Nov 13, 2008 Ami Olson Uncategorized
Waking up two hours earlier than normal and gearing up to stand thigh-deep in a running river, in late October, has never been a dream of mine.
But if it had been, Monday Oct. 27 would have been my lucky day. I pulled into the parking lot at Douglaston Salmon Run in Pulaski just as the sky was brightening at 7 a.m., ready for an interesting experience. I was not disappointed.
There were already nearly 10 other cars in the lot, early risers staking out their favorite spots along the 2.5 mile section of Salmon River that is Douglaston.
Jason Edwards, who came on as general manager of Douglaston in the spring of 2008, met me at the parking area and first took me to Whitakers Sport Shop for hip waders, a fishing license and bait.
One of the men at the shop helped me try on the waders, as ungraceful of a process as there ever was. Then he handed me a black elastic band with a clip and explained that it should go around my rib cage.
The belt would keep the legs of the waders from filling up too quickly if I fell into the water, he explained.
“Reporter drowns in hideous green rubber waders while on assignment in near-freezing waters” – that’s not exactly the story I wanted my editor to run. I made a mental note to remember to snap on the belt on, but hoped I could forget what it was for.
The first spot we settled on was an offshoot of the main river, Edwards said. He pointed out the best spot to cast for — an invisible, deeper pool upstream from some small rapids where fish commonly rest. After a quick lesson on casting, he handed me the pole.
Edwards explained the bait we were using – small sacks of Salmon eggs, tied with fine netting and scented to catch the attention of the steelhead we were fishing for. The trick was to weigh the line heavy enough to sink the egg sacks to the bottom of the river, but light enough that it would bounce along with the current, giving it as natural an appearance as possible.
When we’d arrived riverside, Edwards had explained it was about the worst week of the season to fish. Pointing at bare-branched trees, he said the leaves were now in the river, making it difficult for the fish to see and smell the bait.
That, on top of an unusually high river and my inexperience, was going to make catching a fish today difficult. But, patient and optimistic, Edwards was undeterred and encouraged me to keep casting. On one good cast, he pointed to the end of the pole.
“Do you feel it ticking along the bottom?” Edwards asked. I actually did. He grabbed the line and gave three jerks. “This is what a fish will feel like.”
I tried in vain for nearly an hour to land the egg sack where he had pointed. If the leaves in the water were disguising the eggs from the fish, they probably couldn’t smell it from the overhanging tangle of branches I repeatedly launched the bait into, either. After losing five sacks in the bramble we moved on to another, more open area.
This time, I had to get my waders wet. Edwards brought us to the Spring Hole, a spot completely indistinguishable to the untrained eye. Out nearly in the middle of the river, he said a natural spring bubbled up and was a sweet spot for fish. But you have to wade into the water to get there. So we did.
Edwards walked into the river as though he didn’t notice where the bank ended and the water began. I had a little more trouble.
“Don’t be afraid to grab onto me,” he said as I followed him into the river. I stuck my hands out to the side for balance and inched forward through the force of the current, over slick, uneven rocks. Eventually we stopped at what Edwards said was the best spot on the river. It looked like the rest of the river to me. But he pointed and I sent the bait sailing.
An hour and a half later and still empty handed, Edwards nodded at the man a couple hundred yards upriver from where we stood.
“If it makes you feel better, he’s not getting anything either,” he said. The other fisherman had been in the same spot since we arrived at the Spring Hole.
I did feel a little better.
Maybe it was the jerking of the line I was suddenly experiencing.
I looked at Edwards, who at first thought I had yet another snag he would have to maneuver out of. Then we both realized I actually had a fish on the line.
For the next few seconds, he coached me toward the riverbank, while helping me reel, then wait, then reel, then wait. The force on the pole pulled me forward and Edwards clutched the shoulder of the giant yellow rain jacket to keep me on my feet.
Don’t fight him, if he’s pulling on the line, Edwards said. But when he lets up, then you have to gain on him. When the tugging paused I reeled furiously to bring the fish closer to me. The pole curved beneath its weight and thrashing and I could see the shiny black body flipping up out of the water downstream.
“That is a huge fish,” Edwards said. If he was humoring me, I didn’t care – I had a fish!
We were a few feet from the bank when the tension in the pole suddenly released. I was confused – had the fish given up? I looked at Edwards as he patted me on the back in consolation.
“You did everything right,” he said. “You did really well.”
The line had snapped, and the fish was gone. I was devastated. I stared at the spot in the rippling water where the fish had been twisting as Edwards reeled in what was left of the line.
But what I felt wasn’t anger, or defeat – I felt challenged. Cold and challenged. I had spent three hours on the water, wondering what it was about fishing that attracted people. Edwards had described it jokingly as, “hours of boredom interrupted by seconds of panic,” and I found that to be perfectly accurate. So why do it?
Now I knew. It was the thrill of the chase. The precarious feeling of having a fish on the line but not yet in hand, and knowing it will make you work for the catch. The reminder that you’re dealing with nature, and that while this is a past time for you, it’s life or death for that fish.
I had lost my one catch, the warmth and feeling in my feet and fingers and my Monday morning – but it was worth it.
On the drive back to Syracuse, I realized I never thought I would have a “one that got away” story. I had assumed I would cast the line a couple of times, grab a fish, pose for a photo and be done with the experience. But with a fishing license valid through September 2009, my close call and prime winter fishing at Douglaston – maybe I’ll just get back out there and try again.
See you on the river.
The fishing season at Douglaston runs year-round, visit douglastonsalmonrun.com for information on fishing, lodging and other activities available on-site. Fish for brown trout through December, the steelhead run through April.