THE TO­TAL OUT­DOORS­MAN

What should’ve been a dream trip turned into a bru­tal re­minder of just how tough fish­ing can be

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By T. Ed­ward Nick­ens

A trip that be­gan with high hopes turned into a re­minder of just how bru­tally tough fish­ing can be. By T. Ed­ward Nick­ens

ISTILL BE­LIEVED, even af­ter our guide called it a day. White­caps were stitch­ing the broad plain of the Columbia River, from shore to shore deep in the gorge, all the way to the mouth of the Deschutes. I knew the run back to the boat ramp would be a back crusher. I knew we hadn’t had a strike in four hours, de­spite five an­glers in the boat and leg­endary guide Herb Good at the helm. And I knew all too well that our crew had caught just three fish in four full days of fish­ing. Still, I be­lieved my fish was com­ing, de­spite Good’s con­ces­sion.

“Crank them up, boys,” he said. “We’re head­ing in.” Through 30 hours of re­lent­less fish­ing, through the slop and chop, the long faces at the fish camp, the guides’ gri­maces, and all of the worn-out “that’s why they call it fish­ing” max­ims, I never stopped be­liev­ing. I knew the bite could turn around in a sin­gle cast—that at least a few of the mil­lion-plus Columbia River chi­nook salmon would take an in­ter­est in my glob of eggs.

So I jerked as if star­tled by a gun­shot when Good con­ceded the day. I’d fo­cused ev­ery synapse to­ward my rod’s top guide as I watched—minute by minute, hour by hour—for that sub­tle tick that would sig­nal a bite. It could hap­pen. It would hap­pen. I still be­lieved.

FAC­ING RE­AL­ITY

This one was sup­posed to be a gimme— a fish­ing trip to the promised land of easy lim­its—and I had been dream­ing of it for months. The Columbia River’s salmon run is a mil­lion strong, and the sto­ries I’d heard of fish­ing in the gorge were ex­tra­or­di­nary: four rods go­ing off at once and ev­ery fish­er­man on­board fill­ing his three-salmon limit in just an hour. As if my ex­pec­ta­tions weren’t al­ready high, I’d even landed a day on the wa­ter with Good, a well-known guide whose ap­proach to fish­ing with salmon eggs is leg­endary in the Pa­cific North­west. Bot­tom line: This trip was a slam dunk. At home, I cleaned out the freezer and packed my gear in cool­ers, not duf­fel bags. If I needed more space, I could ship my clothes home.

The first 15 min­utes of the trip lived up to ev­ery ex­pec­ta­tion. I had steeled my­self for hover fish­ing’s re­quire­ment of mon­k­like con­cen­tra­tion: Fish­ing in 25 to 50 feet of wa­ter, you lower an egg rig slowly un­til you feel the bot­tom, then crank the reel han­dle twice to lift the bait off the bot­tom. From there, it’s just a mat­ter of hold­ing the rod ab­so­lutely still, cra­dled in your hands with the rod tip 6 inches from the wa­ter, and watch­ing for the sub­tle sig­nal of a salmon mooching an egg sev­eral fath­oms away. On our sec­ond

drift, my rod dou­bled over. For­get the nu­anced take of a hover-hooked salmon—the rod tip plunged un­der the boat. When I set the hook, the fish felt solid, like a liv­ing thing carved from the basalt cliffs that crowded the Columbia River.

Every­one on the boat broke into cheers the first time the fish jumped. It would go 25 pounds, or bet­ter. A salmon that big could make the trip— but one like this right out of the gate? We could hardly imag­ine the days that would fol­low.

When the chi­nook jumped a sec­ond time, it cleared the river by 21⁄2 feet, turned on its side, and shook like a wet dog. The line snapped, send­ing the sinker hurtling to­ward the boat. It hit the wa­ter with a sad lit­tle sound I can hear to this day: Plooop.

Other than a sin­gle ham­mer-han­dle jack chi­nook, that was it for me. Hon­estly. For the next four days, my bud­dies and I drowned quarts of salmon eggs. Hours passed with­out a hit. By the end of each day, we stum­bled to our tents, brains foggy, eyes bleary, com­pletely be­fud­dled. Each morn­ing, we would hit it just as hard as the day be­fore. At the end of our dream trip, we had tal­lied three fish in the boat.

What more do you do? Our guides tried it all: hover fish­ing; slow trolling; chunk­ing spoons, plugs, and enough cured-egg rigs to open a break­fast diner.

Noth­ing.

The tough­est part of it all was that we could never re­ally kick back and re­lax. Hover fish­ing, es­pe­cially, de­mands such fo­cus that if you let your at­ten­tion flag for a sec­ond, you may miss a strike.

We’ve all had days on the wa­ter with the hot bait, the can’t-miss cast, the only fly pat­tern that works. Those are the days when fish­ing is all fun and games. Other times, fish­ing is pure faith. When the fishfinder flat­lines, each cast seems fu­tile, and the strike in­di­ca­tors sug­gest it’s just not go­ing to hap­pen, what do you do? You fish harder.

KEEP­ING THE FAITH

To­ward the end of our last day, break­ing waves smacked the tran­som, giv­ing cre­dence to Good’s com­mand to call it quits. He made the right call, and I wasn’t go­ing to fight him, but I wasn’t go­ing to go gently.

I slowly cranked on the reel han­dle, creep­ing the eggs up through the river, hop­ing Good wouldn’t no­tice. There were 26 feet of salmon wa­ter left to fish, and de­spite what the ex­perts say, not all of the fish could be hug­ging the bot­tom. I had one eye on the rod tip and the other on Good. He glanced my way, watched me for a sec­ond or two, and grinned.

Fif­teen feet to go. It could still hap­pen. I chose to be­lieve.

When the chi­nook jumped, it cleared the river by 2 1/2 feet, turned on its side, and shook like a wet dog. The line snapped.

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