It’s been several months since my dear friend Andy Whipple left us for that great fishing hole in the sky. Wandering through some files today, I came upon this piece I wrote several years ago about a fishing adventure undertaken by the two of us about 12 years ago. It’s longer than most of my blogs, but I hope you enjoy it!
I came to fishing late in life– not necessarily by choice, but by circumstance. I was always interested, but there was no one around to show me how to do it. My dad never got excited about taking his daughters fishing, which was part of the problem. Back in the day, girls—at least the girls in our family—didn’t fish. There were a lot of things we girls didn’t do back in the 1950s. It was profoundly boring to be a girl back then. So the minute I could, I began making up for these discrepancies of gender. I finally got to fly fishing in the late 1990s.
There is an indescribable spirituality to fly-fishing that is rhythmic and timeless and breathtakingly beautiful in every aspect. I am happy to stand there for hours casting, reeling, casting and reeling. Time passes. Water rushes around my boots. I am At One. I love the gig, but to me this not real fishing.
While I quickly embraced the Zen of fly fishing, it was difficult not to feel cheated. I like to eat my catch, not just stand in water thinking about it. To me, releasing a fish one has just caught is not the least bit practical. So when my fly-fishing mentor Andy invited me to join him for a fishing adventure on the Washington Coast during the fall salmon run some years back, I made the only reasonable choice. Yes! Yes, yes and yes! If we caught a salmon we could keep it. This was fly-fishing as it was meant to be, the real deal—Blood Sport!
There are always signs as to how things are going to turn out. The first hint of an omen hit us when we arrived at Andy’s brother Matt’s house near Aberdeen, Washington. Matt, looking ruggedly handsome in a plaid shirt and jeans, was tending his backyard smoker. Therein rested most of the day’s catch, and that sucker was full. Lovely smoked salmon aromas filled the air. My mouth watered.
Plenty more where that came from, Matt informed us. River’s full of ‘me. “Everybody” was catching salmon. There is a major message here. Age and experience have taught me such statements are never true. They are, quite possibly, the result of some special form of testosterone poisoning. But after sixty-some years, I persist in believing them anyway.
Another omen, if you will, appeared to me at four o’clock the next morning in the form of Matt’s wife Denise. She wakened me with a harsh whisper. “Judy,” she intoned. “It’s pouring rain. Go back to sleep. We’ll do something fun later.”
What? And let those men have all the fun? Nuh-uhhh! No way. I came to catch a fish and tell about it. I leaped out of bed. And there, in the darkest of all dark and stormy mornings, I struggled into layers of correct fishing attire. Never mind that I was and still am aging, stiff, tired and inexperienced—and my rain gear isn’t the best. Andy, Matt and I ate breakfast and drank a lot of very strong coffee, then piled into Matt’s rig. It was indeed pouring rain, and there was the distinct nip of early October in the air.
An hour and a half later we arrived at the Little Neema River. The downpour had lightened steady drizzle. Pickup trucks lined both sides of the road. There was barely enough daylight to see the silhouette of forested hills around us. We got out of Matt’s pickup and gathered our gear. Then, with Matt in the lead, we crossed the highway and plunged through a narrow opening in the underbrush onto an equally narrow and brush-choked trail that led to the river. We emerged at the edge of a pasture, the river still some distance away.
Matt marched into the muddy pasture. Andy tilted and flapped behind him as he tried to maneuver through the mess. I tipped, reached for balance and found myself in mud up to my wrist before I was able to right myself and pull out. I detected the faint but unmistakable aroma of cow dung.
Everyone’s boots made horrid sucking sounds as we forged through the muck toward the Little Neema. After considerable effort we arrived at its bank, all of us a little the worse from the trek. Andy and I panted. Matt, ten years his brother’s junior, lit a cigarette and began messing with his tackle. Men lined the banks, completely silent and still. Only the occasional glow of a cigarette ember belied a living presence. And then I heard that first juicy smack on the water—the beckoning Siren that would punctuate our day. Something moved quickly in the dark pewter river—a dorsal fin zigging and zagging its way upstream. I spotted another fin, then another, followed by a second resounding plop.
Then, as if by some unspoken agreement, men began to move on the riverbank, and there were sounds besides the river and the fish—gear shuffling, muffled greetings and conversations. Sunrise (although you’d never know it). Fishing legally commenced.
A native Northwesterner, I’d known about the salmon cycle all my life. The fish eggs hatch in freshwater streams, and while still quite young the smolts travel to the Pacific Ocean where they mature into the juicy delicacies we enjoy at table. At optimum maturity the fish return to freshwater and travel upstream to spawn. Remarkably, by some internal programming, these creatures return to the exact same place where they were spawned. There they do whatever salmon do to ensure the existence of a new generation, then die.
The end of the salmon trail is pretty rank. By the time the fish reach their destinations they are beat up, worn out and half dead. That they have the energy to procreate astounds me. However, this process is solid proof to me that God exists. How else could such miraculous things happen?
Despite the many huge dams punctuating western rivers (particularly the Columbia River) over the past 50 years, many fish still achieve their homing goals. Trying to get past the dams, most salmon die along the way and their numbers have dwindled to dangerously low levels. When I was a kid riding along the Columbia to Portland with my parents, I used to watch the Native Americans standing on rocks at Celilo Falls spearing and netting migrating fish as fast as they could haul them in. To the local tribes, salmon were deeply rooted in the native spiritual practices. Salmon were their food, their economy, their religion.
Now there are dams, and the salmon populations are considerably less. Yet there I stood along a river full of migrating salmon. And we still got to catch a few. And keep them. Another miracle. That day. The fact that many types of wild salmon are endangered, or at least threatened species barely occurred to me. I could see them in the river. Oodles of them! They were going upriver to die, so who was I to question the bounty?
There was a discussion amongst the two males in our party about lures. Having nothing to contribute to the conversation, I looked around. I don’t know squat about lures. As we got rigged out, I watched the knot ritual. To date I haven’t figured that one out either. Spitting was involved. Then Matt watched me cast and offered a few pointers. My borrowed gear plus a metal lure added several ounces to the equipment and I noticed quickly that this was going to be more work than fly-fishing for trout.
We cast and cast and cast. Collectively we may have cast a thousand times. Matt landed a salmon, but was feeling cocky. Declaring he would wait for something a little brighter, and hopefully bigger, he threw it back. For the purpose of eating the fish, the closer they are caught to the ocean during their upward migration the better. Salmon literally start the dying process when they begin their journey upriver. As they darken, the meat is less desirable. So besides actually catching salmon, we were looking for bright silver fish with firm flesh.
Andy hooked something but it got away. We each ate a sandwich and cast some more.
Then Andy got bored and said he was moving to another spot down river. After a time, he appeared to be content enough, so to give my arm a break I followed. I was slogging along thinking about nothing in particular when suddenly the mud between my friend and I deepened. Too late I discovered I couldn’t lift my feet out of it. I teetered and fell over backward. As I flailed in the mud and attempted to keep the rod and reel out of the quagmire, the hook pierced my index finger. Mud seeped into my layers of clothing. I flopped and struggled and, after what seemed like hours but probably was more like 30 seconds, got myself upright and furtively looked around. None of the men lining the bank behind me gave any indication they had witnessed this fiasco.
I slogged through the mire. Yes, that smell definitely was cow poop. Quite a lot of it. I reached Andy bloodied and worn out. “How embarrassing,” I muttered. “I did the same thing,” he confided. No wonder all those experienced fishermen stayed where they were!
Time passed. We cast, and cast some more. Nothing bit. We returned to the group and ate Denise’s heavenly cookies and cast some more. Fish were everywhere. Nobody was catching a thing. All the stupid fish had migrated the day before—natural selection I reckon. The incoming tide caused the river to swell. We agreed it was time to head home. The men wanted to fish a few more minutes. “I’m going back to the truck,” I announced. I was far too tired to cast again. Plus, if I got back to the truck ahead of them, I could remove the worst of the muddy things and pee on the wooded side of our vehicle before they showed up. I set off in the general direction of the truck.
Here total recall blurs. I had difficulty finding the brush trail we’d followed in and decided to go around what appeared to be a small grove of fir trees and thick brush to reach the pickup. I made my way across the large meadow to the west of the trees and was doing fine until little rivulets appeared all around me. As far as the eye could see were tufts of grass and earth, but when I stepped on them I sank into mud up to my knees. Cow turds were everywhere, too, some of them the size of small countries! Low-growing blackberry vines snagged my rubber boots and I tripped. After enduring countless stumbles, I decided to head back toward the woods and find the trail. Easier said than done! It meant slogging back through at least 50 yards of quagmire.
Once there, I realized there was no way short of flying to breach the brush surrounding the woods. Half a mile away, across the meadow, tiny cars moved slowly down the highway. Beyond them lay the Pacific Ocean. Nobody knew I was here. I couldn’t see where I’d come from. It all looked the same…pasture, rivulets, grass tufts, turds, forest, the Little Neema way off yonder somewhere, the ocean way off somewhere else beyond a world of scurvy mud and smelly cow pats. I was exhausted with no end in sight.
“God help me,” I moaned. I struck out vaguely to the north and west again, thinking to skirt the forest and eventually reach the road. There was more mud and water, more of the odious blackberry vines. I struggled along grabbing at tall grass tufts to support and keep myself upright. They were sharp and cut my hands. When the journey became hopeless I turned around again. Considerable time had passed. By now the men would be back at the pickup. They’d be wondering where I was. But I couldn’t see the vehicles, or the river, or anything else familiar.
Panic seized me as, sweat-drenched, I tried yet another ploy and doubled back toward the river. Caked in layers of wet mud, my boots weighed twenty pounds each. Long-forgotten muscles in my rear and groin screamed for mercy! There was nothing to do but keep moving.
Finally I reached a stream. We had crossed it that morning. It had been a very little stream then, but now the incoming tide had raised it to the tops of its banks. Somewhere on the other side of that water were the pickup and salvation. I prowled up and down the south bank looking for what appeared to be a shallow spot and finally just plunged in. It was only three yards wide.
As I crossed the stream, water topped my hip boots and filled them. I threw the rod on the opposite bank and started to pull myself up the side, clutching at those tufts of tall grass that were so firmly rooted as to stay put despite my desperate struggles. I could barely lift my right leg. Water gushed from the boot top and my leg was suddenly lighter. I pulled myself up a few inches and emptied the left boot. I pulled some more. The grasses shredded my hands. What a fine mess for an otherwise ordinary 54-year-old woman to find herself in, I thought, as finally I lay panting on the riverbank. What was I thinking when I decided to take this trip?
To get to the truck it was necessary first to somehow get onto my feet. This I did with difficulty, then scrambled through some brush and up a short embankment to another open space. Finally I could see the road. I could see the truck! Andy and Matt were there, looking about somewhat stupidly, wondering where the hell I was! With all the dignity I could muster I began to walk across the clearing. I yelled and waved. They yelled and waved back. I began walking faster. Blackberry vines snagged my boots, and before I knew what was happening I was flat on my face in the mud again!
I got up, staggered a few steps, tripped on more vines and fell again. Then I got up and immediately went down again, flailing like a wounded turkey. The men started toward me, Matt in the lead wearing a quizzical and somewhat worried expression. They were coming to save me. In my mind they transformed into larger-than-life heroes with chiseled features bounding in slow motion through misted fields of green. And in this vision I was not the flailing, muddied old turkey hen, but a beautiful young woman with arms outstretched, smiling rapturously, waiting for her prince to arrive.
The vision quickly ended. They were walking as fast as they could. I was light-headed and very thirsty, and I still had to pee. I tried to get up again. And then I did something that never heretofore had occurred to me. I got up onto my hands and knees and crawled! I was still crawling, and kicking at a string of blackberry vine that had wrapped itself around my boot, when they reached me.
Matt got there first and pulled me to my feet. They fussed and clucked. I laughed and tried to act like it was no big deal. I was delirious, muddy, bloodied and about to pee my pants. As we rode back to Matt’s house tired, wet and without salmon, I already was worrying about the next day. Did I have the physical strength to do this again? What if I didn’t go and they caught fish…? What would I do differently?
We did return to the Little Neema River next day. Matt found a spot on the ocean side of the highway where we walked about 100 yards, mostly on firm ground. There was some mud, but no visible cow dung. We began fishing, and once again I was mesmerized by the parade of dorsal fins, the jumping salmon, as they scurried upriver to spawn.
Matt caught a fish right away, a chunky Chinook, and this time he was not too proud to keep it. Then I hooked a salmon that leaped from the water and landed fighting. The men dropped their rods and came to my side. ”That’s a 30-pound silver!” yelled Matt. Thrills ran through me as the fish pulled, bucked, changed direction, then jerked and pulled some more. Matt coached me as I began carefully to work the fish closer to the bank.
It was all over in about three minutes. The salmon bit through the line and headed up river to screw himself to death, a fancy lure dangling from his mouth. I like to think that his nifty babe magnet impressed the girl salmon. We didn’t get another bite, and after a couple hours headed back to the house.
Before we left their home, Matt gave us his fish and Denise presented us with a dozen jars of canned, freshly caught salmon. It was delicious, and evoked a stirring warmth for Matt, Denise, their son Jesse, their cozy home. Andy and I were further bonded by the experience, if such a thing was possible after more than 30 years of friendship. After we got to my house, I called all my friends and invited them over for a salmon feed.
The day after we ate the fish, I joined a gym. Exciting as the river trip was, I was not strong enough to repeat the experience, and needed to be ready for next time. As it happened, there wasn’t a next time, although the tug was strong. Andy went back the following year, but alas, he didn’t catch a fish.
“The Little Neema River is a big pain in the ass,” he confided to me a couple years later when we were talking about whether to go again. I asked why. “Too much work, too little aesthetics,” he grumbled. From that I gathered that he’d suffered as much as I, but didn’t find it necessary to make a small fishing trip sound like the Odyssey.
Years later, I remember quiet misty banks, cigarette embers glowing just before daylight, the lovely brine-scented mist and the solid smack of a fat fish landing in moving water. The mud, the bad smells, the near-death experience have not faded. But as with childbirth, they have lessened to the point that I am almost ready to try it again. Because it was the real deal—Blood Sport!