Here in the Pacific Northwest, salmon—especially Chinook salmon—still play an iconic role in how we see ourselves, in what sets us apart and defines our region, much to the detriment of the salmon themselves …”
It’s 10 a.m., Sunday, September 11, 2005. I’m nearing the end of a 97-mile drive from my home in the city of Portland to the mouth of Oregon’s Deschutes River, arguably the finest stretch of trout and steelhead water in the state, and easily one of the best in the world.
Ordinarily you would find me prowling the banks of this river about 30 miles upstream, near the town of Maupin, fly fishing for native redsides, the Deschutes’ main claim to fame — a wary, muscle-bound strain of rainbow trout that has forever ruined me on the idea of catching the anemic-fleshed hatchery brood which are dumped into the lakes and rivers of so many of our tourist getaways. But the Chinook salmon are running in the Columbia, and steelhead are rumored to be poking their noses into the Deschutes, and I’ve been invited by my friend Chris, affectionately known to myself and many others as “The Creature,” to spend three days camped at the mouth to fish for both. Chris — who I’ve known and counted among my best friends since the sixth grade — is no casual fisherman. He fishes for keeps, no nonsense about it, and has done so since his dad started taking him along on salmon fishing trips as a young lad. Oh, and he has a boat.
It’s an invitation I simply cannot resist.
I really have no idea what to expect as I’m cruising along, trying to keep my eyes on the road as I make my way east through the Columbia River Gorge, one of the most spectacular areas on the planet. I could count the times I’ve fished from a boat on one hand — to get out where the Chinook are running that’s the only game in town. I’ve seen the infamous “hoglines” anchored in the Willamette River many times — literally a straight line of boats anchored side by side within inches of each other forming a curtain of plugs, spinners, cannonballs, spoons, wobblers, egg clumps, plugged herring, and God knows what else right in the path of migrating salmon. Hoglines are deservedly infamous not only for their success at harvesting salmon but also for the zoo-like atmosphere they generate when that many testosterone-crazed alpha males with murder in their eyes are after huge Chinooks. I’ll just skip that experience, thank you very much, and take my chances with the earth-bound snaggers and assorted chuckleheads you see on the banks. I’m also mulling over the reaction I got from my fishing buddy John when I told him about where I was heading — he whistled under his breath, broke into full cackle and wished me luck. “Well buddy, now you’re gonna see just how fucked-up the lower Deschutes can really be.”
Rounding a bend, wondering when I’ll ever get there, I suddenly see it in the distance: a sprawling mass of boats bobbing about in the river just out from a low highway bridge. I can see the sun glinting from what look to be hundreds of windshields in midstream; it’s simply amazing. This is no hogline. This is Lord Admiral Freaking Nelson facing the Spanish Armada. Or in this case, the Fall Chinook Meathead Armada.
Holy crap. What am I getting into here?
It could safely be said that it’s no picnic to be an icon of this great land of ours. The American Bison that used to thunder across the Great Plains? Slaughtered by the millions, reduced from some 60 million in the 1800s to a pathetic herd of 300 or so by the turn of the century. Cowboys? Overworked, underpaid temps for the great land and cattle barons of the American West. The tall timber of the Pacific Northwest? Felled and sawed into planks mostly, with maybe a few left standing as living museum pieces; the rugged, Paul-Bunyanesque loggers you picture in your mind when thinking of Oregon forests have pretty much gone the way of the buffalo too, the rusting tools of their trade nailed to walls of roadside bars and theme restaurants. And the American Indians, no matter where their culture happened to get in the way of Manifest Destiny — well, that’s a story of greed, arrogance, racism, and cold-blooded murder that simply defies description.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, salmon — especially Chinook salmon — still play an iconic role in how we see ourselves, in what sets us apart and defines our region, much to the detriment of the salmon themselves. I can’t hold myself blameless in the decline of Pacific salmon, at least indirectly. The succession of dams that reduce the Columbia River to a series of backwaters best suited as skating rinks for windsurfers provide the cheap power I use to run my DVD player or recharge my wife’s iPod and cell phone. And I’ve never been one to turn down the opportunity to devour a chunk of freshly caught salmon. But I try to tread as softly as I can on an already shaky salmon population. Perhaps my most dedicated efforts to that end have been the years 1960 to 2004, which I spent expertly not catching a single salmon in the lower 48.
It’s not that I didn’t want to — my earliest memories of salmon are of the huge Chinook hogs our neighbor, Mr. Swint, used to plop in his driveway from the back of his truck after fishing the tidewater at the mouth of the Columbia. The fish were instantly surrounded by bug-eyed neighborhood kids, me among them, clamoring about and ogling the bright, magnificent fish. They were huge, even taking into account the fact that I was about two feet shorter then than I am now. Mr. Swint was a patient man, but he drew the line at taking pesky neighbor kids out on his boat with him. My turn at these monstrous salmon would have to wait for adulthood.
Since then I’ve been happily prowling the banks of lakes, rivers, and streams around the state in pursuit of trout, bass, panfish, catfish, carp, and my favorite of all, steelhead. I’ve even augmented my local fishing forays with two trips to Alaska for sockeye salmon and halibut. I was perfectly happy to leave the big game to meatheads who had the time, money, gear, and intestinal fortitude to face the mobs that descended on the Columbia and its tributaries each spring and fall. But last year I decided I had to find out for myself what salmon fishing was all about.
And let me tell you, it’s been an education.
There’s just something about a salmon run that sends otherwise fairly normal people into a frenzy of blood lust and greed. The sense of entitlement people feel toward salmon — “Those are MY fish, goddammit, and no sonofabitch had better come between me and MY fish” — is astounding. The same guy you hear crowing about the big “Idaho salmon” he just caught (truly gargantuan highly-buffed fish with all the fat and mass they need to reach their spawning grounds some 500 miles from the ocean) will endlessly bitch about sea lions, Japanese or Korean fishing fleets, or, worse yet, Indian gillnetters who dare to intercept “his” fish before he has a crack at them.
But when greed turns to lawlessness you really get a look at the seedy side of salmon fishing and there’s nothing quite as seedy as snaggers. These slack-jawed misanthropes seem to pop out of the bushes fully formed at every unguarded stretch of salmon water in the state. Watching them plunder the runs is a sickening sight. They’re pretty easy to spot. The guy tossing a weighted, horseshoe-sized marlin hook with maybe a tiny wisp of colored yarn into pools of holding salmon — he’s a snagger. If you see him pull a thrashing fish up on the bank by its dorsal fin and toss it onto a pile of its colleagues in the bushes — he’s definitely a snagger. I’ve also noticed that any happy, chatty fellow walking back to his car with two fish and an ear-to-ear grin is a legit fisherman, while a sullen, scowling, tight-lipped kid staggering under the weight of a fully loaded black Hefty garbage bag is a snagger. It’s generally not a good idea to challenge one of these knuckle-draggers, considering the images seared into our national consciousness by “Deliverance” and all, but I’ll gladly rat those pricks out if ever I get the chance, Code of the Playground be damned.
Back to my recent foray among the meat gatherers. I was prepared for the worst when The Creature finally got me into his boat and we set out for the Columbia, fully expecting an experience akin to a World War I dogfight. For the most part, though, everyone seemed to be making a concerted effort not to ram each other. Or run over other peoples’ lines or tangle their terminal gear with any of the other several hundred Flatfish, Fatfish, Kwikfish, Wiggle Warts, Hot Shots, Buzz Bombs, Pink Ladies, Porkenheimers, salmon bungees, and what-have-you being raked like trawling nets across the silver backs of thousands of big, horny Chinook Salmon. Back-and-forth trolling was the method of choice for just about everybody, pulling a favorite bait or lure along in a wide ellipse along with everybody else, keeping a keen eye out for bent rods and thrashing fish anywhere around you. I soon realized that each boat out there was watching the other boat; if one was landing a fish you’d swing past a little closer than normal in hopes of seeing what lure was embedded in the unfortunate salmon’s jaw.
Since I was on what amounted to a guided trip — and the Creature wasn’t about to let me so much as touch the controls of his boat — it was hard for me to relax once I realized there were hundreds of sets of eyes peering at me at any given time. It didn’t help when he pointed up to the commanding bluffs overlooking the mouth of the river. “See that flat spot up there? If you see a flash of light go ahead and wave; that means there’s a state game cop checking you out with his binoculars.” Now I don’t mind being checked for my license and tags at streamside, but the idea that they need to post lookouts at a spot like the mouth of the Deschutes is downright depressing. Maybe once the state economy climbs out of the crapper they can just go ahead and put in guard towers.
Once we knocked off for the day what I dislike most about this type of fishing environment became all too clear. One smallish boat ramp serves the entire area so that’s where everyone congregates at the end of the day. You just motor up and beach your boat on the sandy bank, then wait your turn to put it back up on its trailer. Which is a prime opportunity for the assorted fishermen and guides to engage in some serious rump-sniffing, checking out each others’ boats and equipment (let me tell you, some of those boats are equipped like an aquatic version of the “Memphis Belle”) and of course, tallying up the final body count with regards to fish. I saw plenty of fish caught (none by the Creature or I, sadly, but one nice 16-pounder was dispatched by Mrs. Creature). But for some reason the mood at the end of the day was always bitterly dark. An innocuous greeting, Such as “How’d you do?” would be met with, “Slow!” “Terrible!” “It was the pits!”
I was beginning to think that any day these “fishermen” didn’t have to unload dead fish from their boats with a pitchfork was looked upon as an unmitigated disaster. There was a full-on Chinook salmon run going on, right there under our noses, and for some reason the fish weren’t cooperating.
And that was really pissing a lot of guys off.
Waiting with the boat, I decided to chat up a morose-looking gentleman sitting in his guide boat. Arms crossed. Staring off into space.
“So, how’d you do?” I asked.
“Horrible!” he snapped. “Just horrible! I can’t believe this. Thousands of fish in the river and no bite. It’s the Army Corps, is what it is, those assholes are only releasing the warm water from the dams and it puts the fish off.
I was stunned and didn’t have a quick answer, so he continued: “I’ll bet I could do just fine if they let me use gill nets like those goddam Indians!” His mood was getting darker than the deep shade of red on his face. “Something’s gotta change. I know guys last year who’d been guiding for 20 years, it was so bad they sold their gear and gave it up for good. That’s the truth.”
I broke the silence by saying something, anything, just simple words to break the wall of indignation. “Well, at least we’re out here in a beautiful place. And we’re doing our best, right? You can’t expect more than that.”
From the look he gave me I’d might as well have complimented him on his daughter’s magnificent body. I decided it best to back away. Slowly.
Even though I actually had a great time, it was the swirling undercurrent of resentment, and meat lust that really left a bad taste in my mouth. The day after I returned home, I called John and asked if he’d like to join me for a couple hours of simple bank fishing after work. Supposedly the cohos (silver salmon) were starting to run in waters much closer to home. I wanted to fill him in on my “experience.” So we met up and I told him my fish story on the way to the river. He took it all in with his patented head-shake-and-grimace combo. “I’m sorry. But, damn, I told you…” he trailed off. “Man, I love that river but I can’t even fish the lower eight any more. Haven’t been for years. It’s just too depressing.”
Pulling into the parking lot, we saw it was empty, a welcome but not necessarily good sign. The whole stretch of riverbank was ours and ours alone. Within five minutes of wetting our lines I heard John say, “Umm…hey…ummm…I seem to have a fish on? Fish? On.”
“Probably my giant squawfish,” I replied. “Yup, I caught a big one right where you’re standing last year. Definitely a squawfish.”
John has learned the hard way over the years that my words of wisdom tend to fall short of the mark — “Don’t worry, that’s not poison oak”; “I wouldn’t worry about seeing any rattlesnakes around here”; or “Everybody knows grizzly bears hate the smell of bacon grease.”
“Ummm, not sure about that.” John’s eyes were locked on his line, which was moving with increasing speed through a pulsating graphite steelhead stick upriver towards where I stood. “No I don’t believe…shit…what the?…this is no squawfish.
“THIS. IS. NOT. A. LITTLE. FISH.” he yelled as the fish took off, his reel singing praise to the mysterious benevolence of the river gods.
Things got sort of serious after that, as they do when reality bites, and oddly enough, after about a five or ten minute tussle the surprised fisherman pulled a beautiful fin-clipped Chinook salmon into the shallow water; probably about 12 or 14 pounds, strikingly colored, a mouth so shiny-black it looked like fluorescent purple to me. We were dumbstruck. We were in awe. I reached down and tailed the struggling life, holding him steady in the water while John pulled the spoon’s barbless hook out of its jaw with a cheap pair of hemostats. I worked the fish back and forth to revive him, watching the gills flex in then out. Before long he splashed us both on his escape. I watched him go. My friend grinned and shrugged, “I’ll bet he would have been delicious.”
We looked at each other and started laughing like hyenas.
I knew there was no way he was going to kill that fish.
Not too big. Not too small.
(This simple act would have caused a riot back among the meatheads.)
But here on the bank, it was all good.
It was just right.
(toons: marc covert)