Oregon steelhead is largest in three decades

MEDFORD, Ore. — Standing on the banks of southwest Oregon's Umpqua River, Rob Ginno stared with disbelief at what he saw in the net.

This steelhead seemed as round as a soccer ball and as long as a two-by-four, and it had Ginno's egg-hook embedded in its mouth.

Guide Jim Dunlevy hoisted the wild winter steelhead still wrapped in the mesh net. The digital scale barked a number not seen from an Oregon coastal steelhead in three decades: 28 pounds, 10 ounces.

"When I talk big, I'm talking 20-pounders," said Ginno, 48, a Chico, Calif., resident. "I never imagined ever seeing something that large, let alone catching it."

The men met eyes, then worked quickly to preserve history.

Ginno took out the measuring tape — 43 inches long, 22 inches around in front of the dorsal fin and 19 inches behind it. Then the flash of a digital camera.

If mounted, this male steelhead taken Feb. 8 would glisten in Ginno's general contracting office for years.

"I just said, 'Let him go,'" Ginno said. "So we let him go."

The big one didn't get away that day, but he swam away nonetheless.

Ginno could have kept that massive steelhead under the Umpqua's new harvest rules that allow anglers to keep one wild steelhead a day and up to five a year.

"But I don't kill wild fish," he said. "I just don't."

Instead, Ginno's caught-and-released story is one that wild-fish advocates say is an extreme version of a growing trend among all forms of anglers who believe the region's best steelhead are better spawned than stuffed.

Throughout the Northwest, salmon and steelhead anglers are eschewing the old mantra: "Kill them all, large and small; eat the best and smoke the rest."

More anglers now prefer that the wild steelhead they catch have a chance to pass on their genes.

"I think it's become a big part of the ethic for fishermen, no matter what type of gear they use," said Bill Bakke, founder of the Native Fish Society and a catch-and-release preacher for decades.

"A story like that travels around, and I'm sure it'll raise some eyebrows," said Bakke, of Portland. "But more and more, anglers are making a statement with catch and release.

"They're seeing the value in these fish, and they're taking care of their fisheries."

It's easy for anglers to claim to be catch-and-release fishermen when looking at an 8-pound, cookie-cutter steelhead.

But Ginno's fish is the largest recorded on the Oregon coast since Medford resident Don Hawk caught and killed a 28-pound Chetco River winter steelhead in 1973.

The state record is a 35-pound metalhead taken from the Columbia River in 1970.

In both cases, the big fish became that way because of a variety of factors, ranging from ocean conditions to numbers of spawning runs to predator escapement and genetics.

Anglers realize more now than ever that size does matter. Big steelhead beget big steelhead.

"I encourage all my customers to release wild steelhead," said Dunlevy, who guides out of Medford.

"These are beautiful fish," he said. "If everyone who caught them killed them, we won't have fish like this to catch in the future."

This beautiful fish came to Dunlevy and Ginno on the last cast of a good day on the main-stem Umpqua.

Ginno and fishing partner John Maddrill of Chico already had hooked six wild fish and one hatchery fish by drifting eggs out of Dunlevy's driftboat downstream from the Umpqua ramp.

Ginno flipped a small cluster of roe into a tail-out.

"It was a really light bite," Ginno said. "I set the hook and the fireworks went off."

After a few minutes of thrashing, the steelhead screamed more than 100 yards upstream.

Dunlevy and Maddrill started teasing Ginno, imploring him to tighten his drag and stop pampering the fish.

Ginno convinced Dunlevy to start his motor, and they chased upstream after the steelhead.

When they got close, the fish swirled into view.

"Everyone was joking around," Dunlevy said. "Then we saw the thing and everyone got real tense. It was, 'OK everybody, be careful.'"

Within 15 minutes, Dunlevy cautiously slipped the net under the steelhead, which barely flopped in.

Dunlevy kept the fish in the water, holding it up only for a few pictures and the measurements. They weighed the fish in the net with a digital scale.

"Later, we weighed the net and it was less than a half a pound," Dunlevy said. "So we're saying it was 28 pounds."

Dunlevy hoisted the fish so Maddrill could snap the photos.

Cradling the fish in his right hand and holding the tail in his left, Dunlevy then held the fish in the Umpqua current.

It needed no reviving.

"Three swipes of the tail and he was gone," Dunlevy said.

A decade ago, most steelheaders would have said Ginno was crazy to release the fish of a lifetime that he could have kept legally.

But more and more anglers are realizing that taxidermists don't turn wild fish into trophies. Rivers do.

"I have four brothers and we all fish a lot," Ginno said. "Two of my brothers think I'm nuts. I don't think I'm nuts."

"I've got some pictures and he's in my heart," he said. "That's cool with me."

Contact Mark Freeman at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.