District intern.
Of course, to start this blog post off right... I will discuss my first solo fishing trip in the Siletz gorge.
On the Sunday morning of August 5th, I left my apartment at 4:00AM to make the trek up the gorge (as I had done for three days a week all summer) and attempt to catch my first ever steelhead on a solo trip. After escaping the usual morning marine layer that blanketed Newport's sky, I was welcomed entering the Siletz gorge by a gorgeous baby blue sky and an orange rising sun. Making my way up the winding Gorge road an untold number of miles, I play with the idea of where I want to start my morning off. Being up in the gorge on the weekend is a benefit because you essentially have all of the 12.5 miles to fish that you want, providing that you get there early enough to secure your spot. After minutes of deciding, I park my Chevy, gear up and lace up in fishing waders (or as I like to call, the "batsuit"). Using a headlamp, I make my way down the hillside in twilight by strictly following the narrow game trail. I am making my way down to a particular stretch of river that myself and Evan found success in the previous weekend. Adrenaline started flowing through my veins like wildfire, and I knew that today was going to be a special day. I am usually quite ecstatic on my way down to the river, but nothing I had ever felt before could quite compare to this. There was something almost mystical about it, and I was prepared to find out why.
Finding the river at the bottom of the narrow trail, I walk upriver and immediately don my polarized yellow lens sunglasses, hoping to spot some sign of fish presence in the area. The surface of the first slow-moving pool I come across instantly starts reacting. A large adult salmonid, most likely a summer steelhead, boils at the surface, letting his presence be known. My heart starts thumping in my chest uncontrollably, and with the help of my glasses I am able to spot a very large pod of fish, roughly 40 that I could count, maybe more. My hands shaking a bit uncontrollably, I unhook my steelhead jig from the hook eye on my rod and set the depth that I want to start at. I put a tail of a freshly caught sandshrimp onto the hook. On my first cast through the hole, I witness no reaction. Second cast, nothing. Ten casts later, still not a single bite. I start to get a bit frustrated, but I never lose confidence.
It is well known that attempting to catch salmon and steelhead that are holding in slow moving water can be futile. When you target slow moving water, it gives the fish a very long time to look at your presentation. If your presentation is not as perfect as possible, these fish will become weary and will not bite. Even when you think it is absolutely perfect, sometimes it is just not enough. Despite that fact, it does not mean that fish will not bite in slower water. It just means that you have to give the fish EXACTLY what they want. How do you figure out what they want? You need to be versatile, and try as many methods as you possibly can. Switch jig colors. Change the line rating (go from 10lb test leader to 8, or 6, or even 4 if you dare). Try jig and sandshrimp/smaller piece/no shrimp at all. Try a different bait. Try a different lure. The choices are as endless as you can make them. Most people decide to try other faster moving water, which doesn't trouble me one bit. There have been instances where a fish has taken my offering on the very first cast, and some instances where I didn't get a single bite until my 40th cast of the 5th different jig color. That day, it was somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
Around 9:30AM, I could easily still spot the pack, but they were neglecting anything I threw at them. Previously, I stuck to trying jigs that I knew Evan and I had caught fish on in the previous weeks. I finally resorted to trying a jig that I had tied up the night before, using my own materials. The particular jig was made using a 1/8oz orange painted jighead and two purple marabou feathers. A simple design from a very good friend of mine that I had seen him create a good while ago, that he dubbed the "Z-Special". On my first cast through the pack, after resetting my depth and attaching a fresh sandshrimp tail, I see a shadow that had an overwhelming red tone to it dart out from the pack and inhale my jig, sending my bobber a foot below the surface. Still half asleep and a bit dazed from the previous inactivity, my neurons spark at just the right moment and I set a delayed hook into the fish's mouth. Quickly, I adjust my drag a bit weaker to better play the fish. The surface instantly exploded with violent fury as the red rocket started performing a spectacular aerial show, cartwheeling like an Olympic gymnast. One.. two.. three.. four.. after the fifth cartwheel I lost count, watching it barrel roll downstream for its life. Struggling to control my drag, the red fish I now knew to be another lost Sockeye salmon took every advantage it could get, and found a way to spit the hook from its mouth. It was over as quick as it had started, but it was enough to get my blood boiling again.
Without thinking, I instantly throw back in the same spot, not even caring to add another shrimp tail. I see a chrome steelhead lay waiting not ten feet downstream from where my jig enters the river. I quickly adjust my presentation so that the jig will float within inches of its face, and patiently wait. The water is so gin clear, I'm not even looking at my bobber at this point - just the jig as it inches closer and closer to the holding steelhead. I wait... and wait... and wait... and within six inches of the jig floating directly by the fish, I see the steelhead shuffle forward, open and close its mouth repeatedly like chewing a piece of bubblegum, and the orange head of the jig is gone from visible sight. Instantly I snap my wrist upright, and raise the rod over my head. The fish angrily reacts by swimming down into the depths of the pool, and returning to the surface at full speed - launching over six feet out of the water. Setting my drag over and over (feeling paranoid about losing the fish), we take part in a glorious battle for a solid ten minutes - leaving me awed with every spectacular cartwheel and taking as much line as it possibly can every time it makes a reel-screaming run away from the bank. I recognize that I am fighting a hatchery steelhead when it comes close enough to the bank that I can identify its missing adipose fin.
Finally succumbing to its own depleted strength, I get knee-deep into the river and slowly glide the fish towards me and the bank. As it comes within inches of my hand, the fish flips in a perfect 180-degree turn with one last powerful thrust of its tail and makes one more screaming run into the pool. As I turn the fish around one last time, I know that it has run its course. Turning upside down, it glides back towards me and beaches itself between a few rocks on the bank. I grab the fish by the gills and start running up the bank like a crazed madman, getting at least ten feet clear of the shoreline before stopping. The fish is an absolutely gorgeous male summer steelhead, tipping the scale likely around the ten pound mark. I stand there for a moment - a struggling steelhead in one hand and fishing rod in the other - in a suddenly quiet world. And in that moment I found peace within myself.
Some might ask... how does killing fish help one find peace? Seriously, dude, are you crazy or what?
Honestly, I can't really tell you the answer. The act of killing another organism is not the rhyme to the reason - only a choice that one has the ability to make. I had just as much of an opportunity to release this beautiful fish as I did to kill it. And given as honorable of a fight as I endured, I felt a bit too powerful taking the life of this fish into my own hands, literally. Almost too powerful, to be honest. But the benefit of this hatchery-bred fish is that they are released into the river for the sole purpose of sport fishing. The "sport" of fishing is the act of taking on these beautiful beings of nature in a life-or-death battle, where one has the ability to experience an engagement of instinct over emotion, sometimes brawn over brains. It is a very unique experience that many have never had the opportunity to engage in. There is so much more to it then just "catching a fish". It is one of the only instances in my life where I have felt alive in the truest sense of the word.
"Enjoyment should come from the pursuit of your quarry, not the acquisition of dead fish." ~ Jed Davis
Being a hatchery fish not only makes this fish a legal means of obtaining sustenance for oneself, but retention is extremely encouraged. While the glory and beauty of sport fishing lies in the battle, the added benefit of having a delicious meal to take home and enjoy with loved ones - and share the spoils of a well-fought victory - is what has been driving sport fishermen since the dawn of time. These hatchery fish fuel a overwhelming industry of hard working human beings who make fishing boats, rods, reels, lures, and run fishing guide services. It gives fishery managers and biologists the ability to manage stocks of wild fish while still allowing for sport and commercial fish harvest for the public. They teach sustainable practice by allowing anglers to selectively harvest hatchery fish while (in most cases) keeping wild fish from being targeted and their stocks depleted. Overall, the program has been a benefit to the sport of fishing, and is viewed as an essential task in fisheries management.
As a feeling washes over me akin to a cracked egg trickling down from the top of my head, I return to reality. I quickly process the fish to put it out of its misery and bleed it to allow for long-term freshness of the meat. I strongly feel that if you are going to retain a fish, you should do it as ethically as humanly possible. After that, I bask in a little of my own success and snap a few photos.
I had never felt more proud of myself in my entire life. Catching just one of these fantastic fish is a privilege and a blessing, but catching two of them in the same day while enduring the loss of a fishing rod and overcoming the loss of another fish has become one of the most encouraging victories of my entire fishing career.
It was a beautiful day to seine in the bay!
For the steelhead that we capture, we anesthetize them in MS-222, a light/moderate anesthetic which helps keep them calm while we take genetic samples (a small sliver of tail fin). The tail will actually regenerate in time. After giving them time to recover, we will release them back into the river.
Ben, one of the Siletz Tribe EBAs and a classmate of mine at Oregon State University, prepares to take a genetic sample.
Looking at "Site 1"
Bill snorkeling a nice pool.
And with that... that was a wrap!