The Wild Coast Rivermen

In the far northwest corner of California and southwest Oregon, there is a semi-remote portion of the West Coast shoreline known as the Wild Rivers Coast. (WRC) The views are stunning; the fishing seasonal, the weather often foggy,rainy & damp, the population thin and it is simply not an easy place to reach.

The WRC can be loosely defined as the coastal zone alongside Highway 101 from Klamath, CA on up to Port Oxford, OR. It includes some mighty, nationally-known watersheds as the Klamath, Smith and Rogue Rivers and some not so familiar as the Chetco, Winnemuck and Pistol Rivers. All of these rural coastal watersheds once held abundant populations of steelhead, king & coho salmon, draining from the coastal mountains of some of our largest remaining primordial redwood forests and did support a smallish, but for years, viable, commercial fishing industry that has all but collapsed. What does remain is a tiny cadre of fishing guides and enthusiasts I like to call rivermen, in the tradition of local folks who historically used watercourses for their transportation & supply trades as well as recreation. These rivermen use a modern vessel called a driftboat, which is somewhat misleading as the solo oarsman has to be strong as well as skilled to maneuver the boat’s occupants through cold rapids, driving rain and cloudy water to access the deep slots, runs & holes where migrating steelies & salmon rest. Also, a strong pair of lungs is crucial; to tell the ‘client’ to throw that line; right, left-- now! They also will be the first to tell you; in winter, peak season--leave the fly rod at home; this is primarily spin-casting, straight-line casting, lure & roe country. You want to catch a fish? Listen to me...

I helped start a chapter up there 4 years ago and have come to know a couple of these rivermen, local TU leaders. Harvey Young is a commercial guide out of Brookings, OR and is on the water most every day with his faithful golden retriever, either in California or Oregon. Family guy, 50ish, deeply tanned, has 2 late-teenagers, constantly balancing his family’s activities with his clients’ needs. Harvey has been to Washington DC a couple times, speaking for protection on behalf of various Wild River Coast watersheds. He once put me on a fresh, chromed 25 lb. king salmon in the Smith River estuary a few autumns back at about 6AM in the morning, using local spin-casting techniques. Following our council meeting that same day, we had enjoyed it for a BBQ dinner. Indescribably delicious. 

The other riverman I know well is also out on the water many days but, does not harvest many fish except for subsistence. Stan Easley lives on the north bank of the Chetco, second coastal stream north of the CA border. The Chetco, while not as broad, long nor as big as the Smith, Klamath or Rogue, can be harder to navigate in high flows in the seasonal winter months. No motors here, just brawn and brains; must have first hand knowledge of the shifting sand/gravel bars, boulders and other hazards that change with every high flow. Stan is around 65 yrs and is a retired aerospace engineer. Built like a small college linebacker, this always cheery ex-Marine Vietnam vet with some embedded shrapnel and blown eardrums as war souvenirs, often takes out vets fishing (winter) or, just for sight-seeing. (summer) He is a smoked salmon chef par excellence, with few peers.

As a local fish conservationist, he has documented by way of photos, videos and letters, years of multiple abuses by a gravel mine operator on the lower Chetco and illegal gold-suction operations on the mid-to-upper portion. The Chetco, once an abundant coho and steelhead fishery, has seen very diminished returns, smaller each year.(The upper portion is designated Wild & Scenic) Through the local TU chapter and a local watershed council, these two rivermen constantly advocate against a long list of questionable and demonstrable harmful practices that have been allowed to continue locally, especially in the city of Brookings, OR, Curry County. It is a on-going challenge to protect our threatened WRC anadromous species and even more than ever, to fight entrenched local opposition for their narrow parochial interests. (Ask Stan about having to have a police escort out of a particularly contentious city council meeting with threatening out-of-town gold-suction miners.)

More river diversions/ground water extractions are slated & being pushed for new riverfront & estuary-front housing and golf courses, with little or no environmental reviews. Let us hope that our prized rivermen can weather these challenges with TU and their resources protecting their backs.

Submitted By: Drew Irby, Past-Chair, Trout Unlimited of California (TUCA) Chairman