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The Internet: Love It? Loathe It?

Issue: September 2015

Posting fish pictures on social media is fine...just do it responsibly.

The Internet…When it comes to fishing, I absolutely loathe it. And at the same time I love it.

The massive amount of information online provides anglers with an unlimited amount of educational material. But at the same time, it can be very, very dangerous.

With a couple flicks of your thumbs, you can instantly find weather forecasts, river flows, directions to boat ramps, up-to-the-minute fishing reports, instructions on how to cure eggs or tie knots or cut-plug a herring…basically anything you want to know about the fishing world is right there at your fingertips.

But there’s a dark side as well. One of my major issues with the Internet comes from folks who we will call “chest pounders” here. We all know the type: the guy who goes and fishes a spot (often for the first time), gets all excited about it and then feels the need to post pictures of his catch online.

Apps like FishHead are full of really detailed information.

That in itself I don’t have an issue with. Most folks, myself included, like to throw some pictures up online of catches we are proud of. It’s when people start posting specific locations or GPS coordinates of vulnerable fisheries that bugs me. Go ahead and let everybody see your fish, but why tell the world where your secret spot is? I just don’t get that. Especially when those people are usually first-timers burning somebody else’s spot…

I suppose it’s a person’s prerogative to destroy their own fishing hole by posting directions to it online, but if you weren’t the first one there, you should have respect for those who came before you and not blab it to the world.

I have a tough time looking at fishing forums, for fear that some quiet place I hold near and dear to my heart might be listed as the subject of one of the threads. Nothing blows up a spot faster than its inclusion on one of these message boards. I once saw a favorite little stream of mine on one of these sites, and when I looked to see how many times the thread had been read, it was something like 14,000! Note to self, kiss that spot goodbye!

I’ve always felt that figuring things out for myself was much more fun and interesting—and part of the game—than just being spoon-fed the information on the Internet.

That doesn’t mean however, you shouldn’t use information that’s available to you out there. I just think that total reliance on someone else’s data tends to make folks less skilled anglers. Part of what helps make you get better at this sport is learning things on your own.

From a business standpoint, I have found both the good and the bad sides of the Internet. On one hand, it is a wonderful marketing tool. Guides and charter captains can reach more people than ever these days and there are all sorts of cool tools like online booking and real-time fishing reports and pictures that make business easier and more effective.

However, lots of us are also seeing a new trend towards people shying away from booking as early as they used to. In the old days, the client would get out of the boat and say “put me down for the same date next year” and that would be that... no questions asked. Now, I’ll sometimes start getting calls from clients several days out asking if they should reschedule or cancel because the online fishing reports have been poor.

I totally understand why someone would do that. They spend their hard-earned money and want to get the most out of their day. But, I always remind them that fishing can and does change daily, even hourly, so it’s hard to base a trip entirely on reports. In that regard, my policy has always been that skunks can happen anytime when fishing, but if I have a pretty good feeling that you’re going to get skunked or have a slow day before we go out I’m going to call and let you make the decision.

In the fishing tackle retail world, the Internet has its good and bad points. Online shopping has made just about any fishing-related product you can imagine available to you provided you have a credit card. It’s pretty awesome to be able to find small, niche type stuff that you’re unable to locate in your local tackle stores. But at the same time I feel bad for the little mom and pop, brick-and-mortar shops that can’t compete with the big online retailers. Again, it’s the yin and the yang of the Internet.

What did we do before river flows were available on our Smartphones and computers? Well, we did what our grandfathers did…We drove over the river and took a look. If she was in and fishable, we went fishing. If it was blown out, we went and had breakfast.

These days people are so dialed-in to when a river’s going to be in shape that it sometimes creates extra-crowded conditions. Thanks to all this information regarding conditions that’s available to us now, fishing pressure tends to increase during optimum times. After all, who doesn’t want to go fishing when the river is perfect green and just dropping in?

I could go on and on about the pros and cons of the Internet and fishing but the fact of the matter is the Internet is here to stay. It’s definitely making the world a smaller place, and fishing holes more and more crowded. Hopefully, going forward, we can figure out how to use all this information in a responsible fashion that doesn’t lead to the detriment of our fisheries.

Update from the California Drought

Issue: August 2015

Many rivers are suffering from drought conditions. Thousands of Willamette River spring chinook have died due to high water temperatures.

Well, things are getting pretty ugly here in California where the drought is dragging into its 4th year. As of this writing in early summer, we are reaching a very scary, critical point. I know there’s drought happening all through the West—even Alaska—but here’s what’s happening in the aptly-named Golden State.

We’ve surpassed the big drought of the 1970’s now in terms of record low-water levels and are into uncharted territory. Hanging in the balance are many of the state’s fisheries and without rain this coming season, the situation looks dire indeed.

Fisheries managers have been working overtime to do what they can to help ease the effects of the drought, but things are moving fast. The Delta smelt, often considered the canary in the coalmine for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta system have all but gone extinct. A grand total of 9 of the little fish, once numbering in the mega-millions, were found during a two-month survey period this spring.

Sacramento River winter-run chinook, once numbering in the tens of thousands, are on the Endangered Species list and are regarded as one of the most at-risk species of salmon in the world. The drought has hit them especially hard and it is estimated that at least 95 percent of this year’s out-migrating juveniles died in the low, warm flows before ever reaching the ocean.

With numbers already dangerously low, the winter-run fish are at the brink. Their pitiful numbers could have a dramatic impact on next season’s ocean fishing off California and Southern Oregon as sweeping fishing closures for fall-run fish could be necessary to protect the remaining few winter chinook as they migrate along the coast.

Early this summer, various state agencies where negotiating about how to best protect the winter run. One plan of action was to hold back flows on the Sacramento River to ensure a cold-water supply for the winter kings later in fall. Taking the fall in that scenario, however, would be the American River, one of the Sac’s major tribs.

California water politics are more complicated than I could ever understand, but in low-water years like this, the salinity of the Delta becomes a big issue. Without freshwater to push the seawater back, the salt works its way up into the system where it has a devastating impact on irrigation and drinking water. So, with flows potentially being reduced on the Sacramento River, the American would have to take up the slack. What that could mean is flows would be pumped up all summer and then cut to a tiny trickle in early fall. Projections for this scenario have Folsom Reservoir, from which the American flows, down below 10 percent of capacity.

At that level, several surrounding municipalities’ water intakes would be high and dry. With the lake so drawn down, there would be no cold-water pool left and flows in the Lower American River could be as high as 78 degrees—right at the time the fall run of chinook are scheduled to arrive.

As I’m writing this, no decisions have been made, so we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m just glad I don’t have to make those difficult calls!

Speaking of fall chinook, the pre-season abundance forecasts showed there to be a pretty decent population of adult fish in the ocean, but here in mid-June, the fishing has yet to heat up. But, there is still time!

This spring, federal and state fisheries managers agreed to truck just about all of the state’s 30 million hatchery chinook salmon downriver to get them past the low flows and predators. Upon arrival at the Delta and Bay release sites, the little salmon were allowed to acclimate in net pens operated by the Fishery Foundation of California. Studies have shown that juvenile chinook released from the pens have a 400 percent increase in to-ocean survival. So, the state’s fall chinook in a few years should be okay, provided we get some rain and snow and the ocean conditions don’t get too bad.

Many rivers are suffering from drought conditions. Thousands of Willamette River spring chinook have died due to high water temperatures.

Help on the Way?

This is year 4 of the drought and year number 5 could be an absolute knockout punch. If California doesn’t get rain this coming winter, the consequences will be very difficult to stomach.

There may be some hope out on the horizon, however! Federal scientists with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are saying that the probability of an El Niño event being present through the end of 2015 is now 85-90 percent.

El Niño conditions start with warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean near the equator. That starts in motion a huge weather phenomenon that can have major impacts on global weather. Along the California coast, big events like the one that occurred in the winter of 1997-1998 brought massive amounts of water to the state.

Of course, El Niños can also bring dry weather, so the impacts are as of yet unknown. A lot can happen to a weather pattern between now and the rainy season, but at least it gives us a little bit of hope…

The downside of El Niño is the warming of the waters which messes greatly with the food chain. Salmon and steelhead runs, in particular, can get hard hit by this situation.

On the flip side, anadramous fish runs (not to mention humans) don’t do well when t

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.


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,

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.

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