Editor's note: Longtime Del Norte County resident Chuck Blackburn's column appears monthly.
I was fortunate to be brought to the Klamath River in 1949 as a 13-year-old boy. I spent a summer rowing boats, fishing for salmon and steelhead and learning to run a motor boat up and down the river.
Running up the shallow waters in the summer above the town of Klamath required a knowledge of reading the tailouts of riffles and being able to center off your approach to the deepest part of that riffle and the telltale signs of submerged rocks.
In my travels up and down the river in years ahead I tried to maneuver without hitting bottom and shearing a pin to protect the engine shaft and propeller. Even then I had times when I would have to pull over to the river bank and put in a new shear pin.
This was another learning experience in growing up in "God's
Country." I returned to the Klamath each summer to work as a dockboy for
Paul and Shorty Conner. I tried a couple of times after work to see how
far upriver I could row a boat on an outgoing tide and found out that
the top of McDonald's Riffle was my limit. What fun that was in those
My tenure as a dockboy ended in September 1955 as Shorty's Camp was
wiped out by a great flood, but my experiences as a river guide were
just beginning as I started working for Alvin and Juanita Larsen of
Requa Resort. This new opportunity was a whole new challenge of "reading
water," the great forces of a fast-moving river at its mouth on an
outgoing tide and those currents meeting an ocean with all of its
My lot in life fishing the mouth of the Klamath River gave me great
respect for its power and that's why I chose to row instead of using a
For years people asked me why I chose to row and I responded, "my
motor starts the first pull every time." I experienced many people over
the years drowning at the mouth because of motors dying and being sucked
into the breakers.
I love feeling those forces with my boat and oars and can feel the
surges as the river surges and then the ocean says, "enough," and pushes
back. I can feel and sense it all. We had a great group of Yurok and
white guides who understood the dangers of the mouth of the Klamath. How
thrilling it was to be fighting a big chinook within yards of the
breakers with a river current that is going downhill into the ocean. The
adrenalin is flowing as the party is fighting the fish while I am
wide-eyed alert and fighting the forces.
You're pulling the oars with strong strokes and feeling the fatigue
that is starting to build, but you are confident in your ability, your
focus, your strength and endurance and you know that you want to land
that fish. This was a natural high that stays with me even to today that
flourished in my life from those young days.
My experiences in later years drift fishing the Smith and Chetco
rivers built my knowledge and confidence in reading the water as a drift
boat fisherman. Fishing different river levels certainly change as
conditions change, but like my years at the mouth of the Klamath, I was
always safe in my approach to handling my boat.
It was fun to see a fish surface and then swing above that fish and
work that area hard. Your heartbeat would increase as you just knew that
one of the rods would dip to the water and I could then let out a
Klamath yell. I love to fish close to banks in higher water and also had
great success at times with eddy lines - it's all in what to look for.
A different experience occurred when my wife Missy and I got married
and had a great dinner at Ship Ashore restaurant and stayed overnight in
one of the small condos north of the ship.
The sun was going down and we went out to the small deck overlooking
the mouth of the river. The tide was low and across from us was the sand
spit just short of the mouth. I knew what to look for and was rewarded
by seeing a snout of a seal working up the shoreline.
I told Missy that I wanted her to read the water and she said okay. I
asked her if she saw anything and she said she saw a small object in
the water. I said, "watch it closely and see what happens."
Suddenly a large swirl occurred and a seal surfaced with a chinook
salmon. Seagulls appeared quickly to pick up any morsels. I think she
knew that it was a seal when she first saw the nose at the surface.
We sat there until it got dark and saw several more seals gather in a
chinook in the shallow water next to the sand spit. The seals try to
keep the salmon in the shallower water where they can more successfully
trap and catch the fish.
The experiences that I gained through my younger days with my father
gave me the foundation to want to learn more about our ocean, rivers and
lakes in this region. I join many of my Indian friends, commercial and
sport fishermen, river guides, kayakers and rafters who have learned how
to "read the water" in their adventures in life.
From the Klamath and the Smith rivers, I yell, "yeee haaaw" in
landing a fish.
Chuck Blackburn can be reached at 954-7121.