Not long after I arrived back home from the buzz-fest, I went to bed. I was exhausted and had two pressing engagements on my mind: I was supposed to go fishing the next morning, bright and early to the money hole to catch on more Summer Steelie before the end of the season; and I had a shitload of research and writing to do for my client, due in two days. The plan was to go fishing, come home and work until the wee hours, get some sleep and put in another full day Tuesday, today.
I think I was in bed by 7 o’clock, always a dangerous thing to do, for no matter how tired I was, there is no guarantee that I will sleep through the night. I was wide awake at 11:30 PM. There was no way I was falling back asleep at that point so I went down to my dungeon to write the blog and a new boiler plate for my client and accomplished both. I readied my fishing gear and had an hour to go before I was supposed to “officially” wake to my alarm, so I laid down. No avail. Breakfast, reheat some coffee, kiss my dear wife goodbye and head over to Steve’s. I was tired again but thought I’d be okay as Steve was supposed to be driving today. I could catch a nap in the car. Nope, Steve’s car was blocked in and I was driving.
Steve may be my best friend out here. Why? Because I spend more time with him than anyone else, we connect in a lot of ways, and several other reasons that are not meant to diminish the friendships that I have with others, nor the qualities of the their characters. As we’re packing the truck, he says, “Oh, Dude, here. Happy birthday.” My birthday is a couple days away and he has gotten me a new reel. It’s beautiful. And it is already loaded with his favorite ten-pound test line, perfect for steelheading. “Rig it up and use it today.” I comply.
Adult Male Steelhead. Adult Female Steelhead.
I put on my float, weights and hook and try to reel in the slack. As I do, more line comes off of the reel. I initially attribute this to the fact that the guy who loaded the reel at the sports shop had put too much line on it. I de-rig, pull off a bunch of line and re-rig, with the same results. It takes a minute to sink in: the guy had spooled for a lefty. “No problem.” Steve says, “We can stop in Hebo and get the other spool loaded correctly.
So off we go, loaded with coffee and hopes, to the money hole.
Steve has only brought his fly rod. The October Caddis Flies are out in force and he is convinced that the Sea-Run Cut Throats and Steelies will be hitting them like candy. Steve is an avid fly guy, and as such, sometimes his rhetoric gets a little lofty. “Yeah, I decided that I was getting to be too much of a bait fisherman. I want to bring a little bit of skill back to my fishing.” Stuff like that. Never mind that I am using bait. And when I use spinners and spoons, I hear the same. Never mind that he borrows my spinners sometimes. But I understand because I’m an understanding kinda guy. He’s excited to be out fishing. Sometimes rhetorical sensitivity gets lost in enthusiasm.
By the time we get to our hole, the sun is up high enough that we can see through the water. Steve has decided that he will put on his waders and walk up the river from where we have to park, fishing along the way. I will head straight to the hole. “Dude, I forgot the net. How’d I forget the net?”
I say, “That’s OK. Any Cutthroats have to be put back, and if we hook into a Steelie, we’re taking it home anyway. We can just tire it out and drag it up to shore.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
So, off we go. The walk to the money hole is cold. The wind is blowing pretty hard and the road is still in shade. The hole itself is down a steep embankment, so it is mercifully less windy. I bait my hook, adjust the depth on my float and start methodically hitting every aspect of the hole. About my fourth cast my float disappears in the exact manner it should when a steelie takes the bait, and I set the hook. It is a monster!
Except the fish dives low into the deeper water, not the action of a Steelhead. A steelie comes out of the water and tries to shake the hook. Huge fish diving deeper equals a salmon. Sure enough, I catch a glimpse of the fish, and it is a salmon, and I judge it to be about a thirty-five-pounder. I am shaking with excitement. With all of the fishing I have done in my life, I have never caught a fish this big before. And here I am with 10-pound test on a 9-foot medium-light action rod. I set my drag accordingly and settle in for a long fight.
The hole isn’t all that big: maybe seventy-five feet long and twenty-five feet wide. As the clocks ticks on, I get several opportunities to examine the fish. I can tell by the markings that it is a Chinook. It still has some color to it, so it might be a fall fish. The salmon that came up in the spring would be darker. It didn’t have a beak on it like the spring male salmon would have, not was it beat up, so it is either a female spring or either sex in the fall run. But a spring run salmon wouldn't have taken my bait, would it?
Adult female Chinook
After about fifty minutes I have the fish tired to the point that I am able to bring it up close to the bank. I sit down to get ready to grab it, and as I do, my shoe touches my line and it breaks. I make a quick grab for the fish’s tail and haul it on shore. It weighs a ton!
I decide to put it on my stringer instead of dressing it right then and there. I wanted Steve to see it. Plus, in that this was my first mature salmon, I had lingering doubts about it being a spring or fall fish. I took a quick picture of the fish and then tethered my stringer to a tree over the water. The fish was able to be completely submerged.
Most people know something about the life cycle of salmon. They make the long trek from the ocean back to where they were born solely to breed and die. Fish late in this process have expended themselves to the point where they are nearly inedible. Their flesh turns from a bright red-pink to white. If this fish had been in this stream since May, it would not be a good catch. If I could keep it alive until Steve made his way up to the hole, then we could figure it out together.
Steve was excited to see the fish, yet he was little help. Therefore we decided to err on the side of caution and put the fish back. Steve went down to removed the stringer, and as he did so, blood started to flow from the fish’s gills. “Dude, she’s gonna die anyway now, so you might as well keep her. She might be a fall run. You won’t know until you dress her.” I went ahead and slit her gills more so she would bleed out more quickly.
Steve went to the head of the hole with his fly rod and I baited up again. Steve was having a gas catching the little cuts and I was drowning bait. We would be leaving soon as the salmon would have to be put on ice soon and we had none with us.
When the time came, I pulled the salmon back up onto the bank. She was not quite dead, so I hit her on the head with a knife club I have just for such an occasion. Steve was already up the bank by the truck as I slit her gut. “It’s a female.”
“Lots of eggs?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, mature eggs.” I felt horrible. “Now what?”
“What color is the flesh?”
“Well, you could take her home and use her for compost.”
“Nah, I’m going to leave her here to feed the river.” I put her in the deepest part of the hole. Although I couldn’t see the fish proper, I could still see her bright red roe through the tannin-stained water.
We got into the truck and drove up the road. Steve wanted to check out a couple other holes. I just wanted to go home. And after a couple stops along the way, Steve could see that I had lost all interest in fishing anymore that day.
“Dude, the same thing happened to me when I caught my first big Springer. You just don’t want to let go of a big fish, but you have to. Now you know.”
“I just feel so rotten about it.”
“Yeah, you will for a couple days.”
The lack of sleep was catching up with me so I had Steve drive home. As we headed back over the mountain, the splattered Caddis flies began to accumulate on the windshield. I drifted off.
I woke up just outside of Salem. My first thoughts were of the fish. I dropped off Steve and I couldn’t get out of there quick enough. I wanted the day behind me…all of it.
It has been twenty-four hours since I got home. I have been asleep for twenty of those hours, alternating from hot to shivering, no blankets, not enough blankets. I have a headache that won’t go away.
As I am writing this, my dear wife calls me. “I have a title for your next blog: The Curse of the Female Salmon.”
“Yeah, I’m already writing it. I have a title, but that’s certainly what I’m writing about.”
Is it a curse? To answer that, I’d have to back up a bit. As I was fighting the fish, a thought crossed my mind: If I indeed was able to land this fish, a price would have to be paid. I would get wet when I didn’t want to, I would fall and twist an ankle, something would go amiss. I had seen it happen before, and it was the price I would have to accept.
While I was away this last weekend I called my dear wife to tell her that I had finally figured out what I wanted to do for my birthday. I wanted to take a drive with her to show her the money hole and share the natural beauty that surrounds it. We were to make the drive today after I put the finishing touches on my client letters. Well, obviously I’m too sick for any of that to happen. Besides that, the money hole will never be the same. That is the price.