Spring-like weather might prolong the coastal spring chinook fishery for another week or two, but after the butt-kicking handed to me over the last couple of weeks, I’m crawling back in my hole for a month or two. My right wrist is shot to hell, and I’ve lost about 50% of the strength in my right shoulder. Sadly, the damage has nothing to do with fighting fish. I’m a lefty. This pain is what I get for dedicating too many high-water days to back-trolling plugs. I’m not bitching. It feels right sustaining physical damage from a good springer season. The best fisheries take their toll, and this one was right up there. For me, the glory of the spring season wasn’t in the numbers. Not even close. Our best day was two in the box, and we had plenty of pronounced goose-eggs. This season was about studying the behavior of my favorite fish, sharing my passion with good friends, falling even deeper in love with the Oregon Coast, and cutting a few more of the tendrils that keep me hanging on to my conventional tackle. The moral for this season: fly fishing is more fun than gear fishing. It may not always be the most productive, but it’s always more interesting. For me, anyway.
Our final day on the water, July 4th, started with an alarm from Russell Bassett’s cell phone. Nate and I tried to ignore it, but it was no good. We rolled out of our sleeping bags at 5:15am, and by 5:30 we were ordering weak espressos and crappy sausage biscuits. An hour later, we were parked along a wide estuary. The outgoing tide had just begun, and a seal worked the sand flats below. There were no human anglers to be seen. I scanned the water’s surface for a few minutes, as I had the day before. “It’s a ghost town. Let’s roll.”
A mile up the estuary, I pulled over again to stare at another pool. A lone bobber-guy picked at some pink goo, then lobbed his chunk of guts into the slow current. The splash sent a rainbow-colored oil slick across the water. I shuddered, remembering the smellier years of my life when I used to dump hundreds of pounds of that disgusting, poisonous slop into my beloved rivers. I wondered, momentarily, whether my fellow anglers would ever shake their addictions to the toxic sludge. Probably not. Science and baby salmon be damned. Those eggs catch a lot of fish.
Gazing across the bay, there was no excitement anywhere. Gulls glided overhead, and fluffy skeins of fog shifted around a hazy sun. I expected nothing, but I had to give it a few minutes. Poor Nate had endured a full day of fruitless plug-pulling the day before, and I owed it to him to force some meaningful fly-fishing into our day. Before I could fully give up hope, there was a big swirl, then another. Right in the sweet spot. Unbelievable.
“Did you see that?” I asked anyone who was listening. Another fish rolled. Nate poked his head up and smiled, suddenly interested. Then two fish lit up at once. Add adrenaline and stir…
We fell over ourselves, yanking on our waders in record time. We pitched the boat in the water and rowed the short distance down-current to the pool, as another fish broke the surface. I approached silently, then eased both anchors to the sand, handing Russ a 9-weight, and Nate a 10-weight. My 11-weight had a type-six loaded up–way too heavy for this slow, lakey water. While I fumbled with my gear, the guys laid out some nice casts and stripped their flies back to the boat.
Once I had all my fly line strewn across the back of the boat, Russell’s line went tight. He clamped down hard on his running line, while his rod slammed toward the water. I had a mild heart attack. “Let him run!” I choked. The error went un-punished, and Russ was in the game, hauling back on the rod with a smile. His big chinook rolled on the surface, then made an impressive high-speed run to the opposite bank. It thrashed the surface again, then made a grand leap. Pretty darn cool, let me tell you. I pulled to the beach and booted my happy angler out of the boat for the final phase, adding, “Careful! There’s a root wad down there!” It’s fun to turn up the heat, especially when it’s somebody’s first king on the fly.
It was a long battle, as most are. I repeatedly spurred Russell to work the fish hard, reminding him that while he rested, so did the fish. A few minutes later, the great salmon tired, turning broadside to show us her breadth. Russell was appropriately awe-struck. “Wow, that thing is huge!” he gasped. And a moment later, he and his green-lipped toad smiled for my camera.
I couldn’t imagine a sweeter way to wrap up a great season. The fish gods smiled up from their blue-green depths, whispering, “Thanks for all you do, Russell!”
(Russell Bassett manages the River Steward Program for the Native Fish Society, and edits the newsletter, Strong Runs. For information on how you can donate your time, effort and/or cash money to this heroic, home-grown advocacy group, call Russell at (503) 496-0807, or email: email@example.com)