Fish were difficult to come by at the 36th Annual Rowdy Creek Steelhead Derby last weekend, with fewer than one steelhead per boat — a grand total of 34 and about a third of last year’s catch — hauled in over two days of fishing on Friday and Saturday.
The derby, a benefit for the Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery in Smith River, hosted 20 teams this year, totaling 40 boats. Each boat — comprised of a fishing guide and two participants to man the fishing poles — spent one day drifting the Chetco River and the other, the Smith.
The problem was that both rivers were running particularly clear and low.
“It is very slow,” said participant Kevin Lee of Napa, who has been attending the derby with friends for about 10 years. “There are very few fish in the system compared to other years.”
The tough conditions didn’t seem to have much of an effect on one half of the winning team, consisting of husband-and-wife duos Kathy and Bob Figas of Eureka and Garth and Linda Sundberg of McKinleyville. The men fished with guide Phil Desutels on the Smith River on Friday and the Chetco on Saturday, while the women floated the opposite river each day with fishing guide Mick Thomas.
The Figas and Sundbergs combined to haul in six fish totaling 170 inches in length, but it was actually the women who did all of the work.
“We caught them all,” Linda Sundberg said. “The guys caught zero. Kathy, my partner, and I were the A team, and we caught every fish. We hooked seven and landed six, and each of us had three apiece.”
Kathy Figas said they have had a lot of fun lording that fact over their husbands’ heads for the past few days.
“Absolutely,” Kathy said with a laugh. “They had to live it down from everybody who knows about us winning and them not catching any. So everyone is razzing them — everybody. They’re really good about it though. They’re the ones that usually catch all the fish and we don’t contribute as much. But it was our turn this year.”
Both women credited their guide, Thomas, for much of their success.
“I was apprehensive going into it just because the weather report and the conditions, knowing it was going to be a rough weekend, but our guide pulled us through the whole weekend without a hitch,” Linda Sundberg said. “He made it comfortable, took care of us, and I feel like we were able to do a great job and had a fantastic weekend.”
Thomas said he didn’t do anything out of the ordinary, however.
“It was low and clear conditions. You just have to get lucky out there,” he said. “I had some good fishing-women on board, and that changes all your luck.”
Thomas has been a guide for the derby for more than 20 years and his teams have finished in the top three positions many times.
“A lot of it is luck and timing,” he said. “Nothing changes, it is just another day of fishing. You just have to be in the right place at the right time and the fish have got to bite. If you don’t get a bite, you aren’t going to catch a fish. It is that easy. We don’t have any real secrets. When you’ve got 20 boats on clear rivers the fishing is pretty tough.”
Thomas also pointed out that all of the local guides have a distinct advantage over guides coming in from out of town, who spend most of their times on rivers such at the Rogue River or the Umpqua River.
He, Kathy and Linda started the derby on the Chetco River Friday, and finished with four of the eight fish caught in Oregon for the day. Only five fish were caught on the Smith on Friday.
Although Kathy Figas and Linda Sundberg were both able to land two fish apiece, Sundberg said that they were well aware that the rest of the field was struggling.
“It is pretty funny; it’s sort of like this little hen session — a gossip session — you hear everything by the end of the day,” Linda said. “With cell phone availability you kind of know what is going on in different places. We knew there had been a few fish caught, but not a lot.”
The women went into the second day of the competition confident, but quickly heard tales of a boat making a big run.
“We knew we had to catch at least two fish to stay in the lead, but halfway through the day we heard another boat had caught four,” Kathy said. “So we didn’t know we had actually won until we walked in that night.”
Figas caught another steelhead Saturday morning on the Smith, and Sundberg got the team’s last fish of the derby that afternoon.
“Our lines were in the water from start to finish; we barely took a break,” Sundberg said.
The two ended up putting their team in first place by one fish and 40 inches. Second place went to Chuck Howard and Darin Bradburdy with guide Rye Phillips, and Chris Howard and Tom Bessette with guide Frank Duarte.
The Chetco River yielded eight fish totaling 225 inches Friday compared to five fish measuring 129 inches on the Smith. That flipped on Saturday, however, as anglers on the Smith River caught 12 steelhead totaling 331 inches, while nine fish totaling 265 were caught on Saturday on the Chetco.
Mark Scarr of Salinas caught the biggest fish of the derby — a 38-inch monster he hauled out of the Chetco River on Saturday with guide Chris Griffeth of Eagle Point. Both Griffeth and Scarr were participating in the derby for the first time.
Scarr got the opportunity to come to the Rowdy Creek Derby when a couple people at his brother’s work dropped out at the last minute, which opened up a spot for him to participate.
Scarr said he has been fishing with his brother since his childhood, mainly targeting trout. Prior to entering the Rowdy Creek Steelhead Derby, Scarr said the largest fish he had caught was probably a 7-pound trout. Scarr said his 38-inch steelhead was estimated at about 22 pounds.
Scarr said Friday was a really slow day on the Smith River, with his boat getting one bite, but no catches. Saturday the Scarrs and Griffeth floated the Chetco and started the day drifting roe, but after bites by fish much too small to count they switched to plugs.
Not long after they made the change Scarr got the derby-winning bite.
“I was sitting there and I bent over to grab my water and my guide goes, ‘Uh Mark, you’re getting a hit.’ I looked up and my rod was bent and he said, ‘Yeah, now set it down.’ So I set it down and that is all she wrote,” Scarr said. “I knew what to do, basically, but I had never had a fish that big on. It took me about 15 minutes to get it in. I was really excited, but I think my guide was more excited than I was. He said, ‘I’ve never had a fish that big caught in my boat,’ and I said, ‘I’ve never caught a fish that big,’ and we just went on and on.”
Without any previous experience with steelhead fishing, Scarr said he didn’t have any clue just how impressive of a catch his 38-incher was.
“I didn’t know the reality of what I had just caught,” he said. “When I first hooked it and it came up to the top from 30 feet or 40 feet below the boat, all you could see was the side of it at the top of the water and the guide said, ‘That is a hog. That’s a big one.’”
Scarr said a few of the older fishing guides told him that they can’t remember a bigger steelhead ever being caught during the Rowdy Creek Derby.
Scarr’s winning steelhead ended up being the only fish caught all day by either boat on his team. But one fish was enough to make the trip from Salinas worth it.
“It was really cool,” Scarr said. “It is probably one of the best experiences that I have ever had fishing, and I have been fishing since I was a kid.”
Last year’s champions Tyler and Troy Travis floated with the same fishing guide as last year, Kim Hagen, but couldn’t replicate their results from 2017. Tyler said they hooked a too-small-to-count steelhead on the Chetco Friday, and managed to get two on the line at once, and landed both Saturday on the Smith.
Despite the overall struggle to catch steelhead, spirits stayed high throughout the derby.
“Of course everybody wants to win, but it’s not like we are winning a million-dollar purse here,” Thomas said. “It’s more about the camaraderie. The participants are great. They know what the conditions are going in and they keep a positive attitude. That really makes it all worthwhile. The people really have a good attitude coming in whether it’s high water like last year and there is no chance of catching fish, or low water like this year, and no chance of catching fish.
“It’s a group coming together to raise money for something they believe in. That’s the highlight for me. It is just good people supporting a good cause.”
Organizers were particularly pleased with this year’s fundraising effort, which brought in just over $50,000 for the Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery, the only privately-funded hatchery in California, according to derby organizer Kimberlee Swift. Swift said the derby brought in about $36,000 last year.
“I like everything about the derby — the camaraderie, the other guides, the participants who come,” Thomas said. “It brings in a lot of money for the hatchery. Hopefully we are going in the right direction to help restore some of our fishery and make it better for future generations.”
Kathy Figas and Linda Sundberg were also able to contribute to the hatchery more directly.
“One fish we caught went right to the hatchery,” Sundberg said. “I landed it and the guy from the hatchery was right there. We didn’t even get a picture of it; he came down and put it in a tube and away he went. We felt really good about that.”
The two also felt pretty good about the bragging rights they now hold for the next year.
“I figure when the guys win, nobody remembers who wins,” Figas said. “But when the girls win, they’re going to remember that. We probably won’t catch any then, but that’s the way that it is.”
Reach Michael Zogg at firstname.lastname@example.org .