The Rowdy Creek Steelhead Derby was back for the 37th year this weekend as 18 teams, consisting of two boats apiece, drifted the Smith and Chetco rivers on Friday and Saturday. Although the rivers were running a little on the low side prior to big storms hitting the Wild Rivers Coast on Sunday, there were still a fair amount of steelhead hauled in this year, especially compared to last years abysmal catch totals.

“It was kind of nice because we had good river conditions on both rivers, which is always favorable with the participants,” said Mike Coopman, who has been a guide for the Rowdy Creek Derby for the last 23 years. “Everybody has the opportunity to go catch some fish.”

A total of 91 steelhead were caught and measured in the derby this year, although anglers had significantly more luck in Oregon than their California counterparts. A total of 71 of the steelhead were hauled out of the Chetco River with 40 on Friday and another 31 on Saturday. The Smith River yielded just eight fish on Friday and another 12 on Saturday for a grand total of 20 steelhead.

“The way that it works is the Chetco is a few days behind the Smith as far as clearing up,” Coopman said. “In the long and the short of it the Smith was starting to get clear and the Chetco still had some color. That makes the difference in the fishing.”

In all, the 91 fish caught measured a total of 2,413 inches.

It was a close battle for first place amongst the 18 teams competing in the derby with two boats catching 12 steelhead apiece. Teams consists of two boats, each with a guide and two fishermen.

The winning team consisted of Tom German and Chad Morse fished with guide Shane Blair in one boat, while Tommy Chew and Eric Schweki fishing with guide Mike Coopman in the other winning boat. They combined to catch 12 steelhead totaling 314 inches, just barely edging out the second-place team by six inches.

“Our partner in the derby — Shane Blair — kind of helped us through,” said Coopman, who said this year’s first place finish was his ninth or 10th as a fishing guide for the derby. “We hooked a lot of fish, but we had a tough time landing them. With that said Shane, Tom and Chad kind of came through and helped us out there. We had 12 fish and they caught eight and we caught four. It was kind of neat because it was Shane’s first ever derby win. He is a good all-around kid and a good guide and they pulled it off for us.”

Wes White hauled in the largest steelhead out of all the fishermen while fishing with Kim Hagen, measuring 34.25 inches. White and Hagen’s team came in second overall.

Although Coopman said making it into the winners circle is always fun, it is never the number one goal.

“This derby is a family event that helps out our community economically and it is kind of a neat deal,” Coopman said. “Although it is a competition and you are out there to win, there is a bigger presence there. The addition of hatchery fish to the Smith River is not only an economic driver, but its a recreational driver that has carried out for generations.”

All the money raised by the Rowdy Creek Steelhead Derby goes back into the Rowdy Creek Hatchery, where it helps fund day-to-day operating costs.

“We do two fundraisers a year with the Rowdy Creek Hatchery dinner in November, and the derby,” said Coopman, who also serves on the Rowdy Creek Hatchery Board of Directors. “We are all self-funded for our employees, and basically all the day-to-day stuff. We need about $120,000 to $130,000 to operate. So we get some private donations, and then run the two fundraisers and as a non-profit we are close to the red by the end of the year.”

Coopman said premilinary numbers from the derby this year indicate roughly $50,000 were brought in for the hatchery by the derby this year.

Over the last 40 years the Steelhead Derby, along with the Salmon Derby which ended in 2005, have been the primary source for raising money for the hatchery. Over the decades the derby has brought together a close-knit crew of avid anglers.

“The derbies started in 1978 and a lot of our participants are second- and even third-generation. So the family aspect of things is great,” Coopman said. “We see these people every year at the derby and they come and pour their wallets out for the fish. That translates into an economy for our local community.

“The camaraderie is great and the competition is great. You come in at the end of the day and compare up numbers over a cocktail and have a great auction. It is something that is pretty special. We bring people from as far north as Washington and as far south as Southern California. Everybody mingles amongst each other for three days with a whole bunch of fun had in between.”

This year’s Rowdy Creek Steelhead Derby had a special memorial to one of the founders — Jim Griggs — who started the Salmon Derby in 1978.

“After Chopper and Hank Westbrook and a group of Kiwanis had gotten the hatchery going they figured out that they needed to fund things,” Coopman said. “So Jim Griggs got that started.”

Griggs passed away this fall, so derby organizers decided to do something to recognize his contributions.

“We did a memorial plaque that has the team names, the number of inches of fish that they caught, and how many fish they caught dating clear back to 1978, and we updated it to the last one that Jim had facilitated, which was in 2005,” Coopman said.

The plaque was presented to Jim’s son, Kenny Griggs, who came up and participated in the derby this year.

Rowdy Creek Steelhead Derby organizer Kimberly Swift said the hatchery’s next fundraiser will be the Rowdy Creek Hatchery dinner on Nov. 2 at Lucky 7 Casino. Next year’s steelhead derby is scheduled for Feb. 20-22 and Swift said 13 teams had already signed up to compete by the time the 2019 derby wrapped up.

Reach Michael Zogg at mzogg@triplicate.com.

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