Paddle-boarding the Snake: It’s for the Dogs

Published August 1st, 2019 in the The Times

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The first time I spied a stand-up paddle board (SUP) was cruising South on Highway 97 somewhere around Orondo, WA, on the Columbia River. A perplexing and comical sight, it appeared that folks were paddling surf boards and going nowhere for no reason and not getting there any time soon. I later realized these folks were paddling SUPs. The “going nowhere in no hurry” aspect was simply relaxation; a concept poorly grasped by many in our fast-paced society.

I swiftly dismissed the notion of ever owning such a silly contraption subsequent to my first encounter. (I also have a solid history of eating crow.) New gear like a paddle board needs to check several boxes on the hobby list and I simply could not fathom how a SUP would be useful or enjoyable. But as a hopeless fly fisherman and avid upland bird hunter with water-loving Llewellin setters, I am always pondering new tools to address both needs. So, it’s no surprise that several years after vowing I would never own one, my wheels started turning on SUP possibilities.

The Times readership suffers the good fortune of having the Snake River with its myriad public access opportunities in our backyards. And for many of us (myself included), these resources are underutilized. Watercraft can unlock doors to outdoor recreation, but a boat can be untenable or impractical, leaving one to assume there is little to be gained from the big water otherwise. This very logic led me to considering SUP capabilities for local summer fly fishing in lieu of the more expensive and time-consuming boat alternative. Then it hit me. The setters would love it.

A couple evenings of internet research turned up an inflatable model of modest color, capable of supporting 441 pounds; a weight limit providing enough free-board to handle my Neanderthal frame and all of my three setter girls. What’s more, I thought I might be able to coax my lovely wife, Ali, into playing a little more on the weekends.

Having secured our new watercraft, we made the maiden voyage at Little Goose Landing just upstream of Little Goose Dam on Snake’s south shore. Fortunately, there were few campers to be entertained at my expense. While completely stable when seated or kneeling, raising my center of gravity to full height presented an entirely different scenario. The key to stability was to control my rapid-fire muscle reaction to the unsteadiness to avoid worsening the situation.

Getting the hang of it, I decided it was time to onboard my setter, Finn. She eagerly jumped aboard, but her excited jostling doubled the difficulty, bringing me to my knees with alacrity. Eventually we kind of got the hang of it together; at least the paddling on my knees part.  Anyone with bird dog experience knows that they make sweeping casts in the field to cover ground and find birds. Finn bounces from side-to-side in the truck, which apparently transfers to watercraft as well.

With legs splayed, taking careful steps, Finn tottered with each dip of the SUP, then countered with an abrupt push to the other side. It was touch-and-go for a bit on remaining upright, but she finally relaxed a little and decided to take a seat. What she enjoyed most was jumping from the dock and swimming out to be picked up for a boat ride.

Switching off with Ali, we encouraged our little polliwog and youngest setter, Zeta, to give it a shot. Zeta loves swimming far more than bird hunting, so the paddle board was a natural fit. She seemed to enjoy the ride, peering down through the emerald water at the weeds and sunfish, but was most entertained by jumping from the dock onto the SUP, then off into the water once away from the dock. And, in classic Zeta fashion, she always made the attempt to swim to the opposite shore, far away from mom and dad.

Finally, our timid middle pup, Yuba, took a shot at it. She enjoys water the least among the three and was quite skeptical. I sat with her between my legs as we paddled, and I think she actually enjoyed herself a little. She was the most unstable and all but knocked herself off the board a few times. While wading over belly-deep is not high on her priority list, she was quite proud of her puppy life vest. Being a bird dog that wears an orange vest in the field, donning a vest of any kind equates to a good time.

Kicking the pups off, I decided to go for a quick paddle alone to test out the fishing potential. Kneeling, I slipped the SUP into the back of the inlet at the launch, gliding effortlessly into fly casting range of a large carp. My thoughts instantly drifted to a Tenkara rod with minimal gear, tossing small flies for sunfish and bass, or even a San Juan worm for the carp (a story for another time). If I wasn’t before, at this point I was sold on the SUP for fishing. Not to mention the inflatable SUPs weigh about 24 pounds and can be packed up with pump and paddle into a frame pack for remote opportunities.

Windy conditions on the main river channel can be unsafe, but there’s nothing stopping you from hitting the inlets at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boat launches and recreation areas. These off-channel waters are generally sheltered from wind and typically receive little boat activity aside from launching or taking out.

So, what are you waiting for? A SUP is something the entire family can get behind, and the inflatables are constructed of a durable polyvinylchloride shell like a whitewater raft, so they are tough. They are even big enough to serve as a floating couch, and if you are into fitness, standing and paddling is a full-body workout. Just remember to check Coast Guard and state regulations about personal watercraft before taking to the water. At minimum, a SUP requires a life jacket and whistle, which should be worn at all times.

If you think a SUP might be something you and your family would enjoy, check out the Stand Up Paddle Boarding Basics blog series from REI to get started (read here). Your dog (and maybe your significant other) will thank you!

Angling for Archaic Sturgeon

Published in the East Oregonian, June 20, 2020.

Once a teenager with wild dreams of becoming a fish biologist, I set my graduate school sights on studying the prehistoric and long-lived sturgeon that swim among the barges, gators, and salmon in our nation’s largest river systems. And, as all best laid plans, sturgeon were far from the focus of my master’s thesis. But upon winding my way to the Pacific Northwest, my study in sturgeon evolved to angling. I did learn a few things about these fascinating beasts in the process.

The author with a 7-foot Snake River sturgeon caught on pickled herring.

Native to the Columbia River Basin, white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) in their present form have occupied the planet for approximately 175 million years and can be seen etched into native American petroglyphs. Sturgeon are incredibly unique benthic dinosaurs characterized by armored scales called scutes, barbels (“whiskers”, like a catfish) that smell food and an inferior (on the bottom) protruding mouth that sucks in food like a vacuum cleaner. One of the largest white sturgeon on record was measured over twelve feet long.

Mother Nature has a way of throwing curveballs at species, setting them back and wiping them out, but the adaptive, and sometimes most primitive persist, at least until humans discover them. In the early 1900s, white sturgeon were overfished for their roe to be sold as highly prized caviar. While fishing regulations are now highly restrictive, dams present obstacles to adult sturgeon migration and genetic diversity. Like salmon, white sturgeon migrate to the ocean as juveniles where they mature and return to spawn as adults. Populations downstream of Bonneville Dam are the strongest in the Columbia Basin, yet upstream populations without ocean access are struggling.

White sturgeon can live to about 100 years old. Their maturation is slow and only about one percent of the population is among the spawning cohort over twenty-five years old. It’s difficult to draw many accurate conclusions on their long-term population trajectory. Conservation programs are underway to propagate sturgeon and promote genetic diversity to the degree possible.

Angling is an effective means for capturing adult sturgeon and I was invited afield to collect brood stock for the Yakima Nation hatchery program for my first sturgeon fishing adventure. It was about this time in June when I finally laid hands on an adult sturgeon after years of dreaming. For the first time in my life, I experienced what it truly meant for my arms to be tired from fighting fish.

About an 8-foot Columbia River sturgeon making a brief appearance at the stern.

We’ve all heard wisdom of using big bait to catch big fish, but I was educated by our technique. Rigging up whole American shad on a rope leader and hook large enough to slip around a soda can required three pounds of lead to sink it into the current below the dam spillway. Miraculously, we managed four rigs without a single snafu.

With lines down, the crew bantered on fishing in general, recalling the past steelhead season. My friend and colleague, Chas, was mid-way through his harrowing tale of landing a winter steelhead on the Hoh River when the back-right rod bounced hard against the gunnel.

Leaping into action, Chas grabbed the rod, flipped the bail open and waited for the fish to commit to the bait. The rod continued to bounce as line fed out beneath the light pressure of Chas’s thumb. Slamming the bail shut and laying six feet of stout ocean rod into the fish was of little consequence to the speed and course of the massive sturgeon.

The high-test, braided line screamed through the water as if attached to a steel-gray bullet train as the sturgeon angled across the tailrace. At once, the sturgeon spun a U-turn, rocketing directly back to the boat, breaching at the stern and nearly flopping aboard. I will never forget that moment as a snow-capped Mt. Hood stood picturesque in the background. We quickly guessed it to be a nine-footer and popped the anchor to follow the fish.

Forty-five minutes passed, as did the rod among those with fresh arms, before we were able to secure the beast. I served as second rod hand. Trying to winch a speeding school bus from the river bed is the only description that paints a remotely appropriate picture of the fight, our twenty-four-foot jet boat in tow like a barge behind a tug.  

Hanging on for the ride!

With the fish tied off, we floated down river to pass it off to the Yakima Nation for data collection, then motored back upstream for round two. By the end of the day we landed five additional mature fish between six and nine feet with one successful double. It was truly epic. The three-hour drive home was excruciating.

Sturgeon fishing is highly restricted in Oregon and Washington to protect these treasured fish. Some Columbia River tributaries are closed entirely to sturgeon fishing, while most other waters are catch-and-release only. A 2020 harvest fishery in the lower Columbia River imposes a slot limit of 44-50 inches (fork length) and is projected to allow 5,720 harvestable fish. If you plan to angle for sturgeon, be sure to check the regulations, and always handle these primordial giants with respect and care. How we treat them today may affect the spawning population and our privilege to fish for them tomorrow.

Tenkara Angling for Snake River Smallmouth

Since discovering tenkara fly-fishing a few years ago, I don’t travel much without a tenkara rod. Tenkara rods are telescopic, collapsing down to about eighteen inches and only require a fly line, leader, and a handful of your favorite flies. Minimal gear and super simple. Absolutely unfettering after years of lugging a minimum of four fly boxes, two reels to accommodate floating and sinking fly line, fly line sink tips, split-shot and strike indicators for nymphs, a variety of leaders and tippet strengths, dry-fly float coat, and the list continues. 

This third-generation fly-fisherman seeking squishy-finned, speckled trout and salmon almost exclusively, had convinced himself to carry every possible method and fly pattern in the pack at any given time. We all know trout can be picky. But with the burden of gear selection removed from the equation, fly-fishing is once again magical, comparable to my single-digit years casting from the red clay, muddy margins of a forgotten farm pond. Back when I was a normal-sized human, able to snag my line in the tall fescue on the back-cast.

Given the simplicity of tenkara gear, its easy to toss the necessary items in the truck or pack for any occasion as you never know when you might find yourself in a situation where a fishing rod comes in handy. One such occasion was a recent trip to the Snake River to still-hunt Eurasian collared doves.

A tenkara fly rod on the Snake River is about like hunting grizzly bear with a straw and spit-wad. The gear doesn’t quite match the task. Nevertheless, I tossed the tenkara rod into the back seat with my CZ Bobwhite double-gun and hit the field. I figured once I had missed a few birds, I could sneak around some backwaters with the tenkara rod to try and pluck a few bluegill from their spawning beds.

The CZ Bobwhite G2 and tenkara rod are a formidable team for an epic day afield.

If you have never hunted collared doves, I recommend it as a challenging bird hunt to be had at any time throughout the year. Collared doves are considered an invasive species and not regulated to a season or bag limit. Watching, listening and sneaking through cover, closing the gap on their raspy coo is nearly as thrilling as crawling through starthistle and yellowjackets to get a bow shot at a dandy four-point muley buck. And the table fare is exquisite.

 Hunting collared doves is a story for another time, suffice it to say that on this particular day, I scattered eight-shot to the wind, simply making a racket with my little twenty-gauge side-by-side and educating the doves to heighten the challenge on my next attempt. Disappointed in having failed to add the appropriate choke tubes to the shotgun, I strolled over to a small riverside pool and reached for the tenkara rod.

Bluegill were stacked into the shallow margins of milfoil beds and guarding nests with hostility.  Casting ahead, I began slowly twitching a hideously-tied prince nymph through the shallows and into the beds policed by the feisty gendarmes. Readying myself to deliver a one-man clinic on the proper techniques for catching panfish hand-over-fist, I experienced crushing fail number two of my cast-and-blast adventure.

Amusingly, the bluegill that I was certain would eagerly run down and engulf the fly, fled hastily as if the nymph were noxious. A first for me in thirty-five-years of angling panfish. While switching to a smaller fly would likely have done the trick, I decided to change tactics, casting beyond the weed bed and letting the fly sink. On the second cast, the line jerked as if someone reached out and flicked it with a finger.

Popping the rod tip and sinking the hook into what I thought was a bigger bluegill turned out to be a smallmouth bass about eight-inches long. While I wielded a rod I had built for salmon, I was surprised at the small fish’s power against the heavy backbone of the thirteen-foot broom stick. Marveling over its bronze striping and deep red eyes, I eased it back into to the semi-turbid waters, excited at the opportunity.

Thinking it a fluke, a few casts later found the fly embedded in the upper jaw of another smallmouth, only this one a bit bigger. A solid twelve-incher that worked the tenkara rod impressively. Growing up on the Shenandoah River in Virginia, I had landed literally countless smallmouth of this caliber in my youth. The moment reinvigorated the excitement and admiration for the fight of the bronze-back that never fades from memory.

A momentary flashback to a sultry summer evening with a few of my best friends wading deep into remote ag-land reaches of the South Fork Shenandoah sparked a chuckle. While the Shenandoah was a blue-ribbon smallmouth river, I still rarely caught fish much bigger than I was seeing this day on a pocket water to the Snake River, 2,700 miles west.

Returning to reality and the immediate problem of daydreaming of fishing past rather than capitalizing on fishing present, I laid out another cast to the edge of the weed bed. Working the shoreline, about every fourth cast enticed another willing smallmouth. The bluegill scurrying from my shadow now completely forgotten.

The Snake River is a bit of a stretch to recommend as a fly-fishing destination, but if you find yourself in the position to give it a shot, go for the backwaters. Every boat basin and drainage mouth provides a unique environment much simpler to fish and teeming with bass and panfish, not to mention common carp, if you seek true adventure.

The wisdom of using big baits for big fish holds true for bass, but don’t over-do it. Nymphs, streamers and dry-flies, sizes eight to twelve are my preference. Ironically my personal best bass have all come on some of the smallest baits, and always while fishing for panfish.

Warm-water fishing for a cold-water evangelist is a back-of-the-mind prospect, yet each time I give it a whirl, I am pleasantly reminded of the merits of such an endeavor. It’s a great opportunity in a pinch requiring little time and the most basic gear to realize the value of keeping it simple and simply catching scrappy smallmouth in the marginal waters of the infamous Snake.