BY BLAKE WARREN
SAN CLEMENTE – The third annual Western Outdoor News Readers’ Writing Contest is now in the books after yet another successful three-month run of reader submissions. As was the case in each of the past two years, WON’s editorial staff thoroughly enjoyed reading through all the great stories that poured in and after plenty of internal deliberation, we have zeroed in on our three contest winners for 2022, all of which are posted below this article.
Those three winners are: Dennis Groat, A Trip for the Ages (page 19, April 15 issue); Gary Parks, Feather River Kings (page 11, March 18 issue); Richard Ham, A very special gift (page 6, March 25 issue).
While Parks and Ham sent in their submissions during the contest’s first two months, Groat slid in right before the buzzer in the final days of March to snatch the final winner’s spot. For their superb efforts, each of the winners will receive a pair of high-end Maui Jim sunglasses along with a fishing goodie bag. The winners will also have the opportunity to contribute to WON moving forward.
Honorable mention goes to Richard Welter, September Flurries (page 13, March 18 issue) and Bill Adelman, You had to be there (page 11, March 11 issue). A big thanks to all of our readers who participated in this year’s con- test, and we are all looking forward to running it back for a fourth straight year in 2023.
A TRIP FOR THE AGES by Dennis Groat
Excitement was high as we left the dock. It was early June in 1983, and yellowtail fishing had been great around San Martin Is- land. This trip, planned by Seeker Jigs owner Joe Pfister, was going to be a multi-day trip, jig fishing for yellowtail aboard the Pacific Star.
With all of our gear finally stowed and the Star heading south, Captain Chris Flores called us all into the salon. Nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to hear at this meeting. We all knew that 1983 was a year of El Nino warm water, but THIS was mind boggling.
“The water at San Martin has turned over. It is all green, and the current is running wrong right now,” Captain Flores began. “The fishing is absolutely dead there, and it looks like conditions aren’t going to change for a while.” Then the proverbial “other shoe” dropped… “I have some friends running a jig boat outside of us, and they are picking up a few albacore. We are gonna head out to that area and see what we can do. This trip looks like it will be albacore or nothing.”
Albacore? In the first week of June??? The traditional date for the start of albacore season was somewhere around July 4. On top of that, no sportboats had reported any albacore yet. And this was supposed to be a… jig fishing yellowtail trip!
As soon as this meeting concluded, bedlam reigned on the Pacific Star. In 1983, it was still the days of straight anchovy baits. Our bigger jig rods and reels with heavy line were now almost useless for this trip. We needed light gear, light line and SMALL hooks.
All of the anglers on this trip came together to pull off a total reset on the fly. The heaviest rods were rigged up for trolling.
Scrambling through our spare tackle, we gathered all of the light line we could find. I had recently purchased a battery-powered Trilene line stripper, and we wore out its rubber drums, dumping 40-pound and 50- pound mono line from our reels. Once everyone had some semblance of a light outfit spooled up, we pooled all of our small hooks to see what we had. Bigger J-hooks were in abun- dance, but the small #2, #4 and #6 hooks were in short supply. We divided these now-precious small hooks up among us like water on a desert island, and rigged up as best we could for a trip that was now light-line live bait fishing.
When the trolling rods and boat trolling lines were let out the next morning, none of us had any big expectations. Early season albacore were tradition- ally small fish, and besides, it wasn’t even early season yet! We hadn’t trolled for an hour when the first troll fish hit. With the shouts of “HOOKUP!” reverberating throughout the boat, anglers flew out of the galley to get a bait in the water. A few of these baits produced solid hookups, erasing some of the doubts that had crept over us. As these fish came over the rail, we were blown away. These were definitely not the 8- and 10- pound early season longfin. They were solid 20-pound-class fish, and our hopes for this trip now skyrocketed.
Two more troll stops pro- duced a good smattering of fish, and then… IT happened. The fourth troll stop produced a sol- id bite, and it got nothing but better as time passed. Incredibly, this now-wide-open bite continued for almost four and a half hours! Crewmembers frantically gaffed, tagged and dropped fish into the hold. At the height of the bite, dropping fish became impossible, as did anything but a quick gaff and drop onto the
deck. We unhooked and tagged our own fish. Soon the deck box was overflowing with plump albacore. Trash cans were put into service, and soon these were full also. Fish were now just left on deck, and wash- downs were cancelled until this incredible bite finally subsided.
Good fishing continued throughout the day. There was no limit to sport-caught tuna in those days, and we were more than making up for all of the albacore trips from past years where we had spent endless hours with no tangible results. As the day’s fishing concluded, Captain Flores assessed our bait situation and made an important radio call. The combination of the insane day of fishing and the loss of the bow bait tank from a plumbing leak had put us dangerously low on bait after only one day of fishing on our trip.
One other sportboat, the New Lo An, had come out into the same area but had reached the end of their fishing time for their shorter trip. Captain Flores arranged for them to pass over their remaining bait, a move that ultimately saved the remainder of our trip. With our bait replenished, we were now anticipating what tomorrow would bring and retired for the night.
The second day did not disappoint. Although we didn’t have another crazy stop, we had consistent bites on both the trolled feathers and on live baits. With a pile of fresh albacore in the Pacific Star’s hold, and with bait still a consideration, I decided to shift over to light jigs and see what resulted. Joe Pfister had taught me how to throw a light jig, then use the current to get it kicking just right. Using my Newell 322 spooled up with 30 pound mono, I fished a light Sea Strike 21 jig in place of our diminishing anchovy supply, and after a handful of retrieves, finally found the right speed to entice bites from these feisty longfins. Late that afternoon, on my last cast of the day, the albies twice hit and missed my jig.
As the jig reached the boat, a chasing albacore grabbed it as it left the water. The hot fish was burning donuts on the surface, and I was doing everything I could to keep its head and tail from dropping below the surface. Seconds later, a deckhand gaffed my fish. It just doesn’t get any better than that in albacore fishing!
Our third day of fishing on this trip was shortened to allow for travel time back to the dock. With bait running low, I decided to fish only the jig that day, resulting in 8 more nice albacore. As we headed for the dock, we reflected on what we had just experienced. It was a most unlikely trip for catching albacore, and it had been a trip that was almost beyond belief. We reveled in our good fortune and we instinctively knew that none of us would likely ever experience another one like it. We returned home with what would be for most of us the albacore trip of a lifetime.
These days, sport-caught albacore in Southern California are seemingly a distant memory. But with changes happening every year, hopefully conditions once again bring these incredible tuna back to our SoCal waters. I know I am packing some small hooks just in case!
FEATHER RIVER KINGS by Gary Parks
“I am abundant with salmon.” The river lures us with whispered promises at 4:30 a.m. on a cool September morning. It calls Cousin Dave and me to the Yuba City boat ramp off the Garden Highway on the Feather River. We meet Eric Leland, our fishing guide and his wife and deck- hand, Susan. He directs us to load our ice chests, filled with sandwiches and beer, into his boat while still on the trailer. Susan skillfully backs the trailer into the water and releases the bow cable.
Eric fires up the 350 Chevy marine jet. He launches the boat off the trailer with a mighty lurch over the shallow sandbar and idles it up to the dock. We step into the boat and his world.
Seated under the stars, the engine roars, and the boat jumps to life. I am pinned back in my seat. The wind from our motion presses hard into my face. The bow tosses occasional sprays of water mixed with wisps of campfire smoke and the musky scent of the riparian forest that lines both sides of the river. We jet into darkness and soon pass under three bridges: Bridge Street, Highway 20,and the abandoned railroad overpass, their history, location and safe passage point well known to Eric. I can feel the presence of their pillars as we fly by.
After a breath-taking ride of several miles past “widowmakers” and shallow sandbars, along a tunnel of light created by Eric’s halogens, he eventually settles the boat near the bank and cuts the jet. A moment of silence breaks, and then he fires up the 8 HP puttering Yamaha, which holds our position over a prime hole just before sunrise.
A good salmon run, an early start and an ideal fishing hole do not guarantee a good catch. You must use the correct tackle, the proper weight and the best lure. The fresh bait must be free of human scent. Then you must bounce it on the bottom just right. Remember to adjust it to the best position constantly.
And then the bite must hap- pen. Eric recommends that his clients not set the hook. He says, “Jerks are for jerks. The King’s mouth and jaw are bone hard. If you jerk, it will pull the lure out of their mouth. When they hit, resist the urge to set the hook. Let the King set his hook.”
Fishing holes of the lower feather river
After 20-plus years of fishing on the Feather River, Eric has found several prime holes north of the Yuba City boat ramp, with names like Swinging Rope,
Skunk, Rock Wall, Fig Tree and Sullivan. They are points near the bank where the current carves channels 16 to over 20 feet deep. Here, the Kings hole up in large schools.
Eric sees their great numbers on his fish finder. But unfortunately, I only see vague dots and dashes on the screen. I form an image in my mind of the school nestled together with tails waving in unison. They are like one great fish, holding a steady position in the current until some unseen force urges them to divide and dart across the shallows to the safety of the next hole and closer to their destiny.
Know your challenger
Appreciation for king salmon comes from understanding their life cycle. Hiring a knowledge- able guide also helps. Part of the cycle begins in the headwaters of the Feather River, where they spawn and die. Their fry hatch and make their way down to the Sacramento River, continue through San Francisco Bay, past the Golden Gate and into the Pacific Ocean for 3 to 5 years. This part of their life ends when nature calls them back toward their headwaters.
They navigate by scent and taste as they return in massive schools in the tens of thousands back through the Golden Gate, through the oil-filmy Suisun Straights, past the fleet of moth- balled Navy ships, past the maze of Delta sloughs — over 10,000 miles of winding waterways — and up the Sacramento River. Klamath mountain scent and the taste of volcanic soil guide those kings spawned in the Sacramento River to continue toward their headwaters. Those hatched in the Feather River turn at the Verona confluence and follow the familiar and irresistible aromas and flavors that originate where the source flows through fern meadows and conifer forests on the western slope of the Sierra.
Eric positions the boat and says, “Put ’em in, boys.” I feel a gentle vibration through the rod as the lure makes its way to the bottom. I’m hit and holler, “Fish on!” My buddies hurry and reel in their lines to prevent tangling. And the battle begins. Adrenaline rush! Hot blood pumps throughout my body and pushes the moment into high gear. With hook set and line taut, I hold tight and high step ‘round the deck in pursuit of the prize.
Sunlight flashes across the water off blinding silver armor as a high-spirited king breaks for the sky. Its tail flings an explosion of glowing water that arch- es and falls in refracted light. It then plunges headlong into the river. My line slices razor-like across the surface, followed by another leaping break for the sky. It twists and twirls in the air, trying to shake the hook. It then slams sideways into the parting water. It strikes an upriver run. Drag set firm as the line gained feds out and sings from the spindle. The rod bends and quivers and surges in a tug-of- war. I reel. The king pivots for leverage, charges the boat and darts under it.
I bury my rod tip deep in the water to prevent the broadside tines of the boat from shearing the line. Another spirited surge draws out more line. The king furiously whirls and again strikes an upriver run, then dashes back to circle around the boat. It reverses its direction and dives. More high stepping and deck dancing as I follow the lead. While I hold tension, the king changes its tactic. It dashes toward the snags for escape. Eric repositions the boat mid-river away from the obstacles.
Back and around the boat again, it slows, changes direction, rolls and seems to be tir- ing. There is a brief calm that bursts with a startled leap and flash. It brings a fresh attack and another upriver run. Back and around the boat a little slower now, a final roll at the mid beam, a quick dip and haul of the net and the king is on the deck. It arches and shivers in a panic, still not giving up hope or fight. Eric gives the valiant king a humane bat strike across the head, dispatching its spirit with respect. The time now slows for photos, smiles and cold Foster’s beers — celebration and high fives all around.
Short break between catches
Susan examines the hooks then adds fresh crawdad tails to the lures while Eric repositions for another drift over Skunk Hole. Ribbons of Autumn gold flutter across the emerald water from the early sunrise that pierces the umbrella-like canopies of the riparian forest where hawks call from treetops. Nature cloisters the forest with giant oak, sycamore, ash, walnut, eucalyptus, fig and the invasive Ailanthus altissima (Tree of Life). Their gnarled roots en- tangle the river’s bank, where they break through to reach into the water. The musk-like scent of the river triggers pleas- ant memories for me of fishing here as a child. Wild grapes and wild roses shroud the trees on which they climb. And beyond the forest are endless rows of peach trees.
Eric holds our position steady over the hole, putting my line in the water. The weight only bounces a few times when I holler, “Fish on!” And then another battle repeats itself in the mirror-like water of the river. By 8:30 a.m. and before I have had my usual second cup of coffee, we have all caught our limit of kings.
A VERY SPECIAL GIFT by Richard Ham
My very first boat was a birthday present. It was a battery-powered, blue plastic model runabout with an outboard motor. With a fresh battery the little boat could actu- ally produce a little wake. This 1950s toy was my prized posses- sion and I knew that someday I would have a real one just like it. I loved playing with it and would set the tiller to make cir- cles so the boat would always come back to me. Fate eventually separated us when a sudden off- shore breeze put the circling boat beyond my reach. I watched as it circled far out into the lake and disappeared in the waves.
My first real boat experience was as an invited guest. A neighbor girl and I were constant childhood playmates and her father loved to go catfishing. He would often take us with him to the Kankakee River in Illinois. He would load us into his jon boat and put on his waders. He then pulled the boat out into the slow moving water and when the water was up to his waist he would drop the anchor. After climbing into the boat and re- moving his waders, we would sit and fish. His favorite bait was chicken livers, the stinkier, the better. We caught lots of fish.
My next boating experience came in scouting. Explorer Post 82 was known as The Canoeing 82. All our camping trips were centered on where we could use the post’s canoes. Some outings were long river trips covering many miles. We learned every- thing about boating safety, water conditions, paddling strokes, righting and re-entering a cap- sized canoe in open water, and even how to propel a canoe by pulsing our weight while stand- ing in the stern. It was a great four years in scouting.
When I graduated from college in 1973, I finally bought my first boat. It was a used, but very clean, 1956 Berglund 14-foot runabout. Berglund Boats were individually crafted of red Philippine mahogany with oak keels and fir plywood bottoms. They were very similar but smaller than the more famous Chris Craft boats. The boat carried a 40 hp Mercury out- board which would power the boat to a top speed of 30 mph. It was a great little ski boat. On a double date for skiing on the Illi- nois River in Morris, Illinois I met my wife of now 47 years. To fund our honeymoon to the Maine coast two years later, I sold the boat.
My next boat served a new purpose. After moving to Northern California in 1978 we needed a boat for rafting the Klamath River and getting on the water of mountain lakes. A Sevylor Caravelle five person inflatable was perfect. From this little boat I learned how to fish for trout. We soon filled this boat with our children but after about seven years we wore it out. At about the same time, my fishing focus shifted to walking small rivers and streams for wild trout in places few people were willing to go
In 2003 we moved to the Southern California desert, not exactly known for stellar trout fishing. Tim, a new friend and fellow teacher, got me to dust off my bass fishing tackle for some great private pond fishing in the Coachella Valley. Tim also introduced me to float tube fishing and the Eastern Sierra. With a new Fish Cat 4, we have taken many trips, always friendly competing for the most and biggest fish. Float tube fishing is still my favorite way to find and catch small lake, trophy trout.
After retiring in 2014, I wanted a boat for frequent solo fishing trips. Tim was still teaching, and float tubing alone increases the risk of trouble. I wanted something ridged and a Hobie Outback kayak was perfect. I found a lightly used, fully-outfitted kayak with a bonus of a Watersnake 24-pound thrust trolling motor. It was mounted in a blank pedal plug in place of the Hobie pedals. With a full variable throttle and 360-degree turning I could take it almost anywhere.
In 2016, Tim lost his father after a long illness. Several years earlier, Tim was able to take his father one last time to Crowley Lake. They took the boat his dad had purchased in 1995, a 13-foot Valco deep V. For most of the day on the lake, Tim and his dad reminisced about their many past fishing trips with the boat and the fish they caught. Tim’s dad was blessed that day with a nice 3-pound Crowley rain- bow. For the next six years, the boat sat unused.
The desert sun, heat, occasional rain and dry rot soon destroyed the cover and but smaller than the more famous Chris Craft boats. The boat carried a 40 hp Mercury out- board which would power the boat to a top speed of 30 mph. It was a great little ski boat. On a double date for skiing on the Illinois River in Morris, Illinois I met my wife of now 47 years. To fund our honeymoon to the Maine coast two years later, I sold the boat.
My next boat served a new purpose. After moving to Northern California in 1978 we need- ed a boat for rafting the Klamath River and getting on the water of mountain lakes. A Sevylor Caravelle five person inflatable was perfect. From this little boat I learned how to fish for trout. We soon filled this boat with our children but after about seven years we wore it out. At about the same time, my fishing focus shifted to walking small river. In the summer of 2019, Tim asked me to take the boat. He did not want to sell it. The boat would require a lot of work just to get it operational. Tim confessed that he did not have the time, tools, or skills to do the work. I was blessed with all three. I only needed to buy a towing ball to get the boat home.
First order of business was to remove everything from inside. Boat seats, bench seats, foam and flooring. All would have to be re- placed. After scrubbing out the inside, the boat was then inverted onto saw horses. Now I could focus on the trailer. The lights were dead. The wiring was cracked. The rollers were dried out and bro- ken. The trailer tongue was kinked and the hitch was rusted. Surface rust was everywhere.
One by one, all the problems were fixed including the installation of new wheel bearings, rims and tires. The trailer frame was brushed, primed and painted in black semi-gloss. New wiring and LED lights were installed and carpeted bunks replaced the rollers. The trailer jack was replaced and the winch rope was replaced with a new strap. Finished, the trailer looked like new. Now for the boat.
Twenty-four years of use and weather had taken its toll on the hull. All the shine was gone but the rivets were all tight. Three days of powered buffing and hand polishing finally brought back a near mirror finish. Deep scratches and small dents would have to re- main. Following the design lines of the sides, a semi-gloss, black tapering stripe was added over aluminum primer. The stern was also painted in black
The interior of the boat got new paint too, a light sage green closely matching the original color. New foam was added under all three seats giving the boat 300 pounds of net buoyancy. A 12-volt marine battery and the gas tank were mounted in the bow. New marine- grade plywood seats painted white were installed and two swiveling captain’s seats in black and white, were added to the back and middle seats. A new electric start Mercury 15 hp EFI Four Stroke, Lowrance fish finder and Scotty rod holders finished it off as a great trout boat.
After four months of restoration, It was time to reveal the boat to Tim. It was the last week of the boating season at Big Bear Lake. We trolled identical firetiger Rapalas along the eastern shore and past the observatory. Tim caught 4, and I caught 0. This time I was very glad he caught the most fish. “My dad would love what you have done with the boat,” Tim said several times.
Occasionally people stop and compliment the nice looking boat. Some even think it is new. I tell them how the boat was actually gifted to me by a close friend. Almost all say they wished they had a friend like that.
And that is the most special gift of all.