Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Boot Camp with Chris "Northwest Killer" Blanchard

Late last winter, Chris Blanchard took me on a mission to chuck metal on the North Fork of the Smith River, a relatively overlooked fishery that doesn't see much traffic and holds mostly wild fish (with an occasional hatchery stray). While there's lots of tackle companies that make productive spinners, Blanchard likes using something with a little more weight and a heavier blade so it gets down, stays down, and thumps harder when the blade spins.

Blanchard organizes an annual steelhead tournament called the "Chromedome Challenge," a three month long competition that takes place in December, January and February, where anglers record their catches to win prizes each month, as well as a grand prize for the winter steelhead season. He's also been working on writing a Hardware Handbook exclusively covering the diverse range of techniques for targeting chrome with metal.

It was about 45-50 degrees most of the day, cloudy with only a few very short scattered showers, hardly enough to carry a rain jacket. "They cut that tree out of the road! You're in luck, we can fish the deadline today," said Blanchard. Landslides from a previous storm left a boulder blocking half of the road, and just up the road from the rock, there were some fallen trees that had been cut from the road, with another left hanging over the path ahead of us just enough to be able to drive underneath it. The low-traffic road along the river is somewhat neglected and unkept, and the trails along the water aren't much different, which is something to consider if you plan on venturing in the fishery.

Although I tend to get annoyed carrying two rods through thick brush, Chris made me commit to putting down my float rod and throwing a spinner, loaning me a custom made one-piece 7 foot 8-17lb medium power/fast action Rogue DS704 custom rod from John Strenk of Medford-based "Reel Tech." Blanchard had previously explained to me that throwing spinners on 10lb test was crucial to getting a proper drift. The diameter of a lighter line has less drag and cuts through the water.

As we got to the deadline, we walked downstream where a feeder creek was emptying into a confluence slot with a tree decorated in salmon survey markers. It seemed like a perfect place for fish to hang out, although it was a little shallow and clear.

Chris is one of the most polite spinner anglers I've ever met. We have had conversations about the rivalry between subtle float presentations and chucking spinners, which Blanchard referred to as running an "ambulance" through a hole, because it made so much flash and noise it was obviously meant to draw attention like the sirens and flashing lights of a meatwagon.

He let me jump ahead and take a few casts through the slot with my bobber and bead setup, and nothing seemed to be happening. We both began churning the water with hardware, and before I go to make my 3rd cast, I notice that the rod Chris had given me had a significantly heavier line than 10lb test. I asked him if he thought it was 12 or 15lb, and how much of a difference does that really make. Blanchard said "I don't know, but lets switch and let me take a look at it." So we swapped rods temporarily, and the very next cast I hook up with a beautiful crimson buck that just happened to be one fin short for that system. "Well, that answers that question!" says Blanchard.

The spinner got bit midway through a cast made at a 45 degree angle upstream. Blanchard calls this presentation the "flutter" cast, as the spinner barely turns over through probably two thirds of the cast before it swings into a hard vibrating spin that often blows the lure to the surface with the current. Although swinging a spinner through a tail out is a pretty common method for most anglers and can still produce fish, he considers that approach a last resort. He calls a direct upstream cast the "Wrecking Ball," which he says works best when you're standing on a bank where the slot is just upstream right there at your feet.

Most advanced anglers are reluctant to step outside of their comfort zone with advanced rigging techniques and throw a spinner. It almost seems like fighting the evolution of rigging and gear most steelhead anglers are constantly trying to keep up with to stay ahead of the curve. A spinner might not be the first thing you reach for when you're on the water, but it's definitely something every angler should have in their arsenal. Even as a secondary follow-up presentation, the best spinner bites turn on when the fish simply won't bite anything else.

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