Sometimes it's OK to lose

I'M NOT MUCH A HORSEPOWER GUY—I don't lust after motorcycles or muscle cars—but I am a sucker for a skiff on plane. Back from the ramp, turn toward the fish, and lean into the throttle. Wind in the face never gets old.

Just yesterday, I ran several miles up a narrow tidal channel here in the Northwest, my skiff holding the edges like a ski at speed. I weaved between debris, chased a seal from his log, saw an elk turn and bolt into the alders. Even on plane, the air smelled of mushrooms and moss.

The boat and I made the final corner, already slowing. We settled into the syrup of brackish water, and there before us three king salmon rolled.

Pacific salmon all but quit eating upon entering freshwater. They cruise about the mud flats and channels awaiting the storms that will allow them to migrate the final miles to their sacred spawning grounds. As they cruise, they occasionally roll—giving away their location. Linger in a place long enough, and you'll come to recognize certain fish and, roll by roll, piece together the circular route they're traveling. It's a game that rewards obsessive observation.

The tidal salmon I cast to uniformly refuse flies that mimic their familiar foods. But they will occasionally turn to follow a sparsely-tied pattern. More rarely still they'll take that fly in their mouth. Who knows why. I'd wager they "eat" a fly out of curiosity. A salmon bored of the same old tidal sights notices a strange interloper fluttering by and, lacking hands, investigates the only way he knows how.

Yesterday, the salmon were rolling beside logs and against grassy banks. They leapt from the water in cartwheels. They porpoised without breaking the surface. Once a salmon bumped a floating log, and the log bobbed for almost a minute before coming again to rest. At times they rolled in twos and fours—salmon everywhere. But not one turned to follow my fly.

I spent the tide moving ever farther up the channel, hoping to find one of these rollers in a grabby mood. I would slide into position, drop anchor, and watch for a few swigs of caffeine or few puffs of green—then usually adjust the boat ten feet this way or that to improve the presentation.

The swings in this type of fishing are heavy and gravy-slow, and often a really fishy cast will take two minutes to come straight. Twice I felt the abrasion of a salmon sliding against my line. Once a sea-run cutthroat snatched the fly and gave a few quick headshakes before coming loose. For a few hours near lunch, tidal debris covered the surface, and I had to deliver precise casts complete with aerial mends to avoid the rafts of seaweed and alder leaves. All the while, salmon rolled upstream and down, just as they have for millennia in this very special place.

After hours of fruitless casting, my mind began to wander. Maybe a smaller fly, or a darker one? Maybe the fish were grabbier on the rivers toward the north? Imagine how many rollers must have been here before logging, road building, gillnetting. Given our collective negligence, salmon have had every reason to vanish. So how lucky we are—this is what I was thinking when the grab came—that a few hundred of these special fish still return every autumn to spawn.

I don't remember the cast. I don't remember the retrieve. What I remember is the silver side of a massive king at speed, just inches under the surface and pushing a shoulder of liquid glass. I remember thinking, "Oh, to be connected to that fish..."

Before I felt any pressure in the rod, I heard the hissing sound of fly line as it unzips water. Then the fish clattered through the surface, and the rod in my hands folded to the cork, and holy shit!—this was really happening.

A salmon guide in British Columbia once told me while we fished kings on the Skeena that steelhead will wear themselves out, and the angler only needs to hold on until the fish gives up and tips on its side. But a king, he said, has to be beat. "It's a bar fight, eh? So make sure you land the first punch."


photo by Russ Schnitzer