Del Norte People: A lifetime of ‘reading the water’

By Chuck Blackburn April 11, 2012 05:31 pm

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 days.

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 forces.

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 motor.

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.