While on driftboat patrol along the Rogue River downstream of Grants Pass, Oregon State Police Senior Trooper Jeff Thompson stumbled upon fresh evidence of a new way to flout wild steelhead protection by a certain subset of river idiots.
Two men in a driftboat waved over Thompson and fellow Trooper Brad Bennett to show them something odd about a winter steelhead they had caught earlier that day.
It was a standard, 24-inch, adult fish with a clipped adipose fin — the tiny fleshy fin on the back between the dorsal fin and the tail.
But it was not a healed-over clip, the kind that makes it easy to discern hatchery-bred steelhead from wild steelhead in the Rogue basin. It had been recently mutilated.
"The meat was all fleshy, but it was not bleeding," Thompson says. "But it was definitely cut off real recently."
Someone had caught this steelhead, clipped the adipose fin and released it, presumably so the next person who caught it could keep it as a hatchery steelhead.
Keeping a steelhead with a freshly clipped adipose and tagging it as a hatchery fish isn't legal because the law states it must have a healed clipped fin to be considered a hatchery fish. Clipping the fin off a wild steelhead and releasing it also isn't legal.
It's further proof that even during a time when the catch-and-release ethic regarding wild steelhead is widely accepted, there's still a kill-'em-all-large-or-small mentality out there.
"It's happening," OSP Sgt. Kirk Meyer says. "We've heard of guys doing it, but we haven't caught anybody doing it.
"The rumor we've heard is that a guy will do it and think the next time it gets caught it can be kept legally," Meyer says.
While somewhat isolated now on the Rogue, the practice has been more pronounced on the nearby Umpqua River, where no wild steelhead can be kept. Only the South Umpqua sports a hatchery run, and even so biologists predict those returns make up a small percentage of the run.
That's why OSP troopers in the Roseburg area are threatening Umpqua anglers with arrest and immediate jail should they get caught clipping fins or killing freshly clipped steelhead.
Clip a wild steelhead fin on a Friday evening on the Umpqua, and you could find yourself behind bars until a Monday court appearance.
In the Feb. 7 case on the Rogue, the man who caught the fish noticed the freshly cut fin and kept it legally as a wild steelhead because Rogue anglers can now keep one wild steelhead over 24 inches a day and up to five per year.
If it had been caught a week earlier, the angler would have had to release it or face a $435 a ticket, at minimum. Only wild steelhead caught downstream of the middle Rogue's Hog Creek Boat Landing can be kept in January.
That limit was extended riverwide Feb. 1 and runs through April.
You can tell that wild fish managers years ago expected some nitwits would try such a stunt when they wrote into the regulations that the fin clip must be healed to qualify as a hatchery fish.
Legislators followed suit by making sure laws are in place making it illegal for members of the public to clip fins or otherwise mark any fish and to keep a freshly clipped wild fish as if it were from a hatchery.
The state also funds mass clipping programs at its hatcheries to ensure hatchery fish are marked for anglers to keep.
At hatcheries, adipose fins are clipped from juveniles before they are released into rivers as smolts. By the time they return from the ocean, those clips are well-healed.
And herein may lie the most sinister aspect of these new clip-crimes.
Consider that roughly 40 percent of Rogue wild winter steelhead survive their spawn to return the following year as bigger wild spawners. Adult wild fish clipped and released this year will return, presumably, with that clip fully healed over, and anyone who catches it will have no clue he or she is killing a wild fish.
The great irony is that the Rogue and a few rivers around it are virtually the only rivers in the lower 48 states where anglers can keep any wild winter steelhead.
In Washington, anglers can kill one wild steelhead a year on one of eight Olympic Peninsula rivers. One.
Everywhere else, nada.
You get one a day and five a year on the Rogue. And you still want to lop off a few adipose fins this year in hopes you can kill an extra fish?
"I don't know exactly what the motivation is," Thompson says. "I don't know who's doing it. I don't know how many are out there.
"But it's a bad deal," he says.