I’ve been staring at the end of a fishing rod for the better part of two days. By now the monotonous thrum of the Sundance’s engine has become the basso soundtrack to my existence; last night I heard it resonating through the few fitful hours of sleep I managed to snatch from Morpheus.
The stink of diesel no longer fazes me. I don’t even notice the smell of the dead anchovies we’re using as bait, or of my own ripe self. I’ve been able to walk the pitching decks almost normally all day. And the flexing swells of the famously sullen North Pacific has never yet played havoc with my inner ear — an advantage of being the son of a Yankee sailor from Ipswich, Massachusetts; I’ve been aboard a boat, more or less, since I was born. A small mercy.
It’s the relentless gray of the Marin Coast that has me in a funk. This stretch of the Pacific seldom sees sun in summer, and it can be a full 50 degrees colder here than it will be when I return home to Sacramento this evening, hopefully loaded down with king salmon that I will eat fresh for days and smoked for months. Everything here is drained of color: The skies, the ocean, the coast, even the salmon we’re seeking, which are only orange on the inside.
I have the leisure to contemplate all this because we are trolling. Trolling, for the most part, consists of hours of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror. When you troll, you run lines off various locations of a boat, each weighted with an expensive lead ball and trailing a spinning anchovy intricately threaded onto a barbless hook.
Its long silences make trolling a style of fishing unusually open to deep introspection. Only fly fishing in streams where trout are sparse, or the endless casting for steelhead or muskellunge or permit come close. A steelhead may be the fish of a thousand casts, but a chinook on the ocean is a fish of a thousand moments spent staring at the end of a rod.
Spend enough time aboard a boat trolling for salmon — or any other sort of fish, for that matter — and you’ll witness virtually every primary emotion humans are capable of expressing.
Step aboard and you transform into a pulsating ball of hope; your bleariness, caused by a truncated night’s “sleep” followed by a long drive through the predawn darkness, instantly dissipates. Today will be a day to remember. Today will be epic, a day where massive chinook will come to the boat to be netted and you’ll all have your two-fish limit so early the big debate will be whether to switch to rockcod fishing or to just steam home early to miss the afternoon’s rush-hour traffic. Visions of mammoth salmon swim the edges of your consciousness like warm waking dreams of unrequited crushes heatedly requited, every detail vivid.
To enforce this hope through past experience, you begin to trade stories of bonanza days past. Days where you let 15-pound salmon shake off in order to land larger ones. The stories strengthen if such a day happened recently, and become stronger still if it was only the day before. After such a tale, the whole boat will vibrate with anticipation as you steam out into the sunrise across the sleepy bay and through the Golden Gate.
As you head toward the fishing grounds — Duxbury Reef, The Channel, Stinson Beach — you start another step in the trolling process: The all-important hedge against expectation. You tell yourself (and sometimes others) that you will be perfectly happy with one nice salmon (only a madman would be happy to go fishless, after all) and that it doesn’t really even have to be that large. Inwardly, you begin to build the necessary emotional wall against the angst of total skunkage.
Humility hits next as the mate describes how things will go aboard the boat. Trolling takes many forms, but its essence is coordination and precision. Trailing so many lines in the water requires each to be set a certain intervals. Baits must be pristine. Drag exact. A lot to remember if you are new. And even though all of this will be familiar to anyone who has trolled before, aboard certain boats, the Sundance being one of them, the actual angling challenges your most deeply held convictions about how and how not to catch a fish.
For whatever reason, aboard this boat (and a few others), you must never, ever lift your rod tip against the fish until you are ready to net it; doing this keeps the salmon’s thrashing head under the waves, and not above where it can spit the hook with ease. Almost no other fishery asks this of an angler. In fact, setting the hook and keeping the rod tip skyward are essentials of good angling. Not here.
Women seem to adapt to this new regime easily. Men, especially men who have fished their whole lives, have difficulty. Some never adjust at all. But if you want to catch a California chinook aboard the Sundance, you must do exactly as Capt. RJ and his deckhands Jim and Joe say. Or else.
Once the gear is in the water, the long wait begins. King salmon swim in loose schools, only occasionally bunching up so tight that anglers can drift anchovy baits through them, a style of fishing amusingly called mooching. Most of the time the captain creeps the boat along at less than two knots around and around a certain stretch of water, looking for chinook that possess a hunger for dead, spinning anchovies.
For the first hour or so, everyone aboard is tight with anticipation. The slightest nod in a rod sparks a frantic response. But soon the inevitable malaise sets in. Hours can pass between bites, and as time oozes on, the anglers feel the seductive pull of sloth: Beer starts to look more and more attractive. Maybe it’s time for that sandwich. Gear doesn’t get checked as often. Jellyfish and eel grass collect on the lines. Bites are missed. All of this can become a ruinous cycle of defeat if the deckhands aren’t vigilant.
Lost fish only deepen this feeling. A good crew of anglers won’t lose more than a few salmon a day. Inexperienced anglers can lose dozens. Fishing barbless hooks is tricky, and a burly chinook can easily escape one — one 28-pounder that didn’t escape still nearly straightened out an 8/0 hook in the fight. Fish get off. It happens. But that’s not how most are lost. Most are lost to angler error. A few times? No biggie. Part of the charter boat experience. On the other hand, a string of botched strikes will sow sour feelings that can grow ugly in a hurry.
Experienced salmon anglers (and the crew) can’t help but feel frustrated when the inexperienced flub fish after fish. The noobs sense this, and are justifiably irked as well: How are we expected to master this mystery on our first or even second trip? A long wait for a bite after a lost fish can be especially toxic. No one speaks. There is only the thrum of the engine, the hiss of the wake.
And then it happens.
“HOOK UP!!!” RJ shouts. Hands scramble to release the rods from their holders, and like clockwork, everyone does what they’re supposed to do. The angler keeps the the rod and the fish perpendicular, rod tip low. Her companions grab the surrounding rods, point them straight down and shuffle away from her bouncing rod, with its angry chinook attached to the other end. Dropping the rod tips toward the bottom of the sea allows the salmon to swim over the other lines without tangling them. Without this it would be chaos.
I can’t watch. I stare at the green Pacific listening to Joe and Jim calmly coach the angler. They’ve seen a thousand salmon come over the rail. The seduction of the Great Orange Fish has dimmed within them. I am not so sanguine. I fear that if I look I will somehow hex the whole affair, that one glimpse of the struggling salmon will somehow give it new strength, strength to leap completely out of the air, look the hapless angler in the eye and throw the hook. I hear drag scream off the reel. At least a 20-pounder, maybe more. Don’t look!
“Reel, reel, reel, reel!” Jim seems preternaturally calm. “OK, lift the rod tip over my head.” A long-handled net thrusts down like the strike of a spear. I hear a thrashing. Jim’s suddenly not so cool anymore: “Drop the rod tip! NOW!” He lifts the net and swings it onto the deck with a thump.
Everyone aboard feels it. Chinook in the box.
We all seem to exhale at once, and then RJ lets out a war whoop. The king explodes with fury on the deck. Jim reaches for a hand-carved wooden club, black with salmon blood and ten thousand days at sea. This club has killed enough salmon to constitute an entire run of a moderately sized river. We call it the “wood shampoo.” One thud and the salmon stills.
Only then do we all look at it, judge its size. Only now do visions of salmon steaks, grilled salmon collars, salmon belly sashimi, smoked salmon and salmon patties float up from some deep, carnivorous cavern within us all. No one aboard the Sundance (or any of the salmon fleet, for that matter) releases legal fish. Let the fly anglers in the rivers release their salmon. We fish to eat.
An hour passes. I see my rod pulsating rhythmically. For a single heartbeat I stand mesmerized. Then in one motion I unhook a safety clip from the rod, pull the rod from its holder and turn to set the perfect angle on the fish. I shout, “Fish on!” And the ballet begins again.
I’ve caught scores of salmon, yet still whenever I am the angler in this drama, fright clouds everything else. Most fishing days offer few chances at the reel, and each time the rod bends I fear it will be my last. Losing a fish may mean the difference between salmon for dinner (and smoked salmon for months to come) and a significant financial loss followed by a dejected trip to Chipotle on the way home.
All I can think of is that single, barbless hook. A tiny sliver of wire and a thread of monofilament are the only things tethering me to a mighty fish, a fish so massive even a cookie-cutter 15-pounder will feed us for weeks. Don’t allow any slack. Keep the rod tip down. Watch your angle, move your hips. Stay tight to the fish. Smooth… smooth… Reel to the leader. Lift over Jim’s head. Drop that tip!
Ohmygoditsinthenet! Exhale. Smile. Beam.