October Salmon

Fall signals to me when cottonwood leaves turn to gold, coots gather to bob along the shoreline and the smell of wood smoke drifts in night air. It’s also when anglers chase the elusive Chinook salmon with a mix of desperation and passion. Today I hope to get in on a late season bite on the Hanford Reach. “It’s my last chance to take the boat out before weather turns,” I tell my wife Nancy, leaving the house wearing my lucky fishing hat and lucky fishing shirt.

“Don’t you have chores to do?’ She calls after me half-heartedly.

The launch is nearly empty but I am greeted by a great blue heron poking at minnows along the shoreline. Blue skies and a breath of wind suggest a perfect morning for trolling. I fire up the main motor and head out, chasing wisps of fog that drift eerily over the water’s surface.

Less than a mile upriver, a wall of dense fog blocks passage. I throttle down and peer over the windshield searching for hazards. My cheeks are frozen and my eyes water from cold, but I cruise along at 5 mph dodging submerged boulders hidden in the shallows. The fog lessens as I approach the 300 Area to reveal the outline of another boat. Its occupants are bundled in duck hunting attire. They do not wave hello as I pass.

The scene reminds of a boating friend who blasted through fog as dense as pea soup using a GPS track as his only guide. The time I tried to motor across the river in thick fog and ended up facing downstream alongside an island. A few years back, during the height of salmon crazy, two different boaters ran up the backside of boats anchored along the shore during a similar cold air inversion. Boaters who fall overboard in cold water drown. I put on my life jacket.

Sense of time and space are distorted to produce a dreamlike state. I search for familiar landmarks: 331 Building, tip of Johnson Island, grove of trees where eagles nest. A gravel bar island stretches on forever. I get the boat on plane skirting the edge of fog to pass a boat still feeling its way upriver.

Reaching my favorite drift near Taylor Flat, I rig up two rods while serenaded by shotgun blasts from duck hunters across the river. I start with a lucky Spin-N-Glo and fresh-cured roe on one rod and a K-15 “Double Trouble” Kwikfish wrapped with sardine on the other. Halfway down the first pass the egg rod goes down, but the fish is off before I can set the hook. I quickly swap out the Kwikfish for a second Spin-N-Glo rig.

My sonar winked out three weeks ago. The only working screen flashes depth, water temperature and boat speed in bold letters. I’m okay with that. I know the river well enough after working and playing in it for over 40 years. I manage my drift by looking at depth, trees along the shoreline and rock piles. Who needs fish targets? They only confuse.

By now I’m in a zone. My trolling motor hums while both rods dip and pull seductively in the current. I am a maestro at the rudder as I work a turbulent stretch indicating changes in bottom profile. My reverie is soon interrupted by a loud “whack” as the left hand rod tip slaps the gunwale and pops back up. I reel in to find the eggs gone. While I re-bait, the right hand rod begins to jerk wildly. I force it out of the rod holder and miss the hookset. Could both strikes be from the same fish, I wonder? I quickly reel in, bait up and let out line. The rod tip suddenly buries as a salmon hooks up and takes off on a powerful run. Ten minutes and two jumps later a deep-bodied 24-lb buck is in the net.

The outcome reminds me how those empty hours are forgotten when your rod tip finally goes down and you put a fish in the box. Maybe I can focus on steelhead now that salmon season is out of the way, I think. Of course there’s mountain whitefish to be caught after salmon spawn and after that, a chance at a state record walleye. Sorry Nancy, but chores can wait. There’s no such thing as a last day of fishing when it comes to angling in the Hanford Reach.