On a recent cool fall day, I chose not to battle whitecaps and join the weekend flotilla of rabid anglers chasing Chinook salmon on the Columbia River. Parking my truck downstream of Horn Rapids Dam, I slip on chest waders and grab a cottage cheese container full of cured salmon roe. Blooming rabbitbrush impart a golden glow to the landscape. It’s good to feel my boots on the ground.
A well-worn trail leads through a snarl of willow, wild rose and alder to my favorite hole. The musty smell of decaying reed canary grass and the sight of empty Styrofoam worm containers greets me. The last time I fished here a friendly angler offered me a share of his rock on a day when the river was crowded and salmon were running. Large boulders and turbulent flow that provide cover for migrating salmon characterize the run. Be the first angler to arrive on the scene and you are often rewarded with a fish. I adjust my bobber stop to four feet and work the water without a breath of wind to challenge.
An hour or so later not a single salmon shows, although there is the occasional splash of feeding smallmouth bass. Watching my bobber drift in the gentle current keeps my mind active. Who knows? The next cast might lead to a fish. The croaking of a great blue heron unhappy with a common egret that invaded his territory interrupts my daydreaming and I move on.
Lucky spot number two is where I caught a 38-pound salmon on my birthday. That was 15 years ago. My son-in-law cursed me when he helped land the huge fish, mostly because of his disgust over my good luck. I wade out knee deep, slipping and sliding on rough boulders covered with rotting vegetation. More than once, I’ve fallen and filled my waders while fishing the lower Yakima. Not today though, I tell myself. It’s too cold to take a dunking. Fifty casts later, my bobber disappears under the surface. I jerk hard and almost lose my balance, but come up empty. Was it a salmon or was I hung up on the bottom? A ball of “seaweed” on my hook suggests the latter.
Moving upriver to lucky spot number three, I avoid a crimson-turned patch of poison oak that hangs over the loose sand of the trail. I’d only recently got over an episode with the nasty plant and didn’t wish to repeat the cure. An osprey flies overhead with a two-pound bass held tight in its claws. At least someone is going home with a fish dinner, I think.
Shallow rapids feed a deep hole here. A line-up of anglers typically cast from the opposite shore, but not today. I lengthen my cast by free-spooling line downstream until glare from the sun combined with my poor eyesight makes it impossible to track the bobber. I once stood in these same rapids and practiced catch-and-release on dark-body, hook-jaw salmon that struck my golf ball size roe savagely on almost every cast. You remember the good fishing days and purge the bad from your memory.
Before the irrigation district covered the canal for safety reasons, we’d slide down the hillside and wade through chest-high water to get to the river’s edge. I crossed the canal one rainy evening to find a northern harrier floundering in bulrush. Thinking it was either injured or sick I caught the hawk and took it home, planning to contact the raptor rehabilitation center. Imagine my surprise when I opened the cardboard box the next morning and it flew away.
Figuring I’ve soaked enough roe for one day, I reel in, hike back along the edge of the irrigation canal and pick up discarded beer cans: Budweiser, Coors Light, Modelo, Old Milwaukie, Busch. What makes folks purchase an 18-pack for $12.99 at a convenience story and toss the empty cans in the brush? Although I don’t catch a fresh salmon for the smoker, good memories of fishing the Yak will bring me back.