In search of steelhead

Steve Card, right, and his father-in-law, Coy Jones, hold the two steelhead caught during a fishing trip on the Siletz River on Saturday. (Photo by Garry Wheeler)

Greenhorn angler fishes the Siletz River

A couple of weeks ago, my father-in-law, Coy Jones, of Eugene, called me and asked if I would be interested in joining him on a guided fishing trip for winter steelhead. He has done a number of these trips in the past, but never on the Siletz River, which was where he wanted to go for this excursion.

Coy and I have been on hunting trips together many times, pursuing ring-necked pheasants in my home state of South Dakota. However, I’m not a fisherman by any stretch of the imagination. To call me a greenhorn is probably being kind. But Coy had taken both of my sons on guided fishing trips, so I figured I ought to give it a go. Besides, I’m one of those fortunate people who gets along very well with his in-laws. In fact, Coy is not only like a second father to me, he also happens to be one of my best friends.

And so the fishing trip was set for last Saturday, March 2. Odds were pretty good that this would be my only fishing trip of the year, so I opted for a one-day angling license, which includes the required tag for steelhead. I didn’t want to buy my license too early because it was for a specific day, and if anything happened to change our plans to another time, I would be out the license fee. So Friday evening after work, I chose the easy, online route, purchasing the license directly from the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife website. Easy peasy, I thought, just click, click, click, enter my payment information and print out my license. And it was simple enough until I hit print and then remembered my printer had run out of ink a few days earlier. So I jumped in the car and headed into town for a new ink jet cartridge, passing a store that sold fishing licenses along the way. Once I returned home I was able to successfully print the document and was all set to go.

We met up with our fishing guide at 6 o’clock Saturday morning at Hee Hee Illahee Park in Siletz. Our guide was Garry Wheeler. He lives in the town of Coburg but does fishing trips on several Oregon rivers and also spends time each year guiding out of a fish camp in Alaska. Garry became a full-time fishing guide about five years ago, making a career change that allowed him to turn his passion into his job. And his enthusiasm for his work was evident throughout the day.

After arranging for an end-of-the trip shuttle, we drove to Twin Bridges Park near Logsden, where Garry launched his drift boat and our trip began. Garry handed us each a fishing rod, went over a few preliminary details and then shoved off. A short time later, he pulled the boat back ashore after it became apparent what a true rookie I was. He patiently showed me the basics of the rod and reel. I made a few practice casts, and then off we went again. Garry told me it can be an advantage to take a novice on a fishing trip because people like me, who don’t know a thing about fishing, tend to be better at following his instructions. I don’t know how true that is, but it made me feel a little better about my ineptness.

Saturday promised to be a pretty nice day, but it was a frosty morning when we started out just as the sun was coming up. We saw a few other drift boats on the river, but it wasn’t nearly as crowded as I’m told the Siletz can get at times.

As we drifted with the current, Garry expertly maneuvered the boat to locations that offered the most chances of success. It all looked pretty much the same to me, but having guided on the Siletz River many times before, he knew the best spots. We were using a method called side drifting, casting the bait and bobber rigging and then floating alongside it with the current. Garry would tell us where to cast our lines, and sometimes I even got close to the mark. Of course, I missed the mark on a regular basis and also had some complete misfires, where my line didn’t even leave the end the rod. Did I mention I had a bit of a learning curve to overcome?

As we fished down the river, we had a few false alarms — what we first thought were nibbles ended up being snags. And then there were also a few times when I had a nibble but missed the opportunity because I was watching the passing scenery instead of my bobber.

Coy hooked the first steelhead and made it look easy as he successfully landed his fish. Coy also hooked the second fish and quickly handed me his rod so I could experience reeling it in. There was a slight problem with that. You see, Coy is right-handed, and I am a lefty. My rod was set up for me, so when I took Coy’s rod and started reeling in, I managed to turn the handle the wrong way and it came off. So there I was with the handle in one hand and the rod in the other as my fish was making a break for it across the river. We quickly got the handle back on though, and with considerable coaching, I was able to land the second, and what would end up being our final steelhead of the day.

By that time, the sun was high in the sky, and the temperature was probably approaching 50 degrees. For us, it wasn’t just about catching fish. It was as much about spending time together and enjoying the river and the beauty of God’s creation. I didn’t realize how many waterfalls we would see on a 13-plus mile float trip. We also saw many ducks, some geese, three river otters and even a bald eagle perched in a tree.

By mid afternoon, we had reached our pullout ramp at Ojalla Park, about three miles north of the City of Siletz. Garry got his boat loaded on the trailer, and he took us back to Coy’s pickup. On the way, he asked me what I thought of the trip and whether I would be willing to do the same thing again the next day. I replied that although I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I most likely won’t ever become a die-hard fisherman. But at the same time, I would consider going again. I have discovered that it can be very rewarding to get out of your comfort zone now and then and try something new. Who knows, you could find a new passion in life, or you could just provide entertainment for those around as you learn from your mistakes. Whatever the case, you’ll be in for a memorable experience.

And for a novice like me, I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher than Garry Wheeler. He was very knowledgeable, patient and enjoyable to talk to throughout the trip. Anyone interested in learning about the fishing guide services Garry provides can find information online at and on Facebook at G.Wheeler Fishing.

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