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It can be hard to tell the difference between a fish testing your bait and the sensation of that bait bumping against the rocks of a shallow river. When a fish does take a bite and the hook sets in though, there's no question what's on the other end of the line. There is a pulsing energy in the rocks and flowing water but not the same kind you feel from an animal that suddenly finds itself fighting for its life. The fish knows and you know; a collective consciousness is formed, two beings tethered together by a filament.
I learned the difference quickly. We had just pulled the drift boat over for lunch to the sandy shore of the Klickitat River in Southern Washington on a sunny, late October day. Matt, an aspiring ultra marathon runner that I train and coach and my guide for the day, set me up with a bobber and jig and then went about preparing our midday meal on his small habachi grill that he had stashed in the bow of our watercraft. We'd be feasting on Chinook salmon, caught by him on the Oregon coast, and quinoa and andouille sausage, all wrapped up in tin foil and ready to be cooked. He also had two tall bottles of "Fish Tale" Organic IPA for us to enjoy. An appropriate choice of beverage and a fine meal.
I began casting into the deep, swift-flowing current along the far bank. The intention was to have my bait and bobber drift downstream while gently drawing it ever so slightly into mingling with the eddy line. Fish would be there Matt told me, reveling in the swirling, undulating water, just out of the fast lane.
I'm not much of a fisherman. It had been years since I'd fished and the last times were in small lakes and ponds in Kansas, near my father's house on the prairie in the Flint Hills. We caught bluegill and bass and some other small fish I didn't know the names of. I'd never fished in the true mountain west for salmon or steelhead, for exciting, "destination" type fish so to speak. This was all new to me.
It was with some surprise then that I cast right to the spot I'd intended. Of course I attributed this to luck and the improvements in fishing equipment over the years, not my skill. I'd take it though: luck, technological advancements or not. The bait and bobber drifted down almost exactly as planned. I let out line as it drifted on, to extend the life of the cast, careful not to affect the natural movement of the bait and give it up as fraudulent fishmeal.
Nothing on the first pass. I reeled it in and cast again. Nothing.
On my third try it happened. From the first instant I knew it wasn't the bait tap-dancing on the river bottom. This was a fish, and with its bite came that split-second realization; like the flip of a light switch sending the world from black to blinding, or the sharp, shocking sting of a bee you didn't see coming.
A quivering energy shot down the line, from the reel, through the ceramic eyelets of the rod and the autumn air, and into the shining water. Matt looked over excitedly. His one, overwhelming desire that day was for me to catch a fish, to experience the unique thrill he so loved. He was far more eager for it than I was, bless his heart. Matt didn't have an extra pair of waders so he gave me his mid-calf high waterproof boots. I could only stand in the shallow water near the bank but it was enough, my position was fine. I stood wide-legged and leaned back against the force as the fight began, while bright teal-blue gnats wove themselves through the air around me.
With 10 lb. test line I couldn't just muscle it in--the line would break--and, besides, it wouldn't be any fun. It wouldn't be an artful dance, demanding patience. Finesse had to be involved, gentle coercion of the submarine being. Brute force would not be rewarded; the fish--or whatever the hell it was down there--would be lost.
I took my time, enjoyed the give and take with this fellow animal. I'd raise the rod skyward and then reel in the line as I dropped it back towards the water again, easing it toward me, slowly but surely--up and down, up and down. It would get closer and then suddenly the will to live, the stubborn, searing, blood-boiling animal instinct for survival would send the line slicing through the glimmering surface of the Klickitat once more, away from me to the far bank, the great force on the line dissipating with audible "clicks" from the reel.
Matt came over and adjusted the tension setting on the burdened reel after seeing that the fish had a good, strong fight and was evidently not small. There had to be give in the system or the line would break for the pull of this proud beast was far more than 10 lbs.
No hurry. The weather was perfect and we had plenty of time. Another drift boat with two guys in it--one of the many on the 18 miles of water we traveled that day--floated past and looked on grinning while I toiled away.
Like a boxer--the Cassius Clay of the Klickitat--the fish worked left, cut right; left then right, right then left; rising, diving, rising again. Fighting hard, defying my pull. My arms grew tired, I had to switch hands on the rod, adjust my grip, shake out my forearms and tiring biceps, adjust my stance, reset my feet in the sandy river bottom. We were locked in this thing together. Give and take. I felt our kinship growing and my respect for it building with every passing second;
If that goddamn fish could stand before me I'd look it right in its eyes and shake its hand (or fin or whatever) with the firmest grip; I'd give it a bear hug and say: You're one hell of an animal, I'll respect you 'til the day I die, thrashing for your sweet life like that with a hook in your face.
I felt I could empathize with its defiant spirit and could even feel it within myself, burning deep down. If some unknown brute hooked me in the face and tried to reel me in I'd spit and kick and go buck wild even if it torn my face clean off. That stubborn, searing, blood-boiling animal instinct for survival is all I mean.
As I inched it in Matt told me that when the fish saw the bank it would become filled with vigor again and jet away with everything and anything it had left. He was right. As soon as I had finally reeled it within a couple feet of the shallows it tore off with renewed fight, line slicing water; left, right, left. Of course I had the advantage and it was only a matter of another minute or two before it had nothing left to give, no line to take.
Matt was giddy, standing ready with the net. The thing was pretty darn big. I reeled it in the last few feet and with the final pull, right as it entered our waiting net, the line snapped and the fish flopped down, defeated. The buoyancy of the water takes a great deal of the weight of the fish off the line, so as soon as it was out of the water the heft was too much and it broke.
There the fish was, laying before me, captured, beautiful and glistening with color. We'd come for steelhead and this was a salmon, a Chinook, in good condition though spawning and therefore near the end of its life. Not the best for eating, not the best for taking as it's about to reproduce, so we'd be robbing the ecosystem of a new batch of young ones. Why do that? Let the rivers restock, more for everyone later. This gorgeous beast had come all the way from the ocean, up the great, wide brown Columbia to the Klickitat and then miles and miles north--upstream don't forget--to where we intimately interacted that late October day. It seemed a shame to take its life after it had worked so hard, given such a monumental effort, all in the name of giving back to life.
I knew I could keep it--permits would allow--but didn't want to. I made the decision looking down into its half-shuttered eye, feeling the bond and admiration from our toils together; You're one hell of an animal, I'll respect you 'til the day I die.
Matt pulled out his Leatherman and worked the hook out of its mouth (barbless, as regulations stipulated.) He ran over to the boat and got his camera and told me to grab the thing quick and pose for picture so we could get it back in the water. I stood there with the Klickitat lapping gently against me and the fish at waist height, one hand around the tail and the other holding the bulk of it. The picture was snapped and it was time to let the fine fish go; catch and release. Just like that it was gone, let go, with a great swish of its scaled body, away to the depths, as far from us and our hooks as possible.
Take care, I thought, I hope I didn't hurt you too badly, and thanks for your effort, it was a hell of a fight.
Matt was overjoyed and I was pleased, thankful for the unique experience of it all. We were both ready for lunch; we ate sitting there on the beach, drank our beers. After that it was getting later so we packed up and pushed on. We had miles to cover before the take out at the Ice House. Not much more fishing would be done but that was fine by me, I was more than satisfied and Matt's one wish had come true.
The sun lowered in the sky and highlighted the gorgeous land around us, the glowing, breath-catching colors of autumn. My feet were up on the bow, no responsibilities left for the last few miles except to soak it in and relax.
I said a thank you to the Klickitat and to all the fish, darting below us as we drifted on.
Thanks for reading!
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