Sporting Life

Sporting Life


  • By: John Gierach
  • Photography by: John Gierach

Literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

illustration by bob white /

by John Gierach

sporting life

The first Chinook salmon I caught here was a 25-pound buck. He made several long runs and spent quite a while bulldogging before I got him in the shallows where I could slip out of the boat onto firm bottom to land him. A moment comes while playing a big fish when things begin to turn in your favor, but even then there’s only one way it can go right and dozens of ways it can go wrong, all of which will be your fault. So when he was finally in the net, I felt more relief than triumph.
After a number of years at sea in what Russell Chatham called “a dining room bound only by the continents,” this fish was the picture of well-fed strength and health, but although he may only have left the ocean a day or two before, he already had a faint flush of pink along his flanks and a pale bronze cast on the back reminiscent of a brown trout. That meant his metabolism had changed to the point that he would no longer feed and after I released him he’d live first off his fat and then his muscle as he continued upstream to spawn and die.
Anyone who’s caught and released one of these magnificent Pacific salmon should probably go up into the headwaters later to see how this ends. There will be your fish—or one just like it—now darkened to the color of a waterlogged stump, spawned out, gasping and exhausted, finning weakly in the current as he quietly falls apart. You wonder if he had any inkling of this when he swam out of the ocean shiny as a chrome bumper and horny as a billy goat. No telling. I’ve looked into the eyes of caught salmon before and what I’ve seen is not something I recognized as comprehension.
The estuary Rob Russell and I were fishing ran smack through one of those small coastal towns that have shaped their outlines and character around the mouths of rivers. In places the bank above the high-water mark was lined with cottages, and although some were newer than others, they all shared the graying driftwood look of houses near an ocean. A few were built so low to the water it seemed like a high runoff or a good tidal surge would swamp them. In an unexpected adult moment, I caught myself wondering about the availability of flood insurance. I lived on the water for 21 years and know that to have a river for a neighbor is to have a streak of wildness in your backyard. It’s beautiful and familiar, but also as unpredictably dangerous as a half-tame mountain lion.
It’s tempting to say that everyone who lived there not only fished, but also went about it with some expectation of success. I’m sure that’s not strictly true (all towns have their misfits) but on any given day it seemed as though every able-bodied adult was out in a boat or lined up casting from the bank at the Bridge Pool. Most were fishing bait and many wore rubber gloves to protect their hands from the caustic brine that commercial salmon eggs come packaged in. In one backyard a middle-age couple was casting from the lawn while a barbecue grill smoldered on the porch and the family cat lounged nearby waiting for a fresh salmon. Even in town, everyone was dressed in rubber boots and rain slickers for the drizzly October weather and could have passed as a fisherman.
The Chinook run was on and the estuary was bustling with fishing boats. It looked like something that might have been dreamed up by the Chamber of Commerce. The only thing missing was a banner across Main Street reading, “Good Ol’ Salmon Daze!” But as festive as it looked from a distance, the atmosphere on the water was sometimes tense as boats angled for position at the known honey holes. The boundaries of personal space were in question and the occasional cold shoulders, territorial stares and unreturned greetings were hard to miss. But there was also the tacit acknowledgement that if you were too polite or timid, you’d never get a spot to fish.
Fly fishermen don’t always fit seamlessly into this scene. Bait is the gold standard here and some may still remember when it was assumed that you couldn’t catch Chinooks on a fly—the same thing they once said about permit. That’s been proved wrong, but the idea that a fly rod isn’t appropriate tackle for Chinooks hasn’t entirely died out.
For one thing, fly fishers are still referred to by some as “snaggers,” and in fact foul-hooking can be a problem if you fish a sinking line through pods of salmon with the traditional down-and-across swing. So, many have taken to anchoring fore and aft at right angles to the current, casting steeply downstream and fishing a narrow swing and retrieve. But then that upsets the natural order of boats anchored parallel to the current and can leave the impression that you’re covering more water than you deserve.
Fly fishers are also said to let their fish run too far. That would normally be your own business, but etiquette at least suggests that when a hooked fish runs in your direction you should raise your anchor to avoid fouling the line. When a salmon is attached to a fly rod, some still weigh anchor and move as a matter of course, others do it grudgingly—complete with theatrical eye-rolling—and still others pointedly stay put on the theory that if you’d just fish the way you’re supposed to, you could winch that sucker in. These are the people who think those of us who fish for Chinooks with a fly rod are out to prove something—which of course we are.
Rob negotiates all this deftly. For one thing, his credentials as a local fisherman are established. He’s fished here for years and he guided bait and fly fishermen for a decade, so he’s known to some of these guys personally and to others by reputation. For another, he shoulders his way in with the aggressive neighborliness of a door-to-door salesman, cheerfully refusing to take no for an answer.
This kind of fishingrevolves around the tides. There are no sure things, but as a rule of thumb, dark salmon bite best on a falling and low tide while bright fish bite on the rising tide they came in from the sea on—when they bite at all. Fish roll off and on throughout the day, but there’s often more activity on a high tide as fresh salmon jostle around in the holding water with the fish that are already there. Maybe they bite as a way of establishing territory, or out of habit, or nervousness, or curiosity. Some takes seem to be no more than quizzical nudges and can turn out to be either a 20-pound salmon or a four-inch sculpin, or “pogie.” Other hits seem downright murderous.
Everyone has a working theory about when, why and how salmon bite—factoring in things like river flow, wind direction, rainfall, cloud cover, barometric pressure and such—while at the same time allowing that migratory fish often respond to signals that mere humans can’t detect or understand. In the end, these estimations are largely psychological devices designed to give shape to your enthusiasm even as real life does its best to intrude. Rob said he once e-mailed a friend telling him when to be there to catch the tide. The friend e-mailed back, “I’ll meet you at the boat ramp as soon as I get through with marriage counseling.”
But theories or not, the tactics are invariably the same: locate a spot where salmon congregate and keep a hook in the water. Even if you were unfamiliar with the estuary, the most dependable holding water would be easy to find. It’s where all the boats are anchored.
This business of tides takes some getting used to. On a low tide the current runs downstream to the sea, and it’s fresh water. As the tide turns, the current slows, stalls and then begins to flow in the opposite direction. If you were to taste the water then, it would be brackish or salty; as you stare distractedly at your rod tip held close to the water, a jellyfish might swim by. The word “estuary” is defined either as a place where a river meets the sea or where the sea meets a river, but the exact point where that happens changes from minute to minute. This is disorienting to those of us from the Colorado Rockies where, whatever else happens, water always flows downhill.
And there are the seals. They sometimes come far upriver following the salmon, revealing themselves with wakes reminiscent of nuclear submarines or when they pop their heads above the surface to take a breath and look around. Some say they put off the fishing and others say they just reveal the presence of salmon. I don’t have a firm opinion, but several times I saw seals blast through a pod of salmon, only to have the fish start rolling again 10 minutes later. The first time I saw a seal in a salmon river was just upstream from Chiginagak Bay, on the Alaska Peninsula. I mistook the bobbing black head for a Labrador retriever and asked the guy next to me, “Whose dog is that?”
Salmon fishing would bore the pants off a normal American with an attention span conditioned by television. Of course there’s the initial strategy of deciding on your spot and the little drama of getting it. Maybe you settle on known prime water and show up an hour early for the tide to beat the rush. That can work, but it’s not an original idea and there might well be five boats ahead of you that showed up even earlier. So maybe you crowd in around the edges or, if you’re with someone like Rob who knows the estuary better than most, you try an obscure tub that’s small, won’t hold a lot of salmon and is only productive under certain conditions of time, tide and weather, but that you’ll have to yourself.
Then you choose a sink-tip to fit the depth and current speed, and decide on a fly. If you’ve recently caught a fish or had a take on something, you stick with it. Otherwise, you open the yellow plastic boat box and gaze at the rows of mostly medium-size, predominantly orange or pink long-tail Comet variations. If a non-angler were to ask how you make your decision, you wouldn’t know what to say, but intuition shouldn’t be discounted. I’ve seen lots of sea-run fish caught on flies a fisherman held up and said, “Damn it, I just like the looks of this.”
Finally you cast either straight downstream or at a narrow angle to the current and don’t do much else. Now and then you’ll break things up with a fast or slow halting retrieve, but the majority of takes come on the hang-down as the fly waves seductively in the current. One day Rob introduced me to a man who never retrieves his fly unless he’s reeling in to move and who, Rob said, accounts for more fly-caught salmon than anyone else on the river. We’d see him now and then, sitting alone in the stern of his anchored rowboat as disheveled and motionless as a pile of laundry, presumably thinking private thoughts. I admired his doggedness and his record of success, but to those who don’t get it, this is the sporting equivalent of watching paint dry.
Two men in a 16-foot drift boat are also capable of pensive silences, but eventually some conversation is inevitable. At first the old hand checks out the newcomer on the fishing and this can go on in diminishing fits and starts for days. Sooner or later though, the talk drifts into other areas. You avoid the landmines of politics and religion unless you already know you’re in complete agreement. And if you know you’re in complete agreement, there’s nothing much left to say. Women sometimes come up, but honesty among men on this subject is so rare that you usually just end up airing out clichés. Many of the fishermen I know have failed marriages in their pasts and some blame the breakups on fishing. In fact, that may have been the precipitating event, but the real troubles usually ran deeper than they care to go into.
So you talk about work, friends, pets, boats, fishing tackle, trips to other rivers and local lore. For instance, Rob told me about a one-legged man in a wheelchair who drives up here from a nearby city in his old car and spends weeks at a time fishing from the bank. Because he doesn’t have much money, he’s said to back his wheelchair into the bank-side brush and sleep under a tarp. Every time I start thinking I might qualify as hard core, I hear something like this and go back to feeling like a pampered tourist.
I also learned that some of the people we saw coming and going in larger boats than ours were actually part-time commercial fishermen who sold to local restaurants that advertised “dory-caught” fish. Their schedules were determined by tide, weather and their own hard-won knowledge of the fishery. On the way back from a day at sea they might stop and pull their crab pots and then dig some clams at low tide. You wouldn’t get rich at this and you’d have to supplement your income with odd jobs, but for at least part of the year you could live by your wits on the water following an old tradition and walk around town looking salty and aloof.
I daydreamed about that during the next lull in the conversation. At one time or another, I’ve fantasized about moving to most of the places I’ve fished to make a new life, although so far I’ve only ever done it once.
Oh yeah, and every once in a while one of us would hook a salmon. Rob tied the flies for this trip. That is, he brought full boxes from home and also tied every evening in our rented cabin. An extension cord would be stretched out from the bathroom socket to recharge the batteries for the trolling motor, our rain slickers would dry in front of an electric heater and Rob would be tying. He never seemed to hurry, but somehow trim, graceful salmon flies on japanned black hooks accumulated at an alarming rate. Like some other fishing guides I’ve known, Rob is a self-contained bundle of energy. When I’d turn in at what I thought was a reasonable hour, he’d still be up tying. When I’d get up before dawn, he’d be rustling up breakfast or loading gear. I assume he slept, but I can’t prove it.
As time went on I decided to keep a fish. I hadn’t thought about this beforehand, but we’d been nibbling on some salmon Rob had smoked and it was real good. The second time I said how delicious it was, he told me his minimalist recipe, offered to smoke one for me and just like that I was hunting a salmon to kill. It would have to be the brightest possible fish. A day or two earlier we’d talked to a guy who said he’d killed a “slightly colored up fish” and it was “not too bad.” But when you get into the area of gourmet subsistence, “not too bad” falls short of what you have in mind.
I hooked the fish I wanted on the afternoon of our last day. We went to the Brush Pile for high tide and found surprisingly few boats. I wondered if people knew something we didn’t. It was chilly and raining steadily, but this hadn’t struck me as a crowd that would be scared off by a little sprinkle.
Anyway, we anchored in the sweet spot and after a while I hooked a salmon. They all seem big at first, but after 10 minutes this one still seemed big. He made a long downstream run, wallowed, and then swam back toward the boat with me furiously taking up slack line. Then he tried to bore into the sunken brush that gives this run its name and I muscled him out. When we got him close enough for a look we could see he was a bright fish of about 30 pounds. He wouldn’t let himself be led into the shallows, but kept ducking under the boat while Rob spun it one way and then the other with the oars trying to get him into the open. We were laughing from nervousness and because even we could see that this was pretty comical.
When we finally netted him a few people nearby in boats and on the bank hooted and clapped and then turned to speak to each other in quieter tones, saying something like, “Did you see those two clowns tryin’ to land that fish?” Then we rowed to shore and killed him. He must have just come in with the tide because he still had the sea lice on him that would have fallen off after just a few hours in fresh water.
I never had second thoughts, but my happiness was leavened by the sting of regret you have to feel when you kill your own food instead of leaving the chore to someone else. But then that quickly evolved into something less stark and more complicated—something like what Jim Harrison was getting at when he said, “Everything edible is technically dead”—and by the time Rob snapped a hero shot I was grinning like I’d won the lottery. To some here that would all sound a little too touchy-feely, but observing the abrupt transition from beautiful live animal to piece of meat is nothing more than a way of paying attention.
I’d caught that salmon on a fly I’d watched Rob tie the night before. It was a pretty thing, with a long tail of sparse orange bucktail barred with a black marker, a black chenille body with an oval gold rib, soft orange hen hackle and jungle-cock sides. Why that one and none of the others I couldn’t say. It just struck me as elaborately formal, like an officer’s dress uniform. Before I tied it on I held it up and said to Rob, “Damn it, I just like the looks of this.”
John Gierach has written FR&R’s Spor-ting Life column since 1992. His latest book is No Shortage of Good Days.