Friday, June 29, 2012


This is one of the greatest fish stories of my life. And that’s saying something since I’ve been fishing for sixty years and have some pretty good ones.

Yesterday, I was fishing for smallmouth bass. It was a good morning – calm, sunny, and warm. Not another boat on the water. Yellow warblers sang from riverside bushes, sweet sweet sweeter-than-sweet.

I had put a few nice bass in the cooler. But, as so often in fishing, “the bite” had ended as abruptly as it had started. Just a few more casts…

I was fishing with what’s called an “ultralight” rod and reel, designed to let you cast tiny lures with near-invisible fishing line. Six-pound test line, which is what I was using, means that if your line is in perfect condition – new, with no nicks – and if your knots are tied perfectly, the line could lift something close to six pounds without breaking.

My bass-catching Roostertail spinner – its half-inch body bright yellow with black polka dots, and sporting a wee gold spinner blade – stopped in the current, then moved away from my boat with authority. I caught a glimpse three feet into the crystalline, green-hued water of an immense hulk, silver with mottled spots on its back, suddenly irritated. The drag on my little reel, which now felt like a toy, squealed as line zipped away, tentatively at first, and then in a mad rush.

Oh, this should be good, I thought, certain that I was seconds away from losing a huge fish that, unintentionally, I had tricked into biting onto a treble hook the size of my pinkie’s fingernail. I figured the fish would go about fifteen pounds.

A fishing reel’s drag is designed to slow line being pulled out by a fish, without the line snapping. An ultralight reel, however, is built to brake the kind of small fish you fry in a pan, not fishy beasts that can tow your boat around the river.

I kept pace with my berserker fish only because of my foot-operated trolling motor. It runs off two big batteries and scoots along pretty good. Each time the fish rushed away, I would tear after it at top speed while trying to ease pressure on that damned, annoying thing in its jaw.

After some time, I was able to maneuver close enough to get a look at my mystery fish. When it materialized from the depths, I realized it wasn’t a steelhead trout, as I had guessed, but a chinook salmon, silver as a new dime and fresh from three years or so getting fat in the Pacific Ocean. I thought, hopefully, Shit, I might actually be able to land this fish.

And eat it. Nothing from Oregon waters tastes better than spring-run chinook salmon.

Bringing the fish close enough to grab with my long-handled net was the challenge now. Especially since it was longer than my net was wide. On my first try, the net’s rim bumped the salmon’s nose, and it responded with appropriate outrage, surging under the boat. I dropped the net and buried my bent-double, short little fishing rod into the river, trying to keep the line away from the boat’s motors.

I went through two more rounds of chasing the fish’s runs, pulling it close, then watching it swirl and streak away, little-by-little gaining confidence that I might against all odds beat this fish. Yet, I knew from experience that when fighting a big fish, anything can happen. Lines break, knots give way, hooks straighten… It’s a long list and sometimes you have no idea what happened and the fish is just gone.

Not this day. With my rod arm aching from the constant tension, on my fourth attempt, I nosed the semi-tired salmon into the net. As I hauled it in and laid the net on the boat floor, the salmon flopped once and the yellow Roostertail spinner fell away limply. Its little barbed treble hook hadn’t even broken skin; apparently, all that had kept me and my fish linked was the steady pressure I had maintained. Perseverance furthers. And a little luck helps. It’s why you say “good luck” to a fisherman and not “break a leg.”

I used to have a friend who would, at unpredictable times while we were bike riding, let out a whoop when the spirit moved him. It would scare hell out of me, and anyone else nearby. He didn’t care. Why not? I thought, and let fly my own celebratory exclamation.

After whacking the fish on its head with a club (called a “priest” – last rites and all), I weighed my springer (that’s what they call spring-run chinooks) – thirteen-and-a-half pounds, and filled in my license tag – thirty-two inches.

It wasn’t the biggest springer in the river – some grow to well-over fifty pounds. Or even the biggest or hardest-fighting salmon I’ve ever caught. Probably not my greatest fish story. (Catching and releasing a door-sized halibut with an underpowered spinning rod from a kayak in the Alaskan wilderness of Glacier Bay comes to mind.) No, what made this Oregon springer so remarkable was catching it on a miniature rod and reel. I wouldn’t have thought that possible.

The only thing better than catching a big fish is catching one with an audience – preferably other fishermen who have caught nothing. This day, however, I was alone on the river, which had been just as well. It let me maintain Zen-like focus on my fish battle when any distraction might have given the salmon its freedom.

By the end of my day’s fishing, another boat was on the river and as I was leaving, I pulled alongside to compare notes, as is customary. My chance to share a thrilling day’s fishing success.

However, the trouble with fish stories, even good ones, is that nobody really cares to hear them. If you’re not a fisherman, it’s hard to understand what the fuss is about, especially in context of all the fishless hours and days it takes. All the worse if you’ve ever been tortured with watching a TV fishing show.

And, if you are a fisherman… Well, here’s the thing: Fishermen are a lot like teenagers in that they’re not very good listeners. They feign attention until your first pause, their cue to launch into their own fabulous fishing story, which always seems to involve a bigger fish or grander adventure than yours. Trying to tell your own tale tends to be a deflating exercise.

As it was this day with Glen, who introduced himself since he wanted to have coffee with me some day to pump me about my knowledge of the river, which he fished only occasionally. Not that it left him short of fishy blarney: Yeh, those springers will bite anything. I caught one on a worm one time. Once, I hooked one on an ultralight, four-pound test line. Fought him for twenty minutes before I lost him. The line just wore out and parted. And so on.

The exception is my wife, who will listen raptly to my fish stories and who embodies the wise woman described by Norman Maclean in his quintessential fishing story, A River Runs Through It”: “…she knew how to cook them, and, most important, she knew always to peer into the fisherman’s basket and exclaim, ‘My, my!’…”

Cook the salmon, my wife did last night, and we agreed it was a fine, fine fish.

By the way, our gastronomic pleasure was shared with a flock of a dozen vultures that had moved in quickly on the carcass I left riverside on a big flat rock. They squabbled and squawked and fought over the good parts. Except for the thick fillets, of course, I left them everything but the salmon’s eggs, which I hope to use to catch more fish. Wouldn’t that be fitting?


  1. Great story, nicely done.

  2. Terrific story, Wayne. You are a gifted writer.
    Question for you: is there any evidence that fish feel pain during this process?
    Best, Chris