Elk River, 2009
Saturday morning. Down the beach we went at daybreak – Bob, Ryan, and me. Paul and Jeff had abandoned us at the motel in the dark, sneaking away without even knocking on our door to see if we were awake.
Fellow salmon fishers, most carrying white plastic shopping bags, were lining up around the lagoon when we arrived. It was Saturday, the tides were building, and people were staking their claim for first-light fishing. Paul, Jeff, and a substantial group of fly-guys were clustered together between spinner, anchovy, and shrimp fishers. They were positioned to cover a trench that snaked along the inland side of the lagoon, an area where the most fish had been hooked during the week.
Our little group chose the sand side of the lagoon because it offered a little more room between fishers and still, we hoped, a chance to show our flies to a salmon. There was no wind that day, and a heavy salt mist hung in the air dimming the day.
Fifteen minutes passed. A few fish were boiling around the lagoon. Given the freedom, I moved around, shifting position over two or three hundred yards; casting short, casting long. Hoping for a grab on the drop. Retrieving with tiny three-inch twitches, striving for smoooooth retrieves, as slow as I could manage. I moved up the sand spit away from the ocean and kept my casts in the forty-foot range, remembering that there was a little trough close to the sand. I switched out my comet for an un-weighted Clouser, and cast at a downriver angle so my fly would stay in the trough as long as possible.
Suddenly, there was my salmon.
I had extended my retrieve to its absolute limit. The Clouser had lifted to the surface, my rod tip was raised high, and I was about to roll my line forward, begin working line out, and cast again.
But as that little Clouser rested on the surface, barely under tension from the leader and five feet of fly line, a deep-shouldered king rushed the fly, head-on. There he was, moving fast, mouth open, head and dorsal fin out of water, determined to eat that fly at my feet.
Instinctively, because there wasn’t time for intellectualizing, I turned away from the water, away from the fish, and ran, leaping over a drift log on the beach behind where I had been casting. By the time my line came tight, the fish had already turned, the hook set, and the connection signaled as the fish paused, made that glorious side-to-side, whole-body gyration we call the head-shake, and peeled off three hundred feet of line and backing while I tried to maintain a semblance of smooth tension on a protesting, sand compromised reel.
I was smiling. Hell, I was elated.
Eventually, I backed away from the water, maintained a long line and low rod-angle, eased the salmon to water’s edge, and ran back to secure my grip around its peduncle.
I knelt in the water and pulled the fish’s head back into deeper water. I was alone there, no one within a hundred feet either side of me on the sand. The Clouser was buried in the roof of the mouth, barely visible. Then it was time to kneel waist deep in the lagoon and complete the release. I felt the salmon’s strength return quickly, and let go.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. A crowd of salmon fishers gravitated to the place where I released my fish. I moved to a new place where I fished alone, got grabbed hard on my second cast and played the salmon for ten minutes before the hook pulled free.
Reeling in, I turned to find the place where I had fished alone now occupied by no fewer than two-dozen people. Big sigh. That’s just how it goes. By tradition, I could have waded back and claimed my original casting station, but I decided not to. My day was already perfect.
I returned to an abandoned place on the beach and fished-out the afternoon. Just before dark, Ryan was ready to go. “Just a few more casts,” I pleaded. “Do you have any un-weighted Comets?” he asked. “Sure,” I said, opening my fly box. “Give this little beauty a try,” as I handed him my smallest Boss. Ryan shrugged, tied the fly on, and hooked-up on his very next cast. Ryan hooked his fish where I had just fished at least an hour with the same fly.
It was dark when we got back to Bob’s Diesel truck and drove up the beach. I celebrated with Mary’s oven-baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy, and a Henry’s Root Beer.
Back at the motel, everyone gathered to prepare for Sunday’s fishing. It should be the day, they say.
Sunday morning. I’m up at 5 AM. Everyone else is drinking coffee and messing with the day’s tackle, pulling on waders, loading pickups.
Not me. I’m throwing my gear in the 4-runner. I’m headed home. I’ll get Dutch Brothers coffee in Coos Bay, an hour away.
Highway 101 is deserted. There isn’t a hint of wind. I imagine my friends casting to fresh kings surging across the beach into the lagoon. Me? I’m going home.