Wednesday, October 23, 2013


"I'm gonna kick your ass this year!"

Not exactly what you expect to hear booming at you from across the river in the early-morning stillness of Oregon's wine country. From my fishing boat, I recognized Mickey. He lives right there on the river and works the vineyards that stretch back from its steep, wooded banks.
While fishing last fall, I had chatted frequently with Mickey, who keeps his beat-up metal rowboat upside-down on the river bank at the base of the 30-foot embankment below his simple camper. Mickey had watched me catch lots of coho salmon throughout the season while he caught few. I was happy to share my secret with him -- orange Kwikfish, size 11. Apparently, this year Mickey was stocked up with the numinous plugs and ready. Ready to kick my ass.

Yeah, we'll see about that, is what I thought. What I shouted back, changing the subject, was, "How'd you keep your boat safe in last week's rains?" Mickey related his challenges of dragging his clunky boat halfway up the hillside, out of reach of the extra ten feet of river that the storms had brought. Water levels were just getting back to normal.
The river is an odd culture of professional fishing guides and their clients, local good-ole-boys, now and then a TV fishing show guy (see Hawg Man), and ever-hopeful newcomers -- all of them addicted to one degree or another to catching big fish. Plus, there's Mickey.

Sound carries over water so you hear things. From mid-river, I eavesdropped on Mickey and his two friends from Hawaii who had been salmon fishing with him that morning. His visitors seemed in a hurry to leave and hadn't caught any fish, though Mickey had caught five. One was a 25-pound hawg chinook, bigger than anything I'd ever caught out there, so who knows? Maybe Mickey really is gonna kick my ass this year.
Despite his friends' poor fishing luck, the river was filled with migrating coho salmon, freshly arrived from the ocean and silver as brand-new quarters. Hooking one of those magnificent fish, full of energy for its suicidal spawning journey, is like snagging a dervish on acid. There's nothing like a giant, unseen fish, hooked and pissed, peeling line as your reel's braking-drag screams beautiful music. It's a connection to a primal piece of the Earth.

A fish you don't even hook, however, can be almost as exciting -- the ones that do a fish drive-by. At the end of a long cast as the fluorescent lure glows slowly into view from the gray-green depths, and just as you're about to pull it from the water, a silver torpedo materializes, tracking the wobbling Kwikfish. First, the predatory face appears, then its great body, and in an instant the salmon harmlessly bumps the top of your lure with its nose and vanishes. Gone. Like that fish was just fucking with you.
A few days later, I noticed someone else had taken out Mickey's rowboat to fish, and eventually our watery paths crossed. I met Josh, a friend of Mickey's. Josh sounded possessive towards the river, as in, "We keep an eye on fish caught in our river."

He and I engaged in the ritualistic sharing of fishing success or not. I had caught seven salmon the day before. "That's a good day on this river," Josh confirmed. "That's a good day," I concurred.
Josh looked sideways at me, "Wait a minute. I think Mickey has told me about you. Orange Kwikfish, right?" His tone became pleasantly deferential after that.

Josh was fishing with this garish purple plug. "Guys yesterday said it was the hot color. I don't get it," he confessed. After our conversation, he switched to an orange Kwikfish.
I'd like to say that Josh immediately caught a giant salmon on my recommended lure, but that didn't happen. Myself, I managed to catch a few fish over the course of the morning, but it was slow.

From a distance, I watched Josh hopelessly snagged on the rocky bottom, then finally, give up and snap his line. Something told me that he had just lost his only orange Kwikfish, and as I fished past him, he complained that was so.
"I've got one that's all chipped up and you can have it if you want," I said. "I don't think the chips really matter to the fish."

He pounced on my offer. I dug out the battered Kwikfish, motored close, and tossed him the lure, noticing that I had upgraded its set of treble hooks. "It's got super-duper hooks on it, too," I said, matter-of-factly. "I'm sure it's caught lots of fish."

Later, as I motored toward the boat ramp to leave, I again crossed paths with Josh, now a half-mile downriver from Mickey's place. "I just missed one," he beamed.
As he reeled in his line, I saw my old orange Kwikfish with its distinctive chips. "And on the magic lure," I said. "But now you've got a long row back upstream."

Josh seemed bemused and grinned broadly: "I would love to just row all day long."
Josh thanked me again for giving him the lure. But why not? After all, the only way I learned how to catch those sometimes-finicky coho salmon was because this old guy in a beat-up blue fishing boat loved to talk and pointed me in the right direction some years back (see I Saved Bambi). Ken Moore was his name. "Just remember Sears," he explained the first time he introduced himself.

It appeared to me that Ken Moore's very favorite thing in life was to anchor his blue boat in the middle of one of those invisible travel lanes used by migrating salmon, toss his line downstream behind his boat, and sit there all day long, days at a time, his hours broken rarely by a big fish, but frequently by conversation with anyone within earshot in another boat, or with fishing friends via cell phone, and all in the top-of-your-lungs voice that sometimes accompanies old men. Eh? What's that you say?
I haven't seen Ken Moore for the past few fishing seasons, and I fear his many health issues may have overcome his passion for fishing. I often remind myself of the ancient piscatorial scripture: "The gods do not deduct from man's allotted span the hours spent in fishing." Maybe Ken Moore had already passed his allotted span, but for his fishing.

Not surprisingly, most guys fishing on weekdays, which is the only time I go out, are old retired guys. Like me. Unlike me, however, they bring to the river lots of health complaints and a need to share with anyone who will listen.
Waiting in the barely daylight in the parking lot to launch my boat, Jerry, one of the local guides told me about his recent bout with gall stones and pancreatitis. "Almost killed me," he explained in some detail.

It's not as if we were complete strangers or anything. I had, after all, talked to him a couple of times on the river two days earlier. I guess after you've swapped fishing yarns, anything goes.
Catching a big salmon, especially if it happens to be an infrequent experience, can turn normally taciturn, burly old men into gushing, chattering teenage girls. For minutes afterwards, they relive their adrenaline-fueled, big-fish experience, which often included stumbling over each other and shouted, contradictory instructions as the fish screeches off and the reel sizzles, then a string of profane superlatives -- "that's one big-ass son-of-a-bitch" -- after the leviathan is sighted emerging from the deep, followed by clumsy stabs to net the mad fish. Then, a racket of clattering and chaos as the captured salmon flops and flounces about the metal boat.

Finally, a distinctive thunk...thunk as a billyclub "priest" delivers the fish's last rites, followed by unpriestly high-fives.
I was fishing near a quite-small boat packed with a middle-aged man and his quite-large father wedged into the transom seat, facing the back of the boat. The son hooked a big chinook salmon on an underpowered fishing rod and fought the fish for many minutes. "That's one of them 30, 40-pounders," father prognosticated. Son readily agreed.

Anticipating son's victory over fish, father twisted his corpulence to reach their landing net, and his foot kicked open the boat's drain plug. Water poured in.
One might think: so stick the plug back in. Right? It's not that simple if you can't even see, let alone reach your own feet. As son's fish-battle waged, fat father struggled to reach and replace the boat plug. He motored to the river's edge, which was really no help since it was a rock wall abutting 20-feet-deep water.

Somehow, however, father managed to stop the flood before too much water got in, and they successfully netted the salmon and brought it aboard, thrashing and crashing about.

"What do you figure it weighs?" I asked from my nearby boat.
Son studied his deceased fish carefully. "Thirty-five, I figure."

He pulled a scales from his tackle box and hoisted the three-foot-long fish. He screwed up his face. "It's giving an error at 20 pounds," he mused.
I offered to let him use my digital scales, which measures up to 50 pounds. I brought my boat close, and he took my scales and held up his prize -- a late-season, fairly dark chinook salmon. A big fish, no doubt, but not one of the river's mythical hawgs.

He read the new weight: almost exactly 20 pounds. Pssssft! You could feel his deflation.
"What had you guessed?" he asked me.

"Oh, I was guessing about 25," I lied.
A week later, I ran into the father-son team at the boat ramp. Son had positioned their rag-tag, baby-blue boat next to shore just-so, and father struggled mightily to lift his right leg over the gunwale to get in. Son steadied him, actually helping father hoist his immense calf. I noticed for the first time that father's transom seat was tricked out like a fishing throne, with thick, beige cushioning on the seat and a matching tall, padded back.

We swapped recent fishing lore and lies and as they pushed away, I added, "Don't sink your boat this time."
Not even a smile.

Fisherman ineptitude is one of the ways that fish escape. Attention drifts. Fishing lines get nicked; hooks get dulled on rocks. Landing nets get tangled. In other words, big fish often get away. In fact, once a salmon takes the bait, I'd say it's got about a one-in-three chance of getting away. It's not easy getting everything right.
You have to remember the context: you may have been out there fishing for hours, even days, without catching anything. Then out of the blue -- wham! -- a fish comes out of nowhere and smacks the bait.

One morning, Josh told me about just such an experience, and I replied that it happens to everyone. I added, "You get lackadaisical."
As our boats drifted our ways, I pondered what the fuck kind of word that was to use. I wondered if "lackadaisical" had ever been uttered before on this river in all of human history. I watched a mink with a snake in its mouth run along the riverbank.

At that point, including my prior fishing trip two days earlier which had been a complete bust, I had been casting for six hours without a fish. That's when -- wham! Right at the boat in plain sight a coho hit my orange Kwikfish. Of course it got away. I got lackadaisical.
Just below that stretch of coho water lies calm, deep river that holds both chinook and coho until late in the fall. It’s easy fishing so gets a fair amount of pressure from guys slowly trolling plugs. They also drift gobs of fish eggs under bobbers. That’s what I watched a guide with his bumbling clients doing, and one of them caught a nasty, dark chinook, and they all found it grand.

What the hell. Can't argue with success. I abandoned my orange Kwikfish for eggs. Damned if I didn’t soon catch my first fish of the day, a lovely coho salmon. As I bent to release it -- you can't keep any wild (non-hatchery raised) coho there -- I was shocked to see that it had no adipose fin on its back. That marked it as a rare, fin-clipped, hatchery-raised fish, suitable for harvest. And eating.
"Son of a bitch," I exclaimed loudly.

Hours later, there I was, still drifting eggs at 2:00 in the warming afternoon, down to my last two stinky, gooey gobs of fish eggs, and ready to call it a day. I had caught no more salmon. From what I could tell, everyone else had given up and gone home.

I use my sonar fish-finder to know the depth of water I'm fishing, but pay little attention to actual fish blips on the screen. This time, however, as I drifted in 24 feet of water, I saw unmistakable images of three large fish right on the bottom below me. I flipped my next-to-the-last gob of eggs upstream and let it sink back to where I guessed those ghosts lay. Sure enough, one sucked it in, and I had a fabulous time in the autumn sunshine, all alone on the river, landing a beautiful 14-pound chinook hen.


Fishing over for the day, I headed upstream with my two-salmon limit. There I found Josh futilely casting a brand-new green Kwikfish, the hot color of the previous day, he explained to me. I asked if he would do me a favor and use my iPhone to take my picture, and he readily agreed.
On a grassy point in the shade, I cleaned my two salmon, bagged their eggs for later curing into bait, drank a Corona, and ate lunch in the shade. Santana played under a blue October sky. Light filtered through the hillside of bigleaf maples, resplendent in their Northwest ochers, rusts, and greens, and mirrored perfectly in the river's flat sheen.

For long moments, I basked in the contentment that comes from being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, and doing exactly the right thing.
* * *
I finally ran into Mickey again out on the river the other day. The chinook run was winding down and the fishing slow. We agreed that we needed some rain. I mentioned that I had been chatting the past few weeks with his friend, Josh, and had given him an old orange Kwikfish.

"Yeah, I know. I'm using it right now," Mickey said, pausing on his beat-up wooden oars and holding up his fishing rod. Sure enough. Hanging on the end of his line was my old, chipped-up lure. "In the last couple of days I've caught five chinook on it."
Has Mickey kicked my ass this year, like he threatened early-on? I guess that depends a lot on how each of us measures our success on the river. Besides, this year still has a few weeks of fishing left in it. Anything could happen.


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