Jon had always talked about springers. Holly and I’d been fishing with Jon Harrison of Five Rivers Guide Service for several years, and every time we went out he never failed to talk about two things: the Trinity River and spring-run king salmon. He even named his dog Trinity.
But for years, I never really bothered to listen too hard. The Trinity River seemed like light years away from Sacramento, and besides, even Jon said the spring run of king salmon was smaller than the larger fall runs — and the fish were far harder to catch. Why bother driving more than four hours away for chinook when we could catch them as close as the Sacramento marina?
The Sacramento salmon season has now been closed since 2007. And even though I am not normally a salmon fanatic, I’d been missing this fish. So when Jon mentioned the Trinity springers again last month while we were shad fishing, I bit: Sure, I said, let’s go up when the run is good. We’ll fish for two days, too.
Spring-run salmon are an odd bunch. They gorge themselves on krill and other crustaceans in deep ocean water and arrive in their spawning rivers fatter than a typical Wal-Mart shopper. The reason for all that fat is because these fish stake out the best spots for spawning and hang out there for weeks or even months on end — not eating. Fat is what gets them through the long fast before spawning. And this fat was what we were looking for.
“Springers come with their own butter,” Jon said. He told tales of them being so rich they need nothing more than a pinch of salt and a splash of Chardonnay. And I did not need Jon to tell me that no matter which river they’re caught in, spring-run king salmon are the ultimate chinook. The problem is in the catching.
Springers are wily, almost trout-like. By July, many of them have not eaten for more than two months and need to be fooled into striking a lure. This would be a trip for quality fish, not quantity.
It just seemed natural, then, that the place to fish for the King of Kings would be difficult to get to. Weaverville, our home base for the trip, is waaaay out in the middle of Nowhere. The little burgh is nearly an hour down the twisting Highway 299 from Redding, up and down one of the higher sections of California’s Coastal Range. And for some reason the Highway Patrol swarms this road, making speeding more than a little unwise.
But once we arrived, we soon found out that fishing in Nowhere can be beautiful. The Trinity is small — barely more than a creek in some places — lined with pines, dotted with clutches of mergansers, and nearly devoid of people. The first day we saw only one other angler.
In between the little rapids are deep pools, and it is in these pools that the springers lurk, keeping cool in the summer sun.
The best fishing, however, is before the sun even hits the river. This is when we fished with a lure called a Quikfish, which, when accompanied by a slab of sardine lashed to its bottom, can be irresistible to the big kings.
The first day we failed to land a salmon on this lure , but not for want of trying: We hooked five fish — three in the first half-hour — but they got off, because on the Trinity we are forced to use barbless hooks.
Hope is an amazing thing, and I never feel its presence stronger than when I am hunting or fishing. After those first few strikes, we were sure that the run was on in earnest and that today — finally, in what has been a hard-fought fishing season — would be a bonanza day, a day in which Holly and I would limit out by 10 o’clock and be napping at noon.
It was not to be. The sun rose, and the time for Quikfish, which only work well in lower light, ended. We switched to balls of salmon roe. Salmon for some reason will strike at globs of their own eggs. Whether it is a conscious act of cannibalism or a memory from their smolt-hood, when baby salmon eat the roe of their elders, I have no idea. But they do, so we use this fact against them.
Quikfishing is easy fishing: You drag the lure in a riffle while anchored, so it is basically stationary trolling. Throwing roe requires precision casting, an extremely fine touch to feel the bottom (and the rocks that can hang up your lure) and lightning reflexes — because salmon don’t attack the roe with any ferocity. Even a large fish will only tap-tap the bait.
And you cast for hours.
Cast and retrieve. Cast and retrieve. And because roe is soft, it does not stay on the hook very long. So Jon had to constantly rebait another line as Holly and I cast the first one.
No luck. We drifted down to a large pool with a sunken iron grider in it. It was almost noon, and the only viable places to fish remaining were very deep pools. This was one of them.
Cast and retrieve, cast and retrieve. Bump-bump. Weight on the line. Set it! With a jerk, I jammed the rod skyward and the tip bounced like bowling ball was attached to the other end. ZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!! Line started screaming off my reel. At long last, a fish — and a big one, at that.
Almost immediately fear set in. We’d lost so many fish that day, the thought of losing this chinook almost made me nauseous. Plus, I was using 15-pound test line, and I had a feeling this fish was heavier than that.
I’ve caught a lot of fish over the past three decades. I once landed a 35-pound striped bass in heavy current on 10-pound test. Took me nearly a half-hour. I know how to finesse fish in, but the issue is always snags: If this salmon got into some trees or that goddamn iron girder thingie, I was screwed. But with such light line, I couldn’t horse it or the fish would snap off. So I played it. Gently. Minutes went by. My arms began burning as it made run after run.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for!” Jon was ecstatic. He knew what I did not: That a fish on for this long was likely hooked deep.
The fish swam near the boat, but Trinity the Dog — who absolutely LOVES fish, as Holly wrote on her blog — was swimming right at it. “Trinity, NO!” Jon managed to get the dog out of the water, but the fish swam under the boat — always a bad situation, as the bad angle can snap the line easily.
But I managed to get the salmon back on this side of the boat, and, after two attempts, Jon netted it. This fish was huge, more than 20 pounds — the largest salmon I have ever caught.
It was the only fish we landed that first day. The next day, we hoped for revenge against the fish we’d hooked but lost, which were at a spot early in the run. But a bank fisherman was already there, so we had to move on. Damn.
We also knew two other boats were ahead of us on the river, which meant that fishing would be tough — the Trinity is so small that once a pool has been fished, the chances of a following boat catching anything out of it are pretty slim. So we tried marginal spots, riffles that salmon move through but do not stay in. Who knows? We might nab a passing fish.
We trolled Quikfish in the strong current. Bang! Holly got a short strike. A hit but no fish. A few minutes later the fish hit again, and this time she hooked it. Holly was as scared of losing the fish as I had been — if these kings were as tasty as Jon said, we did not want to lose what few chances we had.
But she landed the fish in short order; a typical chinook, about 10 pounds. We fished on for a while, then moved to another spot downriver: One of Jon’s money spots. And sure enough, Holly hooked another king in short order. This fish was bigger. Real big. Not as good a fighter as mine, but we could see in the water it was at least 15 pounds.
Jon had to pull the anchor to follow the fish, and within a few minutes Holly had second salmon in the boat — a limit, and by 8 a.m!
I was not so lucky. I spent the next four hours casting roe, but to no avail. Gotta say I was disappointed to not catch a fish that day, but knowing I’d landed an exceptionally large chinook the day before — and that between us we had 45 pounds of prime king salmon — made it a bit easier to bear.
We did it. We caught three of the Kings of King Salmon. According to Jon, these were the finest-eating salmon in California, possibly the finest eating salmon anywhere. By the time we were on the road back to Sacramento, I already had ideas on what to do with them — starting with the nasty bits: collars, bellies, racks and heads.
None of these salmon would go to waste.