Salmon Fishing on the Columbia River

The noise of barking sea lions echoed off the sides of the giant steel boats in the harbor. Our guide had just dunked his aluminum boat into the water and pulled his shiny Ford pickup and trailer dripping with river water up onto the boat ramp. I noticed his personalized license plate was abbreviated to read, Night Moves. He was a small but strong man with thinning blond hair tied back into a gnarled ponytail. He wore rubber waders, a navy and red rain parka and a weather worn grimace. The four of us on the dock were quiet as he went about his business of loading and preparing the boat for our day of salmon fishing on the Columbia River out of the gray port town of Astoria, Oregon. IMG_1650

I followed him to the boat alone, the others were finding the last refuge of a bathroom. I’d never done anything like this before and it already wasn’t what I’d expected. Billie, our boat captain and fishing guide struck up a conversation with the guide in the boat tied next to ours while I sat and listened and observed and waited for my friends to walk down the dock. The fishermen were using terms like spinner, Chinook, Coho, hatchery and wild. They seemed to be speaking a different language entirely and I was fascinated but trying to appear cool. I nodded and mmm-hmm’d every once in a while even though I had no idea what they were talking about. Finally my friends came toward the boat and Billie helped each of them on board. He told us where to sit and we listened. That’s the thing about boat captains. You do what they tell you to do and don’t ask questions. Billie was gruffly friendly, capable and confident and puttered us out through the barking sea lions into the wide river as we looked on toward our adventure with smiles and wide eyes.

From my experience of the Pacific Northwest, I can tell you that most days are cool and gray. This one was no exception but at least it wasn’t raining. I was dressed appropriately in several layers, the outer most of which was galoshes, worn jeans, alpaca gloves and a rain jacket. I felt I fit in and flew under the radar and didn’t give anyone the notion I was a recovering Southern California resident.

We flew across the smooth dark water to a spot under a bridge that joins Oregon and Washington. Cars and trucks traveled high overhead and I felt lucky to be looking out onto the water instead of at traffic and the road. Billie was making calls on his cell phone talking to his fisherman buddies trying to find out where the Coho were jumping and the Chinook were biting. He decided this was a good place to start and he began baiting hooks and distributing fishing rods. His authority was a bit daunting and none of us wanted to make a mistake or tangle the lines because it was going to piss Billie off. No one wanted that.IMG_1636

The least experienced among us caught the first fish. Billie jumped in her direction when he saw the rod take and she squealed as he took over her spot at the rod and began drawing the fish into the boat. There was a flurry of excitement as he called out rapid-fire instructions for us to reel in our lines and make room for the match about to take place between him and the Chinook. We clumsily did as he instructed, all stomping around the boat as it rocked back and forth with the current and Billie called out orders. I handed over the net as he reeled the flopping fish to the surface and someone slid the net in underneath the silvery fish. This first catch of the day was about an hour from the dock. Much to Billie’s dismay, after the catch, we took a while to regroup. “When they’re bitin’ they’re bitin’ and we gotta get those lines back in the water.” He said sternly. We picked up the pace and got back to dropping our bait and manning our anchored poles. We were each sure that if it was that easy, if Patti could do it (and come up smiling), we could do it too. We waited…and waited. Billie’s phone rang to the tune of Night Moves and he picked it up to talk with his fisherman buddy about moving to a new location. We would hear this same conversation over and over again throughout the day.IMG_1645

We reeled in our lines and flew to the next spot. David, the most experienced among us, brought up a beautiful wild salmon that, unfortunately had to be thrown back. It seems the rules and regulations governing what fish can be kept and which must be thrown back are constantly changing and cause severe contempt among local fisherman. Billie grumbled through the peace and quiet of the afternoon. After a lengthy attempt and no more catches, Billie picked up the night moves cell phone and found us another spot back toward the bridge. Apparently word had gotten out about this particular spot though and there were boats everywhere. “There’s no nets out.” Billie said. “Not a good sign.” He watched the other boats as we trained our eyes on the tips of our rods dipping just into the water and the waves rolled up underneath us banging against the metal boat. Just as we were about to give up on this spot, David’s wife Cissie had a bite and we all jumped into action again. The fish pulled her gracefully around the boat and she reeled it to the surface; but it was another wild and we had to toss him back. We were one for three and eventually Night Moves called with another tip and we headed for the next spot. For the rest of the day, we had several bites and several false alarms. We sat and watched our rods and bullshitted the day away. We learned that Billie had been fishing these waters for 45 years. Billie learned I was single and tried to set me up with a logger friend of his. We found out Billie’s other buddy was in the state pen in Texas for robbing banks. This was his third incarceration; he kept getting out and robbing more banks. I never did get Billie’s buddy’s phone number for a date.

We finally gave in around noon and headed back to harbor. We were a little defeated, but felt lucky to have caught at least one fish for dinner. We trolled our boat into the dock, the voices of the barking sea lions blasting off the steel boats as they lazed their beastly bodies on the docks.IMG_1651

We left invigorated by our day on the river and, later that night, we feasted on fresh Chinook salmon.  We bonded and regaled the stories of our adventure over wine and Patti’s fish.

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