During a series of road tours over the past decade or so, I’ve encountered an interesting collection of “fish stories.” Admittedly, many tales are spawned when I’m bored and say to a member of the general public, “I bet you have a fish story.” Other times, a random encounter with a stranger leads to an entertaining anecdote.
One problem is you never know how some stories will end up. Recently a well-tanned angler asked me to sign a book to his fishing buddy that said, “Keep on rowing.”
“What’s that all about?” I asked.
“We were rafting the Deschutes when my buddy asked me to take over the oars. ‘I need to cut the sleeves off my shirt,’ he said. When I asked for an explanation, he replied, ‘We’re pulling over. I’ve got to find a large bush to hide behind.’”
You don’t have to be an avid angler to have a connection to fish or fishing. Almost everyone has a story to share although more than one chance encounter has led me to wonder if I had inadvertently opened up a can of worms. What follows are a few favorites.
I attended a holiday event where a New York Times best-selling author took center stage. Children’s books were showcased next to a table having fruit punch and frosted sugar cookies. I displayed my books in the back corner by a rack of coffee cups and smiley-face stickers. When one store patron found out I was the “fish book guy,” she related that her grandfather liked to fish. “He caught all kinds of fish. We ate them all. Grandma cleaned them while we watched.”
“My grandkids watch me clean fish also,” I said. “They like to cut open the stomach to see what fish eat.”
“I remember one time when Grandma cut open a flounder and found a cigarette butt,” she replied. ‘Nasty habit was all she said.’ I remember thinking I didn’t want to eat that fish.”
When I asked a 9-year old boy who sidled up what his favorite fish was he answered “trout” before adding, “My brother said he caught a salmon but I’m not sure he did.”
“His pants weren’t wet.”
The boy then elaborated how he once hooked himself in the ear.
Another bookstore customer pointed to a picture of a black crappie. “Know where you can catch one of those?” he asked.
“Not too many places around here,” I replied.
“My dad caught one once,” he said. “He was reeling it in when a big muskie grabbed it.”
“Did he catch the muskie?”
The man shared the fish was too big to get in the net so they tried to lift it into the boat “cross-wise.” Unfortunately, the net frame broke, the muskie snapped the line and swam off.
Sometimes people come at me two at a time such as the mom and daughter pair who approached with caution. “Is there an angler in the family?” I asked.
The young lady looked to her mom and said, “Remember when I caught that 15 foot-long sturgeon?”
Her mom gave a blank stare. My best guess was either the daughter was a good liar or mom was senile.
At one event, I was asked to sign a book to a middle-aged angler that said, “Greatest fisherman in the Northwest.”
“I can’t wait to show my buddies,” he said proudly. “I’ve finally got proof!”
Planting a seed on fertile ground isn’t difficult. For example, I asked a man who paused to thumb through one of my books if he fished.
“Don’t fish,” he replied. “Too lazy.”
“There is always lazy fishing.” I countered.
Before long he recounted seeing lamprey swimming in the Clearwater River and large schools of sucker in a nearby creek.
“See,” I said. “You think about fish more than you know.”
One of my favorites fishing stories involved a shifty-eyed man who loitered beside my signing table one rainy afternoon. Somehow the topic of golden trout came up. “Where do you catch them,” I asked.
“You know where the Pasco boat basin is?” he replied. “Usually somewhere around there.”
Warming to the task, I said, “They’re actually a subspecies of rainbow. I wasn’t aware of any around here though. What do they look like anyway?”
“They are gold. You have red trout, blue trout, green trout and golden trout,” he explained. “Like colors of a rainbow.”
I opened my book to an appendix of salmon and trout from the Columbia River. “I don’t see golden trout in here,” I said, pointing to the list of species.
“Just look under golden trout,” he said, turning on his heels and leaving.
The hardest nut to crack though might have been an older gentleman who confessed to having no interest in fish. However, after thinking for a moment, he came up with, “My wife has ‘Catch of my Life’ on her pillow.”
I left that one alone.
Stories From the Road
The gas gauge read empty when I stopped at a convenience store outside of Pendleton, Oregon. The skinny attendant took his time, even though I was the only vehicle at the pump. He inserted my credit card, put his hands in his pockets and looked up at the gray sky, “Think the sun’s going to come out?”
Before I could answer, he embarked on a fishing story. “Caught a steelhead on my day off. Had to let it go because it was a natural. Sure was a beauty.”
“At least you caught one,” I said. “It’s getting late in the season.”
“Caught it on a shrimp tail I dyed myself. Soaked in Siberian shrimp oil. That stuff really works. It was lying in between some boulders. You could tell there were boulders because of hey can shock you?”
I tried to explain without sounding condescending. “Sculpin don’t have the ability to electroshock you like an electric eel might,” I replied. “Perhaps it’s because when you rub your finger across their scales you feel a prickly sensation. Just like the name.”
About then, his fishing buddy interrupted our conversation to show me his patented technique for pulling “penniwinkles” (i.e., caddis larvae) out of their case. “You place a penniwinkle in the crook of your thumb and forefinger,” he said. “When bass swim in there to eat it, I catch them.”
“That doesn’t happen very often,” said the first man.
“More often than you think,” replied his buddy.
Another crowd-attractor is the dried-out carcass of a Chinook salmon that I found nearly 40 years ago. Particularly impressive are its large canine teeth and crooked kype. Many are attracted to its macabre appearance. Others wrinkle up their nose although its odor is benign. I call the mounted salmon my friendship test. If you think it’s cool, you are my friend.
A man recently pointed to the carcass and said, “That’s a dogfish.”
“Actually, it’s a dried up Chinook salmon,” I replied.
“Doesn’t look like a salmon to me,” he retorted.
Not wanting him to walk away mad, I explained how the tail had folded over, general placement and structure of its fins and that teeth of salmon elongate at spawning time to sometimes resemble those of a shark. “This fish came from the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River,” I said.
“ It’s a dogfish,” he said emphatically, before giving me the stink eye and backing away.
I thought to yell after him, “Dogfish live in the ocean. 300 miles downstream from the Hanford Reach.” But I bit my tongue because our chance encounter made for a good story.