Monday, October 3, 2011


Talk about an ignominious retreat! I fled the river today, salmon season over, my tail between my legs like the whipped dog I was. The fish beat me good this year.

I’ve been jinxed, I swear. A dozen or so days on the water this fall, probably 60-plus hours, chasing chinook salmon. My results? Three salmon “jacks” (immature fish less than two feet long), and one lost big fish. Pathetic.

Last year was just the opposite. On just one day in September, I boated 100 pounds of salmon. I was fishing the same place and the same way I fished all my fishless days this fall. If not a fish jinx, then what?

Rains have started here in western Oregon, meaning the rivers are rising and will be unfishable for a couple of weeks. By then, all the chinook will be gone – doing their last rites in the headwaters of the watershed and then dying. So today was probably the final day this year that I’ll chase chinooks.

It rained all night, poured through my hour-long, pre-dawn drive to the river, and didn’t let up until late morning. One theory has it that you have to suffer to catch big fish. You couldn’t prove it by me.

Like pigs in a trough, big salmon slopped around my boat all morning, sometimes jumping clear out of the water and so close they nearly splashed me. One of them should have eventually run into my hooks, even by accident. You would think.

I tried everything that I’ve ever used to catch salmon previously and got not so much as a bite. Salmon eggs dressed up sixteen different ways with corkies, spin-and-glows, and yarn, and dabbed with several varieties of (allegedly) salmon-attracting Smelly Jelly. Spinners. Plugs. Fished deep, fished shallow. Fished slow, fished even slower.

I’d like to blame it on the weather. Water temperatures. Short summer. La NiƱa, for Christ’s sake. Anything except the obvious answer, that for some reason, I’m jinxed. It’s hard not to take it personal.

One of the few fishing guides out in the rain motored past me around noon, heading back with his clients, an older couple bedecked in soggy rain gear. I went in soon after, and they were still at the boat ramp. I saw the guide flip some fish guts into the river.

Oh, great, I thought. Like I need another dose of fishing humility. I know, he gets paid to catch fish, he does it every day, and he had floated down through lots of water I couldn’t get to in my boat. But still…

As I beached my boat, the old man made small talk with me about the rain and then asked, more a statement, really, than a question, “Get some fish, did you?”

I confessed that, no, I had not. “How about you?” I was forced to reply in-kind.

“Got six. Largest, 28 [pounds]. Two of ‘em real bright, unusual for this late in the season.”

He pointed to the drift boat’s fish box, overflowing with big, fat salmon that looked identical to the leaping fish that had been taunting me all day.

“Good for you,” I said, and then repeated it, trying to keep the tone of gritted teeth out of my voice. What else could I say? I suppose I should have asked him about their special chinook-catching secret, but at that point, frankly, I just didn’t give a damn. I couldn’t get out of that place fast enough. A perfect end to my perfectly shitty fishing year.

It wasn’t just my fall chinook fishing that had sucked. Spring chinook – score zero. Shad – ditto. Spring trout – diddly-squat. Summer steelhead – zippo (whereas, last year had been great). Largemouth bass – zilch. Smallmouth bass – not too bad, although way worse than prior years.

Now, there’s still to come this year coho salmon fishing in late fall and steelhead fishing in early winter. But I seldom catch winter steelhead, and the coho are not nearly as exciting as chinooks. By the time they get upriver where I fish, the coho are maturing, blushing a lovely pink, and have lost much of the fight they had out in the Pacific Ocean a hundred miles away. When you catch them – and they are pretty easy to hook on a fluorescent red Kwikfish – they spin and wrap up in your fishing line like I’ve see alligators do on TV when they are hooked on a baited rope. You can’t keep any wild (non-hatchery) coho or steelhead because their populations are still at risk of dying out. So it’s probably over for my fish killing this year, with no big filets for our freezer.
Fishing isn’t just about catching fish, of course. (Thank goodness for that, or one might think I’ve wasted a whole lot of time.) It’s also about connecting with nature, enjoying the scenery, blah, blah, blah. Trouble is, after a while, after a couple thousand casts with no results, it does get a bit old. Fishing is supposed to at least include catching fish.

Driving home from the river today, I pulled off at the nearby country store to get a leaf out from under my windshield wiper. As I stood there in the rain, the guide from the river pulled into the empty parking lot in front of me with his shiny white pickup, drift boat and trailer, and his goddamned special chinook-catching secret. He made a big circle in front of me, then drove away.

What the fuck? I wondered. A victory lap?

No, he just had noticed the store was closed. It was all in my head. Like my fish jinx, I suppose.

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