Species #41 — Klamath River Lamprey

Klamath River Lamprey are otherworldly creatures that don’t quite look Earth-born.
Photo courtesy UC Davis.

Species: Klamath River Lamprey (Lampetra similis)
Location: Klamath River, Keno, OR
Date: June 3, 2012

Up until this point in my Blogosphere, every species has been captured directly on hook and line. Every fish was, in fact, legally captured after being hooked in the mouth. I know what you’re thinking, and this fish wasn’t snagged.

I typically count a new species as long as it was legally captured. For some species, hands and snag hooks are legal. For others, bow-and-arrow, spear, or even net suffice. For Species #41, neither hook nor hand caught it, but it was still a first.

***

Anyone who has fished the Klamath Basin has seen the telltale pockmarks and battle wounds our large native Redbands wear with honor. Many think these are leech marks, and while some of the minor marks might be, most are caused by another type of parasite: lampreys.

Lampreys are terrifying, parasitic eel-like creatures stranger than fiction that would seem to be more at home in the Cretaceous than modern times. They attach themselves to larger fish with a circular mouth full of irregular teeth that cleave to the host and allow the lamprey to suck blood.

Pacific Lamprey is a well-known species targeted by a number of specialty anglers. There are several lesser-known lampreys living in the Klamath Basin that are related to these larger, ocean-going menaces. These include the Klamath River and Miller Lake Lampreys — both of which are rarely caught by anglers — and some others that may or may not just be subspecies like the lampreys once found in Miller Creek below Gerber Dam.

Regardless, they are neither well-known nor hotly pursued fish.

***

Deep in the Klamath River Canyon, I landed another respectable Redband Trout. As I lifted the net, I noticed a black, writhing mass that I initially mistook for a leech. It was, in fact, a succubus of pescal proportions.

As the black form contorted in ways only a creature possessed could manage, I took a moment to try and photograph the horrendous monstrosity.

It didn’t really take, and I wasn’t too keen to hold it for any longer than necessary.

I let the fish go and with it, a case of the willies, knowing I’d just caught my first lamprey.

Like many other species I’ve caught, it wasn’t until the trip ended, and I’d had time to do some research that I learned its name: Klamath River Lamprey.

The picture came out blurry, but this is the first lamprey I caught.
These fish don’t cooperate for photos very well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

***

I’ve netted several with large trout since, and I even caught one by hand that was rooting for hapless prey at the waterline in Upper Klamath Lake. Though all have been 5-7 inches long, I know they get a lot bigger.

While microfishing for sculpins in Link River last month, I noticed a snake rooting in the substrate. Only it wasn’t a snake. This fish was every bit of 10 inches long and maybe larger. Its diameter was much larger than a 12-gauge shotshell, and it, too, was a lamprey.

These fish are officially protected, though anyone who has fished the lake and seen their mark will know they’re doing just fine.

I’ve wanted to try targeting them with a bloody piece of meat as I used for freshwater eels in New Zealand, but you’re not supposed to target protected fish, and there’s really no other justification for using red meat in local waters.

#SpeciesQuest #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #42 — Grass Rockfish.

Species #34 — Cutthroat Trout

Coastal Cutthroat Trout are some of the most beautiful creatures on God’s Green Earth.

Species: Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii)
Location: Big Butte Creek, Butte Falls, OR
Date: August 14, 2010

I debated how to record this species. The reason being that there are 10-to-14 living subspecies of Cutthroat Trout, and many anglers document and note each subspecies separately. Obviously I do.

And while I’d like them to be classified as separate species for my own purposes, they aren’t. So what I’ll do is tell you the stories of the subspecies of Cutthroat Trout I’ve caught so far.

Unlike my other individual species posts, I’ll add to this one every time I catch a new subspecies. So here it is: a chronological list of the all of the Cutthroat subspecies I’ve caught, beginning with the first one (Coastal), the one that made Cutthroat Trout Species #34 in my #SpeciesQuest.

Coastal Cutthroat TroutMary’s River in Corvallis is one of the best year-round fisheries for Coastal Cutts. This fish was
likely a Cutbow, though. 

Speed limits are the worst. I openly oppose highway speed limits and long for the days of old where motorists could careen down the highway at absurd speeds, using only their forearms as seat belts for children bouncing around in the front seat of the car.

I kid a little, but I still think speed limits are dumb.

Unfortunately, the officer didn’t agree with me, and I was cited for doing 70 in a 55 as I made my way to Fourmile Lake to chase some of the massive Brook Trout I’d seen caught there in years’ past.

My mood was further soured when I was skunked at Fourmile Lake, beginning a lifelong hatred of a place so beautiful, yet so unproductive as a fishery (disgusting Hatchery Rainbows aside).

***

I decided I’d go to my  native streams, making my way to Little Butte Creek. I landed a bunch of little brookies and met a guy who told me he’d caught a bunch of Westslope Cutthroat Trout in nearby Big Butte Creek earlier that day.

I didn’t think Westslope Cutthroat Trout were found West of the Cascades (in actuality, they’re not), but I hopped back into my car and drove.

***

Trout in streams fish the same almost everywhere, and I quickly landed small rainbows and a fish that bore faded red slashes below its jaws but otherwise looked like a Rainbow. It was, in fact, a Cutbow.

Where these species in the same genus overlap, they often hybridize. Rainbow-loving anglers have transplanted these fish all over the West outside their native range in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. While they provide great fisheries if and when the populations establish wild populations, they often out-compete native Cutthroats and/or hybridize them out of existence in much the same way invasive Brook Trout have overtaken Bull Trout.

Calling a Rainbow Trout invasive would cause most flyfishermen to have a conniption, but they are often true invasive species.

Nonetheless, both species are native to the Rogue Watershed where I was fishing, but Rainbows were just more aggressive, I guess.

When I moved upstream of a small dam between the Butte Falls Fish Hatchery and the town of Butte Falls, the small yet deep impoundment there looked perfect for a Rapala.

The respectable, 10 1/4″ Cutthroat Trout that smashed my Countdown Rapala agreed. The fish was more than half a pound and remains one of the larger Cutts I’ve ever caught.

For awhile I believed it had been a Westslope Cutthroat, but I eventually learned it was a Coastal Cutthroat Trout.

These elongated, piscivorous silver bullets are heavily spotted everywhere except their bellies and have much longer heads and larger mouths than comparably-sized Rainbows.

Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

Color variability between Cutts is tremendous. Note the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout buck on the top and the hen on the bottom.I first tried to catch Lahontans in Willow Valley Reservoir, a reservoir in Klamath County along the California border during the summer of 2016 (some six years after first catching Coastals). Unbeknownst to me, it had dried up the year before, and I was left catching Yellow Perch in the middle of the desert.

***

My second try came later that summer. On my way to fish the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge’s short carp season, I decided to take the back roads to Burns. That took me through Denio, Nevada then north to the Alvord Desert.

Once you hit the Alvord Hot Springs, the pavement ends, and you’re left on a northbound gravel road. It’s easy to drive too fast on a road that wends its way between two massive mountain ranges.

It’s also easy to hit one jackrabbit every two miles. I hit 13 (not intentionally) of the eared plaguebringers. I wondered if that was unlucky…

My destination was Mann Lake. While Apple Maps had Mann Lake and nearby Juniper Lake swapped, I eventually course-corrected.

I parked on the north shore and proceeded to fish my way around it. Seriously. Wading in the wet mud and shallow water, my legs were assaulted by some unseen menace. I’m still not sure if it was bugs or the alkalinity or what, but my legs were raw after I’d finished my loop.

It was weedy and shallow, and though I had a single trout chase a spoon up to the end of my rod and actually come out of the water after it, splashing just a yard from me, I got skunked. You can read about that trip at Mann Lake here: Taking the road less traveled from Herald and News. 

Lahontan Cutthroats are truly beautiful.

***

The third time proved to be the charm. My friend Ben Fry and I were invited to join a group of Insta-famous anglers, including Bryan Glass (@wildtrout) and Brier Kelly (@brier_kelly).

This strain of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout almost went extinct before rebounding to become a success story, and you can read my article Second Chance at Survival from Herald and News here.

I won’t go into too much detail about this trip on my blog, because I already wrote about it. Check out Fishing Pyramid Lake — in pursuit of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Getting Reel with Bryan Glass from the Herald and News.

Bear River Cutthroat TroutThe pink-on-brown coloration of these fish is really unique. Coloration is one of the reasons Bear River Cutthroats are worth the trip to Utah or Wyoming.

My third subspecies of this fish was a surprise. I was hoping for a number of other Cutthroat subspecies as I traveled across Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska on my way to Officer Training School in Alabama during the summer of 2017, but the Bear River Cutthroat was the last fish I expected to catch.

I actually wrote a pretty in-depth article about Bear River Cutthroat Trout for the Herald and News last year, so if you’re in the mood for an interesting, science-heavy read, check out Testing the waters of Wyoming — Bear River Cutthroat.

Like I said, I love these fish, and as I catch more subspecies, I’ll add to this post.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Buffalo Sculpin.

Species #7 — Brown Trout

Why this Eurasian import, the Brown Trout, is nicknamed the “German Brown,” is not verified, but I believe it’s because (1) it’s native there, and (2) the Red, Yellow, and Black spots are the same as the colors of the German flag.

Species: Brown Trout (Salmo trutta)
Location: Confluence Hemlock Creek and Little Deschutes River, OR
Date: August 28, 2004

Boats have nightmares about this place.

Hundreds of sun-bleached lodgepole pines crisscross the small stream, connecting two grassy meadows split by the crystal-clear water that gives life to an otherwise desolate place.

Native Bull and Redband Trout have long since been out-competed by the invasive Brook and Brown Trout that call the waters of the Little Deschutes and its numerous tributaries home.

It was opening day of bow season, and my dad and I decided to flee to the microclimate of the stream during that hot summer day, knowing full-well the deer would be bedded down anyway.

Using small Panther Martin (Size 2)  spinners, as we always did in those days, we caught a number of fish that looked immediately foreign to me. Dad identified them as Brown Trout, and I quickly became enamored with the idea of another new species.

Before we decided to get back to hunting (I still prioritized hunting in those days), I tallied 10 Browns to 10 inches and an additional 30 smaller Brook Trout.

I haven’t had many days with double-digit numbers of Browns since. Coincidentally, the Cleveland Browns haven’t had many double-digit days since, either.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #8 — Black Crappie.

Species #3 — Bull Trout

Since catching his first Bull Trout in early 2004, the author has caught just a handful of these highly endangered fish. (Photo: USFWS Flickr).

Species: Bull Trout (Salvelinus confluentus)
Location: Various Southern Oregon Streams
Date: May 29, 2004

This isn’t my photo. I desperately wish it were, but I haven’t captured a Bull Trout on hook and line since high school, and the few populations remaining in Southern Oregon are heavily scattered and/or inaccessible to anglers.

My grandpa, born in 1911, used to tell me stories of bounties paid for Bull Trout in his native Wyoming with the then-more-desirable Rainbow, Brown, and Brook Trout (none of which are native to Wyoming) quickly replacing native Bulls and Cutthroat Trout in much of their range before a policy reversal saved these species.

Oregon’s Bull Trout faced a similar fate, with the “harder-fighting” and “better eating” Brookies quickly rising up the Oregon angler’s target species list.

That fish I caught in 2004 would prove to be just one of six Bulls recorded to-date, and I remember marveling at the size of its mouth compared to its relatively small body.

Today, the only sustainable population of Bull Trout that allows harvest in the Lower 48 resides in Lake Billy Chinook, about three hours north of where I landed this Bull so many years ago.

This spring, I plan to chase these Lake Billy Chinook Bulls for a chance to relive that feeling I first experienced 15 long years ago.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #4 — Bluegill.

Species #2 — Brook Trout

Invasive Brook Trout were a staple in my childhood fishing pursuits.

 

Species: Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)
Location: Various Southern Oregon Streams
Date: May 29, 2004

I caught dozens of these between my first fish and 2004; however since I didn’t keep records and don’t have pictures, I must defer to the journals I started in 2004 to determine species order.

Brook Trout were widely introduced to Oregon nearly 100 years prior, and they slowly encroached upon the territory of native Bull Trout. Even 15 years ago, I remember catching stringers full of Brookies with my dad and younger brothers on tiny Panther Martin (Size 2) spinners.

Limits on Rainbow Trout dropped from my early childhood 15 to 10, then to five, then ultimately down to two fish in streams before I got out of high school, but there remains no limit on Brook Trout in much of Oregon to encourage anglers to fight back against this invasive, East Coast char.

The tiny streams we fished weren’t conducive for three young boys and a their father, given the lack of fishable water, limited visibility surrounding the water, and the competitive drive I shared with my brothers only when it came to fishing.

Still, we caught fish. A 14-year-old me concluded the journal entry with “We did well today.”

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #3 — Bull Trout.

Species #1 — Rainbow Trout

The author isn’t sure if his first fish was a hatchery Rainbow Trout (pictured)…
…or a wild Redband Trout.

 

 

 

 

 


Species:
Rainbow Trout (Oncorynchus mykiss)
Location: Howard Prairie Reservoir, OR

This is hazy. I’m not sure what day or even what year it was that I caught my first Rainbow Trout, but I have a picture, and I have a memory.

My dad used to take me fishing with him, using an old canvas baby carrier with an aluminum frame attached to his back. He told me about all of the times I drooled or spit up on the back of his neck while he chased the wild Redband Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss newberrii) native to Southern Oregon.

He is some strange combination of trout purist and spinfisherman, never using a fly rod but only seriously targeting trout. He preferred wild fish in small streams to hatchery fish in lakes, but that didn’t stop him from chasing the latter.

I distinctly remember reeling in a small wild ‘Band that he’d hooked while we took a break from the family camping trip/reunion we’d taken to Howard Prairie Reservoir in Jackson County, Oregon. I also distinctly remember fighting a big, hatchery ‘Bow on what I’m pretty sure was the same day.

The former was nothing to write home about, but it was eight inches long, so it went on the stringer.

The latter was about 16-18 inches in length. It hit Power Bait and started running. Not knowing what to do, I just started reeling as I walked slowly back up the hill upon which we were fishing. Dad grabbed the fish, and we put it on the stringer like we always did with trout in those days.

***

Nearly 25 years have passed. I no longer keep wild trout, and I almost never fish for hatchery fish of any creed, but I still love stalking wild ‘Bands in tiny streams during the heat of summer, and I hope I can carry my son or daughter on my back someday to carry on the tradition.

Regardless, Redband Trout became my soulmate that day. I just didn’t know it yet.

#CaughtOvgard #SpeciesQuest

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here Species #2 — Brook Trout.

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 #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.