By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

A very clear and placid Smith River, with mist still hanging on Friday morning, welcomed another drove of derby fishermen.

It's this year's second Cal-Ore Fish Enhancement group's fund-raising derby to benefit Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery.

The crowd of 150-or-so fishermen gathered Thursday night to meet each other and gear up for two days of fishing.

Half the group took to the Smith; the other half, to the Chetco. The two groups will switch rivers for today's angling.

Despite the idyllic views and good weather of the past two weeks, conditions for catching fish did not live up to the serendipity of two weeks ago that yielded record catches.

Four hours of fishing between the entrance point above the forks and Ruby VanDeventer Park produced about five catches for six boats.

On the first day of the February Derby, 139 fish were caught on both rivers after eight hours of fishing.

Cold and damp fishermen were consoled at the park with warm bowls of clam chowder, coffee and a bathroom break.

No one seemed to have given up hope, either, with a whole day and a-half to go.

The 25 professional guides steering the boats poked fun at one another, beefing up the competition.

When the first Smith River boat finally got a fish on, the guide of a nearby boat, Greg Nicol, shouted andquot;You must have taken that picture of a sea lion off the bottom of your boat.andquot;

Feeling the pressure to get his team a catch, Nicol actually got out of his boat and pulled it back upriver by hand so his wards could cast and recast and recast. But to no avail.

Even in rainy weather, fish or no fish, the Cal-Ore Fish Enhancement Derby is more than just a day on the water.

Many of the 300 anglers that attend both yearly derbies have come, as if on a pilgrimage, many times in the last two decades.

andquot;The great thing about it is there's a camaraderie among the people because they come every year. It's a big fun party that attempts to augment and regenerate the native fish runs,andquot; said Hank Westbrook, who founded the derbies and Cal-Ore Fish Enhancement group with his brother, Chopper Westbrook, 21 years ago.

All of the derbygoers generally arrive Thursday and stay at the Ship-Ashore Resort at the mouth of the Smith River.

That night they attend a derby dinner, social hour and auction which raises money for the Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery.

Breakfast starts at 6:30 a.m., Friday, then each team hits the water by 8 a.m.

Friday's dinnertime is fraught with tall tales and slander of other teams, competing for who caught the most inches of steelhead.

It starts all over again Saturday.

Behind the scenes, making the meals and setting up the auction items, are not your ordinary hired hands. Westbrook has gathered several lifelong friends like Ernie Silva, Gretta and Glenn Smedly, who gladly don aprons in the kitchen to help the cause.

Fishing guide Val Early and airplane pilot Dan Brattain work to coordinate the event and draw in celebrities like Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager and Oakland Raider alumnus, center Jim Otto.

The result of each derby - and the goal - is to raise more money for the North Coast's only privately funded fish hatchery, Rowdy Creek.

Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery produces at least 25 percent of all the steelhead and salmon caught on the Smith River.