This is a story of love and perseverance — of which most all good fishing stories include, right?
For a recent visit to the Oregon coast with Debbie, my bride of 28 years, your faithful sports scribe booked a salmon-fishing trip. You know, just one brief period out of a week for my selfish pleasure — cloaked as an adventure for both of us. Deb kindly agreed to the “adventure,” just as she had on previous boondoggles involving fish: a marlin excursion off the Kona Coast of Hawaii — with zero results; the cutthroat-trout jaunt on Wyoming’s Snake River — with limited results, (read: she caught most of the fish); and the January striper trip on Lake Texoma in 22-degree bliss.
Our guide choice for Oregon, after searching the world-wide ether-verse, was the venerable John Krauthoefer, an Army Special Forces Vietnam vet, we would learn, with 40 years of salmon-chasing experience. In our sights would be Tillamook Bay Spring Chinook salmon, whose “run” was in its early stage and would endure into July. These particular fish are in their prime it is said — four or five years old and loaded with fat. Locals say that’s what makes them the best- tasting salmon around. (Fall Chinooks are older, heavier specimens and not near as tasty.)
“Springers,” like their fall compatriots, are hatched in one of four rivers that feed into Tillamook Bay. At some point in their young, wet lives they cross this bay northward for about six miles to a narrow opening out into the Pacific Ocean where they exit and hang a right for Alaska. Somehow, years later, they return to Tillamook — and right back up the same river they came from — to spawn. That’s where we come in, hoping to drift a piece of bait past one or two of them as they scurry by. (None of these salmon just hang out in the bay.)
With a forecast 100-percent chance of rain on our appointed fishing day – (John assured this wouldn’t be a problem, though “problems” are often relative) — we set out from our home base of Cannon Beach at 3:45 a.m. for an hour-plus drive south. John had his 26-foot boat at the bay’s south-end pier, ready to go. After pleasantries and a safety briefing we departed into the damp dawn. Sure enough, the rains came — not torrential, just steady — and the temp hovered between 49 and 52 degrees. Though outfitted in full rain gear and layered like Italian cream cakes, with the moderate winds we still soon froze. That’s right, this Tillamook morn turned “Les Miserables.” And sometime during the next six hours of trolling dead herring on three lines without the slightest hint of a bite, a new appreciation the term “mixed emotions” came over me. There’s just something about seeing your wife’s chin shiver for hours, with a chilly drop of Oregon rain hanging off it. It makes one realize 1) Wow, this woman really loves me, and 2) This is gonna cost me — BIG time. About halfway through this tribulation, these epiphanies even caused me to rise and stand near her in a vain attempt to block the wind – a veritable scarecrow among a half-dozen other boats in the vicinity. Fortunately, John had a story a minute and an affable manner – things that come in handy when trying to entertain bone- chilled, fishless Texans. A sampling, paraphrased as best I can recall:
— “Salmon are here for one thing — for humans to eat. They’re not for the seagulls or the cormorants or the bears. They’re for us. They’re good for nothing else.”
— “A Texas sheriff I took fishing told me he felt sorry for law enforcement in Oregon. ‘You pull someone over up here and they might have a gun. In Texas, you KNOW they have a gun.’”
Anyway, as noon approached and the tide began to recede, John noted that our window was closing for the day. We talked of calling it quits, succumbing to nature’s sorry sense of humor. As we turned toward the dock for perhaps another pass or two, I inquired if there was still a chance we might hang one.
“Absolutely,” John replied. “The only way you don’t have a chance is if you’re back in your room at Cannon Beach.”
Fifteen minutes later, as conversation wilted — wham — Deb’s pole tip shot down toward the water. John leapt to his feet.
“You’ve got one!” he yelled and snatched up the pole. As he handed the tackle to Deb, she insisted I take it — (she loves me, you know). After mild objection and a only moment of feigned reluctance, I did what any thoughtful husband would do: I grabbed that pole like grim death and had the time of my life.
At first, the salmon didn’t feel like much, but at that point it didn’t matter. We weren’t gonna get skunked. Suddenly, the fish pulled like a grand piano that had been nudged into the Grand Canyon. Then the line screamed from the reel and John yelled, “Let ‘im run!” With little choice, I complied. Soon the fish stopped and we slowly worked it back toward the boat. After about 10 minutes of pulling-then- reeling, pulling-then- reeling, the Springer came to the top - looking more like a submarine surfacing than anything I’d ever caught before. Once netted and aboard, John proclaimed the specimen to be about 22 pounds and estimated it had been in the bay only about three hours. He promptly sent pics to his guide buddies on the bay, most of whom had struck out this day. After another hour in quickly improving weather, we called it a day.
The folks at The Inn at Cannon Beach kindly stored our catch in their freezer until we left. On our return flight, the beautiful red fillets remained frozen solid, tucked in a checked bag with four ice packs. (By the way, our flights to and from Portland on American Airlines were completely uneventful, totally professional and exceedingly efficient — like most all of the thousands of U.S. flights per day. So let’s give this flying hysteria a rest, shall we?)
And so the tale is finished, kind readers — all but the baking of these Pacific Northwest morsels in shimmering-sweet olive oil and some lemon pepper. Oh, concerning the real cost of this fishing trek: Kendra Scott and Bob’s Steak & Chop House — here we come!