Del Norte People: Growing up in Del Norte: tying flies, hooking fish

By Dick Trone August 18, 2011 06:36 pm

Editor’s note: Longtime Del Norte County resident Chuck Blackburn’s column appears every fourth Thursday.

As a boy of 13, I was introduced to the Klamath River by my father, Wes.

We stayed at Shorty’s Camp on the south bank of the river about a half-mile below the old bridge that was wiped out in the 1964 flood.

We were going to camp only a few days as our real destination was Canada. Dad was a structural steel worker and professional welder. He would take the whole summer off so that we could experience new adventures.

As we settled into this comfortable camp, we got to know Shorty Connor, an old Irishman who wore a rounded derby hat and a scarf around his neck. His son, Paul, had just come home from the Korean War and was helping Shorty run the camp and drove a school bus for Del Norte High School during the school year.

We ended up staying all summer and Dad and I went salmon fishing with Shorty and then by ourselves. I learned how to row a boat and that all played into my future coming back the next summer to work as a dock boy for Paul and Shorty. So many stories to tell about the Klamath, but they will come later.

My career as a dock boy came to an end in December 1955, when a major flood washed away Shorty’s camp. We came up from our home in Sharp Park, just below San Francisco on the coast, to see Paul and Shorty. Paul told me to talk to Alvin Larsen of Requa Resort for a position as a river guide for the late summer salmon run. Alvin knew Dad and I and at 19 I was given the chance to start as a professional guide for the summer of 1956.

These experiences led me back each year until I completed my B.A. degree, credential for teaching and later in 1963, my master’s. I was hooked and signed a contract to teach and coach at Redwood School in Fort Dick in September 1961. I now was introduced to fishing on the Smith River although I continued guiding on the Klamath through 1986.

I watched the notorious Bill Schaad and a few well-known fly fishers for salmon in those later years of the ’60s. I knew that in addition to drift fishing with my famous Tony Geroni drift boat, fly fishing would also be on my horizons. Wow, what a trip it proved to be. I watched these guys closely on how they shot the line out with its 30-foot shooting head and laid the weighted fly with a plop on the water. I also drew on my previous experience of guiding where the salmon would be at various levels of water in the river.

I practiced first in the yard at home without a hook and fly until I started to get the heavy feel of the weighted shooting head. The bulked-up fly reel contained braided line for a base followed by a 30-pound monofilament line and was attached to a heavy sinking shooting head with a tapered leader that started at 20 pounds and tapered to 9 pounds at the hook of the fly. A special nail knot was used to attach the leader to the shooting head.

I learned to tie my own flies, which proved to be a lot of fun. One Saturday in the early 1970s, I loaded my pram into the back of the old Chevy truck and drove out to the piling hole on the lower Smith, a part of the Westbrook reservation ranch. Hank and Chopper Westbrook had a nice seasonal dock in this stretch of river. I backed the Chevy down to the water’s edge and unloaded the pram and fishing gear. I had that feeling in my stomach that this would be a good day.

I rowed out and threw my anchor out about 50 feet from shore and exactly opposite of some submerged snags. I also knew that the bottom was a nice trough of deeper water with pebbles. I knew that if there were salmon there, that’s where they would lie.

I looked down through the water and could see a current of salt water intruding upriver with small pieces of seaweed suspended.

I took a few casts and retrievals and finally on the next cast could feel the tug of a nice Chinook. We had a good battle but he ended up in my net and in the boat. I looked at my homemade golden comet fly and some of its tail feathers were gone. Oh well, it was a lucky fly.

After several more casts the familiar take occurred again. Wow, was I glad to live here and be on the Smith River. My fly rod that was homemade was doubled over as I led the second Chinook into the net.

I had two 15-pound salmon for the smokehouse at home and decided to go for a third for a limit. I looked at the fly and it only had about two hairs for a tail although the hackle was full. I laid out a nice pattern on the water near the snags and watched as the fly and line sank. My instincts told me to start retrieving with short tugs on the line. A familiar feeling of contact occurred again and I let out my old Klamath yell, but only the deer and cattle raised their heads.

Three great battles with a deteriorating fly became a great fishing adventure on the October morning on the pristine Smith River. Smoked fresh and canned salmon provided the Blackburn family many great feasts. I’m glad to be a Del Norter.

Chuck Blackburn can be reached at  954-7121.