Hook #7: Danger

Klamath River, OR
Trip Date:  October 12, 2014

At the Klamath River, it seems the wetter you're willing to get, the more likely you are to get a nice fish, like this 20" 3.625 pounder.
At the Klamath River, it seems the wetter you’re willing to get, the more likely you are to get a nice fish, like this 20″ 3.625 pounder.

The Klamath River is magical in October.

The mornings are crisp and cold, and until the sun hits the water, your line will freeze if you take too long between casts.

The afternoons are warm enough to shed the sweater and pants in favor of Hurley board shorts and a tank top. The water, aided by thermal inertia, is still unconvinced of the changing seasons, still clinging to the last vestiges of summer, even when the air turns cold, so you can wet wade in relative comfort.

The evenings sneak up on you, and before you know it, you’re enveloped in darkness as the frost returns to the canyon.

The Klamath — in early October — is, without a doubt, my favorite place to fish.

***

I first fished the Klamath as a kid with my Dad and my brother Jake. We fished just below the J.C. Boyle Dam, and landed one nice fish apiece.

***

Years later, on the day before high school graduation, several of my senior classmates and I headed to the stretch below Keno Dam for the first time. Five minutes in, and my friend Shawn Elliott hooked into the first of many huge Klamath River Redbands to follow.

Since that day in 2008, I’ve learned so much more about the river: where to fish, when to fish, who to bring with me … and where, when, and who not to.

***

In the fall of 2014, I went further upstream than ever before, finding great success through unconventional methods.

For years I’d wet-waded, donning board shorts and Vibram Five Fingers shoes (okay, they look ridiculous, but no other shoe allows you the sensitivity necessary to safely wet wade the Klamath). I’d routinely get knee-deep in the water to access my favorite spots, but in 2014, I took it to another level by going chest-deep and half swimming, half bouncing off the bottom to get where I wanted to go.

The flows had been low, and I used the giant boulders in that stretch of the river as current breaks, so I wouldn’t be swept away.

With my rod between my teeth, I accessed parts of the river no flyfisherman in waders would dare go; places only those rafting down the river could access.

It paid off, too.

In my first four trips (October 1, 4, 5, 11) that fall, I landed 50 fish, 10 of which topped three pounds.

October can yield multiple 3+ pound fish in a day, like this 20 1/4" 3.375 pounder caught the day of this story.
October can yield multiple 3+ pound fish in a day, like this 20 1/4″ 3.375 pounder caught the day of this story.
Klamath River Redbands feed heavily on minnows during the fall, including introduced Fathead Minnows, like the one in this fish's mouth.
Klamath River Redbands feed heavily on minnows during the fall, including introduced Fathead Minnows, like the one in this fish’s mouth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, on my next trip down, October 12, I expected the same results.

I caught fish, but not as many or as big as I had the days before, so I decided to make an adjustment.

Rather than slowly work my roundabout way across the river like I had the days before, I decided to try going straight across.

I made the logical choice: cross at the narrowest part of the river where river otters always rafted down in groups. Sure, it was a fast run, but only about mid-thigh deep most of the way across, and a rock in the middle could be my checkpoint. From there, I could get to the large, weedy island that split the river in two.

Two steps out, I slipped and almost ate it, because I was sore.

Side Note: Fishing the canyon how I do is a workout equivalent to running a few miles after leg day. I run several miles down into the canyon, walk along the rough and rocky shore, wet-wade by bracing myself against rocks in the current, then hop from rock to rock and occasionally do a little free climbing on the small cliffs in the area with the rod in my teeth.

It’s a rush, but it takes a toll on your body.

Machismo propelled me forward. I made it to the rock and took a break. I let my lure hang in the current and caught a little guy. Well, he was about 1.5 pounds and 15” long, but that’s a little guy for the Canyon in October.

Strength returned to my legs, and I took a step.

I felt the moss, but overrode my better judgement and committed my weight to it.

Bad call.

As my foot slid out from under me, the current rushed along at almost 1150 CFS (about 150 cubic feet per second [CFS] faster than the day before), and pushed me over.

“Profane,” I cursed.

I’d spent enough time fishing and rafting to know what to do. I put my feet out in front of me as the current had its way with my body. I kicked hard while keeping my knees bent, pushing myself back into the current to try and steal an opportunity to get back onto my feet.

After a few tries and about 200 yards of drifting, I finally got to my feet.

I promptly fell over again, but my struggling had got me close enough to shore to flail/doggy paddle the rest of the way.

Exhausted, wet, bruised, and insulted, I used my hands to part the thick curtain of reeds along the shoreline of the island.

Gasping and shivering, I was still hunched over, hands on my knees.

I took a step and started to look up just as I noticed a yellowjacket land on my leg.

My hand swatted it away, but I looked back down to see it had been replaced by half a dozen more.

The next second passed by slowly as I realized the gravity of my situation.

Then, they started stinging me.

Desperation replaced exhaustion as I tried to sprint away while slapping them off my legs, my neck, my ears, my cheek, my arms, and my hair.

More than a dozen stingers found purchase in my skin before I’d gotten out of the danger zone and killed them all.

I’d stripped down to my underwear in the hundred-yard run over broken, rocky ground, stubbing my toes in the barely-padded shoes, but at least I’d had the presence of mind to hold onto my rod.

My body screamed out in pain. Each step caused more pain, but more excruciating were the stings on my face, neck, and worst of all, just inside the hairline on my temple.

I was in agony as I redressed, pounding each article of clothing with my fists and shaking it out before putting it back on.

As I prepared to walk back towards the water, my feet got tangled up in fishing line. My fishing line.

I’d grabbed my rod, but somehow managed to open the bail and hook the grassy ground right where the nest was.

I pulled on my lure, but it wouldn’t come free.

The last glimmer of hope went out.

I begged, pleaded with those damn hooks, but they wouldn’t budge.

So, I snuck up to the underground nest.

A.

 

Few.

 

Steps.

 

At.

 

AHHHHH!!!

 

Just kidding. I didn’t get stung again, but I was terrified I would.

I got the lure, limped over to the far side of the island where I’d been trying to go all along and fished until the headache became unbearable, catching two more fish over two pounds.

It took two pulls with pliers to get the hook out. It was initially buried to the shank, but the first pull got it this far.

I also hooked one that would’ve topped five pounds, but it jumped, throwing the hook. Unfortunately, my line was tight, and it threw the hook right at my face. With my (dead) cat-like reflexes I was able to grab the projectile before it hit me in the eye, but it buried itself deep in my finger.

It just wasn’t my day.

This happens a lot when trying to unhook big, toothy trout, but usually they’re flesh wounds. This was deep. One of the three trebles was buried up to the shank (about 3/8″ on this specific lure) of my go-to Countdown Rapala.

Using pliers, I took a deep breath and only cried a little as I pulled the hook halfway out. I paused to brace myself for the hard part: getting the barb out, but decided to stop and take a picture at that moment, because, why not, right?

One more pull, and it was out. And bleeding. A lot.

Realizing the next injury would probably result in the loss of a valuable appendage, I decided to call it a day.

Crossing back over the river was not fun.

Each time one of the stings got wet, it was like being stung again. To make matters worse, in the hour or so I’d fished, the water seemed to be flowing even faster.

This time, I made no efforts to be cool or macho. I just put my rod in my teeth and swam across.

I sat down on the grass and tried to bleed myself to sleep, but I was getting too cold, so I began the four-mile uphill track back to my car.

***

I’d stepped on a hive at the river several years earlier (and once while grouse hunting as a kid, but that’s another story).

The lone sting from that first faux pas at the river was on my wrist, and that yellow jacket must have been in an animal carcass, because the sting became terribly infected and ended up leaving a scar I still have.

***

Mercifully, none of the stings from my terrible near-drowning, yellowjacket mauling became infected, but the headache was so intense for a week that I could hardly sleep, and typing with my impaled finger wasn’t exactly fun.

But once the headache went away, and my energy returned, I was right back out on the river. Albeit one scar — the one under my left eye socket — heavier.

Because, it was the Klamath River. In October.

#CaughtOvgard

If I hooked you here, keep reading. Check out my Species Quest!

Hook 6: Highs & Lows

Klamath River, OR
Trip Date: October 3, 2012

Tennyson remains one of the most popular British poets of all time.
Tennyson remains one of the most popular British poets, largely for the relatable nature of his works.

Alfred Lord Tennyson once said: “Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

Well, Tennyson was obviously a fisherman, because anyone who has fished enough understands just how painful fishing can be. It doesn’t stop at painful. In fact, at times, it can be downright cruel.

***

I’d long known fishing had a dark side, but it wasn’t until my second trip of the fall season to the Klamath River that I first experienced the painful, gut-wrenching misery that my lifelong passion could wreak.

After powering through classes and an ASOIT (Associated Students of Oregon Institute of Technology) meeting, one of my best friends, David Clarke, and I performed our weekly ritual. We quickly changed into old clothes, grabbed a few McChicken sandwiches and iced teas, then headed to the water.

I’d been unable to fully celebrate my favorite holiday — the October 1st Klamath River Fall Season Opener — two days earlier, and though I’d spent a few hours on the water before school that morning, I was desperate to get down there “for real.”

We caught a few of the healthy Redband Trout that make the Klamath Basin famous almost right away.

The fish of the Klamath are all deep-bodied, healthy fish which range in coloration from chrome-bright to more colorful fish, reminiscent of the Shasta Strain Rainbow Trout that many hatcheries raise for state stocking programs.

While the average size has since declined in the Klamath, during that year and the five years prior, fish averaged about 15 inches long and about 1.5 pounds.

David Clarke posing with one of the many fish we caught that day.
David Clarke posing with one of the many fish we caught that day.

That day, we were all about numbers, wanting to catch as many fish in the one-to-three-pound range as we could — not really hunting for trophies. Our lures of choice were Size 3 Blue Fox Vibrax Spinners.

So, when my lure stopped in the current, I assumed it’d snagged one of the countless rock altars submerged in the river, on which I’d sacrificed hundreds of dollars’ worth of gear over the years.

I assumed rock, until it moved.

The fish was big. Really big.

The river was only at about 800 cubic feet per second (CFS), which falls within the ideal range of approximately 400-1200 CFS, but this meant that the current wasn’t doing much of the pulling; it was mostly the fish.

We were wet-wading, as I usually do when fishing there, meaning we were fishing from a rock in the middle of the river, surrounded by water on all sides, and about 50 feet from the nearer shore.

The fish ran, jumped, and dove until I was finally able to bring it to net. Since David was on a rock a little distance away, I tried to net it myself.

I did everything right, too:

  • The fight had lasted several minutes, and it was tired enough to handle, but not too tired to be released.
  • I fought it to the sheltered water behind the large rock I was standing on, taking the current out of the equation.
  • I led it headfirst into the net.

The only problem was that it didn’t fit.

It ran away into the current again.

I was dumbfounded. I’d never had this problem before.

I tried again, easing it into the net, but it got free again.

Horrified that it would throw the hook, I improvised the third time.

Propping the rod beneath my arm, I again led it into the net headfirst, but this time, I grabbed it around the tail, sort of bending it into the net. Both its head and tail stuck out of the net several inches, but I’d done it. It was landed.

For some reason, at this point my brain shut off.

Of the hundreds of fish I net from this river every year, I normally keep about five for the table. This one was by far the largest I’d ever caught, and that’s why it’s now hanging on my wall — or, at least, why it should be.

It does reside in my bedroom. Unfortunately, though, it’s haunting my dreams, not adorning my mantel, because what I did next, I still lose sleep over.

Rather than try to get to shore to weigh, measure, and photograph it, I tried to do that stuff right there. In the middle of the river. On a rock with a surface area the size of a doormat.

Somehow, it let me measure it with the retractable cloth tape measures I use that serve a purpose without hurting fish: 29 inches.

Wait. That can’t be right.

I measured again.

29 inches.

29 inches!

29 INCHES!!!

My longest Redband up to that point had been 22 3/4 inches, and I’d landed that fish almost eight years earlier.

Shocked and stupefied, thinking it was going to cooperate, I decided to weigh it. As I went to slide the scale under the gill plate, dream turned to nightmare.

The fish decided to break free.

The sheer power of this fish, this small salmon, in effect, was immense.

It’s body wriggled and pulsated as if all its demons were being exorcised in my hands.

The first thing I noticed were two of the three trebles finding purchase in the soft flesh of my thumb.

The third treble held tight in the fish, though, meaning every time it wiggled, the hooks drove deeper and deeper into my thumb.

Then the fish came out of the net, and the two hooks in my thumb held up the fish (which was, very conservatively, at least 8 pounds) for several excruciating seconds, before it threw the third hook and returned to the river, immediately darting to freedom, as I sat there, broken.

Not long after this trip, I upgraded to a much larger net.
Note the size difference between the small net (left) and large net (right). I upgraded to the larger one not long after this trip.

 

Both fish pictured here about between 20 and 21" long and about 3.5 pounds.
Both Klamath River ‘bands pictured here are about 20-21 inches long and 3.5-3.75 pounds, but were landed with different nets.

 

 

 

 

 

Dejected, we fished a little longer, but no amount of fish 16-18 inches could ease the pain.

Poor David had to hear me whine and wallow for the next hour, as we approached one of my favorite spots: The River Monster Hole.

I call it this, because you half-expect Jeremy Wade to pull an enormous, toothy beast from its depths when you first see it. You stand on a shelf at the base of a 50-foot cliff that sits just above the punishing current below, a current that has dug the hole almost 20 feet deep in the channel.

Hoping the River Monster Hole would bring a chance at redemption, I changed from a spinner to my go-to CD-9 Rapala in hopes of enticing a larger fish with the larger lure. I dropped the rod to the ground, propping it between my knees as I held the line near the lure and clipped the line further towards the rod tip.

My mistake hit me with the same slow, Earth-shattering realization I’d had just an hour before while trying to weigh my largest freshwater fish ever.

Since I was holding the segment of line I’d just clipped, I watched in helpless slow motion, groping just out of reach, as my rod leaned away from me and plopped into the rushing river below.

I’m sure my slow blinks had cartoony sound effects, as I stood there, speechless.

I was devastated. It wasn’t the same caliber rod and reel I use today, but it was still a quality setup. It was the two pieces of equipment I’d recommend to anyone starting to get into fishing who wants a good setup but doesn’t want to break the bank: an Ugly Stik Elite 7-foot Medium-Fast Rod and a Pfleuger President Spinning Reel. Together, they’ll run you about $100 and work great for the average weekender for years.

But for me, they were an extension of who I was.

David did his best to console me, but he’d fallen in earlier and was soaked head-to-toe. Well, not quite. He was in a cast and had managed to keep his arm above water and dry, despite being soaked everywhere else. The October air had begun to turn crisp, and we looked at each other with one unspoken thought in common: leave.

The walk up to the car and the drive home were both largely silent affairs as we commiserated together.

***

It took me four days of bitterness and depression to finally climb back onto the horse. I purchased a new rod, tied on a lure (very carefully this time), and returned to the same river that had rewarded and punished me so extremely earlier that week.

***

It took me almost five years, but I did catch a trout bigger than that. Then another. Then several more. I’ve now landed a lot of massive trout, but even bigger fish remain.

I know that fish and its peers still swim those waters, because in Winter of 2011, my friend Ben Fry landed this one.

My friend, Ben Fry, landed this 32" Klamath River Redband about the same time I caught mine. He didn't have a scale, but this fish was well into double digits.
My friend, Ben Fry, landed this 32″ Klamath River Redband about the same time I caught mine. He didn’t have a scale, but this fish was well into double digits.

He didn’t have a scale on him at the time, but it measured 32 inches long — even larger than the fish I’d landed. And, after a good photo, he released it back into the river, a gesture Tennyson would have applauded.

#CaughtOvgard

Read Hook #7: Danger.

Hook #5: 100-Fish Day

Big Butte Creek, Little Butte Creek, Medco Pond, Willow Lake, OR
Trip Date: August 5, 2011

“A good plan implemented today, is better than the perfect plan implemented tomorrow.”

General George S. Patton’s words should be taken to heart in our daily lives, but are especially true when it comes to fishing. Research and reading are incredibly important, but no matter how knowledgeable you are, you can’t catch fish from behind a computer or magazine.

When I set out the morning of August 5, 2011, I had a good plan: try to break my personal record for fish caught in a single day (57).

Little Butte Creek
If the first stop, Little Butte Creek, was any indicator, I had no chance.

The two Brook Trout I caught there on my favorite small Rainbow Holographic Panther Martins were beautiful, but small, and I burned almost half an hour getting them to bite.

Running Total: 2

A particularly beautiful Little Butte Creek brookie.
A particularly beautiful Little Butte Creek brookie.

Willow Lake
Day-Use Fees are commonplace at lakes throughout Southern Oregon, including at my second stop that day: Willow Lake. Unfortunately, for a broke college student who often didn’t eat on days he went fishing to account for the gas spent driving to and from the lake, paying to park was not an option.

Since the fee is charged to park a vehicle on the grounds, and hikers and cyclists don’t have to pay, I always tried to find a free place to park and then walked in when possible.

At Willow, I always parked on the Forest Service land just outside the gate on the south side of the road, then walked in to fish the corner of the dam, where the Yellow Perch congregate.

You’ll cast in a crappie jig or worm and reel it in. Maybe one or two fish will follow and nip at it. The next cast, four or five. Then a dozen. That day, despite a small school of maybe 25-30 fish trailing my jig, I caught just three of the bait-stealing fish.

It was now late afternoon, and my chances were not looking good.

Running Total: 5. 

Big Butte Creek
A few miles down the Butte Falls Highway, I stopped at Big Butte Creek, hoping the trout there would be more compliant. While I did catch two-of-three sport species found there (Coastal Cutthroat Trout, Rainbow Trout), I only caught one of each, putting my record still 50 fish away.

Running Total: 7. 

Coastal Cutthroats often hybridize with Rainbows to produce "Cutbows," but many of the fish do retain genetic purity.
Coastal Cutthroats often hybridize with Rainbows to produce “Cutbows,” but many of the fish do retain genetic purity. The fish pictured here is likely a hybrid.

Medco Pond
Driving up to Medco Pond is kind of anticlimactic. After driving 12.5 miles on the winding, dangerous Butte Falls-Prospect Road, you arrive at a gravel parking lot with no amenities. The setting is pretty, but it doesn’t look like the destination fishing spot it really is.

Most people fish along that gravel parking area, sitting in or near their cars while soaking a worm or Rainbow Power Bait for the skinny hatchery ‘bows that rarely top 10″ in length. On a good day, these folks might catch three-to-five fish apiece.

Another group will fish with a worm or crappie jig suspended under a bobber. They will often do a little better, sometimes catching as many as 10-15 fish in a day.

With 50 fish to go, I knew it was a long shot, but I also knew I didn’t fish like either group. Using a tiny ice fishing jig tipped with the smallest piece of worm I could pinch off, I caught fish after fish.

Cast, let the lure sink, then reel up a few times and repeat. It was insanely effective.

I caught 43 quite quickly, paired with the seven I’d already caught, it made 50.

Then 57. I’d tied my record.

58.

60.

70.

80.

Then it slowed. I was already breaking my personal record with each fish, but I was greedy. This close to 100, I pushed until the bitter end, hitting the mark just before dark.

Pitch counters are a great way to keep track of how many fish you've caught. I used them for almost 10 years.
Pitch counters are a great way to keep track of how many fish you’ve caught. I used them for almost 10 years.

I don’t know if it was because I liked the movie 101 Dalmatians, or maybe just because I was compulsive, but I decided to end at 101.

It took me nearly 20 minutes to catch #101. Irritating, because there had been times that day when I’d catch five or six fish on as many casts but now that I wanted just one more … well, I really couldn’t complain.

At the time, I used a pitch counter to keep track of the fish I’d caught in a day, and few things in life were more satisfying than clicking it that final, 101st time on that balmy August night.

Totals: 
84 Bluegill
6 Black Crappie
4 Largemouth Bass
3 Yellow Perch
2 Brook Trout
1 Coastal Cutthroat Trout
1 Rainbow Trout

#CaughtOvgard

Read Hook #6: Highs and Lows.

Hook #4: Determination

Seal Beach Pier, Seal Beach, CA
Trip Date: June 9-13, 2008

The Pier

The piers of Central and Southern California have a unique subculture. By day, they teem with tourists of all different races and backgrounds, all living completely separate lives. By night, the multi-ethnic tapestry remains, but the occupants of the pier share a common goal: catching fish.

When four or five white boys from rural Southern Oregon walked onto the Seal Beach Pier in June of 2008, every head turned. Broken English paired with Vietnamese, Spanish, Russian, and a host of other languages I couldn’t place, mixing with the acrid stench of cigarettes from every group.

We walked around the pier, looking at everyone’s respective catch — almost exclusively White Croaker and various species of surfperch — before a guy hooked into a respectable fish.

We stared intently as he fought it for five, ten, fifteen minutes. It broke the surface almost 30 feet below, and he identified it as a skate. He said he had no desire to eat it, but many Asian fisherman did, and we’d be more than welcome to keep it. We were thrilled at the possibility, but just as he got to the end of the pier to land it (a major feat, considering it was nearly half a mile long), it broke his line.

With that, the rest of my classmates decided to head back, but I remained fixated.

I stayed out until almost 3:00 a.m. that morning, watching, learning, fishing. It made getting up for Six Flags three hours later especially difficult, but I would spend the next four nights doing the same thing and not regretting it one bit.

*****

The Charter

One day of the trip included a charter fishing excursion, which I had looked forward to for years.

In fact, I’d led the class fundraising efforts throughout high school, starting a concession stand for junior high sporting events, then, seeing its success and noting that hot lunch was only served at our school three Fridays a month, starting a snack bar that served microwavable lunches and snack items like candy bars once a week. It did quite well.

As our funds grew, we rolled into senior year. One of my best friends, Tony Maddalena, and I, had been given three pages of yearbook ads to sell. We sold about three times that many.

All told, our efforts had resulted in more than $12,000 that we could put towards the trip, but all I cared about was what would become my first-ever chartered fishing trip.

The opportunity to choose a half-day or full-day trip day came, and everybody wanted to do a half-day trip. I was crushed. One of the chaperones, Dan Phelps, either took pity on me or really wanted to go fishing, because he volunteered to accompany me on the full-day trip.

The barracuda had been running, and the last three boats before us had caught hundreds of them, so I was optimistic. Perhaps too optimistic, because our boat caught less than a dozen between the 50-plus anglers on board.

I had a five-footer strike my anchovy right as I brought it to the surface, slurping the soft-bodied bait right off of my hook.

I stood there, momentarily frozen, before the shock and disappointment set in.

Sure, we caught lots of Pacific Mackerel, Calico Bass, and Dan even got a brilliantly-colored, red-orange California Scorpionfish — which we were told had dorsal spines as poisonous as its flesh was delicious — but no barracuda.

On my first-ever charter fishing trip in 2008, I caught and released 8 Pacific Mackerel and kept 5 Calico Bass.
On my first-ever charter fishing trip in 2008, I caught and released eight Pacific Mackerel and kept five Calico Bass.

Returning to the house, we learned the guys on the half-day trip had caught almost a dozen species between them, including barracuda, yellowtail, and even a four-foot shark.

*****

Disappointed by the charter boat, I returned faithfully to the pier each night, which made for plenty of interesting experiences:

  • One day, a seagull stole my bait.
  • Another day, I caught a starfish.
  • Yet another, I learned that the week before we’d arrived, the television series Greek shot its Spring Break episode right on that pier.
  • In a moment of stupidity, I tried leaving my rod propped in the sand with bait in the water while I tried swimming. The pole fell over and the sand ruined my reel.
  • I actually hooked into a nice California Halibut that was maybe 10-12 pounds, but after fighting it to the surface and allowing me to look at it, my line snapped.

Great experiences and stories, but not one fish.

*****

On the afternoon of the last day, one of the guys I’d befriended, Julian, said he’d let me use one of his two rods.

Julian was born just across the border in Mexico. When he came to the United States in his late teens, he brought with him his wife, a few possessions, and a bad drug addiction.

The birth of his first son sobered him up and made him an advocate for the Christian faith he credited his sobriety to.

Late in the afternoon, both of Julian’s rods dipped at the same time and I reeled in a small White Croaker. It wasn’t pretty, didn’t fight well, and made a weird, throaty noise when handled (I later discovered this to be its namesake), but I was glad to have caught it.

I wished Julian a good life as we parted that afternoon, and planned one last attempt to catch a fish entirely on my own.

*****

When I returned that evening, I could see fish schooling around the pilings under the pier lights, but couldn’t get them to bite. I had absolutely no saltwater tackle, and everything I’d used all week was intended to catch trout. I had the right baits (squid and shrimp), but not the right gear.

Why I tied on a Kokanee Jig, I’ll never know. It was four inches long and weighed about two ounces — hardly the proper lure for fish smaller than my hand. Why that six-inch Walleye Surfperch bit it, I’m even more nonplussed, but it did.

After about 20 hours of sleep in five days, after hours on the pier, after questioning whether I had a future in even casual fishing, I had held out hope.

That hope resulted in a last-minute catch that would be my only fish of the week (apart from the dismal catch on the charter boat).

It was too small to eat, and several fisherman dropping bait traps into the water had caught larger fish, but I was so proud. I had a passerby take a picture for me with my disposable camera, and I was grinning ear to ear.

This fish bit a lure almost as long as it was. Please excuse the low-quality disposable camera photo.
This Walleye Surfperch bit a lure almost as long as it was.

*****

When I returned home the next afternoon, exhausted, Dad mentioned he’d been having some luck at the Klamath River. I’d been fishing all week and catching almost nothing, so you’d think I’d decline, right?

Nope. After a 14-hour drive, I hopped off the vans, and we went fishing that night.

It was, at that moment, that I realized just how serious I was with fishing. It was no longer just something I did for fun. It was an obsession.

#CaughtOvgard

Read Hook #5: The 100-Fish Day.

Hook #3: Ethics

Seal Beach Pier, Seal Beach, CA
Trip Date: June 9-13, 2008

The Jetty

The night before graduation, I decided to scrap the speech I’d written weeks in advance and start a new one. I finished it around midnight, and it is, to this day, the best speech I’ve ever written. While my delivery was a little shaky, that speech remains one of my proudest moments.

From there, everything happened so fast: the ceremony, the party, the packing. Suddenly my senior class was on its way to Seal Beach, California.

Fourteen long hours in that same red van we took on our Biology Trip four years earlier, and we were unloading our stuff at a beach house just 200 yards from the Naval Weapons Station.

We poured our savings into a beach house, with the guys on one floor, the girls on the other.
We poured our savings into a beach house, with the guys on one floor, the girls on the other.

As we resigned ourselves to cook under the cloudy lid that kept heat and humidity in, we scoured the space we’d worked four long years to rent. We found a tandem bike, which quickly surged in popularity, but didn’t really interest me. What did were the two dusty pieces of graphite tucked into the back of the mildew-kissed garage. There were two sturdy old Shakespeare surf fishing rods, spooled with thick monofilament line years past its usefulness, which just sat there, forgotten.

We had plans interspersed throughout the week, but when the sun and moon performed a solar shift change and darkness permeated the beach, I convinced the other guys in my class to try and catch a fish or two, but only after goofing around on the beach.

Pictured left to right: Ben Blanchard, Sean Reese, Sky Smith, Tony Maddalena, Shawn Elliott, the author, and Jon Howard.
Pictured left to right: Ben Blanchard, Sean Reese, Sky Smith, Tony Maddalena, Shawn Elliott, the author, and Jon Howard.

We headed first for the rocky finger that stretched out several hundred yards from the beach and was bisected by a military-grade chain link fence that marked the northern boundary of the naval base. We fished with those two ocean rods, as well as my fast action, six-foot Ugly Stik Elite with its equally ill-suited Shakespeare Crusader Spinning Reel.

We had no bait, so we tried to catch the small crabs lurking warily in the rocks at our feet. Despite an hour of effort, soaking ourselves with sweat, and providing our shins and knees as bloody sacrifices for the wet rocks, we remained baitless.

Instead, we got our adrenaline rush by taking two bold steps onto a naval base soaked in darkness, before realizing the jointly pathetic and stupid actions we’d made and headed back to the house.

*****

Throughout the next few days, that jetty would bring a variety of experiences.

I would watch one of the fisherman catch several California Halibut and White Seabass on swimbaits. One fisherman landed a White Seabass that died. Those fish were supposed to be 24 inches long, but this was just short. He decided to keep it.

Illegal.

Another day, I watched a gentleman catch a five-foot shark. Apparently, several Asian gentleman saw it, too, because they ran up and paid the guy several hundred dollars for it, loaded it into their van, and disappeared.

Also illegal.

I finally decided to give up fishing the jetty after a particularly pervy old fisherman made unsettling comments about my female classmates visible on the beach maybe a quarter mile away.

 Not illegal, but creepy.

*****

After our excursion onto the naval base, most of the other guys retired to a chaperoned house full of girls to watch movies and enjoy the creature comforts of civilization, but a few of us headed to the pier. And the pier is what this story is really about.

#CaughtOvgard

Read Hook #4: Determination.

Hook #2: Fish of a Lifetime

Brookings-Harbor, OR
Trip Date: May 25-26, 2005

The mind is a funny thing. How we can remember the subtle differences between the radio-edited song and the original, but draw a blank on the name of a childhood friend, I will never understand.

While I don’t understand, I do remember.

The sunset just south of Brookings at the mouth of the Winchuck River.
The sunset just south of Brookings at the mouth of the Winchuck River.

I remember loading into a red van, sitting with my freshman classmates — only a few of whom had discovered the miraculous properties of deodorant — and waiting, sweat forcefully introducing my shorts to my unmentionables, as we drove through blistering heat without functional air conditioning.

I remember setting up camp and getting filthy in the process. As the sweat and dirt formed a grainy paste on my body, I remember learning that the ocean was calm enough to take a trip out that afternoon.

I remember the salty air slapping my face and opening my mouth at just the wrong moment. I remember seeing Black Brants and Long-Tailed Ducks (still listed as Oldsquaw in my dated National Audubon Society Pocket Guide) flying in formation low over the water.  I remember the rubbery little fish we used (Wildeye Swim Shad) that really worked.

But mostly, I remember the blood.

Only a handful of us wanted to try fishing that afternoon (Ben Blanchard, Christopher Puckett, Cody Toschik, and I), and we boarded the Bayliner very pensively. It was a bit intimidating, even if Brookings did have “the safest bar on the Oregon Coast.” But in a miracle of Mosaic proportions, somehow, the sea calmed, and we made it across. While we didn’t die, the lap, lap, lapping of the water against the side of the boat, the shifting horizon, and the smell of the fish we’d already caught sent several of us into a despondent state of seasickness — something I’d never before experienced.

As I stared into the gray waves, suddenly, the soprano song of a reel saved me from losing my lunch. Behind me, I watched intently as Perry Fields, one of our chaperons, hooked up.

He was making progress, inching the fish towards the surface, pump-reel, pump-reel, when the theme from Jaws began to play in my head. The fish he was fighting seemed to get a second wind, becoming exponentially stronger than it had been just moments before.

The intense minutes watching the fight culminated with a fleeting glimpse at this beast of the depths, a hulking behemoth of a fish that looked a little like the catfish I’d caught still-fishing at Crystal Springs Bridge on the Lost River, but maybe 20 times larger and clearly birthed by a demon.

Then I noticed. There were two of them. The first fish, which had hit the swimbait, was maybe 16 inches long. Not big enough to keep, but just big enough to make a tempting dinner for the fish attached to it, which was approaching three times as long.

Just as the fish got within distance of the gaff, the larger predator realized the peril it was in and released its meal, remaining stationary for just a moment too long.

It was at this moment that our biology teacher, Mr. Dean, performed what is, to this day, the greatest landing of any fish. Ever.

Just as the fish shook its head and started to dive, he leaned over the boat, drove his gaff into the water, hooked the fish, and lifted all forty-plus pounds of it over the gunwale, dropping it onto the floor of the little boat.

There wasn’t room for both of us, and this fish knew it. Many fish flop towards freedom, but this fish, this hellion, WAS TRYING TO BITE US.

As it flopped, our final chaperon, Mr. Wehr, kicked it hard in the head, before grabbing a knife and cutting its gills to put it out of its misery and sending its tormented soul back to the depths of Hell.

In its death throes, it turned into a bloody sprinkler, spraying the whole boat with its dark, syrupy blood.

As I looked at my brand-new Levi’s, I saw a spot of blood that I knew would become a stain. (It did, but those became my “fishing pants” for most of high school).

I can’t remember the exact dimensions of the fish, but I do remember that I could fit my head inside its mouth. I do remember posing for a picture (which I couldn’t track down) of four of us, standing side-by-side, all behind the fish.

It was, of course, a Lingcod.

Lingcod come in a wide variation of color patterns, but always have a large head full of sharp, vicious-looking teeth.
Lingcod come in a wide variation of color patterns, but always have a large head full of sharp, vicious-looking teeth.

Along with about a dozen Black Rockfish and Blue Rockfish, I caught my own Lingcod the next day, but at 23 1/4 inches, it was just shy of 24-inch minimum length (which has since been lowered to 22 inches), and I had to let it go.

To this day, I’ve never seen an Oregon ling that size. Not in pictures, not online, nowhere. They often reach that size in Alaska and British Columbia, but not down here.

That Lingcod was the first “Fish of a Lifetime” I ever saw, and I’ve been on a quest to catch my own ever since.

#CaughtOvgard

Read Hook #3: Ethics.

Hook #1: Record Keeping

Spencer Creek
Tiger Lilies, one of my favorite flowers, grow wild on the banks of Spencer Creek and can be found in moderate numbers during the summer.

Spencer Creek, OR
Trip Date: May 25, 2004

I didn’t know it yet, but my life was about to change forever.

As I loaded fishing gear into the car with my dad, my brother Jake, and our family friends, the Wogans, I had no idea that an afternoon of fishing at Spencer Creek, the southernmost Oregon tributary to the Klamath River, would impact my life so profoundly that I’d develop a lifelong passion — some call it an obsession — with fishing.

For it was on this trip that Judge Cameron Wogan, one of my dad’s closest friends since college, told me he had begun to keep a journal detailing his hunts and fishing trips.

He recorded the date, location, weather conditions, and other information relevant to why he did (or didn’t) catch fish on a given outing.

While it's easy to catch fish in Spencer Creek, it's not easy to navigate.
While it’s easy to catch fish in Spencer Creek, it’s not easy to navigate.

I wasn’t quite 14, but I saw the wisdom in it, and on that day I began keeping records. I faithfully poured every trip into that journal. Then it filled up, so I got another. And another. For seven and a half years.

After filling six paper journals of about 150 pages each, I decided to enter the digital age, instead recording trips on what I titled Trip Log in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. It listed the date, location, unit/zone, and a list of notes about the trip that replaced my journaling altogether.

Trip Log Screenshot

At the time, I was also equally into hunting, and prior to purchasing a new license each year, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) required hunters to complete a survey saying how many birds they’d killed in the prior season. So, rather than guess like most people, I decided to keep a log of how many of each species I got fishing, hunting, or trapping.

One for each season, which I called the Season Bag and one continually-used one, which I called the Lifetime Bag

Annual Bag Screenshot Lifetime Bag Screenshot

My final spreadsheet kept track of my largest fish for each species and a list of all trips where I caught more than 5 fish in a day (as of the time of writing, my best ever was 319 fish in one day). I called this one the Fishing Hall of Fame

Fishing Hall of Fame Screenshot

Now, more than 10 years later, I can look back and see where the fish were biting at a certain time of year, what I caught them on, what my largest fish were, and how many fish I’ve caught in my lifetime.

If you’re serious about fishing, or just think you’d like to start keeping records of your own, you can. Feel free to use my templates as an example if you want to. If you’re not familiar with Excel, consider buying the relatively inexpensive >Excel for Dummies by clicking here: Excel for Dummies.

#CaughtOvgard

Read Hook #2: Fish of a Lifetime.