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Wetsuited swimmers perplex Chetco River anglers

BROOKINGS — Guide Andy Martin's clients had just cast their roe and bobbers into a prime Chetco River fishing hole trying to catch fall chinook salmon, but the baits lured the some of the strangest critters the Oregon anglers have seen.

A man and woman, clad in wetsuits and snorkels, jumped into the hole and began swimming circles around Martin's boat and their bobbers, spooking the chinook and flummoxing Martin and his clients. 

"They were so close I could have reached over and ripped off his snorkel," Martin says.

"I asked the guy, 'What are you doing? Are you trying to ruin my fishing?'" Martin says. "He said, 'I'm just going swimming.'"

Martin and other Chetco anglers believe they are in the midst of intentional harassment by angling saboteurs who are illegally disrupting their chinook-fishing trips.

Anglers reported one or both of the unidentified "swimmers" jumping into the fishing holes just as their driftboats pulled into fishing holes such as Ice Box, and even pursuing the anglers downstream as they fled the spooked holes.

"I thought it was truly harassment," says Cole Tidwell, a Gold Hill angler who says he was sabotaged Sunday at the Ice Box hole by a wetsuited woman swimmer. "Nobody caught any fish. It takes about a half-hour to settle those pools down.

"They probably think it's somehow unfair to the fish to be fishing in the low and clear (water) conditions," Tidwell says.

The Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division is investigating the case and whether the actions violate an Oregon law that makes it a Class A misdemeanor to interfere with the taking of wildlife, which includes sport fish such as salmon.

Anglers have provided photos, videos and a license plate of a vehicle suspected to be involved, and troopers have identified potential suspects.

"We're still trying to catch up with them," OSP Trooper Brandon Smithers says.

Oregon has a sporadic history of disruption of hunters in the field, with actions previously modeled after the "hunt saboteur" movement that began in 1964 to protest fox hunting in Great Britain. Members took to the woods with air horns and cologne to scare animals away from hunters.

The first clash in Oregon between Hunt Saboteurs and hunters occurred in 1990 in Jackson County when about 30 protesters attempted to disrupt opening day of the general bull-elk rifle season. While protesters and hunters clashed angrily in downtown Prospect, no confirmed reports of actual in-field disruptions occurred.

There have been a handful of disruption cases involving sport angling in the past, most recently in September on British Columbia's Campbell River.

"This is the first time I've ever heard of it happening here," Smithers says.

Capt. Jeff Samuels, who runs the OSP's Fish and Wildlife Division, says a check of department records show just two such cases involving wildlife investigated in Oregon during 2014-15.

Simply swimming in the Chetco is not a crime. Nor is stand-up paddleboarding or other activities that are beginning to pop up in places like the Chetco where the term "multi-use" continues to expand.

The activities elevate to illegal behavior under Oregon law if the intent is to keep anglers from catching sport fish.

Martin and Tidwell believe the unidentified swimmers were intentionally interrupting their fishing because they claim the man and woman were intentionally swimming around their boats and baits and entered the water only when they were present.

"They swam right up to the anchor, swam right around us and jumped in the water right in front of our bobbers," Martin says. "My customers were cussing at them.

"They're lucky they didn't mess with the bank fishermen down on the lower river," Martin says. "They'd still be under water."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.