Sometimes a fish is not just another fish. Last week when a big salmon smashed my Halloween-orange plug dragging in the river’s current, it satisfied a 10-year quest. And at the same time, atoned for a fishing flub that has haunted me for 34 years.
ZZZZ-zzzzz-zzzz! To a fisherman, there’s nothing like it – the scream of a fly reel’s drag. It means you are hanging on to a truly big fish – on a fly rod, a rare event. Yet here on my home water, I finally hooked a big one. ZZZZ-zzzzz-zzzz!
It had been pitch black when I got to the river. Getting my boat ready to launch by flashlight, I heard a familiar disembodied voice from the darkness: “Hey, Wayne.”
“That you, Don?” I answered.
As usual when the fall salmon run is on, the parking lot already was busy with a handful of fishing guides and their clients, readying for the day. Don was one of the guides I’d swapped fish stories with for years. “So how’d you do the other day?” he asked, walking over. We’d last chatted two days earlier at the same pre-dawn spot.
Profanities spewed from me of their own accord: “Goddamned fish. I can’t get a fucking bite to save my life,” I fumed. “I swear, I’m cursed this year.” I paused. In the worst way, I didn’t want to ask but knew I had to: “How’d you do?”
“We got ten.”
I understand why guides almost always boat more salmon than me. After all, they do it every day for a living. They’ve got two clients with lines in the water or three lines when the guide also fishes. Even more important, they can shuttle their vehicle and boat trailer to a take-out point far downstream and ride back to their starting point in their clients’ car. That means they can cover miles of water in their shallow-draft drift boats, navigating rapids that my boat can’t handle, and never have to motor back upstream.
So I recognized Don’s big advantage, but still. Ten salmon? I grabbed my heart. “Don, you’re killing me here.”
The last thing Don said to me before I backed my boat trailer down the ramp was, “Don’t be afraid to use plugs. Drag them in that shallow water in the rapids where you fish and they’ll grab it.”
Anchored in my spot, I thought about Don’s advice. I’d already spent several early-season days fishing the method that had worked for me in prior years – drifting gobs of fish eggs in the current. The best ones emit a trail of stinky, white “milk” that salmon can’t resist. Except that they had, not counting a few “jack” salmon I had hooked – the small ones that inexplicably return from the ocean after just one year, instead of the usual two to four for the big adult salmon returning to spawn.
Why not take Don’s advice? After all, over the years I’d caught plenty of salmon on plugs with my spinning rods. But how about a radical twist? This was the year I had vowed to catch a salmon on my special fly rod. Why not tie a plug on the end of my fly line? It’s not something I’d ever read about in fishing magazines, but why not?
I call my fly rod “special” because it was a gift from a friend precisely ten years ago. It was the year before we moved west from Virginia to Oregon. I had travelled that fall to attend David’s wedding in his home in far-northern Vermont. That was when he handed me a rod case with his favorite Sage, graphite, four-piece, eight-weight, nine-and-a-half-foot steelhead rod. “I want you to have it,” he said. “You’ll get more use out of it in Oregon than I ever will.”
And I have, especially with smallmouth bass and shad. But a decade later, I still was waiting for that first really big fish to test my special fly rod. I figured I owed it to David. Now that his ten-year wedding anniversary had arrived, it seemed only fitting that I catch something worthy of his gift to me.
Fly rods, however, are designed to cast weightless fluffs of feathers, not big hulking salmon plugs. Picture those lovely scenes in A River Runs Through It: a brightly-colored fly line arcs through the air behind a wader-clad angler, water droplets on the line sparkling in sunlight, the cast straightening at just the right moment, then shooting forward to deliver a tiny fly silently on the water – described by author Norman Maclean as “an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock,” referring to the imaginary clock that defines the position and movements of your fly rod.
Flinging a heavy plug with a fly rod is far less poetic, though not entirely bereft of grace. Standing in the back of the boat, coils of loose fly line at my feet, I swing the long rod in a pendulum arc in front of me to carry the plug and some 15 feet of line to one side, then power the rod in the direction of the cast and let all that loose line zip through the rod guides. On a good lob, the plug will sail 50 or 60 feet, plenty far enough.
When that salmon grabbed my orange plug wobbling in the current, the violence of its strike was shocking. Fishing that way, you retrieve line hand to hand, pointing the rod tip nearly straight at the plug, so when a fish strikes you feel the jolt of its savagery almost as if the rod wasn’t there.
As the reel music played – ZZZZ-zzzzz-zzzz! – I scrambled to the front of the boat, rod held high with one hand, to throw overboard the anchor rope (tethered to a float) and chase my fish headed downstream. The 90 feet of fly line was a distant memory and the backing line was quickly disappearing, too. My chase was powered by a foot-operated electric motor; the fleeing salmon was powered by… by what, exactly?
I have a good friend who loves marine life and believes that sport fishing is cruel and unusual punishment for innocent fish. I always reply, compared to what? A salmon that gets gill netted and thrown into a commercial fishing vessel’s hold – is that a more fishy-humane outcome? How about eaten alive by a bear or an eagle? Or, if among the lucky few that survive the battering migration upstream for hundreds of miles to spawn, then slowly becoming the swimming dead, aimlessly adrift while being consumed by white fungus? It just seems to me that a short battle with a fisherman, then a quick bonk on the head, might not be seem so bad in comparison. Of course, that’s easy for me to say.
Through long minutes, my very-much-alive salmon surged back and forth across the river, repeatedly pulling line out, which I’d then furiously crank the fly reel handle to recover. This is what I’ve been waiting for so long, I told myself. Maybe finally…
But anything can go wrong when you are fighting and netting a big fish, especially doing it alone. Hooks pull out. Lines break. Knots come undone.
Which is what had happened to me 34 years earlier, the last time I had a really big fish hooked on a fly rod. David and I were fishing a remote river in British Columbia. We had figured out how to catch the resident trout and whitefish. But we also had seen occasional silvery, heart-racing flashes of big, sea-run fish – salmon or steelhead, we weren’t sure which. Then one morning one of them grabbed my bait that was hanging in the current far downstream. At that point in my fishing career I’d caught lots of fish – even a few big ones – but nothing had prepared me for this fight with a wild steelhead as long as your arm. I splashed clumsily downstream in my waders trying to recover line. For memorable minutes I felt the fish’s power. Just as I started to believe I might actually land this monster, the steelhead leaped high as your head, and the line went dead. Nothing.
“What happened?” screamed David, who was downstream and closer to the fish than I ever got.
I reeled in my slack line. The curly-cues at the end of my monofilament leader – the place where the hook should have been tied – told the sad tale. My knot had failed. Would I ever live down such a rookie mistake?
Months later, an acquaintance of the fishing persuasion spotted me sitting in a business conference and seemed unusually glad to see me. He made his way down my row and plopped next to me, handing me with considerable fanfare a small brown sack. Inside, I found some hooks, leader material, and a little brochure on how to tie fishing knots.
Thirty-four years later on an Oregon river, I was finally able to wipe that smirk off his face.
My salmon tired after its berserker runs and was soon netted, whacked on the head, weighed (14 pounds), and put on ice in the cooler. As is typical with fishermen, after you catch one good fish you figure you must know what you’re doing. After using my off-beat plug-on-a-fly rod method to boat one salmon, I just knew I could catch a second. I stuck with it for another seven hours. That’s right, seven more hours fishing with absolutely nothing to show for it. That’s a lot of casts.
I cleaned my salmon riverside. The vultures arrived almost immediately. Like magic, first one appeared in branches above, beady eyes in its bald red head staring patiently. Then a few more birds showed up, the whop-whop-whop of wings sounding like distant helicopters. Eventually, there were two dozen black shadows of death soaring overhead or looking down from the trees, jostling with noisily flapping wings over the best place to wait for the inevitable feast of salmon head, guts and scraps. I’ve learned the hard way to be sure there are no perching branches directly overhead when I’m cleaning fish. There may be worse things to land on you than a stream of shit from a bird that eats fish guts and roadkill, but offhand, I can’t think of any.
As soon as my boat left the shore, the vultures moved in, arguing over the salmon carcass with loud hisses, then grabbing choice tidbits and flying off to dine in peace. By the next day, nothing would remain but a skeleton. The fish filets, of course, went home to my freezer and the fish eggs, since it was a hen salmon, got cured as bait for catching more of her kin.
Near the end of my fishing marathon, a guide with his clients motored by, intrigued by my unorthodox fishing technique. “It’s not really fly fishing. What do you call that?” he called out, watching my plug swing back, then fly forward.
“It’s not pretty but it can work. It’s quite a thrill when one hits,” I replied. All three men in the other boat smiled and nodded in understanding. I didn’t mention that it could be 34 years between thrills.
We compared notes. They had caught several fish early, then, like me, nothing more. I expressed sympathy for our mutual long, dry spell, but the guide was having no part of negativity: “It was a beautiful day to be here. No place I’d rather be.” Amen to that.