Tag Archives: salmon

I Fish! Dr. Marvin, I Fish! I’m a Fisherman!

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The boy in the boat

A little bead of wetness clung to the end of my dad’s nose like a drip of golden honey – only it wasn’t honey.   Light refracted through it giving it the look of a droopy diamond as we sat under the canopy of our Glasply in the bitter cold sunlight and watched the end of our poles drag herring through the black water out by the old Ketchikan pulp mill.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.  The tension was killing me.  It felt like the time I watched my great aunt Hazel smoke a cigarette down to the filter without flicking the ash.  No matter how many times she brought the gasper to her lips, completely covering the filter with old woman lipstick, the ash valiantly held forth.  When she finally flicked the ash into the tray and blew the last remnants from her lungs, I breathed a second-hand-smoke sigh of relief.

Fishing for King Salmon has been described as hours and hours of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror, but I think this is a gross overstatement.  It wasn’t as if we were harpooning whales from a kayak.   We put little fish onto a little hook to catch bigger fish.  I guess if our big fish got eaten by a bigger fish, like, say a Killer Whale, that would be terrifying, but sitting in a boat, eating Snack Pack pudding and Zots and reeling in a fish now and then wasn’t terrifying – it was actually, a little slice of heaven.

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Dick and Peggy and bait

My sister, Betty, hated fishing almost as as much as I loved it.    The problem with fishing was that it required her to spend hour after hour with my dad in a small boat.  It’s also a lot more fun if you actually catch fish, and, no matter how much she tried, my sister couldn’t catch fish.  I  would reel in three fish from the starboard side of the boat and dad would make us switch sides.  Then I would catch two from the port side and we would switch back.  Then we would switch poles and switch lures, but none of it helped.   If Ketchikan had had a county fair, I would have come home with ten goldfish and she would have had a bag of wax lips.   As I got older I realized there were other reasons Betty dutifully sat on her side of the boat catching nothing: chocolate bars.  The little bar of Hershey goodness was enough to keep her coming –  that is, until she realized she could stay home, with a good book, and eat the bars in complete comfort.

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Mom and Dad and BIL Pat

My mom, on the other hand, liked to go fishing, but I never once saw her reel in a fish.  She hooked hundreds, but as soon as dad realized that she had a fish on he would take the rod from her.  Exasperated, once again, she would say, “Earl!” and then go back and make sure Betty had enough chocolate bars.   It seemed her only jobs aboard the boat was to hold the pole until dad took it away from her, dole out chocolate and hold my belt loop when I needed to pee over the edge of the boat.

“Dad,”  I said after watching the drip roll back and forth with the rise and fall of the boat for what seemed like hours.  “You’ve got a drip of snot on your nose.”  I reached my finger up to my nose to show him where.   In an instant his tongue came out and the drip vanished like a chameleon catching a fly.  In that moment I felt my personal space bubble expand to exclude hugs from my dad and I also felt the urgent need to wash my mouth out with soap.

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Dad and his best friend Clarence

The Clearwater River is about as far away from Ketchikan as it is from New York City, but as I sat in the cold metal drift boat hooking plugs to snap swivels and arranging my gear for the day, I had a strange feeling like I had done it my entire life.  I blew on my fingers to get my 50 year old circulation going, but I felt 12 again.

I moved to Idaho when I was in my third year of college and never had the desire to fish.   I went once with my roommate and that evening he went on and on about the 13 inch trout he had caught that day.  After about ten minutes of his diatribe, I told him that in Alaska we used fish like the one he caught for bait.  I’m sure it was a nice fish, as far as trout fishing goes, but I could not see the enjoyment in reeling in a fish the size of a woman’s slipper.

Little did I know that only an hour away flowed a river of milk and honey, bursting to the banks with fish – real fish.  Fish that a man could be proud of.  Fish that broke the water when you hooked them and danced and flailed in the air trying to spit your hook.  Fish that battled you and fought you and tired you and tested you and needed to be knocked out with a stick when you got them in the boat so they wouldn’t damage anything.  Fish that bled on you and that you had to strain to hold as someone took your picture.  These were fish you hung on the wall.

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Freaking wild Steelhead!

It only took 30 years for me to discover it, but less than an hour to fall in love.  The Clearwater isn’t a misnomer.  It’s big and wide and clear as air.  It’s old and thinning in places where you need to lift your feet and hold your breath as you float over it so you don’t scrape the bottom, but deep and dark in other places with channels and holes that hide big fish that strike out of anger instead of hunger.  Angry fish, who knew?

“Keep your tip up!  Don’t loose it!  Let it run!  Check your drag!  Don’t give it slack!”   Every new fisherman gets on the job training.  I knew these words by heart and smiled warmly when I heard them.  When your body reacts independently of your mind and heart you have become, if not an expert, at least very comfortable and in tune with what you’re doing.  I hadn’t caught and landed a really big fish in 30 years, but holding the pole as the fish tried to rip it from my fingers felt natural and homey like wearing an old baseball glove or a favorite hat.  I felt relaxed and in charge.  The fish didn’t stand a chance.

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Dave’s lunker.

Catch and release is like dating in highschool.  You chase, you catch, you have a short relationship, then you release.    The hook fell out as the Steelhead flailed in the net.  I reached carefully in and grasped the fish by the tail and throat and lifted it up for its photographic debut.  He smiled and I smiled.   He was beautiful and bright, a wide band of color running down both flanks.  I knelt by the stern and carefully lowered him into the water to let the oxygen flow through his gills and bring him out of his stupor.  After a few moments of lolling from side to side his wits came to him and he fought out of my grasp, powering back into the depths.

The yuppie with the Spey Rod and the Orvis fly vest looked on with disdain as Dave and I thrashed around in the drift boat like a couple of school kids, hollering and high fiving like we had just won the lottery, which in a way, I felt  like I had.  I knew in that moment that I would be buying walnuts for Dream Crusher at Costco (you’ll have to ask her about this) and getting a boat.

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Man, I was unattractive, but boy could I catch fish. Dream Crusher and me before we were married. She only agreed to marry me AFTER I caught these beauties.

When the poles were once again dancing above the water,  Dave touched his nose and nodded in a way that confirmed, without actually saying anything, that I had a bit of snot dew clinging to the end of my nose.  Without thinking, my tongue shot out and firmly lodged into the corner of my mouth as I searched my pockets for a Kleenex.  I blew my nose and as I put the tissue away I thought to myself that maybe I was not my father’s son after all.

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The Clearwater and Dave.

 

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My Dad Often Pretended to be a Duck

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A duck call should not be a weapon or a flotation device.

Earl was a modern day Dr. Doolittle.  He was also my dad and I swear he could actually talk to ducks – calling to them like the Pied Piper called to rats.  He apparently knew the right thing to say because they always seemed very comfortable and relaxed right up until the moment they were blasted out of the sky with 2 3/4″ magnum sixes.  Boy, did my dad know how to call ducks!

NB: A magnum 6 is a shotgun shell that makes a huge roar and sprays little pellets at cute feathered animals with the force of a tiny Hiroshima.  In hunting parlance it would be considered the humane and sporting way to kill defenseless animals for fun.

There is something visceral and primordial about sitting in a duck blind trying to kill as many birds as possible, but even when I was young something seemed not quite right about letting good meat go to waste.  I guess I liked what it felt like to have my picture taken with dead animals hanging around my neck and knowing that I was a pretty darn good shot and I felt a weird sense of pride at being able to kill so well.  I even fooled myself into thinking that I was a good at putting meat on the table.   Technically, it would be more accurate to say that I was good at putting meat in our freezer because the meat never actually got to our table.  The frozen duck carcasses lay in our freezer for years until we moved.  At that point they were thrown away without a second thought.  But, at least having them in the freezer tucked away for years, nestled under the pizza rolls and boxes of ice cream, made me feel better about hunting.

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I was never thrilled with hunting the night before a hunting trip.  Sleep rarely came easy because of the one thought that ran through my head on an endless loop: “there are living things out there right at this moment that didn’t know they would be dead in the morning.”  I was all bravado in the evening as we sat around talking about past exploits and how much we had killed, but then when I went to bed I would be racked with guilt.  The guilt would pass in the morning with the sunlight, but would crop up at times during the day whenever I had to wring the neck of a duck or goose that I hadn’t cleanly killed.  It has always been hard for me to grasp a creature by the neck and kill it because I decided it shouldn’t live any more.  But hey, I hunted on because you know the old maxim, “If there is no lead a flyin’ there’s no meat a dyin’.”

I hope you’re not getting the wrong idea about me.  Just because I’m not a huge fan of ME hunting, doesn’t mean that I don’t think others should hunt, even if it’s just for sport.  You will not find a single redwood splinter on me from hugging a tree or boat marks on my back from getting run over trying to protect the whales (whalers have to eat too).  I know where meat comes from and I have a 1/4 beef sitting in my freezer right now waiting to be charred over a hot bed of coals.  However, it does give me an added feeling of justification if the meat from my, or anybody else’s, road kill actually goes to some good use.

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Earl on the right

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My dad and his friends used to come home from deer hunting with so many deer slung over the stern of the boat that it looked like the boat had a hairy brown fungus growing over it.  I have heard that Orca migration patterns were changed permanently because of chum trail left in the boat wake on their return.

Once the pictures were taken at the dock and the posturing was done, and the talk of how there was going to be a huge a wild game feed was over, we would go home and the meat would never be seen or heard from again.   There must have been over 4000 pounds of meat on that boat and I never saw a single 8 oz. petite sirloin cross my plate.  I never, once, and I mean ever, had venison for dinner.   Where it went was a mystery.  It was like a giant sheet was placed over the deer pile and when it was pulled back a fanfare was played and the meat was gone.

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Earl cleaning wildfowl that would never see our table

We never ate any wild game, not even salmon we caught, and we caught a ton of them.  I can remember catching salmon, cleaning salmon, fileting salmon and storing the eggs to catch more salmon, but I can’t ever remember eating any of it.  We gave a lot of it away though (mostly to Judge Keene). I guess I’m now wondering if Earl was greasing the skids in some way.  I’m not sure if he was trying to get rid of the meat because we wouldn’t eat it, paying the judge for the many times he didn’t get thrown in jail for fighting, or just showing off because he always sent me down with the biggest fish.

The only salmon I ever remember eating was when my mom made salmon cakes, and I know for a fact that the salmon for those cakes came from a can because I loved to open cans when I was a kid (more weirdness).   Can you imagine living in Alaska, being a salmon fisherman and eating only canned salmon?  I’m sure it was canned locally, but still, the idea of it is bizarre.

I hated salmon cakes because none of the bones in canned salmon were ever removed.  Most of them were soft enough to eat, but once in a while you would bite down on a vertebrae and it would make a soft, crunching sound like you were breaking the back of a slug (I know they are invertebrates, but that’s what it was like).   To this day I can’t stare a salmon cake in the eye without flinching.

Earl was an excellent caller of game.  Given his personality it makes a lot of sense.  He was always good at getting people to buy what he was selling,  luring them in with wacky advertising or promises of grandeur and then making the kill.  Whether it was furniture, fishing gear, golf clubs, totem poles or getting Governor Egan elected state governor, he always found a way to get people (or animals) to buy what he was selling.

He loved the hunt and the kill, but he was terrible at the follow through and he left the dead meat of countless “friendships” in his wake.  No one really got close to Earl unless you let Earl be Earl and did what he said and what he wanted.  If you didn’t, there would be hell to pay.  People either enjoyed the ride with my dad or they wanted to get out of the car really quickly.   Being young, I was in and out of his car so often that I wasn’t sure if I was driving, riding in the trunk or watching it peel away from the curb.

Earl loved almost nothing better than duck hunting though.   Some of my best memories of my dad come from sitting in the blind with him.  He wasn’t demanding or hollering or telling me or my mom what to do or reading his paper while you were trying to talk to him.   He was attentive, kind and encouraging and the only thing he wanted from me was to pour him about a half of a cup of coffee (a full cup got cold too quickly and he loved his coffee hot) into the red plastic cap of the thermos and kill as many ducks as possible.  I never drank coffee, but when I poured that half cup and the steam from it curled to my face  I wanted more than anything to WANT to drink coffee.  He would hold up his hand and say “give me some skin” and when I slapped his hand he would hold on to it for just a second and then take a sip of his coffee.

img057 Earl never wore gloves no matter how cold it was. He always said he liked to only wear them on the way home because it felt so good to put them on (I thought it felt good to have them warm both to and from the boat ride to the blind, but this was his logic, not mine).  His pale, thin-skinned hands, mottled with age spots would be red and looking like they had the beginnings of frost bite as he gripped the call like he was holding onto a roll of pennies during a fist fight.  He would cup his other hand over the end of the call to vary the sound, like a trumpet player using a mute.  He would press the call to his lips – a small bead of clear liquid always precariously clinging to the end of his nose – and blast away on his duck trumpet until my ears would split and then we would watch.

You could almost see the interest on the faces of the ducks as they  turned towards our decoys.  It was like a siren’s call that they had to answer.  He would blow a few more times even louder letting the ducks know that our decoys had seen them and were excited to have company.  As they got closer he would chortle into his Pied Piper’s flute and the feeding call would make the ducks think they were coming to a feast.  Closer they would come and then they would set their wings and my dad would say “now!” and we would jump up and blaze away into the overcast sky, ducks falling from the clouds like cats and dogs.

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Lots of dead animals

Earl was constantly buying duck calls because he was always looking for the perfect sound.  He was like the Ace Frehley of duck calling.  The closest he ever came to finding the perfect call was when he brought home “Magnum.”  It was huge and about the best thing I had ever seen.  I have learned recently that the call was never designed to be used in the field.  It was a store display used to advertise a much smaller version, but it was his go-to call and had a mellow deep sound like the Barry White of duck calls (it’s probably why we shot more hens on those trips).   It was a pain to pack around since it was so large and looked like something a German soldier would throw in WWII movies, but Earl was never without it when we were in the blind.  He hunted for years with it and I think he even used it to club baby Harp seals once or twice.    I found it in his garage when he passed away.

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Difficult harmony

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Another use for Magnum

I never hunt anymore, but I have duck calls.  The closest I’ve come to using any of them is when the kids and I sat in my room the other day and tried to play the Vandal fight song.  These calls are not me.