Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Zen of Chinook Salmon

So, why is it that people fish for salmon? It is hard to explain to someone who does not normally fish. For people who do fish however, the explanation is easy. There is simply nothing in the Great Lakes able to match the incredible speed, acrobatic agility or the sheer brute strength that is at the command of the Chinook Salmon. Though they may not be the most difficult fish to hook, one would have to travel to salt water to find something comparably difficult to land. After years of fishing, I landed my first Chinook Salmon during the 2004 P2 Fishing Trip and I get just as excited writing about it now, several months after the fact, as I did when I was actually catching it.

After three full days of getting skunked, I enlisted the help of Tim Geniac. In addition to being my wife’s uncle who happens to own a place in the area we were fishing, Tim is an angling guru. He is not exactly what one would term an expert on tackle or technique, but he definitely is an authority on the Zen aspect of the sport. For Tim the process of discovery, of finding out what works and what does not, is a large part of fishing’s allure. For that reason he rarely offers unsolicited advice, preferring to let people discover success on their own. He also realizes however, that there are few things more lethal to a novice angler’s enthusiasm than frustration and boredom so he freely gives counsel when asked. I have learned to ask him for his opinion often and once it is offered, I have learned to heed his advice. Though barely a novice by his own modest self-description of his abilities, Tim is right far more often than he is wrong. In any respect, he is a far better fisherman than myself so I knew that my chances of catching salmon could only be improved by following through on what he told me to do.

Tim gave my gear a good looking over and concluded that there was nothing there causing my lack of success. After describing my technique he concluded there was nothing wrong there either. After telling him what I was casting at, which was virtually every fish that I could possibly see, he told me of a situation to look for that would probably increase my chances for a hook-up. He told me to look for a group of fish that were actively spawning, with one fish alone ahead of a group of others. He told me to cast my lure, a treble hook wrapped in yarn to simulate spawn, in front of the pack and let it drift through them. If the males in the group are agitated, they’ll bite.

I took his advice and tried my hand at salmonid voyeurism, assuming the role of an angling “Peeping Tom”, with about the same success that I had tried everything else that week. I continually came up empty. I found groups of fish on shallow gravel beds, but nothing with an egg-laying female in front. Then, an hour or so into that morning’s excursion, I heard Tim excitedly call over to me from around a bend in the river to hurry up and get to where he was. By the tone of his voice, I knew that he had a fish on and needed someone to help him net it. I rushed across the river to the opposite bank, crawled out of the water and, after dropping my pole so as not to get it tangled up in the thick brush, rushed to his aid with my net in hand. When I got there he was leaning against a fallen tree, pointing at an underwater gravel bed right in front me. “There you go, right there on a silver platter,” he said. “Remember me at Christmas.”

I looked down into the water at a group of between eight and ten salmon, all packed together behind a single female that was stationed three feet in front of them. A couple of rainbow trout patrolled the edges of the pack, every once in a while darting beneath the female to attempt a quick meal of freshly laid eggs. Every time one of these fish did this, a much larger salmon would take off after it, chasing the intruder out of the female’s vicinity. It was a huge group and they were as agitated and ready to strike as Dick Cheney holding a picture of Osama bin Laden in a leather negligee and Richard Nixon mask while chained to a headboard in John Kerry’s bedroom.

I ran back and grabbed my pole, hopeful of finally achieving a small degree of success but with guarded optimism, having suffered a great amount of frustration over the past three days. This guarded optimism lasted for about three casts for on the fourth, I had a fish on.

It was a quick battle. My pole doubled over, the line went tight and before I had even had a chance to set the hook, the fish had snapped my 10lb. leader as if it were dental floss. It had in fact, torn the leader right off of the 20lb line that filled the spool. I had additional ten pound test line in my tackle box, but unfortunately that was an eighth of a mile downstream and fearing that by the time I retrieved it and returned the fish would have disappeared, I opted to take my chances tying my lure directly to the main line. As I finished getting my gear ready Tim snagged a submerged log and broke off, signaling that it was my turn to get back into the action.

I never had time to begin wondering if the fish would take the bait off of such a thick line. On my second drift through the pack of fish, I felt a bump on the line and set the hook. Once again my line went instantly tight while my rod doubled over, but instead of hearing the disheartening “THWACK!” of my line breaking, my ears were caught off guard by the unfamiliar high-pitched whine of fishing line being rapidly ripped off of my reel. For a split second I just stared at my rod in disbelief until Tim yelled at me to keep the tip of my rod up. As an ex-soldier I am conditioned to instantly obey an order barked at me with authority so I reacted in time to keep the fish from peeling away too much line. As soon as the tension reached the fish, he changed direction and made for the surface.

He went airborne with an amount of drama and excitement usually reserved for the slow-motion shots in Arnold Shwarzenegger movies. Again, I found myself dumbfounded by the power at the disposal of these beasts and had to be shaken out of my reverie by Tim shouting advice on how to keep the fish on the line. After a couple more aerial maneuvers, the salmon changed tactics and took off upstream. I took off after him until I stepped in a hole and felt the icy Pere Marquette river water pouring in around my armpits. I did not need Tim’s yelling to convince me to step back towards higher ground that time but he gave it to me anyway. No sooner had I found surer footing when the fish flipped around and changed direction, heading downstream right for me.

As the salmon closed the distance, I reeled furiously trying to get as much line back on the spool as possible to keep the tension, and the fish, under control. It was an exercise in futility however for once he passed me, he started peeling it off again just as fast as I had put it on. Realizing that I needed to do some quick adjustments to the drag on my new reel, I clumsily fumbled with nearly every attachment I could find on it to try and figure out how it operated while fighting the fish. The lesson driven home at that particular moment was that it is always a good idea to learn how your equipment works before you find yourself in a position where you actually need to use it. Amazingly, I found the drag and adjusted it before the fish threw the hook off. With that minor adjustment, I found the fight getting more manageable, and though I was brutally aware that the fish could break free at any moment, I felt I had an even chance of landing the brute.

The fight continued for some time and I was starting to feel the wear of it. I wondered how those guys in the saltwater tournaments managed to fight 500-pound fish for four hours if I was getting winded fighting a 20 to 30 pound fish for, though it seemed like much longer, no more than fifteen minutes. Granted, for five days a week I spend twelve hours a day either in my car or behind a computer and can do about as many push-ups as I expect Louie Anderson probably could, but I am not in that bad of shape. The salmon seemed intent on ensuring that I feel otherwise however and while I was starting to slow down, he showed no signs of fatigue. The frantic runs up and down the stream and the lavish displays of aerial agility continued with no less urgency then as when the battle was first engaged.

Finally, from the salmon’s point of view, the situation must have turned desperate enough to warrant a complete change of tactics. He must have realized that frenzied underwater sprints followed by spectacular writhing leaps into the air were getting him no closer to his freedom. He suddenly bolted from the relative openness offered by the middle of the river and shot past me beneath a couple of fallen trees that occupied the space to my right. My heart sank. I knew right then that the fight was over for all practical purposes. The almost inevitable result would be that the fish would wind itself around a couple of branches and bypass the drag setting on the reel, allowing himself to break off. Still, this was the first salmon I had ever really hooked and even though the odds were now in his favor, I was determined to do my best to bring him in. I dropped to my knees in the icy water and started threading my pole through the tangle of branches in which he had sought refuge, alternately reeling in and letting out line as the fish continued fighting. I was getting pretty wet, but the surge of adrenaline ripping through my veins kept the cold at bay.

My wife’s uncle was also in the water at this point. He had his net in hand and a grin on his face that stretched nearly around to the back of his head. He positioned himself on the opposite side of the fallen brush from where I was fighting my way through, correctly figuring that the fish was going to break out sooner or later and that with the commotion I was making, chances were his exit would be as far away from me as possible. His instincts were right on and his timing was beyond reproach. As soon as he took his place the salmon made a break out of the driftwood labyrinth, practically trying to swim right through him. At almost the exact same instant, the line had finally reached the point of entanglement where I could no longer feel the fish fighting anymore. A split second after that, Tim’s net was in the water. The fish then launched a final desperate run that would almost surely break me off when I launched an equally desperate kick towards a jumble of branches that I suspected was snagging the line, freeing up a precious few feet of it. He took it and ran…thrashing right into Tim’s net.

Tim hoisted the fish out of the water with a cry of victory, causing me to respond in kind. As he made for shore, I continued to try to thread my pole through the brush only to have my partner break me off as he ascended the riverbank. That was a favor. I really wanted out of the water myself to get a better look at my fish. It was an awe-inspiring specimen, subjectively speaking. Though it was surely shy of a master angler catch it was a personal record in both weight and length, not to mention in effort expended fighting it. It had been a good fight, so good in fact that I doubted the fish could have survived a prolonged period out in the air. The tenacity of its resistance seemed to wane considerable with each defiant thrash of its body. After getting a quick picture of the fish, I hurriedly got it back into the water but initially feared it had still been out too long. At first the fish was limp but after a lengthy attempt at forcing river water into its gills, it gradually started showing signs of life. Eventually, with a burst of manic energy that seemed to come out of nowhere, it violently writhed its way out of my grip and tore through the water to a deep hole near the opposite bank.

After he was released I walked back to my wife’s uncle who asked, “So, how was it?”

Short of breath and sporting a perma-grin that would be etched into my face for the next couple of weeks I answered, “Just awesome. How big do you think that was?”

“About twenty pounds. It was a big male.”

“How could you tell it was a male?” I asked.

“By all that stuff dripping off of your shirt and jacket.”

I looked back down at myself and realized that not only was I wet and rapidly beginning to get cold, I was covered in salmon spunk that had poured all over my shirt and into the pockets of my fishing vest as I was handling the fish. I looked like a used-and-abused headliner to some twisted Piscean pornography prodigy. Strangely though, I was alright with that.

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