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King Salmon Are Weird

Issue: June 2015

Here’s a beautiful spring chinook that ate a small crawdad crankbait we were casting towards the shore for smallmouth on the lower Sacramento River.

Kings are truly strange critters when they hit freshwater. Out at sea, they are normal predators…basically one-track-minded killing machines that chase bait schools around. But man, when they hit the sweet water, things start to get weird.

For example, think about the stuff we catch them on. Even though roe is one of the top offerings, have you ever stopped for a second and thought…really thought…about it? It doesn’t make a ton of sense why a fish that’s not supposed to be eating will greedily gobble down big globs of their own genetic material cinched down in an egg loop, right? Making matters even stranger is the fact that we take a natural bait like roe and feel compelled to cure it with all sorts of chemicals, then dye it an unnatural color and expect the fish to want to eat it.

Weird!

And then there’s all the other wacky stuff that kings will bite from time to time. Probably the most bizarre one I have seen occurred as I was guiding on the Sacramento River for trout. We were drifting nymphs next to the boat in a fast riffle when one of the guys’ indicator was sucked down. At first, I thought he was snagged but then the “bottom” started shaking its head violently.

After an epic scrap on a 5-weight, we eventually landed a 13-pound hen chinook…our size 14 Bird’s Nest nymph stuck solidly on the inside of her upper jaw. What the heck?

When I was working at Alaska’s Togiak River Lodge last summer, one of the guides was cleaning a chinook for his guest and found a chunk of fresh halibut in its belly. The curious part of the story is somebody cleaned halibut at the lodge earlier that morning and threw the carcasses into the river. The salmon in question was caught later that day, just upstream of the lodge.

On a similar note, I was hovering eggs on the Sacramento River last October right next to a boat that was anchored-up with plugs. The hole was stuffed with kings but they were not biting in the warm water. The guy next to me said he was done with salmon and was going to “see if at least the catfish were biting.” He reeled up his Flatfish and then tossed out a chunk of sardine with a heavy sinker and put his rod in the holder. A few minutes later, a bright 18-pound buck slurped that cutbait right up off the bottom and the fight was on.

While chasing striped bass with 5-inch swimbaits, I have caught my fair share of kings. This one snapped up a Robo Ocean Swimbait on the Feather River.

I’ve actually seen that one bunches of times on the Sacramento and Feather rivers in the spring and fall. It’s just so strange when you think about a salmon swimming along and then smelling something tasty, pointing his nose down into the silt and gobbling up a bait that’s lying on the bottom. A funny image, isn’t it?

Years ago on a small river in Southwest Alaska, I had clients fishing eggs under bobbers. The lodge didn’t have any bobbers that season, so I was improvising, using big Cheaters pegged to the line with toothpicks. With three guys in the boat, I had each rod rigged with a different color bobber—one chartreuse, one orange and one hot pink so I could keep track of whose line was doing what.

We had five kings one day come up to the surface and eat the bobbers…just like bass on top-water frogs. The interesting thing was they all hit the pink bobber and left the other two completely alone! The same scenario occurred several other days on the river that summer—and it was always the pink bobber that the kings wanted to blow up on.

Of course, I have caught a few kings over the years on pink worms while steelhead fishing which is kinda nutty, but not nearly as much as the springer my buddy caught this year in Washington on a black/chartreuse tail Mad River Steelhead Worm under a bobber.

Speaking of black stuff, I had a season on the Nushagak River in Alaska when the kings showed a real preference for that color. I stumbled, quite by accident, onto the fact that the river’s chinook loved all-black leeches while trout fishing. In fact, they were so into black that I decided to do a little impromptu test on a small tributary. In hole after hole stacked with kings, I’d let a buddy go through with good eggs under a bobber and then I would come in behind with a fly rod stripping black leech patterns. When it was said and done, I caught a dozen or so more kings than he did.

Now, I won’t be ditching my eggs for flies anytime soon, but on that given day the fish were crazy for the black bugs. And I guess that’s my point here: kings are moody, unpredictable buggers and there’s no telling what you might get one to bite.

Down in the California Delta where I do a lot of striper fishing, we have caught plenty of kings on swimbaits, Rat-L-Traps and jerk baits. One that really stands out was a chrome springer from a couple years back that smacked a tiny crawfish-pattern crankbait fished in about five feet of water for smallmouth bass.

A friend hooked a 30-pound chinook last season in three feet of water on a flooded island in the Delta while flipping a rubber crawfishy-looking bait in the tules for largemouth. Way weird!

I could go on and on here, but it would be fun to hear from some of you guys. I bet some of you have some kooky salmon stories too. Feel free to share some with me. You can reach me through my website, www.fishwithjd.com

Jon Boats: The Ultimate Off-Road Vehicles

Issue: May 2015

The amazing ability of a small jon with a jet to run shallow makes just getting there more than half the fun.

Okay, I’ve got to admit that I think a 16-foot bare-bones jonboat with a pump on it is one of the coolest boats on the planet. Don’t get me wrong, I love my current guide boat—a Pavati Destroyer tiller sled. That boat has faithfully served me season after season in comfort, fishability and style. It runs shallower than any full-sized sled I have ever operated…but there are just some places even it won’t go.

That’s where the good ol’ jonboat comes into play. A 16-foot flat-bottom jon weighs next to nothing, scoots along with minimal power and will just about run on a wet lawn.

Over eight seasons of guiding in the backcountry of Southwest Alaska, I’ve driven uncountable miles in these things and it’s absolutely mind-blowing where a little jet jon can take you. Up tiny, tiny creeks (don’t forget coming back down is harder!), over logjams and beaver dams and through impossible shallows and nearly dry gravel bars. A jon can get you there…

And by the way, getting there is often more fun than the actual destination!

Made from super light-gauge aluminum, jon boats are extremely light…yet surprisingly durable. You can abuse these poor things (believe me, I have!) and they can take a pounding. In fact, I still have a small, old Sears Gamefisher johnboat that I bought in my 20’s that I have absolutely bludgeoned over the years. There’s no way the thing should still float but it does.

The light hull weight of a small jon is one of the things I really like about them. When you are blazing up a creek that’s a couple inches deep, there’s something very comforting in the knowledge that…should you tattoo a sand bar or dry patch of gravel…you will be able to drag the boat back into deeper water. That’s obviously not a luxury afforded to full-size sleds.

Another really sweet advantage to running a light boat is you can get away with a lot less horsepower. They typical 16-foot jonboat will take up to about a 40-hp motor (check with the individual manufacturer for specs). Obviously, a smaller motor means less fuel burn. Trust me, a jerry jug or two of gas is so much nicer on the pocketbook than the big 150- to 250-horse beasts hanging off the back of most big sleds.

There are plenty of companies out there that make these little back-country exploration vessels: Lund, Lowe, G3, Sea Ark and Tracker are a few just off the top of my head. Depending on the manufacturer, 16-foot jons come in widths from 48 to 52 inches. I prefer the slightly wider models just for stability and planeability’s sake. Smoker Craft makes a 16-footer with a 60-inch bottom and it is a very nice boat, with floors, side trays and an internal fuel tank, but it’s also more expensive than the basic, no-frills jon boat.

A basic 16-foot jon boat can get you into some remote country!

Another very interesting entry in this arena is Hog Island Boatworks’ 16-footer that is a roto-molded mini sled made from two layers of high-density polyethylene that sandwich a core of rigid polyethylene foam. The result is a bulletproof boat (literally…there is a video on the Hog Island website in which they shoot one of their boats with a shotgun at close range) that is light and unsinkable.

I like to keep a jon as basic as possible. I don’t want to weigh it down with tons of bells and whistles—and that’s the whole point, right? The idea here is to have a rig that can get you back where nobody else can go. The more stuff you add, the more the weight and the cost go up.

Some companies offer tunnel hulls, which enable you to actually run the bottom of the jet intake up a little higher than the bottom of the boat, where it is much less likely to come in contact with unfriendly and immovable objects on the bottom. A standard jon boat simply has a flat bottom all the way to the transom and the jet’s shoe will be flush with the bottom. This is a matter of personal preference—I have talked to guys who swear by the tunnel design and others who don’t much like it.

Tunnel hulls and standard hulls have different transom heights (again, depending on the individual boat company), so be sure to check what size your boat has before buying a motor. Two-stroke outboards are lighter and have a better hole shot (which comes in handy in small creeks), but on the small models you normally have to do all the oil premixing.

Four-strokes are quieter, burn less fuel and don’t require mixing of the oil and gas—but are also more expensive and heavier. I’ll leave motor selection to you so you can decide which features are most important in your individual case.

I’ve spent more time running the mega-reliable Yamaha 30/40 four-stroke jet than any other small outboard, so that one is my personal favorite, but there are obviously lots of choices out there.

I generally like pull-start motors for a little jon. Even though hand starting a 40hp power head can sometimes be a bit of a chore, there are two distinct advantages. One is you don’t need a battery, so you keep the weight down. Secondly, you can run a pull-start motor in the unlocked position so that when you hit something going like a bat outta hell, it will kick up. An electric start, power trim motor stays locked into the down position—and there’s no “give” there when you smack a rock.

Well, writing all this stuff about jon boats is making me feel the urge to go drop mine into the creek and go blaze a trail into the unexplored backwaters somewhere. Gotta go! Talk to you next issue!

A Chip Off the Ol’ Zog, WA Steelhead, More Hatchery Fish and Some Cool Gear!

Issue: April 2015

 Sometimes you’ve just got to get away and recharge your soul!

Okay, I’m going with some very random thoughts this time around…

 Private Zog
First off, I’d like to say I was very impressed with River Herzog’s article in the February issue of STS. If you haven’t read it yet, dig it out…it’s well worth it! The son of our very own General Zog appears to have picked up some of pop’s gift and I hope he decides to pump out more articles in the future. To become a true Metal God like his dad, however, Grasshopper needs to get his 80’s hair band references straight (it was Brett Michaels, not Axel Rose who sang “Every Rose Has its Thorn,” by the way). But anyway, it was really nice to see some fresh blood in STS! Welcome to the family, Private Zog!

 I’ve been rocking the STORMR gear now for a couple years and it’s kept me warm and dry in all kinds of crazy weather!



Down With Wild Fish?
It’s been driving me crazy lately…all these organizations have been suing fish and game departments over hatchery production need to take a step back for a moment and look at the larger picture.

I am in total agreement that some streams should be managed as wild fisheries. Ones that have never had hatcheries on them, still have suitable habitat and are away from urban areas make total sense.

But we all know that there are many rivers that are lost causes without hatcheries—human encroachment, habitat loss, dams, logging, pollution, etc. have all taken their toll and without supplemental fish, there would be no fisheries there.

When there are no hatchery fish around, wild streams will suffer from greater angler pressure. With no hatchery fish, a major component of many small-town economies goes away. With no hatchery fish, the entire stream’s ecosystem is deprived of nutrients. If there are no hatchery fish to be caught, rivers will be (and already have) closed to fishing. And when that happens, anglers will lose interest and that’s no bueno considering fishing groups are among the biggest fish conservation advocates around.

Do I wish we still had nothing but wild fish in our rivers? Of course! But that’s a pipe dream. To just stop planting hatchery fish on rivers that have dams and hatcheries on them already and expect them to return to their former wild glories seems crazy.

We can, of course, improve our hatchery practices and management policies, but to completely go away from hatchery-produced salmon and steelhead is scary.

A nice mix of healthy wild and hatchery runs sounds like the way to go to me. And stop it already with all these lawsuits that bog down our fish & game departments. The pull on resources—both human and fiscal—does nothing but keep the departments busy in the courtrooms instead of afield.

This, folks, is again why everyone should support organizations like CCA and, further south, the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

Wild fish are so awesome, but we also need to ahve solid runs of hatchery fish in some rivers!

Steelie Therapy
I recently got a chance to (finally) get away and do some fishing on the Washington Coast, where the fishing and scenery were fantastic! It was awesome to spend three straight days away from guiding and writing and everything else and just focus on steelhead! My friend and guide Ryan Bullock put us onto some really good fishing, including a couple of big bucks that were just shy of 20 pounds. Everybody needs a little “Steelhead Therapy” now and then!

Gear Reviews
I don’t like to review stuff until I’ve had a chance to really use and abuse it. Well, a couple items I’ve had the opportunity to punish this winter are Aquaz Waders and STORMR foul-weather gear. I’ve been wearing both now for quite some time and had really good experiences.

The STORMR Strykr jacket and bibs are rad! It’s a totally unique lineup of foul-weather gear that’s made of neoprene. But it’s not your grandpa’s 5mm suit of armor. This stuff is lightweight and features 4-way stretch. The bibs and jacket are awesome in the sled or drift boat on cold mornings and the whole outfit is perfect for those cold, wet days on the salt.

What I like about STORMR is they are willing to listen to the customers. When I had an issue with one of the early versions of the bibs, they corrected the problem and the new versions of the suits are as watertight as a frog’s you-know-what! The stuff’s not cheap, but it’s pretty bulletproof and built for the long haul!

Speaking of watertight, I’m not even sure how you can make a zipper that doesn’t let water in, but the one on my Aquaz Dryzip waders is amazing. This is the first set of zipper-front waders I’ve ever had and I’m in love! These things really shine on those rainy days when you have a bunch of gear on…and Nature calls. So easy…no fuss, no muss!

I bought the boot-foot style, which comes with nice Boggs boots integrated. I haven’t had a set of boot foots in decades and they are really the way to go for any type of fishing that doesn’t involve a lot of walking. I have walked several miles in them and they are fine, but if I were doing some extreme hiking I’d rather have the ankle support of wading boots.

For everything else, though, these things rock! Super comfortable and my feet stay warmer because of the better circulation in the boots. And then there’s the easy on, easy off factor! Another interesting aside, I’ve yet to have the straps tangle up, which is cool. If you’ve worn waders ever in your life you know what I’m talking about here!

Kenai: Still the River of Dreams

Issue: March 2015

River of Dreams

The tackle blew me away. The reels these guys were using looked like they were designed for bluefin, not salmon. The hooks were big enough to hang a deer off of and the line was stout enough to pull a truck out of the mud. The rods were so thick and heavy they looked better suited to a billiards hall than a fishing boat. And then there were those gloriously massive Spin-N-Glos that were the size of dog toys and the equally impressive balls of eggs.

Coming from the Lower 48 and seeing these tools for catching Kenai River chinook for the first time was an awesome moment for me. At 22, I’d caught plenty of kings in the Sacramento River and tributaries, but I was clearly in a different world now. All I knew was that I was extremely excited—and just a tad nervous—to see what sort of beasts required such heavy artillery to subdue.

My guide for the day was Joe Aley of Alaska Midnight Sun Adventures. I’m not sure whatever happened to Joe, but I’ll always be grateful for the day he took me on my first Kenai adventure.

It was just the two of us and Joe explained that the fishing had been tough. The crew he’d just fished had caught something like 2 fish in 5 days. He also told me that the tide was still several hours away from being prime, so we’d probably have to just grind it out until the turn.

I didn’t care. I was so stoked to be on the mythical river and see all of her sights and sounds. It was like walking out onto the mound at Yankee Stadium and I could feel the electricity. Joe headed downstream to the first spot and rigged me up with a fist-sized glob of red roe, the biggest Spin-N-Glo on Planet Earth and a Jet Diver large enough to drag a human to the bottom.

My guide instructed to me to test the drag before I dropped the rig into the water. The big Calcutta was buttoned down so tight that I couldn’t pull line off with my hand.

“Perfect!” he said. “Now, set the rig into the drink, let it back 45 feet and put the rod in the holder.”

At that point, I asked Joe if I could hold the rod. Before he could give me the “you’ll set the hook too quickly” speech, I told him I fished a ton of divers back home and was well-versed in the wait-to-set game.

Sadly, the Kenai has fallen on some tougher times since that day, but it’s still the river of dreams for me. Anytime you drop a bait or lure into that amazingly green water, there’s a chance at something spectacular!



“Trust me, I’m pretty good at this part,” I said. “And you are completely absolved of all responsibility. If I miss a bite, it’s totally my fault and I will put the rod in the holder the rest of the day.”

To his credit, Joe let me hold the rod…which I know from experience is very hard to do as a guide. He just made me swear that I’d give it a “three alligator count” before I set the hook.

As I clicked the marlin reel into free spool and let my gear back for the first drift, I popped my feet up on the gunwale and settled in for a relaxing day on the Kenai. Who cared if the fishing wasn’t any good? I was going to enjoy the sunshine, the conversation and fact that I was on one of the rivers of my dreams.

At 45 feet, I threw the reel into gear and the diver caught the ripping emerald current and dove for the bottom. What happened next is a bit of a blur.

My bait had been in the water a grand total of 12 seconds when my rod slammed down like a passing boat had picked up my line in its prop. Now that boat was speeding like a big rig with no brakes towards Cook Inlet.

Only it wasn’t a boat.

Some unseen leviathan was ripping line off that impossibly tight drag like it was nothing. It had all happened so fast—and with the subtlety of getting smacked across the face with a wet spatula on a cold winter day.

Luckily I was momentarily stunned—that kept instinct from kicking in and me from setting the hook prematurely. My brain was foggy and I could hear Joe yelling something but it wasn’t clear. It was as if I had some of those earmuffs on you wear when you’re mowing the lawn.

Things were happening fast…and oddly enough…very slowly too.

“One Alligator…”

“Two Alligator…”

Halfway through my third reptile count, I closed my eyes and executed the biggest haymaker hook-set of my life. For an instant, nothing happened and I suddenly wanted to puke. But then the rod tip snapped to the water, almost dragging my delirious self with it.

The fight was on…only I don’t remember any of it. None of the runs, the headshakes, the net sliding under it. Nothing, nada.

My next memory is of the fish lying dead on the floor of the boat and me wanting to lie down with it and hug it. For a kid who’d caught his share of dark, inland chinook up to maybe 30 pounds, this animal was something so totally different.

The big hen wasn’t missing a single scale; she had a perfect snow belly and an incredibly beautiful purple back. Joe said somewhat nonchalantly that she probably weighed somewhere in the high 40’s or maybe low 50’s. I couldn’t stop staring. Never had I imagined a fish so big and bright before—and she outweighed the largest hen I’d ever seen by about 20 pounds!

“I don’t wanna burst your bubble, but that’s simply a nice fish around here, not a big one,” Joe said. “When we go back to the dock, nobody’s gonna take a second look. It would be kinda like you taking a 25-pounder to the dock in Sacramento. Guys are gonna say ‘nice fish’ but that’s about it.”

And he was right. At our onshore photo session, I was walking on air, grinning ear to ear. Every time somebody walked by, I’d try to make eye contact to make sure they saw my trophy. No a single person gave my fish a passing glance.

It was then and there that I fell in love with the Kenai River. If a guy could have a gorgeous, huge salmon like the one I had hanging and not get the time of day from other people, I wanted to see what would get their attention!

Sadly, the Kenai has fallen on some tougher times since that day, but it’s still the river of dreams for me. Anytime you drop a bait or lure into that amazingly green water, there’s a chance at something spectacular!

Steelie’s Worst Nightmare

Issue: February 2015

Mad River Manufacturing has pumped out a bazillion red and black plastic steelhead worms.

So, what is it about the Nightmare color in steelhead worms, jigs and tubes? It’s funky looking…no question about it. Quite frankly, it’s a color pattern I would never in a million years have thought about—nor did I have any confidence in it for a long time. The Nightmare is just too odd: red, white and black. Steelheaders are so conditioned that pinks and oranges are our friends—and this color scheme is so outside that “norm” that it’s hard to take it seriously.

But trust me when I say that the Nightmare color pattern is aptly named—it is one heck of a steelhead producer and should be in everyone’s arsenal.

But why?

Nick Amato was bank fishing the Clackamas River when this 36-inch hatchery steelhead gobbled up the worm pictured above.



When it comes to breaking down why critters with pea-sized brains do the things they do, it’s sometimes better to just accept the facts and move on without over-analyzing the situation. But in this case, I just can’t let it go. For some reason, the steelhead’s affinity for red, black and white has my left-brain working on overdrive (which, after the college party years is running low on disk space).

So, I decided to write this column in a chronological fashion. First off, I figured I’d give you my sorry, weak theories on why the Nightmare might work and then, after that I’d call some experts and get their two cents worth. For what it’s worth, here we go….

Okay, here’s my best guess: The black and red portion of the Nightmare kinda makes sense to me. I guess you can say it’s a little more natural—even sorta “buggy” looking. Less intrusive than a lot of the fluorescent colors we fish, it may be able to “sneak up” on wary fish better than the bright stuff—especially in low, clear or pressured waters—yet still provide enough attraction to get fish to bite it. Kinda makes sense, right?

The white part, however, has me stumped. The only thing I can come up with is that it provides contrast when used in concert with the other two colors.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got. Time to get on the phone and ask around…

First, I called the very guy who I feel has caught more steelhead on jigs than anyone I know: our very own Nick Amato. He’s also the person who helped me catch my first steelhead on a jig a million years ago.

“Geez, I donno why they like the Nightmare color,” said Nick. “I guess it kinda looks like a bug and has some natural color shades. Plus, you have the contrast in there…but who knows really why they bite it?”

My next call was to Jimmy Davis, owner of Mad River Manufacturing. He’s pumped out a bazillion Nightmare worms from his facility and I figured maybe some of his many customers might have shed some light on the subject.

Black, red and white is a color combination that steelhead sometimes can’t resist.



“I’m not totally sure, but the Nightmare sure seems to get their attention,” he said. “I guess it’s the contrast for one. And maybe the more natural colors.”

I then dialed up Ryan Bullock a Washington State steelhead guide.

“Contrast would be my guess,” he said.

At that point, I was sensing a pattern, but had one more call to make. I rang up Bob Kratzer, Owner of Angler’s Guide Service on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. He fishes a ton of worms and jigs each year and is a big fan of the Nightmare. He’d surely have a good theory, right?

“Ha, ha, ha! I’ve got no idea why they eat that thing,” he said. “But it’s crazy how much they love the Nightmare. It’s gotta be the contrast and the color is more natural looking than bright pink.”

Bob also noted that a couple of his customers over the years have reported seeing natural worms in the gravel that wiggled away before being apprehended—worms that had a similar red hue to that of the Nightmare. So, there may be something to that but Bob’s never seen one himself.

After my phone work, I was feeling better that maybe my personal theories weren’t so hair-brained after all. The contrast and toned-down coloration was certainly a common theme. And that makes sense too when you consider that the consensus from my impromptu panel of experts was that the Nightmare is at its fishy best in low and clear water conditions.

But the bottom line is nobody really knows for sure why steelhead are drawn to this color pattern. One thing’s for certain, however: steelhead love a good Nightmare!

Fishing: More Questions Than Answers

Issue: January 2015

There’s so much to be learned from just listening when you meet other anglers out on the river!

Before I started guiding in 1998, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. After all, my buddies and I typically did very well on the chinook and steelhead in our backyard stream, the American River in Northern California.

But in that first season of professional fishing, it quickly became obvious that I really had no clue what I was doing. I was not only surprised by my lack of knowledge, but also scared to death of it. I mean, here I was starting this new career…yet apparently, I was in way over my head.

It dawned on me soon thereafter that in my pre-guiding, fun-fishing period, we usually cherry-picked the best days. My friends and I would hit the river when it was in perfect shape, at the peak of the run and on a quiet weekday—and would go play golf or something else when the conditions weren’t right. Of course as a guide, you have to be able to produce when things are less than perfect—when the river’s on the rise and full of leaves; when there are a million boats and the water is low and clear; when the dreaded North wind is blowing, and so on…

Suddenly, I realized that there was so much to learn!

Now, let’s fast forward to the present day, seventeen years later. In the nearly two decades since I ran my first trip, I am light years ahead of that guy who started with a 16-foot Clacka and a dream. But despite the tens of thousands of hours on the water, I feel like there’s still so much to learn.

I recently had a guy in my boat who was sure that I knew everything there was to know about fishing since it’s what I’ve done for a living for so long. I couldn’t help but laugh and told him that the more I learn about fish and their habits, the less I feel I know. It’s kind of like one of those Bloomin’ Onions at Outback Steakhouse…the more layers you peel back, the more you find on the inside.

More Questions than Answers!

Learn everything you can about your favorite species and the places they call home.



But isn’t that one of the really amazingly cool aspects of our sport? You can never know it all and there’s always room to learn and grow as an angler. You start with getting the basics down, then you start zeroing in on the smaller details. Next you narrow your focus again and learn about the tiny factors that can influence your success (or not). And with every new level of knowledge you reach, you’ll find more questions that have to be answered.

One of the things I tell young anglers and would-be guides: Spend less time on message boards and social media bragging and instead just be a sponge. Listen. Talk to old-timers. Talk to guides. Talk to the guys at the local tackle shop. Read. Read some more. Do research. Learn everything you can about your favorite species and the places they call home.

Do less talking and more listening at the boat ramp or gravel bar too. Pay attention to what others are saying—there are nuggets of wisdom to be gleaned out there and most anglers like to talk. Some of my favorite little tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way came from chats with anglers on the water. Maybe it’s something big like an egg cure or a hot lure, but more often than not you’ll get something smaller from these streamside interactions with other fisher folk: A new way to rig the hooks on your plugs, a better braid knot, a way to keep sand shrimp fresher longer, etc. Trust me, all these little things add up over time!

Don’t ever let yourself believe that you have something completely wired or dialed in…because you don’t. Fish can and will humble you. I’ve found that those tough days can actually have a silver lining, though. They force me to carefully analyze what went wrong and learn from my mistakes so I make sure it doesn’t happen again (though it probably will…we are talking about fish after all!).

Knowledge in this game is powerful and the more open you are to taking in new stuff, the better you will become. And the better you get at this sport the more you will realize that there are more questions than answers!

How to Avoid Fishing Infections

Issue: December 2014

It’s crazy how quickly a seemingly harmless little cut can turn into a dangerous infection!

Take a very close look at that ugly infected finger…my finger…in the above photo. Nasty, right? Well, that thing ended up getting worse before it got better, and at one point, I had red veins going up my arm and there was concern that I could lose the digit, my arm…or even my life! The crazy thing is this whole situation started as a tiny, seemingly innocuous line cut-—and then things went haywire.

My spooky run-in with a serious infection far from medical attention has inspired me to share what I learned from the experience. Hopefully, you can avoid going down the same path with some simple preventative steps. 

So, let me back up here. Last summer, I was guiding on Alaska’s Togiak River, where the coho fishing was nothing short of sublime. Of course, when you’re dealing with dozens and dozens of fish per day, line burns from grabbing leaders and unhooking salmon beside the boat are part of the game. Trust me, your fingers also suffer plenty of nicks from fish teeth, gill rakers and hook points too. 

It was the same deal over on the nearby Nushagak River, where I previously guided for seven seasons: Dealing with tons of kings, your hands and, especially, fingers get pretty beat up.

Line burns are the worst. They’re like paper cuts on steroids and when you have a bunch of them on your fingers, they can make tying knots and other basic fishing tasks difficult. So, for eons, I’ve been dousing my cuts with hydrogen peroxide and then covering them with liquid bandage. 

That program has worked for decades and I have never once had a cut that got infected. In fact, I have joked many times over the years that I’m a blood brother with the salmon, often inadvertently mixing their blood with mine—and then rinsing in river water. 

Well, back in Togiak, my system failed me. Over the course of a couple days, a nearly microscopic line cut turned into that grotesquely swollen (and extremely painful) finger in the photo. The next day, it was purple and a day later, I had red lines going up my arm—a sign of very dangerous blood poisoning. 

The incident forced me home early and cost me a week of work—but luckily that was all it cost me. Left unchecked, an infection like that can result in lost limbs or even death. 

I was put on a daily dose close to 4,000 mg worth of antibiotics and had three different varieties pumping through me for 10 days. We caught it in time and the drugs did their thing but it was a rugged week and I felt like crud with all that stuff inside me—but I survived. 

So, I learned a few things from all of this and will share them with you here. 

First off, don’t ever use that paint-on liquid bandage stuff! What ended up happening was I sealed some bacteria inside my hand when I used it. Apparently, I didn’t get all the “bad guys” out with the peroxide, and by painting over the cut, there was no way for my body to flush it out. A salmon stream has tons of bacteria in it—from rotting fish carcasses, animal poop and the like—and when you don’t give it a way to get out of your system, bad things can happen fast!

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