The Best Way to Lose a Chinook Tournament

On the eve of Tillamook’s annual spring chinook tournament, the Bounty on the Bay, I arrived at a strategic viewpoint overlooking the upper estuary. It was 7:02pm and the sun was blazing. A hot wind howled down from the Northwest, pushing up frothy waves and making the bay look wildly inhospitable. My tournament partner, Chris Santella, was due to arrive any minute. We had planned to get in an hour or two of fishing before dark, but as I looked out at the angry, flooded bay, I knew we were busted. The adjacent public boat ramp was nearly empty, apart from a lone diesel pickup. I took a deep breath to quell my disappointment, then stepped out of my rig to look around. As I neared the pickup, a middle-aged man came rushing around the bumper, gripping a lively chinook. He quickly slipped the springer into a big cooler in the bed of his truck. The setting sun illuminated a prominent adipose fin as the fish flopped into the hold. The man’s eyes met mine, surprised and wary. He wasn’t sure what I had seen, and was visibly weighing the situation.

“Where is everybody?” I asked cheerfully, blowing off his crime. I was already a flat-lander from Slick-city. The last thing I needed was to turn in one of the locals for poaching wild salmon.

“Been nobody here for hours,” he chuckled nervously. “Hell, it’s been dead all season.”

“Guess it just came to life!” I quipped with a phony smile, walking past him to get a view of the water. I paused for a few seconds, long enough to see several chinook porpoising excitedly around a distinct current seam. “Holy shit,” I said, “They’re rolling like piranhas down there!”

“Yeah, now they are,” he said. “I’ve been fishing all day and they just started jumping a few minutes ago.”

I barely heard the end of his sentence as I moved to prep the drifter for launch. Chris arrived with a six pack of cold Sierra Nevada Pale Ale right after the boat hit the water. We exchanged greetings, jumped in the boat, and popped a couple of bottles. “To our success tomorrow!” we toasted.

It was a short row to the tide rip where salmon were still frolicking. I set the anchors, chose a rod, and tore line off the reel into a pile. My first cast was stopped by a tangle of running line. No surprise there. I sorted out the mess and made another cast, perpendicular to the current. The line sunk slowly, even while under the tension of a sweet, slow swing, and my gut told me the fly was coming through at about three or four feet in eight or nine feet of water. It felt good, and the fish kept up their show. Chris hammered casts in the same zone, using the same line, but a different fly. The wind was still intense, but it was at our back, so casting was easy.

On the third or fourth swing, my line jerked hard. I stripped fast and set the hook twice before cranking up the loose running line on the deck. The fish made a good run, helping me close the gap, and soon it was on the reel and tearing off line against a tight drag. Chris took the oars and rowed me to the beach. The tide was low enough for us to step out on the sand, so I pulled off my shoes and socks and flew overboard. The chinook had run to the opposite side of the pool and was holding steady, right on the surface. Every time I tried to ease his head my way, he’d buck and pull another yard or two of line. In a couple of minutes he relented, and as his head slid up on the sandy beach, Chris and I marveled at the beauty before us–a perfect fish, about 15 pounds, showing off his brightest chain-mail in the setting sun. We clinked our beer bottles, praised the fish gods and got back in the game.

Spring Chinook Tournament

Two more casts and we had another fish. This one came undone near the end of the fight. Then another hookup, followed by another loss. Three grabs in less than an hour! And then, as suddenly as it had started, the action fizzled. The fish quit rolling, the wind ceased, and the bay went completely still. My fish-finder confirmed we were anchored in a watery desert.

“Dinner?” I asked.

“Sounds good,” Chris agreed.

Spring Chinook Tournament

Spring Chinook Tournament

The warm summer night passed by too quickly, and the 3:30am alarm was difficult to obey. We pulled ourselves together, made some strong coffee, and set out for the estuary. We fished diligently, working pools and depressions that I knew could hold fish, but there was no sign. At one point we narrowed in on a small group of rolling fish, but could not get close enough to them to present a fly. As the weigh-in for the tournament approached, it became obvious we were going to be empty handed. At 3:30pm we had to make a call. Do we head for Garibaldi and call it a day, or do we stick around for the evening bite? We decided to fish.

Around 5:00pm Chris had to leave for Portland. I could sense the conflict he was facing, having to drive home right as the fishing was due to pick up. I was impressed by his strong paternal instincts, remembering precisely how I had ended up a twice-divorced salmon bum. I took a short dinner break at a nearby sports bar so I wouldn’t be hunting for an open kitchen after dark. At 6:00pm I came back to the bay, refreshed and ready for a good session of swinging. The tide was receding, moving fast, and it took an hour or so to find the groove. I tried four different lines, several flies, and a variety of different presentations, before my swings started feeling just right. Fish started popping everywhere, and I knew what would happen next.

Spring Chinook Tournament

The night ended with two gorgeous springers in the net, my arms burning hot from the effort. It was an electric evening, complete with a full “salmon show” and a grand finale. When it was all over, I had pulled off the seemingly impossible: limited out on salty springers with a fly rod. But I was still just a lowly no-show by tournament standards.

Spring Chinook Tournament


Special thanks to Miguel Morejohn for use of his photography. You can see more of Miguel’s work on his Wildfish Studios website.

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24 Responses to The Best Way to Lose a Chinook Tournament

  1. Eric says:

    Not my place to call you out, of course, but I do feel that as sportsmen it is our responsibility to call in violations when we see them. A local poaching wild fish should be even more worrisome I’d think- since he has the opportunity to take a lot of them if unchecked.
    Great report though, I can’t wait for the evening I find myself in casting distance of rising salmon.

  2. rick allen says:


  3. Nice story Rob. Hey, next year if you can’t find a tournament partner give me a shout.


  4. Jean Nave says:

    What a great story. I only wish I could write so well and tell such a great story. Too bad you can’t find a wife who would enjoy that kind of fising trip!

  5. gregH says:


  6. Rob R says:

    Eric, I respect your opinion, but can only agree “in theory.” In reality, I have to live and play in tiny communities where I’m already berated for being a fly angler and an outsider. I often spend entire days posted opposite handfuls of local bait guys who pour their hatred my way, make offensive comments, and give me the strong impression that they could be dangerous if provoked. These people see me all the time, know where I stay, etc. As a drifter, I’m not coming from a position of strength.

    I also try to give people the benefit of the doubt. That springer could have been pumping blood by the time it hit the beach. Big hardware and big treble hooks are instruments of death, not playthings.

    I think taking a bleeder home to the family, quickly and quietly, could be the right call in such a case. It’s gut wrenching to release a dying native. Such moments can shake a thoughtful angler to the core. I think it is poetically fitting that an angler in that situation has to take a huge risk to keep the fish. It reminds us that the fish gave its life on the other side of the equation, and that we are not always held harmless ourselves.

  7. Nuchal rouge says:

    Recycled pictures from last year. Come on. 🙂

  8. Eric says:

    Thanks for the response. Its much easier to judge from an outside perspective, and I’m sorry to hear the climate down there is so hostile. Its just easy to be frustrated hearing about stuff like that- salmon have enough problems to face without poachers (aside from those wild bleeder situations).

  9. Riverwalker says:

    Rob get real!!!! If you see violations take down the license number of the vehicle and call the State Police. Do not confront the violator. In fact you don’t have to talk to anybody but OSP. Let them make the call as to the ethics and legality of retaining an illegal fish. Use the tip line to report such things.
    Also I live, work, and fish on the Oregon Coast and have done so for over 50 years. I use both fly tackle and drift gear and troll gear. I find that almost all the people that I run into are decent people. We as fishermen don’t need to draw lines in the sand for any type of gear or legal methods for fishing. We are all fishermen.

  10. Rob R says:

    Riverwalker, you can bet I considered it. But I was the only witness, easily targeted if the guy decided to get even. And as I said, in this case I made the call to let it go, giving the guy the benefit of the doubt.

    I have made it my mission as an angler and fishing writer to bridge the gap between various types of angling & anglers. You don’t need to preach to me on that front. Perhaps you mistook my descriptions of the guys who glare at me and make offensive comments as some kind of slam on gear or bait fishermen? That was not my intention, and I think if you read more carefully you will get that. Of course, if it feels better for you to preach and point fingers, by all means…

  11. Rob R says:

    Sorry, feeling defensive today. I guess I shouldn’t be allowed to be defensive if I’m posting my stories on the web 🙂

    You’re right, Riverwalker, I should have nailed that dude. I can rationalize all I want, but I was a chicken shit, and more interested in getting my flies in the water than busting down some old guy.

  12. Mike McCune says:

    Rob R, are you serious. The illegal take of a non-clipped fish is OK, what happened with the save the wild fish campaign, you do belong to a conservation group? I also live and fish on the coast turning in someone for this violation is allowed and should be second nature for those who care? The excuse used by Rob is worth a ticket and he wants to protect wild fish.

    As for the article and pictures great article, next time turn the guy in. The picture of PC and the chinook nice fish.

  13. Sam says:

    I concur with contacting OSP in poaching situations, particularly with regard to repeat offenders that we run across. Although OSP has limited resources even an occassional drive by to show their presence will sometimes cut down on some of the poaching for a little while. Coho poaching is a particular bane in my neck of the woods and I have been surprised more often than not at what folks imagine to be “black gums”. Granted “outsiders” are not welcome in many areas and there are folks one should definitely not confront, but not as blanket policy. The reality is that we cannot change the behavior of others but we can plant small seeds, even if only in our own minds and behaviors. As you say, none of us are harmless in any of this.

  14. Rob R says:

    Mike, thanks for your comment. A lot went through my mind at that moment. I saw the fin, but it happened fast. I weighed whether or not I felt confident enough to accuse the man, and was not feeling 100%. Then I thought about the circumstances. Maybe it was just rationalization, or maybe it was empathy and compassion. Or a combination of the three. If he did have a bleeder, which happens a lot with wild springers, and he thought he was alone, he had just made the choice to take the risk and get the fish home. I’ve been in that situation before and always opted to release the dead fish, since I couldn’t afford a violation. But my feeling is that each person has to make that choice for himself. The intent of the law is to protect fish. If a protected fish is already dead, then what? I know my attitude on this will offend some, and I’m aware that the law is black and white. Not the first time my personal beliefs conflicted with the law of the land.

    I don’t pretend to be perfect, or to always make the right choices. Far from it. This conversation has definitely got me thinking, and next time I see a Tilly stater, I’ll have a chat with him about this question.

    Regarding my affiliation with conservation groups, I have not sought them out and I rarely, if ever, use the pulpits they provide. Those memberships and affiliations have been thrust upon me because I get involved and because I share the core belief that we need to manage our rivers for wild fish. I may not be your favored brand of conservationist, but I will fight my own fight in my own way. At the end of the day, I’m just a fisherman, plain and simple.


  15. tim says:

    is the big nook in next to the big foot inn?

    Riverwalker I will defend Rob on this one, until you have sat in the boat and experienced the stares and hard feelings from anglers who methods are not as effective as a guy as fishy as Rob, you won’t know what it feels like. Casting flies in a stream for large fish is much different that staking territory in the bay and being accused of flossing or snagging. While I agree that most fishermen are decent individuals there are those in the population with their caps on sideways who are a bit off and willing to take it to the extreme. These N. Coast guys are a tight bunch and are willing to “protect” their own.

  16. Shane Stewart says:

    Rob Seriously?
    Why must you always play both sides of the fence? Wild fish matter and so does turning in poachers! So what if you lose a little fishing time.
    I know all about the hard looks from the “harvest drunk” crowds on the north coast. I have been threatened by the best of them not to mention having my swing water cut-off by some of these bait guides. I don’t care because I firmly believe in what I am doing and these assholes do not intimidate me.
    I really have a hard time understanding your perspective sometimes Rob

  17. Rob R says:

    I just spoke with one of the Tillamook state troopers, told him the story, and asked for his guidance. He said anglers should call in suspected violations, even if they aren’t sure what they saw. If a trooper is in the area, they will investigate. He said they would not cite a person for failing to report a suspected violation.

    I do appreciate eveyone’s comments, and am willing to admit when I eff things up.

  18. John B says:

    Tim, defend Rob on this one please he needs the help. Turning someone in is not that hard, the hard part is trying to make up the reasons for not turning them in of which I see there are many. I have been swinging the fly and fishing on the coast for well over 30 years and to be honest I have turned in my fair share of poachers . They know where I live and what I drive and who I am. This is how I make friends on the river it is by respecting the resource and help in enforcing the laws to protect the resource of which it appears some are failing. Next time you see someone poaching a fish, deer or whatever and you don’t want the comments keep it to yourself that way you can remain uninvolved as you wish.

    Yes we as the N.Coast guy’s are a tight bunch that’s why we like to remove the garbage as soon as possible unlike some others. As far as helping in the management of wild fish who are you kidding .

  19. ben says:

    I hate the internet….. but those fish are beautiful.

  20. Rob R says:

    This has been an important conversation for me, folks. There’s no doubt in my mind, now, that I made the wrong choice last Friday. I should have taken down that poacher’s license plate number and called it in to the state police. Lesson learned.

    If I may indulge a little: It’s very fitting that the most accusatory comments came from the Spey crowd in South County. We’ve enjoyed an adversarial relationship since I first started guiding in Tillamook in 1999. We stand divided because, as they clearly point out, I see both sides of issues and I try to find the thoughtful, compassionate path through challenging problems. The same crowd has repeatedly accused me of failing to stand up for wild fish because I didn’t agree with their biased assertions or jump on their bandwagons. I’ve made efforts to work with these guys through dialogue, and each time it has gone nowhere. They know all, and anyone who disagrees or challenges their opinions is belittled and slandered. These same people have burned their bridges with fish managers and agencies with their accusatory, offensive language and attitudes, making it virtually impossible for them to contribute effectively toward the betterment of wild fisheries. They stand as valuable examples of the pitfalls that face passionate conservationists. I can empathize–it’s a lot easier to ride a wave of anger and accusation than to be considerate and balanced. But to be effective, an advocate needs to build rather than to destroy.

    Even more disturbing is the way these folks represent the flyfishing community. In my opinion, they embody the darkest side of flyfishing, and I’m happy to disassociate myself with them.

    Until next time…


  21. Chris C says:

    Great story Rob, really enjoyed it. All of it.

  22. Sean says:

    You could have given the guy an option, “Either I’m gonna call the Troopers or I’m gonna kick you in the junk, either way you’re going to pay a little. What’s it gonna be?”

  23. Token Trees says:

    lets toke some trees and eat the meat.

  24. married to flystud says:

    rob, hindsight and what-not…

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