An oily, slate-gray sea slid by as the Sea Weasel II motored out of Eureka on a typically foggy morning in Humboldt Bay. Charcoal ghosts of Monterey cypress trees stood sentinel on shore as we approached The Jaws, the battered sea wall that protects the bay from the cold North Pacific. Other than the thrum of the prop churning the water below, the only sound was the clanging of the marker buoys, bobbing in our wake.
I was fishing with Capt. Gary Blasi of Full Throttle Sportfishing, one of the best halibut captains along California’s Lost Coast. In nearly 40 years of fishing, I’ve yet to catch a Pacific halibut, and I wanted to in the worst way. I still do, because as it happened, the halibut were nowhere to be found that day. But it was our quick side trip to catch some salmon that still sticks in my mind.
The pursuit of food in the wild is an endeavor fraught with ritual and superstition. No matter whether it’s fishing, foraging or hunting, lucky shirts are a commonplace, as are little talismans of good luck, often worn, tucked into pockets or rubbed nervously between our fingers. For good luck I used to wear necklace made from the tooth of a mako shark I’d caught off the coast of New Jersey. One day it fell off, and I swear I failed to catch a fish for a month afterwards.
No matter whether you call it juju, mojo, fortune, fate, voodoo, or the power of positive thinking, this magic is proof that human events are not a thing easily parsed by things like logic or reason.
I didn’t much want to fish for salmon that day; I can catch them far closer than the Lost Coast, which is 300 miles from Sacramento, over some difficult roads. But Gary said he thought it would be a good idea, and I trust a captain who fishes every day. So off for salmon we went.
Aboard with me were three other anglers: A retired electronics engineer from Granite Bay and a couple from the Bay Area. Everyone silently agreed that Bev, the only woman aboard, would get the first crack at a fish. It did not take long before a chinook slammed one of the anchovies we were trolling behind the boat. State law requires us to use barbless hooks, which can be a tricky thing depending on the speed of the current, size of the seas and skill of the angler. But Bev, a relentlessly happy woman quick with a wisecrack or three, landed her fish just fine.
So too did Chris, her boyfriend. And then John, the retired engineer lost a fish, then caught one. It was my turn on the rod, but I was still less than indifferent about the idea of catching salmon; I’ve been catching a lot this season, and I am heading out again in a few days for more. A fish mouthed a bait on a downrigger but failed to hook itself, and I went over to rebait the line. Just then the rod opposite me bent double. “Hank, Hank!” they all shouted. I told the group to just catch the fish, I’ll deal with the bait. But they didn’t listen, and just kept shouting at me to pick up the rod. Instantaneously that set me into a foul mood. “Catch the fucking fish!” I snapped. John picked up the rod and the salmon wriggled free.
Finally, everyone had their limits but me. And it became obvious that the captain wanted a full boat of limits; it’s good for business, and — he only revealed this later — he was nervous about the halibut bite and wanted us all to go home with some fish. So there I stood, waiting for a bite. Again, it did not take long. A downrigger went off, and I reeled down to create tension on the line and then pulled the rod from the holder. The fish popped off.
I might have mumbled something about going halibut fishing, but the boat would have none of it. Five minutes later the other downrigger went off. Same thing happened. Gary noticed that I was not reeling in enough tension on the line. Duly noted. Then one of the rods trailing a Double Deep Six diving lure got bit. I picked up the rod, kept the tip up around a 45-degree angle and reeled. I brought the chinook about halfway to the boat when it surfaced and did the dreaded “alligator roll,” writhing and rolling exactly like a hooked gator in the TV show “Swamp People.” PING! The fish escaped.
Gary couldn’t believe it. “What happened?”
“You know, I’ve never missed three fish in a row, Gary. This is weird.”
“It happens,” he said. He told me of an unfortunate soul who missed eleven straight fish the day before. And of a day the previous week when he’d needed 58 baits to catch 12 salmon.
As I stood there waiting for another salmon to bite, I found myself suddenly caring an awful lot about catching one. It was the principle of the thing. I’d gone from apathetic to angry to fiercely alive in about five minutes. This next fish was mine.
Only it wasn’t. A chinook hit the downrigger and I reeled down hard. “Good enough, Gary?” He nodded. I picked up the rod… and there was no fish on the other end. Gone. Now I was getting rattled.
“Watch me on this next one, Gary. Lemme know if I’m doing anything wrong.”
Bam! Not ten minutes later another fish bit; a distant voice in my head marveled at the epic bite. Again I grabbed the rod, set the hook and reeled. And again the goddamn fish rose to the surface, did the alligator roll, and popped off.
“You did absolutely nothing wrong, Hank,” Gary said, in a surprisingly soothing voice. “I’da told you if you were.”
Two more fish bit, rose, alligator rolled, and popped off. Now everyone on the boat was standing wide-eyed and hushed. Even me.
“Looks like you are the Chosen One, Hank,” Gary said. “It’ll happen. Just stay positive.”
I’d been trying to be positive for the last four fish. I knew what was happening. I’d felt this way before. Once when I foolishly passed up a string of spoonies while duck hunting. And many times when I was in a batting slump back when I played baseball. I’d lost my mojo.
What seemed like a long while passed before the next fish hit. I stared out at the ocean, which had begun to brighten.
Think positive, Hank. Happy thoughts.
A rod bent double, a chinook sizzling line off the reel. I took a deep breath and picked up the rod, set the hook and went once more into the breach. This was a sizable fish, easily 20 pounds. Stay under, stay under you bastard! I wasn’t sure I could handle another alligator roll. Finally the Salmon Gods determined that I had suffered enough. The fish stayed submerged, swam toward the boat, and Gary netted it flawlessly.
Oh God, thank you thank you THANK YOU! At last. After seven straight misses, a chinook in the boat. Never in my life had I endured a string of misses that long. I’ve caught scores salmon over the years, but none more wonderful than that one shiny 20-pounder. I ought to have it mounted, with a brass plaque set underneath it inscribed with the words “Think Positive, You Bastard, or Suffer the Consequences!”
I ought to. But I think I’ll eat it instead.