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Even this treble trouble was worth it

BROOKINGS — The bright 40-pound fall chinook salmon that bit Dave Pitts' plug Saturday was supposed to become another shining example of how to catch and effectively release the biggest salmon of the Pacific Northwest.

But the ensuing exchange between Pitts and his fish made the 49-year-old Brookings man the new poster boy for precisely how not to release a salmon — unless you're not prone to squeamishness, keep heavy wire cutters handy and own decent health insurance.

Pitts relied upon all three Saturday after the Chetco River salmon he tried to release turned the tables by imbedding one of the lure's treble hooks deep into his palm as the fish still lurched on the plug's other hook.

Just a glance at the close-up photo Pitts' snapped of his trebled palm could turn salmon anglers into golfers.

"I have this catch and release down to a science, or at least I thought I did," says Pitts, a Brookings tackle-shop manager who represents fishing-industry companies in salmon tournaments throughout the Northwest.

"You just have to be careful when you release the fish, or the fish won't release you," he says.

Eventually both man and salmon went along their merry ways, but not without some impromptu surgery that left Pitts far more mangled than the salmon.

"I tell you what, man," Pitts says. "Everybody needs a good pair of wire cutters in their boat for just such an occasion."

The drama unfolded innocently enough Saturday, when Pitts and pal Ric Torres floated southwest Oregon's Chetco River intent upon intercepting late-run migrating chinook.

Near a bend in the river called Tamba, a large salmon chomped Pitts' Kwikfish. After a fine tussle, Pitts managed to battle the salmon within net-reach of his driftboat before realizing just the lure's front treble hook was in the fish.

Having that second treble dangle freely can often mean disaster when trying to net big, cantankerous chinook. Often, the hook will grab the net mesh before the salmon slumps into it. If so, the chinook can either pull the hook free or, worse yet, pull the net away.

Sure enough, the exposed hook met the net. But before the salmon could take advantage of it and swim free, Torres dipped the over-sized net under the water. The salmon inexplicably rolled into the open net basket, one treble still in its mouth and the other in the mesh.

As Torres headed the driftboat toward the bank, the drama could have been all but over. Had Pitts reached for his fish mallet, he easily could have killed the salmon and then removed the hooks from the fish and the net.

"When you're catch-and-release fishing, you don't want to club them," Pitts says. "She was full of eggs and I wanted to make sure she was OK."

So Pitts relied on a technique he says he's used to release more than 300 salmon this year. He simply reached into the net with his right hand and grabbed the 5-inch lure in an attempt to pry the wayward hook from the net with his left hand.

"A thousand times I've done that, pull a fish out of the net like that," he says.

With the net unhooked, Pitts hoisted the salmon upward, his right hand gripping the plug and his left steadying the net.

"All of a sudden, I lost my grip on the plug just as she spun and did a half-flip," Pitts says. "Sure enough, it jammed that other hook right into my left hand as it fell. I could feel it all the way to the bone, all 40 pounds of pressure twisting it. I was like slow motion."

Both hand and fish flopped into the water within the deep net for what seemed like an eternity. They had to be separated, but which hook first?

"I had all these micro-thoughts going through my head," he says.

One of those thoughts said free the fish first. So Torres hoisted the net, plug and fish into the boat, and Pitts used his free hand to unhook the fish.

"I wanted to make sure she was all right, so we put her back in the water still in the net in case she needed help (recuperating)," he says.

With the hook point still in his palm, Pitts tried to pull the hook out. But the barb, he says, seemed to grab a tendon.

So he pushed the hook to force the barb through the skin. I turned out to be more difficult than he imagined.

"I can't believe how tough skin is," Pitts says. "Finally, it popped through.

"I said, 'Get the camera,' " Pitts says.

Torres wanted nothing to do with it. So Pitts shot a few digital frames, including a gruesome close-up, before cutting off the barb and removing the hook shank with heavy wire-cutters.

Then he posed with the chinook like nothing happened before watching his worthy opponent swim away.

"She was good to go," Pitts says.

And so was Pitts. The pair fished seven more hours, releasing a 31-pounder and a 36-pounder without the earlier drama.

"What a way to start the day, man," he says. "I had done that 1,000 times before without so much as a scratch, then it happened."

Dave Pitts had a nasty run-in with a treble hook when he landed his 40-pound chinook.