Harassed for years by my wife, I finally divested myself of the majority of my boats. I have to admit they cost a fortune, were impossible to maintain, and we had no room to store them, but as any fisherman will tell you, it’s a lot of fun to take off over the big waters, searching for the monster you know is just beneath your keel! I’ve always loved getting into a boat and pushing off the dock; after all, I spent most of my youth racing crew shells at Cal, gotta love a boat!
But in recent years, most of my angling has been at streamside, from docks and jetties, or in someone else’s craft. So, as you might guess, I was really excited when my buddy Rick invited me to go out with him and his wife, Patty, for a cruise on the Columbia.
We’d be taking off in the evening after they shut down their NAPA dealership (give him a plug!) to try and hook up a few of the salmon who were working their way up the river during the annual spawning run.
But this wasn’t really all about the fish. The year had been amazing—I’d filled out a couple of salmon cards fishing off the beach—, but the camaraderie we’d enjoy, lounging in the deck chairs on the back of their ‘80s-era Marlin, was a special treat.
Naturally, when we got on the boat, it wouldn’t start. I’m pretty sure that Murphy’s Law was first discovered on a boat, later to be refined in cars and aircraft! Rick tinkered around a bit, all those years in auto parts not being wasted, and soon the “old lady” (the boat, not his wife!) was purring right along. We pulled out of the marina and headed down the Skipanon River. In a few minutes we had our trolling gear set up. We were using spinners trolled behind divers, and lowered them a couple of dozen pulls down into the salty lower Columbia.
Right away we started engaging in a troller’s favorite pastime. Our eyes were fixated on the fish finder on the bulkhead next to us. At first, there wasn’t much going on. An occasional fish was sitting on the bottom (maybe a sturgeon?) and a few clouds on the screen looked like they might be baitfish, but not much of any size was hanging in the mid-water area where salmon were most probable. As we worked our way out to the channel, things got a lot more exciting.
At first, we’d just see a fish or two bobbing around about ten feet deep. Then a few more. Finally, we started seeing lots of fish, covering an area from 10 to 30 feet in depth. And the screen wasn’t the only venue getting action. Up above we were seeing flocks of birds circling the waters; gulls, terns, and even a few flocks of brown pelicans were starting to dive. Added to the soup were a couple of sea lions and harbor seals. This was looking promising!
You are never ready when the fish hit, and sure enough, we were fully immersed in screen watching when the first reel started screaming. “Grab the rod,” Rick called out as he moved to disengage the motor. As the guest on board, I got the first action, so I was making the most of it. Hooting and hollering, I set the hook as a bright silver salmon hit the sky!
These were our target fish for the outing. There were some big king salmon in the river, but we’d have to be a dozen miles upstream to legally angle for those, so this was the right kind of fish. I enjoyed a brief fight, boat gear always being a bit heavier than the spinning rods we used from the beach, and the fish offered itself for netting on the side of the boat. ??Sadly, however, this one wouldn’t be joining us. High up its back protruded a big adipose fin, indicating that the fish was probably a native and would have to be released. No problem, fish were showing everywhere on the magic screen and we still had a couple of hours of daylight.
We kept trolling along, and despite the myriad of fish showing all over the place, we only managed about a bite every half hour or so. I brought in a couple of more, but those were both natives as well. It was looking like the barbecue we had planned was going to feature frozen burgers!
Trolling up and down on both the Washington and Oregon sides of the river, we would find areas with lots of fish showing, but couldn’t get them to bite. I remember one time telling a friend that my idea of heaven was being able to look right through the water in a lake or river and see where the fish were swimming. My somewhat wiser buddy suggested that a skill like that could be more like hell than heaven! “Then you’d know they were all over the place and it would drive you crazy not being able to get them to bite!” A fish finder is a machine that can do just that!
The sky was starting to darken, so we headed back across the river toward Warrenton. Patty looked at the screen, and gave us an assessment: “Looks like we are in a dead spot, I don’t see anything…” Her voice trailed off as one of the rods started bouncing wildly.
“Grab it Rick,” I shouted. “It’s your turn.” Since Patty was in the cabin watching the screen, and my luck had been awful, that seemed like a good idea. It took awhile for Rick to wrestle the rod out of the holder, and the way that line was screaming out of the reel, we could tell this was something more substantial than the little silver natives I’d enjoyed playing.
“Do you suppose this is a chinook?” Rick asked. Patty and I suggested that somehow he was making a little fish look like a record breaker, but there was no doubt that this critter had a lot of bulk. It made several deep runs and finally came up to the surface.
The chinook was a big dark male, showing the deep jaw and bronze color that the “tule” fish, those headed up local streams ready to spawn, exhibit. At this stage of its life it wouldn’t be much for eating, and the waters we were fishing weren’t legal for chinook anyway. We’d best try to remove the barbless hook and send him on his way. That was easier said than done!
One problem with the older boats is that it is a long way from the deck down to the water. Try as we might, we just couldn’t get the hook out without netting the fish and bringing him up on the deck.
But even after we got him on board, that hard king salmon mouth didn’t give up the hook. It seemed ludicrous that so many people complain about losing fish using barbless, and we couldn’t manage to pry the hook loose, even using all kinds of pliers and other hook extractors. Finally we just decided to cut the line and put the fish back in the water.
Sadly it looked like it might be too late. The fish went back into the river but floated on its side. It was too far down to the water, so we couldn’t reach over to get it and work it back and forth to get water through its gills to revive it. This was looking awful. Then something really weird happened. When I pulled in my line, the rod had gotten bumped during the fight, and my spinner was now just touching the water. The dying fish drifted by the lure and somehow it got wedged in its mouth! I grabbed my rod and guided the fish back and forth in a figure-eight pattern. Soon it had worked enough oxygen back into its gills to recover and started to fight again!
But now we once again couldn’t get the lure loose! “To heck with it,” I shouted. “I’ll be happy to buy you a new one!” I reached over and cut the line. The monster fish swam off, mouth full of bright green, orange and red hardware.
Obviously this wasn’t a great outcome, but the upriver fish was well beyond its eating days, and would soon be up one of the local streams. Either the spinners would work their way out; they would end up in the streambed after the fish spawned and died, or, most likely, someone at a local hatchery would get a big surprise!
We ended up our day of fishing with nothing to take home for the barbie. It would be a hamburger meal, but then I’d been plenty lucky enough to have a great fishing story about the one that got hooked and got away—twice!
Bob Ellsberg’s column, Fishin’, appears monthly in RV Life and at rvlife.com.