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Friday
Aug182017

THE FISHY AND THE SACRED

 

 

“Kzzzzzzzzzzeeitt  --zzzeit!”  or  “Shnnnnnnaah  --nahhh!”

One sound erupts when the silver button on the maroon end-plate of the Penn Senator is pushed toward the center of the reel, and the other when it’s slid toward the outside.  Both sounds quicken the angler’s heartbeat, and, when especially intense, can prompt an adrenaline spike.

            Why?  Because, unless you’re trolling way too deep and have snagged the bottom, both signal that you’ve hooked a fish heavier than you’ve set the reel’s drag, and your prey is running for cover.  You’ve got to get your rod tip up and some thumb tension on the line now, or you’ll lose it.

            This is the excitement that got you out of bed at 4:30.  This is confirmation of all the decisions you’ve made--where to pilot the boat, what dodger to use, which color hoochie or coho killer, how much leader to put between the various parts of your rig, what depth to lower the downrigger ball, and how fast to power the kicker.  This is also the start of another personal, immediate engagement in a tiny instance of the epic struggle between hunter and hunted, me and a wily, wild and delicious creature on its own life journey.

            Whether you hear the blatant or the more subtle sound says something about the kind of angler you are.  Producers of fishing videos prefer the “Kzzzzzzzeitt” because it’s more dramatic, but when you’re on the water where sounds travel far, in sight of others who know that fish tend to gather around here, and you don’t want your competition to see exactly where you’ve hooked one, you’re probably hearing “Shnnnnnnah. Nahhh.”

             In the worst cases, I hear and feel only one or two runs, and then the situation abruptly begins to unravel.  The rod goes dead, and after a few pulls against the circling motion of the dodger, I confirm that it was a solid strike, and I lost it.  I bring up the downrigger ball and reel in my rig to re-set it for another try.  This is one of the challenges of saltwater salmon fishing.

            In the best cases, the rod tip stays bent and jumping from side to side while the line sings out, and then it abruptly straightens as the fish does a 180, requiring me to reel madly to take up the slack that would make it easier to spit the hook.  If I successfully block that tactic, there’s just a steady, hard pull for awhile until it runs again.  Since the downrigger had taken my rig 140 feet toward the bottom, I’m grateful I have 300 feet of line to handle these additional runs.  I know that, at this point, it’s important to be patient, to let the fish tire itself, without tightening the drag  too much or horsing it in violently enough to snap the line. 

            Rod tip high and back, reel in as I bring it down, slowly shortening the distance between the two of us.  Ten or fifteen minutes pass quickly, because time really does fly when you’re having fun.  I marvel at the strength of this creature, and wonder eagerly if this one is even larger than the 12 pounder I netted two days ago.  Since king salmon are all about strength rather than the dazzle of leaps and tail-walking, I consistently feel, rather than see the fish until its dorsal fin finally breaks the surface twenty yards behind the boat.  At this point, I grab the net from its holder and begin using the rod and reel to swim the fish toward the boat.

            As soon as it glimpses the hull, it makes another frantic flight toward freedom, and if I’m surprised by this bolt-and-run, I’m likely to lose the fish at this next-to-last minute.  I try to keep the rod tip up and just enough pressure on the line to maintain control. 

Now it’s at the surface, and I get a clearer impression of its size.  It definitely looks like a keeper.  The trick at this point is to guide it into the net without bumping its mouth and dislodging the hook.   Because the fish is exhausted but yet still defiant, this can take several tries. 

When more of it is inside the net than outside, I slide the net handle horizontally to create a kind of lid over the fish and lift it carefully into the boat, putting the pressure of its weight on the net frame rather than the web to withstand the almost-final violent thrashing.  When I do it right, there on the floor of the stern is a stunning silver creature, brilliantly streamlined and so artfully marked that it’s impossible not to be in awe of both its intelligent design and its fighting spirit.

  Since its gills are gasping, I want to move quickly.  If it’s a salmon, clearly over 22 inches, and I’ve not caught another one this day, I grab the conker and dispatch the fish with several sharp raps on its head.  Then I kneel down to disentangle lure, hooks, fins, teeth, and gills from the net and let the moment happen to me.

 It’s a little like praying in a church.  Deep blue, rippled water, cedar and fir slopes of green a thousand feet high, granite and sandstone crags on the shoreline, and crystal sky take the places of stained glass, stone archways, and icons.  The tang of salt water replicates incense.  The stillness is an outdoor rather than an indoor one.  I’m on my knees.  And I’m grateful in much the same way—to a God who so richly blesses me.  My spontaneous prayer of thanks punctuates the experience.

  A little business comes next.  Put the salmon into the boat’s fish box and run some seawater over it.  Retrieve my license from the boat’s dashboard and record the time and place of the catch.  Decide whether to keep fishing on a catch-and-release basis or head back to the cabin. (Since we don’t like to eat frozen salmon, I only keep what we can consume while it’s fresh.)  Whatever happens next, though, this day has become a beautiful one.