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Hanford Reach Angler Pines For Past Years’ Larger Returns Of 5-year-old URBs

By Rick Itami

Back in the early 1990s when I first tried my luck at catching the famous upriver bright fall Chinook salmon in the Hanford Reach of the mighty Columbia River, I was amazed to see huge fish rolling all over the river.


And when I say huge, I mean salmon running in the 30- to 40-pound range. The first time I hooked one of these giants, I fought it for 20 minutes before my 30-pound-test monofilament finally snapped when I tried to horse the fish into the net.

In those days, outdoor sections of newspapers often contained photos of smiling fishermen displaying monster fall Chinook caught with regularity.

Fast forward to the present and you have a totally different scenario. You simply do not see anglers landing many really large fish as before.

Toby Wyatt, owner/operator of Reel Time Fishing (208-790-2128) and who is one of the most successful guides on the Hanford Reach, says his clients land just a few fish in the 30-plus-pound range. Most of his catch ranges in the 10- to 20-pound range. He misses getting his clients into the monsters.

So what happened to the giants of the Hanford Reach?


Paul Hoffarth, Region III fisheries biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, confirms the drop in size of fish. Surprisingly and for unknown reasons, Hoffarth says that a significant shift in the age structure of fish happened all in one year — 2006.

Prior to 2006, roughly one-third (34 percent) of the upriver brights were the big 5-year-old fish and 37 percent were 4-year-olds.

Beginning in 2006, the percentage of 5-year-olds has averaged 18 percent (with a range of 10 to 28 percent) and has never recovered.

Hoffarth does not know why the decline happened so suddenly and no studies have been done to determine a cause or causes. Therefore, no one knows if the age structure will return to pre-2006 levels.

So we anglers are left in the dark as to what the future of the upriver bright population has in store in terms of the size of fish caught. Let’s hope whatever caused the flip in the age structure of these magnificent fish will just as suddenly flip the other way.

I would love to see a river full of rolling giants again.

Spokane Angler Fishes For A Different Kind Of Trout — Texas Specks

By Rick Itami

I took my first trip to the south Texas Gulf Coast in late January 2018 to get away from the freezing temperatures in Spokane, Washington, where I live and to fill a bucket list desire to land a speckled sea trout.


I searched the internet for a guide on the Lower Laguna Madre and found Captain Ernest Cisneros (956-266-6454). He almost exclusively wades for redfish, trout and snook, which appeals to me much more than fishing from a boat.

So I reserved January 24th and 25th to fish with him. We stayed in touch on a weekly basis because the weather kept changing. As is common this time of year, a few cold fronts came through in January and winds were at times over 25 mph, making fishing impossible. To my delight, the weekend before my scheduled trip, Ernest called and said we were good to go.

Ernest said he could supply me with Simms waders and boots. That was great to not have to carry my own boots and waders in my luggage. He also asked me what type of gear I would like to fish with so he could provide exactly what I needed.

I flew to Harlingen, Texas, and drove to Port Isabel, where I checked into a nice motel that had a great view of the Laguna Madre.

On our first morning out, the weather was cloudy with rain showers. Perfect – just like steelhead fishing in the Northwest!

Owning great equipment, Ernest’s boat is a beautiful 24-foot shallow water vessel with a 250 hp Yamaha outboard that zips around the flats at 55 mph.

On the way out to the first spot he planned to fish, Ernest and I shared our backgrounds. He is a retired educator from Brownsville, Texas who has been guiding in the Lower Laguna Madre for 17 years, but has fished his home waters using artificial baits for 29 years.

He said he started guiding while still teaching science classes to sixth-graders and went into full-time guiding after he retired from teaching. Needless to say, he knows every inch of the water he guides on. I kiddingly suggested that he probably knows every fish in the flats by name.



Ernest stopped his boat just off the Intercoastal Waterway (ICW) and lowered his power poles so his boat wouldn’t drift away. We started wading along what he called “spoils,” which is mainly sediment dredged out of the ICW. We cast KWiggler willow-tail soft plastic lures as far as we could in about 3 feet of water and usually got hit after twitching the bait 5 to 10 feet. Luckily, the trout were biting early and I was pleased to land my first ever within 10 minutes so that I could take that item off of my bucket list.

We kept moving along the spoils for about 200 yards, staying at the same depth and caught several trout each –some over 20 inches. Then Ernest took us north to another spot where he said we could catch both trout and reds. He wasn’t kidding. The trout were the first to bite and we landed several that averaged larger than the ones in the first spot.

Then we approached a shallower flat and started catching one red after another ranging from 3 to 8 pounds. We later stopped at another spot and had the same kind of luck until a porpoise moved through, killing the bite entirely. We ended the day in a shallow bay to the west where I landed two more reds. Then we called it quits after a fantastic day of catch and release fishing.


The next morning we started at the second spot where we had the best luck on the first day, but the tide was lower and we caught only trout and no reds. For some reason, we got a lot of short strikes too. In addition, we saw more porpoises than a day earlier feeding in the distance.

Ernest took me to a new spot on the other side of the ICW where he said we should get into a lot of trout. We did, and hooked up on almost every cast. The only problem was they were all small – less than 15 inches.

Then Ernest took me to a spot he said that Laguna Madre was famous for. He ran his boat around the shallow bay to show me waking reds and trout darting away from the boat everywhere. Ernest slowed down, shut down the engine and quietly coasted further into the bay. Then we slid into the water and started to wade and sight fish.

The water was about a foot deep and crystal clear. We split up and crept along as quietly as we could, but the fish were just too smart and wily for us. Neither of us came close enough to see any fish within range. Ernest said that’s the way it had been for the past few weeks in that spot.

I did have a little excitement as I was creeping along, squinting to see any fish in front of me. For some reason I looked down and was shocked to see a stingray 4 inches in front of my right foot! If I had not looked down at that moment, I would have stepped right on it and maybe ended up with a spike in my leg. Whew!

Ernest took us to one final new spot where he hooked and landed three reds, but I didn’t get a nibble. But it was another good day and we went back to the launch totally satisfied.

Captain Ernest began an Empty Stringers Catch and Release Program two years ago to enhance the long-term sustainability of the species he and his clients fish for. Being well-known in the area, he was able to get the support of several sponsors like Simms and Costa. Ernest’s clients who release all of their catch are rewarded at the end of the day with gifts from sponsors like caps, shirts and other paraphernalia. The client can also fill out a raffle ticket to win a free fully guided trip for two by Ernest. I chose a couple of caps.


I enjoyed everything about this trip, not only the great fishing but also the good eateries like Joe’s Oyster Bar and Restaurant and Mexiquitos Mexican Restaurant and the general friendliness of the people. But I am most impressed with Captain Ernest and his Empty Stringers Catch and Release Program that will hopefully help ensure good fishing for years to come.

Allons! Northwest Steelheader Goes Cajun

By Rick Itami

Like many other sports fishermen in the Inland Northwest, I endured a disappointing year in 2017 with most steelhead and salmon runs much lower than average because of poor ocean conditions caused by El Nino and the dreaded “blob” of uncharacteristically warm water in the northern Pacific Ocean.

So I decided to look elsewhere to try new fishing experiences that were on my bucket list. The first venue that came to mind was inshore fishing for redfish, black drum and speckled trout in the Mississippi River estuary south of New Orleans often referred to as the Bayou.

I researched the internet and found what sounded like a good fit for my needs — Griffin Fishing Charters and Lodge (504-689-7588). Their rates were reasonable and their accommodations appeared to suit my preference of something comfortable and not luxury high-end, which frankly turns me off.

I called and talked with Colby Creppel, co-owner of the facility. The first thing I wanted to know was if the hurricane season was over since up to then, seemingly one hurricane after another had hit somewhere on the Gulf coast, including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Colby quickly assured me that hurricane season was indeed over and that November was a good month to fish for reds. I told him to sign me up and was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t require a non-refundable deposit of half the cost of the chartered trip that most other charters require. He also said that he would not charge if the weather was too bad to fish.

Griffin Fishing Charters has a stable of modern, well-kept boats right next to the Lodge on the Inland Waterway. (RICK ITAMI)

Eagerly anticipating the trip for the next three weeks, I finally boarded a flight on November 13, 2017 in Spokane, Washington, and landed in New Orleans that afternoon. It was an easy one-hour drive from the airport to Griffin Fishing Charters and Lodge. I enjoyed viewing the features of this flat, watery world that was so different from the hills and mountains of the Northwest.

As I got within a few miles of the lodge, I crossed over the Inland Waterway and turned on to Jean Laffite Boulevard, named after the notorious privateer who is viewed as both a hero and an outlaw. Not surprisingly, the lodge is located on Privateer Boulevard. I parked at the lodge and found Colby at a fish cleaning station at water’s edge peeling a batch of freshly caught shrimp.

After a short, friendly chat, I told Colby that I hadn’t eaten all day and would like his recommendation as to where to get a good meal. He pointed me to Voleos Restaurant, about 7 miles down the road. When I arrived, I knew right away this would be a good place to eat because all of the others in the restaurant were local fishermen. I ordered the seafood platter with a side of seafood gumbo. It was all delicious, but the gumbo was something to die for.

The next morning, breakfast was served at 5:45 a.m. and all of the guests boarded their assigned boats at 6 a.m. I was assigned to guide Casey Rojas. I got to liking Casey right away. He is a soft-spoken and knowledgeable middle-aged man who has guided for 15 years. I appreciated the fact that Casey didn’t engage in constant chatter like some guides and answered my questions and explained things clearly and succinctly.

We headed out on the Inland Waterway and took a little less than a half-hour to run the 10 miles to the fishing areas, which are about 15 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The area is comprised of hundreds of small islands ranging in size from a few square feet to several acres. They were formed over millions of years from the sediment that flows out of the Mississippi River.

Casey first anchored in a small channel where the outgoing tide was moving the murky water into a larger channel where we hoped some redfish would be holding to ambush baitfish.

We started hearing a lot of shotgun blasts not far away and Casey informed me that duck season had just opened. I told him he should have brought his shotgun along to bag a few ducks while I was fishing. Any outdoorsman would love this area because of the many species of waterfowl. During the morning of fishing we saw ducks, pelicans, ibises, kingfishers, herons, terns and other species. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise.

Casey set me up with a spinning rod and reel with a small fixed bobber about 2 feet above a weighted jig hook onto which he put a fresh shrimp. We both fished for about 20 minutes without any action. Casey pointed out an alligator cruising around about 80 yards from us. I wondered if that may have had a negative effect on our fishing.

Anyway, we picked up and moved to another spot about 5 minutes away. Casey baited my hook and told me to cast toward a point of a small island about 50 feet out. Within about 5 casts, I got my first good take-down and set the hook on my first redfish — a nice 3-pounder that Casey said was perfect eating size. I was impressed by the fight the fish put up. It stayed low and pulled hard like a Chinook salmon and didn’t jump.

The author’s first-ever redfish from the Louisiana bayou. (RICK ITAMI)

The rest of the morning’s fishing was fabulous. I landed at least 10 redfish ranging from about 1-6 pounds, and an assortment of small black drum, sheepshead and channel catfish. The only other species that we could have caught were speckled trout, flounder and possibly even a largemouth bass, which remained elusive to us.

As usual, we had some quiet times when the fish were not biting during which I enjoyed talking with Casey about fishing and hunting experiences. At the end of the morning, I was thankful for being blessed with great fishing, 70-plus-degree weather and a great guide.

After taking a short nap after lunch, I took a walk around the town of Barataria. Known as the Town of Jean Laffite, it exudes a rich history of the days of yore. Laffite is known notoriously as a pirate and privateer who smuggled precious metals and other goods taken mostly from Spanish galleons and selling them in New Orleans. He was also known to profit from smuggling slaves into the United States.

Barrataria, Louisiana, proudly advertises itself as the Town of Jean Lafitte. (RICK ITAMI)

If you don’t know the difference between a privateer and a pirate, I’ll save you the trouble of searching the internet and give you the definitions here.

A privateer is any individual granted license by their government to attack shipping belonging to an enemy government, usually during a war. A privateer operates legally so long as he has a Letter of Marque from the government.

A pirate robs or commits other acts of violence for private ends on the high seas outside the normal jurisdiction of any nation, and without authority from any government.

During the War of 1812, Laffite was recognized as a hero for leading his privateer group to help General Andrew Jackson fight the British in the Battle of New Orleans. General Jackson is quoted as saying Laffite was “one of the ablest men” of the battle. Laffite also supplied Jackson with flints and gun powder from his stolen stores in Barataria.

All of this won Laffite a full pardon for him and his men from President James Madison. But something in Laffite drew him back to privateering and pirating, which he spent much of the rest of his life doing.

One of the interesting features of many of the homes around Barataria is that they have been raised by special hydraulic jacks and placed on stilts, seemingly 12-15 feet high. This was in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Casey said that they have developed the technology to raise the homes so that there is virtually no damage to any part of the homes raised.

A large home that has been raised and put on stilts in case of another Katrina. (RICK ITAMI)

The second day of my trip started out the same, but for some reason we seemed to be able to catch only smaller fish regardless of whether they were reds, black drum, sheepshead or catfish. Casey moved us to several different island points to try to find the big ones.

Finally, at mid-morning, he anchored us off a small island where I landed two keeper reds along with a few other smaller fish. As we were moving to another location, Colby maneuvered his boat full of adults and children with one fellow holding a video camera next to our boat. To my surprise Casey handed one of my reds to Colby and they took off. Casey explained that Colby’s boat was filming a commercial for the Town of Jean Laffite and they needed a redfish as part of the filming. So he said my redfish would become famous. What a hoot!

We continued to another point where on my first cast, I saw my bobber disappear a second or two after it landed in the water and I managed to land my third keeper red. Then the bite completely shut off and we could not catch any fish of any size. I thought to myself that redfish were just like steelhead by inexplicably failing to bite. So we called it a day and I ended my trip with a great feeling of satisfaction.

Guide Casey Rojas with a sheepshead, a species known for its human-like teeth. (RICK ITAMI)

Some things that Casey shared with me are worth keeping in mind when planning a trip to this area. For one thing, Casey said that a cold front will absolutely shut the bite off and he said that Griffin Fishing Charters tries to discourage fishermen from going out during such a front to keep them from being disappointed and wasting their money. Also, high winds will also make fishing very difficult.

For those of us who must reserve airline tickets well in advance, this makes it kind of a crap shoot. I was lucky to have blue bird weather the two days I fished. But you can look at some of the weather forecasting sites on the internet and view the forecasts up to 10 days in advance.

As far as when the best time to fish for reds goes, Casey says generally May through November is good fishing with the hottest months varying from year to year.

While we used shrimp under bobbers during my two days of fishing because of the murkiness of the water, Casey says that when the water is clearer in the summer, they often use lures such as spoons and swim baits to catch reds. He also said that a few of his clients choose to fly fish for reds, but that can be a little more of a challenge.

I tend to be more of a home body most of the time, but I am so happy I decided to break out of my mold and branch out to this great fishing venue. I now have good memories and a great appreciation for the fishing, cultural history and people of the Bayou.

If steelhead and salmon runs in the Inland Northwest continue to be at the low end of the scale, I will be looking for another fun destination to fish like the Louisiana Bayou somewhere else in the U.S.

Angler Looks Back At First-in-a-long-time Roosevelt Sturgeon Fishery

Editor’s notes: The following blog was written and submitted to Northwest Sportsman by Rick Itami.

By Rick Itami

As most of my fishing buddies know, I am mostly a salmon and steelhead angler who has pursued the fish all over the Northwest, British Columbia and Alaska over a 50-plus-year period. But poor spring steelhead and Chinook salmon seasons in 2017 made me start looking for alternatives.

When I received a group e-mail from Toby Wyatt, owner/operator of Reel Time Fishing guide service (208-790-2128), reporting good fishing for sturgeon in Lake Roosevelt out of Kettle Falls, Washington, I had to give it some thought … for about two seconds. I scheduled a trip for the following Monday on July 17, 2017. with assigned guide, Shane Reynolds.  Two other clients joined me — Neal Thompson and his 13-year old grandson Ethan from Spokane.


The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced the opening of the first-ever catch-and-keep sturgeon season in Lake Roosevelt to run from May 27, 2017 through September 17, 2017 [but since closed after July 31]. The daily limit is one white sturgeon and the annual limit is two. A slot limit of 38 inches to 63 inches was also established for the fishery.

Thanks to successful hatchery programs in the State of Washington and British Columbia, the Lake Roosevelt comanagers, consisting of WDFW, the Spokane Tribe and the Colville Confederated Tribes, developed a harvest plan that allows nontribal anglers the opportunity to harvest up to 10,250 sturgeon over the next 10 years.  What a remarkable success story that has been quietly in the making since the early 2000s!

When we met Shane at the Kettle Falls launch at 6 a.m., our anticipation was high because he had been so successful on previous trips, sometimes limiting out by 8:30 a.m. But our day started off very slowly. Unlike most fishermen pursuing sturgeon in the area, Shane does not spend more than 15 minutes to half an hour at any location. For the first three hours, he moved at least six times to different way points in his GPS that he had had success at previously.  But we didn’t get a single bite at any of the locations.

Fishermen in other boats were having the same lack of success as us and most left the river by 10 a.m. But Shane had confidence that he could get us on fish sooner or later and told us not to lose heart. And sure enough, just before 11 a.m., he cruised over an area where he marked some fish and dropped anchor. Within a couple of minutes after all of the rods were set out, young Ethan’s rod tip bounced up and down and he quickly removed the rod from the holder and set the hook. The fish was obviously a nice one that gave the 13-year-old all he could handle. While Ethan was fighting his fish, I hooked and landed a small “shaker” that was below the slot limit and released. After a tough battle, Ethan finally landed his first-ever sturgeon, measuring 53 inches.

Then it was Neal’s turn. Within 15 minutes of Ethan landing his fish, Neal’s rod buried with a good fish that at first we thought might exceed the 63-inch slot limit. But once landed, it measured out at 59 inches — the biggest of the day. I weighed it for him on my digital scale and it registered just under 44 pounds.

All of us had landed a fish at that point, but I still needed to get a keeper into the boat. I didn’t have to wait long. My rod tip started bouncing and I set the hook into a fish I knew right away wasn’t another shaker. After a good fight, Shane lifted the fish over the gunnel. It measured out at 51 inches. All of us were happy with our catches, and Shane said that we averaged higher overall in size than many of his trips.

So what did we learn on this trip? First and most important is that a knowledgeable and experienced guide is worth every penny you pay him. Shane worked hard to find us some fish and his perseverance paid off. He has learned that sturgeon move around in pods in Lake Roosevelt and you just have to keep moving until you land in the middle of one of them. Once you find a group of fish, the action can be fast and furious, as was our experience towards the end of our trip.

Shane started off using squid on some rods and herring on the others. Once we found out that the fish were hitting the squid and not the herring, he baited all of the rods with squid. We fished depths ranging from 30 feet to 100 feet, but we caught all of the fish between 40 and 50 feet deep that day. This, of course, can vary from day to day. Again, Shane just kept changing locations and depths until he finds fish. And finally, Shane proved to us that we should never lose faith and give up as did other fishermen that day. He had confidence he could get us on fish and he kept changing locations within a huge area until we found success.

Finally, Shane said that if you see sturgeon leaping out of the water, you need to pull up and go quickly to that area, because that’s where biting fish will be. We found this to be true also.

After all of us limited out, we caught and released three more fish before calling it quits for the day. The weather was great with temperatures in the low 80s and winds were light to calm.

As I was finishing up writing this article, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced closure of the sturgeon fishery on July 31, 2017. Anglers were apparently too successful and so the co-managers decided on the early closure so that sports fishermen will have the opportunity to fish for sturgeon in Lake Roosevelt in future years.

So if you want to try this new fishery in coming years, I strongly urge you to go out with a good guide before you try it on your own. The area you fish is huge and quite daunting to a first-timer to that portion of the Lake Roosevelt. And don’t do like many do-it-yourselfers and sit in one spot all day. You have to be willing to move every 15 to 30 minutes if you aren’t getting bites.

Shane Reynolds also has his own guiding business separate from Reel Time Fishing and takes clients on salmon, steelhead, walleye and smallmouth bass trips as well as sturgeon trips.  He can be reached at (208) 880-2994.  I have gone out with dozens of guides in the past and Shane is one of the best.

We have to thank the WDFW, the Spokane Tribe and the Confederated Colville Tribes for making this fishery possible. It gives us salmonid fishermen a great alternative when poor ocean conditions, drought, or whatever results in weak runs of salmon and steelhead.


By the way, I smoked my sturgeon fillets and they turned out to be outstanding in flavor and texture. Some members of a local gourmet club asked if I would sell some to them. Of course, I said “no”, but I was flattered that they asked.

Guide Rick Hedding from Clarkston, Washington, gave me the recipe several years ago.  The ingredients are few, the process is a bit long, but the result is the best smoked fish I have ever tasted. Here is the recipe:

– Slice fillets into preferred eating size chunks and place them into large aluminum lasagna pans.

– Mix a 26-ounce carton of iodized salt with 2 pounds of dark brown cane sugar, making sure the mixture is evenly blended without lumps.

–  Liberally spread the mixture over the fillets, making sure to cover every part of the meat.

– Place lasagna pans with fillets into the refrigerator for five hours. The salt/brown sugar mix will turn into a thick syrup that soaks nicely into the fillets.

– Put a clean bath towel over a flat surface and cover it with a layer of paper towels.

– Remove the fillets from the refrigerator after five hours, thoroughly rinse them individually with cold tap water and place them on the paper towels covering the bath towel.

–  Pat fillets dry with other paper towels.

–  Wash the lasagna pans using very hot soap and water and dry thoroughly.

–  Place the fillets back in the lasagna pans and place them back into the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.

–  Smoke the fillets at 200 degrees F for five to six hours using hickory chips.