Del Norte People: The giant Chinook that got away

By Chuck Blackburn December 12, 2011 08:12 pm

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

This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime stories that can happen to a fisherman in his years on a lake, ocean, river or stream.

In this particular story, it happened to me, Chuck “Chub” Blackburn, veteran guide of 30 years on the North Coast, and Phil Schafer, prominent attorney from the Crescent City area.

This adventure took place on the Smith River, the spawning grounds of the giant Tyee Chinook salmon and the streamlined steelhead. The salmon in the Smith go up to the 60-pound range and the state-record steelhead was caught weighing 27 pounds, 7 ounces. This is the setting of this fish story on that Dec. 4, 1980.

Phil Schafer and I put the drift boat in at Van Deventer Park and spent about an hour working our way down toward Bob Jake Riffle. We had seen a couple of fish show to that point but did not have any success in enticing them to the hotshots.

We slipped into the deeper water of the Bob Jake Hole when Phil’s rod took that telltale lurch toward the water. He set the hook firmly into the fish’s jaw and the fight was on. I looked at my watch and it was 9:30 a.m.

I maneuvered the drift boat into the eddy line to gain ground on the fish, but each time he turned and headed back out into the current. We chased the Tyee downriver and over the first riffle, where we beached the boat and attempted to gain ground on the fish. We lost line again, jumped into the boat and raced after the escaping giant.

Down past the moonlight hole we fought, gaining line back on the reel but still not taking control of the fish. The salmon again decided to head for the next riffle with its protective current. The 12-pound test Maxima Line was tested many times to its breaking point but met the challenge.

By this time the word had spread downriver of this unusual battle between fish and fisherman. As we passed underneath Dr. Fine Bridge, we received shouts of encouragement. We could see the mighty Tyee below the surface in the shallower water but again, he took a mighty surge downriver toward the Rooney Riffle and hole.

We had already beached the boat on a half dozen occasions to fight the Chinook and attempted yet another beaching at the north side of the Rooney. Phil looked a little bushed as we climbed out onto the gravel bar. My arms were getting a little tired, too, from scullying the oars so much.

We plotted the strategy and finally I told Phil that as the fish worked backward into the shallows of the riffle that I would use my tailer to capture the big salmon. I could hear the Maxima Line singing as Phil was laying the “heat” to the fish.

I strained my eyes to pick out the giant figure and finally could see his outline in the water. My heart was really beating as he came closer, no more than 4 feet away. I could see the white and red hotshot in his jaw. I was ready to slip the tailer over him when he took a lurch and away he sped, over yet another riffle. Into the boat we jumped and the chase was on again.

We drifted by Saxton’s Tackle Shop and Ramp, where about 40 people were watching, many of them with binoculars. We beached again below Saxton’s near a steep bank, not my ideal place to land a fish, but Phil said, “This is it, we’re not going any farther.”

I knew that this was it and surely the fish could not have any fight left after four hours of battle. I knew how tired Phil and I were. Again, I told Phil how I wanted to land the fish and he agreed that he was ready. I told him to keep the fish coming and to try to keep the fish’s head up as we lead him in toward shore. Phil was high above me on the gravel bar and I could see the big Chinook coming closer. My partner was doing a great job in bringing in the fish.

I yelled at Phil, “Raise his head, keep him coming.” We were going to finally win after four hours of sweat, but no, the big Chinook was not beaten. He took a slight turn and dug his big snout into the gravel right where the hotshot was embedded into his jaw and the exhausted Maxima Line snapped.

The salmon disappeared in a flash and Phil landed on the seat of his pants uttering a few un-attorney-like phrases.

Most fish stories of this type end in success, but this could not be classified as a failure. According to a good friend, Dr. Larry Holcomb, “It is not the end result that counts, but the process of getting there.” We will surely remember that Dec. 4, 1980, “process.” My hat is off to that salmon and his fighting spirit.

Chuck Blackburn can be reached at  954-7121.