Catching a salmon has long been on of my life goals. Just once, I figured, I should experience the most ancient, symbolic, and might I say delicious, traditions of the Pacific Northwest.
Finally, on my 48th birthday, I was able to scratch one life-goal off my list. It took this long because I have always been strictly a trout fisherman. I learned to fish in the Rockies and never learned how to catch the trout's bigger ananadromous cousins. I had desire, but I didn't have the gear or the knowledge.
So this year, I resolved to accomplish this goal in the most direct and efficient way. I chartered a fishing trip into the San Juan Islands out of Bellingham, Washington, because I wanted the true saltwater fishing experience. Also, I wanted to share this experience with my son, Mike, who is attending college in Bellingham.
So that's how Mike and I found ourselves blearily walking down the marine ramp ay 6:00 a.m. on August 17, headed for the MV Kathleen, with Captain Darrell Stacey of Eagle Point Charters. Only one other customer was joining us this morning - Mel, a visitor from California.
Stacey was washing down the already immaculate deck. He told us that three kind of salmon are running in the San Juans this time of year: pinks (humpies), cohos (silvers) and chinook (kings). We stowed our gear and motored slowly out into Bellingham Bay, at which point Stacey opened the throttle on his big Yamaha outboard. I nearly fell out of my chair. We went screaming past Lummi Island, Blakeley Island, Lopez Island, and Orcas Island, while Stacey scanned the water for floating logs, deadheads and natural hazards.
As quick as the Kathleen was, it still took us 90 minutes to reach our fishing waters - the west side of San Juan Island, just 15 miles from Victoria, British Columbia. Finally, Stacey shut down the big Yamaha, rigged up three rods with what he called "hoochies" - green rubbery imitations. Above the hoochies were a flat plastic flasher lined with silver reflectors the size of bumper stickers. Then he attached a downrigger to each line and dropped the lures down between 65 feet and 95 feet.
He started the trolling motor and assigned each of us a rod, which he put in the rod holders. Our job - to watch for the telltale jerk of the rod tip. We hadn't been trolling 10 minutes before Mel pointed to his rod with a shout. Stacey exploded into action, pulling the rod from the holder, giving it a full-body heave backward. As a trout fisherman, I had set plenty of hooks before, but this was industry-strength hook-setting.
He handed the rod to Mel, who attempted to follow the instructions that Stacey had given us: Pull up on the rod tip smoothly and powerfully, and then reel in quickly while lowering the rod tip back down. Repeat numerous times until you've hauled the fish to the surface and up to the boat.
Mel did as he was told, but lost the fish. Before long the same thing happened to Mike and me. The trick is to let no slack onto the line at all, because the hooks are not barbed and the fish will throw the hook if given half a chance. "Those were learning experiences," said Stacey.
Before long, those rod tips were bobbing again. This time, Mike's rod got the first hit. He hauled hard on his rod, and after a few minutes a thrashing gleam of silver was splashing on the surface. Stacey got the net out and gave Mike instructions on how to maneuver the fish up to the side of the boat. With a practiced sweep of the net, he pulled the fish out of the water and flopped it on the deck.
"That's a nice pink," he said. "That's a keeper." Mike had just caught the first salmon of his life. It was an average-sized pink, also known as a humpie, about two feet long and maybe five pounds, not massive by the standards of a king salmon, but the biggest fish that my trout-fishing son had caught. "Let's do it again" he said, pumped.
Mel soon caught another nice pink salmon After fishing for an hour or two, I was the only one without a salmon, and I figured it was just my luck to get skunked. Then my rod tip twitched hard. I assiduosly performed my pull-hard, reel-hard routine, and after what seemed like an extra-long fight, Stacey swept a big silver salmon into the net, quite a bit larger than the pinks, and plopped it onto the deck. "That's a beauty", he said, but then his brow furrowed. "Uh-oh. See that fin? It's not clipped. That's a native silver. We'll have to throw this one back. I am sorry about that."
I was not paying attention to his apologies, because I was busy slapping my palms with my son. As a trout fisherman accustomed to catch-and-release, keeping every fish is not priority. I had accomplished my life-long goal, and that was good enough for me.
As it turned out, that silver was the biggest fish of the day. But throwing it back was no hardship, because the fishing was hot and we didn't want to reach our limits (two apiece) too early. We were hoping to hook into a mature Chinook, which can get five or six times bigger than a pink. Suddenly, Mel's rod gave a hard jerk. Stacey assessed the situation for a second or two. "I think we have a Chinook," he said. He ordered Mike and I to reel in, but when the running fish got tangled in my line, Stacey took his knife and slashed my line rather than risk losing the Chinook
After a long fight, a curling, thrashing mass of gray appeared on the surface. Stacey looked at it with dismay. "It's a shark," he said. "I cut a line for that?" By late morning, we all had our limits, including Stacey's limit which he also donated to us.
We motored back to Bellingham, totally satisfied, with eight salmon in the tub, both pinks and silvers. Between Mike and I , we brought home five salmon. That evening, Mike invited 10 of his friends over and we filleted two of the fish for a salmon barbecue, I've never tasted salmon quite so fresh and clean tasting.
As I was cooking, I thought I had just spent an exhilarating day with my son, fulfilling a lifelong goal. As the ads might say:"PRICELESS."