Sometimes the best foraging is right at home–in this case, in the very back of the freezer. I was digging around for razor clams to cook for Christmas dinner and came up with a long-lost package of hot-smoked king salmon bellies from 2015. September 2015, to be more exact, meaning they were more than a year old. I thawed ’em out and, incredibly, they were delicious. Perfect. Still firm, still dripping with fat, still smoky and salty and awesome.
And looking at the date, I remembered fishing Willapa Bay with my good friend Sweeney, and how the pelicans posed on pilings outside the harbor that morning, and how the sky turned black with sooty shearwaters in the evening. And how we had to scratch to find our kings, and how stoked we were when we put a couple nice ones in the box. Amazing what you can find in the back of the freezer.
Just before dark, a black line appeared on the western horizon, stretching from north to south as far as we could see. We kept fishing–this was my last day of king fishing for the year–and I was focused on trying to get one more fish. “What is that?” Sweeney said. I looked up, and the line was clearly closer now, and less defined, a kind of blurry streak where the water met the sky. The line drew closer, slowly at first, but gaining speed. A boat fishing a half mile west of us suddenly disappeared in the black haze. We pulled our gear in and ran to check it out.
As we headed west, the line kept coming east to meet us. Now we could see what it was: birds. More birds than either Sweeney or I have ever seen, flying in a tight, swarming flock that stretched for miles. Then, on some invisible cue, the birds started setting down in the water around us; sooty shearwaters, the great circumnavigators of the Pacific. Shearwaters fly thousands of miles every year, from their nesting grounds in New Zealand, up the Western edge of the Pacific along the Asian coast, across the Aleutians, and now, down our coast, headed back to the Southern Hemisphere. But so many of them! We wondered if it was the raging gale we’d fished in the day before that drove them here in such numbers, or the anchovies filling the bay, or some mysterious force we couldn’t fathom.
August is coming to a close. Summer kings, at least for me, are over for another year. What a way to finish–two days of fantastic fishing with a great friend, an ice chest full of fish, and this crazy spectacle of birds. Time to head home, fire up the smoker and start getting ready for the more structured life of autumn. Time for kids going back to school, soccer practice, swimming lessons, homework. Time for me to actually get back to work on my book. The Farmer’s Almanac called for a cool, wet August and early fall this year. So far, the forecast looks right. On the drive home, rain came down in sheets. My first thought was not yet, it’s too early. Then I started thinking about big ocean cohos coming into the Sound, and chanterelles pushing up from the forest floor. It could be awhile before I get back to that book.
Do the Fish Gods really pay attention to the actions of us mortals? Or was this just a random sequence of events? I understand that karma, in the Buddhist faith, is a much longer-term proposition. But I wasn’t really sure what else to call this.
We had spent a long morning on the water without a bite or any signs of life. Finally, early in the afternoon, I found the bait and immediately had a good fish on. I lost it, but optimism took a sudden rise. Now we were on ’em. Time to put some fish in the boat. Yes!
Then I heard a whistle and some distant shouting. I looked up, and there was only one other boat in the area and it was sitting dead in the water. Two people were standing in it, waving their arms in the universal distress signal. My immediate thought was to pretend like I didn’t hear anything, keep fishing, and capitalize on the fish we’d just found. But with the weather deteriorating, a small, powerless boat could get into serious trouble. So I grudgingly pulled up the fishing gear and ran over to the other boat. They had their downrigger cable wrapped around the prop, which I then spent a good long time trying to untangle. The wind came up and and it was soon impossible to work on one boat while leaning over the rail of another. As the two boats conspired to separate, fingers were smashed, tendons stretched and forehead veins bulged. I believe a fair amount of choice language left my mouth. Finally, it became clear I was going to have to tow them in. With the rising chop, we managed about 3 miles per hour. More choice words.
When they were finally safely at the dock, I ran back out to where the fish had been, and of course, they were gone. But at least it was raining. Time to call it a day and head home with tail between legs.
On the way in, I thought we might as well try a little local spot that hadn’t produced yet this year. But we’ve done well there in the past, and you know, what the hell. If there’s a level of expectation that’s microscopically above zero, that’s what I was feeling in the midst of my dark mood and lousy weather.
And somehow, my earlier “good deed” paid off. In the next two hours, the clouds parted, the wind fell out, we hooked nine kings, limited the boat and released several others. Random luck? Cosmic payback? Karma? If it was the Fish Gods, thankfully, they only saw my actions, and didn’t hear what I was saying or thinking while rendering assistance to my fellow boaters. Whatever the cause of this good fortune, I’ll take it. When I had to clean fish and wash the boat by headlamp in a steady rain, I didn’t mind a bit.
So remember this lesson: If you’re out on the water and see a boat in distress, you have to do everything you can to help. It might get you into a bunch of fish, and more importantly, someday, it might be me.
Sunday dawned cool and breezy, which I knew would translate to freezing and windy on the water. But the kids and I have been so busy with farm, camps, work, etc we hadn’t fished in a while. And we had planned to fish Sunday. So we went anyway. I had good reports from up north, but when we turned the corner it was blowing too hard to make the run. Tried to go south, same thing.
So we put gear in the water at our little local spot and pounded it. To no avail. The good tide came and went. The only saving grace was phone reports from the places we wanted to fish, all saying it was rough and fishing was slow.
Around lunchtime, we were tired of the pounding (and lack of fish) in our semi-protected spot, so we ran to an area in the lee of the Island. Hadn’t heard of a single fish from there yet this summer. But we just wanted to find a place where we could relax a little and eat our sandwiches in peace. As soon as we were fishing and the kids brought out lunch, the famous “sandwich bite effect” came into play: Fish ON! The only bite of the day, but just as we netted our fish, the sun broke through, and we came home feeling lucky.
After all the rain we’ve had–it’s been wet even by our soggy standards–and more in the forecast, I figured I better take advantage of the beautiful weather on Tuesday. So I made kindling and hauled wood to the house, then put the boat in and spent the afternoon chasing resident king salmon, or blackmouth, as they’re called around here. It felt great to be on the water.
Of course, fishing could have been better, but mostly I was just happy to be outside, dry and with a familiar goal to pursue. I’m not sure if it was the bright sun on shallow water, the falling barometer or the full moon, but I couldn’t find a fish to put in the box. Or it could have been that I had shakers (small kings under the size limit) on the line constantly and the bigger fish didn’t have a chance.
The kids were bummed they had to go to school instead of fishing with me, and I have to admit I missed having them in the boat. But I made it home in time to take them to swimming lessons, feeling somehow refreshed from a few hours of winter fishing.