The riches of salmon fishing, or how to stop worrying and avoid
a real job.
by Langdon Cook
From the May/June 2009 Issue
In August, without any sort of gainful employment to speak of and with little desire to find any, I gave myself over to the salt.
I had always been a trout man, but now I decided to try for salmon. Each morning I drove “to work” across the bridge to a city park with a long stretch of public beach. The drive felt like a commute. I had my to-go mug of coffee and an English muffin wrapped in a paper napkin. I listened to the morning news on the radio. Even at first light the park was busy. Couples mooned about holding hands, pointing at seals in the surf as if they were the first humans ever to make contact. Mothers strolled fussing babes. Joggers, bikers, and Rollerbladers performed their daily routines in bright, efficient Lycra. I had my own ritual: I parked in a four-hour zone, then sat on the tailgate to gather my things—rod and reel, a stray collection of lures that rolled noisily about in the trunk, a water bottle, and sometimes even a newspaper for those times when nothing was happening and the possibility of something happening in the future seemed unlikely.
I tried to appear inconspicuous, hurrying down the path in my waders and boots, the studs on my boots going clack-clack-clack on the pavement, looking away from the power-walkers to scan the tide for clues—for flocks of birds and the telltale
splashes of little fish being pursued by big fish. But someone always noticed my getup and needed confirmation. “Gonna get one today?” Raising my eyes, I’d try to say something hopeful. You bet. Just past the point, I joined a group of mostly elderly men on the beach, men much older than myself. Still, I might as well have been stooped over a metal detector. I had my lunch in a brown paper sack like a pensioner. Together we formed a sort of line—railposts silhouetted against the sky—and cast our lots out into the unfathomable water.
This was the season when the silvers run. Each year, as the summer comes to a close, the silver salmon return from their mysterious sojourns at sea, leaving hunting grounds in the North Pacific where they’ve spent a couple of years fattening up for their grueling spawning runs up the coastal rivers. The schools funnel into the sound and feed voraciously in a last bid for upstream fuel. Though not quite so revered as the larger, meatier Chinooks, or king salmon, the silvers still have the firm, bright red flesh of a good eating salmon—and they fight, I was told, like caged tigers.
The beach scene appealed to me. There was a sense of camaraderie. We celebrated each other’s catches. Landing an eight-pound silver meant food for a week for some lucky angler. As I glanced around, I had to conclude that, like me, many of these fishermen weren’t looking too hard for work. These were my people.
In the mornings, while it was still dark outside, I would be stepping into my waders while Martha was pulling on her pantyhose and telling me how she was late, how she needed to beat the traffic. I couldn’t disagree with that logic. She’d have a list of chores for me before going out the door. I was becoming a very efficient dishwasher loader. I knew the washer and dryer on a first-name basis. Just before the door closed there’d be a pause: “Are we having salmon tonight?”
Later, in the evenings when I heard the turn of the lock and watched Martha come into the kitchen, landing her shoulder bag in the middle of the floor as she reached for an uncorked bottle of wine and offering a slightly ironic “Did you have a good day?” I’d explain that salmon wasn’t yet the House Special, but soon. Soon.
Part of the problem was the little spinning rod I’d found in the basement. It seemed a bit extravagant for a man with no job to buy a new rod so I could go fishing instead of looking for work. Besides, I liked to think I was putting food on the table without spending a dime. The thing was, I wasn’t. And the few fish I hooked kept shaking off—a sad state of affairs not missed by the regulars on the beach. One morning, after watching me lose a nice silver, one angler sauntered over to watch while I battled another fish, a cigarette dangling from her lip. My plastic reel groaned under the pressure and the rod whipsawed back and forth. “Keep the tip up,” she said, pointing her Camel Light like a professor’s ruler. I had the fish in the shallows now and could see it was a beauty, big and glinting, with a tail like a garden spade. A few more regulars interrupted their casting to offer moral support. I was thinking about what this slab-sided fish would look like on the grill—bright red flesh gleaming with olive oil and dotted with a few green sprigs of rosemary and white flecks of garlic, how Martha would be beside herself—when I heard a pop and nearly fell over backwards. My lure flew out of the water like a slingshot and whistled past my ear. The salmon, half out of the surf, kicked its massive tail once and vanished back into the waves.
“Shoulda kept your tip up.”
The anticlimax was palpable. Everyone went back to what they were doing, with eyes averted to spare me the embarrassment of consolation. I packed up my things and drove directly to my neighborhood tackle shop, a place of dusty shelves and little commerce. “I need a respectable salmon rod,” I told the clerk behind the counter, a diminutive Filipina of advanced age. I showed her what I’d been using.
“That’s cheapo trout rod. You no land salmon on that.” She shook her head in disgust. I was sullying the place as I stood there.
“I know, I know.”
“Here, you want this.” She put a salmon rod in my hand. It was a good three feet longer than my trout rod. “Feel this.” She grabbed the tip and bent the rod over double, imitating the action of a heavy-bodied fish. “No problem, right?” She stroked the rod with a wrinkled finger right along the butt section. “What you need? Backbone.”
I said I’d take it. She matched the rod with a reel and wound on 12-pound test. I bought a handful of lures and a small tackle box to hold them.
The regulars at the beach admired my new setup. Only $50, I crowed. There was Cheri, the gang’s day-trading, chain-smoking den mother, and her husband; a couple of local firefighters who fished whenever they weren’t at the station; several retirees who spent their days at the beach, mostly playing cards at a picnic table; Sunny, with his graying dreadlocks and flip-flops and a distinctly warm disposition; an old Indian-looking guy with a shark-tooth necklace and a panama hat; and a hunched 80-year-old Chinese man named Louie who always caught the biggest fish. The old guys especially seemed to have latched on to some hard-won wisdom over the years. They weren’t in a hurry. When one of them caught a fish, they all admired it for a while on the beach. One that got off was easy come, easy go. It occurred to me that they had caught a lot of fish over the years, more than I would ever know. The regulars were there nearly every day—and then there was Trouthole.
One morning I arrived to find an old colleague of mine stringing up his fly rod. Trouthole—that’s his nom de plume—eyed me suspiciously.
“What are you doing here? It’s eight on a Tuesday morning.”
“I could ask you the same.”
“Working,” he said. “Putting food on the table.”
In an earlier life, Trouthole and I had worked together at the same company, though on different “teams.” As these things go, we discovered we had a mutual interest in trout fishing and started making trips together. Our go-to water was a curvy canyon stretch of river on the eastern side of the mountains, where native redsides—a type of desert-dwelling rainbow trout—made for good sport on light fly rods. In fall, when the cottonwoods turned yellow, we camped down by the water’s edge and fished from morning until dark. The day Trouthole became my boss was a dark one at the company. I arrived that morning to find many of our colleagues being sacked as the company, newly public, bowed to Wall Street pressure to cut costs. Trouthole got a promotion.
“You’ve still got a job with my team,” he said to me, “if you want it.”
“Let me think about it.”
“Not much to think about. You work for me or pack your things.”
The arrangement didn’t turn out as awkward as I feared, and we still fished for trout on occasion. When I gave notice a few years later, he actually seemed sad—this despite his toast at my birthday luncheon, when he declared me “unbossable.”
Like me, Trouthole had fled the corporate world and was now unemployed. He looked at my new spinning rod. “What’s up with the Ugly Stik?”
“I’m not one of those fly-fishing purists.”
“This is about getting dinner. I’m not ashamed.” I unhooked my Buzz Bomb from the hook-keeper, an unartful hunk of lead painted hot pink, and let it sail 30 yards out into the chop. Trouthole snorted and stepped into the water. He stripped off some line, then double-hauled and landed his fly about 80 feet out. “Look at that. Nothing gives me more pleasure than casting just as far as you hardware boys. Five bucks says I’ll catch a fish before you.”
“I’d rather not demean our ancient pastime.”
“Beers at the local. I’ll give you two-to-one odds.”
Before I could reject his overture, Trouthole was into a fish. He fought it to the surfline and then horsed his salmon up onto the beach in front of a crowd of tourists. Kneeling beside it, he looked up at me and grinned ostentatiously, then turned gravely to the crowd closing in for a look. “This,” he said, reaching theatrically for the nearest stone of consequence, “is called the rock shampoo.”
One afternoon I got to the beach late and had to take my place at the end of the line, far from the point, and, I was sure, far from the sweet spot. The day was windy, with uncharacteristically large waves crashing on the cobbles. It was Sunday and few of the regulars were around, just a bunch of weekend warriors tossing their lures out and hardly bothering to reel them back in. They didn’t expect to catch anything; I could see that right away. They were hiding from chores and honey-do lists. It occurred to me that I was just about the only regular in attendance, if I could be so bold as to call myself that. Just then I saw an interesting sight through my polarized lenses: plain as day, a pod of silvers zipped by in the curl of a wave mere yards offshore, fin to fin like a squadron of Blue Angels in tight formation. I turned to the guy next me. Am I seeing things? He couldn’t summon the energy to answer and robotically cast his line way over the salmon, 50 yards out to sea. A few minutes later and the squadron was back. I put my lure in front of the pod, just a few yards out. A fish peeled off the group and hammered it in less than a foot of water. Seconds later I had a six-pound silver on the beach.
The guy next to me was surprised. “Wow, you got one,” he said, as if we were all assembled there for some obscure reason that had yet to be revealed. Five minutes later, I had my second. A limit. Silver salmon on the menu at last.
By September I’d caught enough silvers to start stocking the freezer. My newfound success also had the odd (especially to Martha’s thinking) effect of stalling any sort of job search: I was now determined to take my mastery to the next level. I called up Trouthole.
“Don’t call me that.”
“Any fish around?”
Trouthole was raised in Detroit. His father worked at the ultimate blue-collar firm, the Ford Motor Company, and although he was management, Trouthole grew up with a rivet-head’s range of betrayable emotions. A colleague of ours once referred to him as “rectangular shaped.” The description is apt. Trouthole gambles and plays ice hockey. He likes good scotch. Jim Harrison is his hero. In case of emergency, he keeps a .44 in a drawer.
“Catch any lately?”
“Is this going to be a game of Magic Eight-Ball, or are you going to emit a few more syllables?”
“The outlook is good.”
“I’ve got a fly rod. When should I come over?”
“Tomorrow morning, before slack.”
An hour before low tide, I pulled up in front of Trouthole’s home. The house had a whiff of college dorm. One bedroom was devoted to his instruments—guitars and amps and such. Empty bottles lined the windowsill behind the living room couch. The place smelled of cigarettes and stale beer. Cards littered the kitchen table.
“You should have been here ten hours ago,” he yawned. “I made eighty clams.”
“Business trip. Keeping this whole enterprise afloat.” After years of saying he would never marry, Trouthole had recently asked for the hand of an auburn beauty ten years his junior who was known, on camping trips, to twirl flaming batons around her head in a midnight fire dance for the Burning Man set. I witnessed the wedding myself. Red came down the aisle to the unmistakable twang of “I Walk the Line,” and later, at the reception, she joined a fiddle-violin combo to sing a rowdy version of “Folsom Prison Blues.”
We went from room to room, gathering up his gear. I was glad to see he had finally trimmed back the muttonchops. Since leaving the company, he had been working on a novel, a sort of historical fish fantasy set during the first year of the Lewis and Clark expedition, told from the point of view of the official Corps of Discovery Angler in Chief. Trouthole had done his homework. He tossed around a lexicon of antiquated frontier language that would make Cormac McCarthy blush. The novel was written entirely in dialect. After reading a few chapters, I suggested he might ease up on the reader just a smidgen and tone down the vernacular, citing (I thought smartly) Huckleberry Finn as an example. Trouthole rejected the idea out of hand. There would be no easing up on anybody.
All this immersion into 19th-century mores and figures of speech had, of late, taken a physical toll on Trouthole. He was beginning to dress like a sodbuster. Half the time I had no idea what he was saying, and then there were those Stonewall Jackson muttonchops. He could have been an extra in a Civil War movie. He was playing a lot of poker and doing inexplicable things to dead animals in the kitchen. How Red put up with any of this was a mystery. Then again, bringing home fresh salmon fillets every morning by sunup can have a peculiar effect on some wives.
We drove the short distance to the park. On the far side of the point, several of the regulars were
already in attendance, flinging their lures out into the swells. I strung up an 8-weight fly rod with a new line purchased just for the salt. In the hands of a fly caster who knows what he’s doing, the line was capable of shooting a hundred feet or more; in my hands, it might go 60. I tied on a pink fly with dumbbell eyes. Trouthole watched me with his rod tucked under one arm. “Think you have what it takes to operate that thing?”
“Right quick, I expect.”
After a couple of casts I lost my fly on the rocks behind me. Trouthole diagnosed my problem as a “weak-ass double-haul” and handed me another fly from the bill of his cap. He demonstrated the correct technique, and dropped his fly into a slick just beyond a band of fast-moving water, a place where baitfish can become disoriented and thrown to the mercy of the tide. He stripped in his fly without event and cast again. An hour later, and still nothing.
Normally under slow fishing conditions, Trouthole would keep up a steady patter of off-color stories and maybe some big-league baseball analysis, but today he seemed uncharacteristically distracted. After a while the wind came up and Trouthole got discouraged. He said he had some things “to take care of” at home. I stuck around and wrestled with the wind. No one was catching anything. Then, just past noon, another fly caster tied into a beautiful fish, maybe nine pounds. It took line, and the fisherman worked to get it back. The fish leaped clear of the water and ran again. This went on for a while until he had it in close and beached it. The salmon was still gasping for breath when he whipped out a cell phone and called his wife. If Trouthole had been here, there might have been a fight. I stepped back in the water and redoubled my resolve. A fish grabbed my fly and took off. Within seconds it was off. The next fish wasn’t so lucky. This time I was ready, and I kept him tight on my line. He ran to the right and then to the left. He came toward me and I gathered up the slack. In the shallows he thrashed in a way that reminded me his biological imperative was being denied, and I pulled him up on the beach. Not huge—maybe four pounds—but silver, and hooked in the corner of his mouth on my fly. I waited until I was halfway down the path to the car, my catch cleaned and in a bag, before I got out my phone.
Toward the end of the season, Trouthole stopped showing up at the beach altogether. Recently he had asked me to be a job reference, said I might get some calls from prospective employers.
“Don’t do it,” I pleaded with him. “It’ll just be me and a bunch of old guys. Finish the novel first.” But he’d made up his mind. At the beach I kept waiting for one of the regulars to ask me why I still wasn’t working, but no one asked questions like that. In mid-October, Louie, the octogenarian, landed a 13-pound silver. Rather than run up the beach and drag the salmon from the water, he played it in the surf, gallantly soaking his loafers and pant cuffs while leading the fish back and forth in the shallows like a dog on a leash until it was exhausted. Then he bent over carefully and grabbed it by the gill. Back on dry land, after dispatching the fish with a piece of driftwood, he stood over it for a while. A couple of other regulars joined him. They circled the salmon, hands clasped behind their backs, staring and nodding. Then Louie went to fetch his knife. Later he came up to me, his eyes just visible behind tinted lenses, his voice barely audible. “I worked all my life,” he said matter-of-factly. “Retirement is good.” I didn’t know what to say to that. He went on in a low rasp, “These young guys”—as if I might have been a spokesperson for all of them—“they don’t know the proper landing technique. You stay in the water with the salmon. If he throws the hook, you can kick him up on shore.” This seemed questionable to me, possibly illegal, but how could I contradict someone of Louie’s stature?
“How long have you been fishing around here, Louie?”
He gestured with the palm of his hand, holding it about waist-high.
“What was it like back in the day? I know it’s a bad question, but I need to know.”
“Oh man,” he said in a whisper. “We killed ’em. In the fifties? You wouldn’t believe it. We killed ’em.” With that he picked up his tackle box and the plastic bag holding his big silver salmon, and strapped first the box and then the bag to his two-wheeled hand-truck with a pair of bungee cords. He stood up and looked around as if he might have forgotten something. “See you tomorrow,” he said finally, already moving away, his back turned, choosing his steps carefully as he walked along the beach path toward the distant parking lot, slightly stooped over as always, pulling the hand-truck with the silver behind him.
Langdon Cook “works at home” in
Seattle, Washington. His book, Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century
Forager, will be published by Skipstone Press in 2009.