Despite a record low rainfall for the year, the last couple of weeks had been plenty wet. We had been hit by a ton of hail and a lot of the sideways rain that is famous in the Northwest and always manages to sneak through my teak window frames. But today had promise; it looked pretty calm as we loaded up my gear and headed off to the marina.
Astoria has two major marinas in town. The West End, where I rent my berth, is close to the bridge and an easy access to the bar and the lower stretches of the Columbia River. The East End marina, mostly used by
commercial boats, is much closer to the islands we like to fish during the spring salmon season. The folks at the office had given me the OK to berth there for a couple of days while I was chasing spring fish. I
found a good float near the sheriff's dock and tied up.
We drove right out on the marina pier and parked next to the walkway to my finger pier, gathered our tackle, and headed down the ramp. As we hit the dock below, we saw that my boat was being guarded. No less than a dozen huge male sea lions were sprawled all over the dock, completely blocking our access! As we gingerly approached the sleeping monsters, they started to roar in protest. Since they can go better than 600 pounds, we wouldn't be muscling them out of their beds. As we got closer, we managed to bluff them down the dock a little where they bellowed in protest as we loaded up the boat and slowly putted upriver.
With the Marine Mammal Protection Act coming up for renewal, these big monsters will certainly be up for discussion. Since it is illegal to shoot, harass or generally bother these critters, they have started taking over floats and marinas all over the West Coast. While they get most of their bad press from their time in fish ladders eating up dwindling salmon stocks, the time they spend on man-made docks, sometimes even crawling into low-gunneled boats, is much more of an economic problem. Dock space can sell for hundreds of dollars a foot in the more exclusive marinas, so a few hundred belligerent freeloaders can do a lot of damage.
But we were there to fish, not politic, so we headed out to the sandy island we had picked to try and catch a salmon or two. As we approached, we could see a line of small boats, anchored fifty yards off shore, letting their lures work in the ebbing tide.
We tied up at the downstream edge of the small flotilla, rigged up a Kwickfish lure on a three-foot leader, and attached a short dropper with a four-once sinker to hold the outfit near the bottom. The bright lure has a violent action that translates well to the rod tip, so our Loomis rods bounced happily in the tide.
This is usually a pretty slow fishery. The upriver fish are wonderfully rich and tasty, but you can fish for days and not get a nibble. Somebody should have told that to the guy right above us fishing alone in a tiny
skiff! We weren't there a half hour and he hooked up his first fish. It was a chore for him to wrestle the thrashing trophy into his net. Doing both fishing and netting is tricky, and even though his fish was pretty
small (about 10 pounds), it was nip and tuck for a while.
Jim and I were muttering about the lonely angler’s good luck when we heard a yell and looked up to see him horsing in number two! He soon boated the bright fish, hauled in his anchor, and was headed home! So much for the tough fishery.
The next few hours were pretty slow. We saw a net or two come out above us, but the fish must have made an escape before they got to the boat. Then we heard a lot of yelling and looked out over our bow. Four anglers were shouting and screaming toward their starboard. It took a couple of seconds for us to focus our binoculars, but soon the situation became evident. One of those big sea lions had beaten the fish to the net! He had a fat salmon, complete with bright pick lure, firmly in his jaws and was shaking it in the air as the fishermen screamed and cursed at him. A flock of gulls was spinning around the big black shape, grabbing scraps of torn fish off the water.
Jim lowered his glasses and smiled. “I guess we can avoid that problem if we don't hook a fish,” he deadpanned. We didn't have to worry about anything for another hour. Finally, just as the tide was slowing, Jim got a great hit. His rod slammed down twice as a big fish grabbed the lure. It only took me a second to free our net from its holder, just enough time for Jim's rod to go slack. “What's up with that?” Jim
moaned, to no one in particular. That hurts, all those hours and the darned fish somehow manages to dodge a half-dozen razor-sharp hooks.
We had pretty much given up hope. As the tide slowed, we had barely enough current to make the lures move. My rod tip took a little bounce, not like the slam that Jim got, but something was playing. I grabbed it out of the holder just as something took another little nibble, a jerk that was more like a sturgeon mouthing than a salmon whacking a lure. I set the hook and felt a little motion, but nothing exciting. “Maybe a little trout or smolt hit it,” I explained to Jim. Wrong. The line flew out and a bright salmon hit the air! “I guess it woke up,” joked my fishing buddy. He grabbed the net and within a few minutes we had a bright 15-pound hatchery Chinook in the net. Somehow the sea lions must have been sleeping.
That night we had a great salmon dinner, a few springer steaks with a green salad. It had taken us four trips, but we could see what the sea lions were so excited about!
Bob Ellsberg’s column, Fishin’, appears monthly in RV Life and rvlife.com.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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