THE silver-gray Chinook salmon shuddered and then died after the bat barrel crashed into its head. Two hard whacks were all it took. Twenty minutes earlier, the 30-pound fish was swimming past the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia to its spawning ground up any one of thousands of rivers and streams along the West Coast of North America.
The Chinook made its final mistake when it mistook half a herring baitfish threaded with two 4/0 hooks for a real meal. I recall the 8-foot rod tip-tapping down once, then twice, and I quickly stripped out a few feet of 30-pound test monofilament line so the bait would free fall. The tapping I felt from my spot in the boat must have been the salmon ramming the bait with its body or tail to stun it into submission. Then came the take, as the salmon swallowed the bait and the rod bowed down. I lifted high and hard, setting both hooks, and reeled as fast as I could. “This is far too easy,” I thought, as the fish rolled to the surface 20 yards out.
“Now he’s going to run,” yelled guide Jason Drury of the Queen Charlotte Lodge, a high-end fishing establishment. “Keep steady pressure, and let him take out line if he runs.”
But the fish allowed itself to be dragged over the water to the boat -- a possum play, perhaps? I held the rod straight with my left hand and palmed the one-speed reel with my right, waiting for the fight, and then I stumbled in a big swell. My right hand fell slightly, so my right fingers and palm were in line with the two cranking handles on the reel. At that instant, the fish took off, stripping off line and spinning those handles like a garbage disposal. My knuckles and palms took a repeated busting before I could move them onto the back of the reel to slow it a bit, the reel still screaming as line peeled out.
I tried to keep pressure, and the fish moved in short fits, pulling some, then going completely slack. “If he gives you line, take it fast and keep the pressure on,” Drury instructed. I remembered hearing that advice before, in the mid-1990s during those great salmon runs off Southern California. But that was a 12-pound Chinook, not half the size of this freight train. So I kept the pressure on and reeled. The fish came to the surface again and jumped completely out of the water in an attempt to spit the barb-less hooks. I kept the line tight, and the fish crashed close to the boat and took off on another run.
The fish ran me around the 22-foot boat, and my fishing partner Scott Lewer of Steamboat Springs, Colo., quickly reeled in the other baitfish we had on the troll, just to avoid any tangles. We had caught plenty of fish so far, including Chinooks of just less than 20 pounds and coho salmon in the 12-pound class, but this one was the biggest. Though the fishing season is open year-round and the big Chinooks run through October, the weather turns bad in September, and the number of anglers plummets until April. We wanted this one in the boat.
So it went, a real good fight with a true Chinook salmon, and I was conflicted and confused. I wanted this to last forever and end at once. My knuckles were sore, yet my heart soared. On the northern horizon, I could see land on Alexander Archipelago, the southern tip of Alaska. A bald eagle flew overhead, and I thought I saw a black bear on the shore. Earlier that day orcas breeched within sight. I mentally tried to burn the memories into my brain. And I hoped the fight would not end with my knuckles busted and my heart broken. I wanted this fish in the boat, on the dinner table and printed on my resume as a “Landed Fish.”
The fish tired, and this time I half-guided and half-dragged it to the boat. I knew in my heart it was over. Drury dipped the wide net down and scooped up the salmon. I stripped out line; he removed the hooks and then laid the flapping fish on the deck.
I grabbed the wooden bat, but first took a hard look at the salmon. The salmon’s mouth was larger, darker and filled with more teeth than I ever imagined. Its sides were solid muscle and slippery. The fish was cold, a result of living in the 58-degree Pacific Ocean water. There was one more job to do, and I lifted the wooden bat, and well, you know what happened next. Afterward, I posed and preened with the dead fish. Its colors were quickly fading, like that day’s waning Canadian sky.