In one of the great turnabouts in competitive fishing history, my buddy Milford and I managed to be the “big catchers” in our local fishing tourney last year. The one-day derby, put on by Lee Cain and his students in our Astoria High School aquaculture class, turned out to be a highlight of our fishing year.
The usual practice is to take about sixty fish raised in the school hatchery, tag them and drop them into Coffinbury Lake the day before the derby begins. Last year, sadly, they didn’t have anything to release. A pesky otter managed to work his way up into their pond, and killed all the trout. Lee talked his buddies at a local hatchery into providing several dozen “trophy trout” to fill the gap and they went way beyond the call of duty.
When the fish arrived, they were cutbows, a hybrid rainbow and cutthroat mixture—nice healthy fish but ones that can’t reproduce and won’t mess up spawning of the native cutthroat trout that are susceptible to competition from more aggressive species. And were they big! My limit alone went over 25 pounds, not bad for five trout!
The year before, Milford and I were skunked, so our turnaround was a matter of great pride for both of us! This year we were anxious to catch a few trophy fish again. You could buy chances at the lakeside booth, and if you caught a tagged fish, you could win some pretty nice prizes. I got a great T-shirt the year before, and Milford got an expensive pair of sunglasses, but this year a lucky fisherman would win a fishing trip worth $500.
We figured to catch a lot less poundage this year. Without “otter intervention,” the derby would rely on fish from the school’s pond. Instead of the eight-pound monsters available in last year’s release, these fish would mostly be in the pound-and-a-half range, with a few up near five. Plenty big enough for us, and we were after those prize fish—I wanted another T-shirt!
It didn’t take long to start getting action. Milford and I were trolling little “wedding ring” type spinners, a tiny blade with a half-dozen red beads, followed by a little bit of night crawler. I was using my fly rod with floating line so that the spinner would float high above the weedy bottom, and Milford was using his ultra-light spin rod.
We launched his 12-foot aluminum boat with a tiny electric motor and started a slow troll. Right away we caught fish. Not exactly the monsters of the previous year. Strike after strike brought us eight-to ten-inch trout, scrappy little flicks of silver that would keep striking at the worm tips till they got hooked. Fun, but not exactly prize winners.
Finally, trolling near the east shore, Milford had a strike that bent his rod way down. The fish jumped and we could see the bright red colors, one of Lee’s releases for sure! I grabbed the net and waited till we could get the fish out of the lily pads and into clear water. When it finally reached the surface, we could see the orange tag on its side. We were back in the money! I scooped it up and Milford clutched it tight while I took his picture. He didn’t want that one to escape!
My prize fish however, would take a bit longer to boat, thanks to Milford’s effort! We trolled down the lake, catching a good number of the small trout, when I finally tied into a good fish. This was a scrapper. When it briefly rose to the surface I could see the bright colors that gave proof it was a prize fish. But it didn’t want to stay on the surface. As I fought it deep, Milford scrambled to get the net ready and let the motor churn untended, allowing the boat to turn in tight circles and winding my line up into the prop! By the time I felt the grind on my line, it was too late. My prize was swimming free in the brown waters of the lake!
Time to Regroup
Milford took the loss well; after all, it wasn’t his fish! So we moved to the south part of the lake and continued our troll. Boy did we hit fish. In years of fishing the lake, we’d never had action so fast. Within an hour we had ten double hookups! Fish were everywhere and soon we had released about 60 of the pan-sized planters. All the action we wanted, but no trophy fish!
Finally, we decided to try one last troll up by the launch area. We had bites all the way back, and my final hit seemed like nothing special. No big runs, no leaps, no dives, but the fish cruised right alongside the boat, just under water, and out of sight. I put on a little pressure to move it and the rod took a deep bow. Slowly a two-pound trout rose to the surface.
By now Milford and I had set a new protocol. He turned off the engine and pulled the prop out of the water. THEN he grabbed the net! I got it close and down went the net. We had filled our limit and caught our two trophies.
As we pulled the boat out, Lee came over to see our fish. We were a little too late for the big prize, but we were once again winners, and still derby champs! Milford’s fish got him a gift certificate at his favorite eatery, and I bagged another of the awesome T-shirts!
Now we are not about to enter the Bass Masters competition, but we have a pretty good rep with the high school fisheries people, and that’s plenty good enough for us!
Bob Ellsberg’s column, Fishin’, appears monthly in RV Life and at rvlife.com.