2 a.m.: Alarm goes off, miserable thing. But somewhere far to the south a sled loaded with herring, salmon rods and all the moose pepperoni I can eat will be waiting for me at 6 a.m., so crawl out of bed, turn alarm off and coffee pot on. Stare at toaster — perk, you mother. Wait, wrong appliance. Thank god I packed most of the truck last night because am unable to function mentally at this hour. Also, all the rustling around would have likely woken Amy and the boys up, and then I’d get the evil eye going and coming.
2:55: Lock the front door (at least I think I do), jump in truck and head south under stars and a half moon way over to the east. Have high hopes — am leaving my wretchedly unlucky blue cooler in the shed and taking a different blue cooler which just smells fishy.
2:56: Realize that I once again forgot to bring CDs to listen to on the 360-mile-round-trip drive. Curse. Well, lemons from lemonade: What better time to catch up on world events than 3 in the morning? Tune in the BBC World Service to catch up on the whole Libya bombing thing.
4:30ish: Rain begins somewhere in Lewis County; gets worse the closer to the Columbia I get. Typical. On a springer flame run last March with Andy Schneider I drove through first a blizzard then a torrential downpour.
5:47ish: Arrive at 42nd St./Gleason ramp off the west end of PDX, pull into lot above trailer parking area. Rain coming down good. Am so sick of rain, nothing but rain and snow for five straight months. ENOUGH! Even worse: a cold east breeze out of the Gorge. Decide to wait just a wee bit before joining Buzz in his boat — after all, he did say to meet him between 6 and 6:30 a.m. Hopefully he remembered his rain gear.
6:00ish: In lieu of the weather, I throw on two more layers of fleece, my waders and boots, life vest and a rain coat. And inside my pack is a backup rain coat. Writer Terry Otto arrives and parks next to my rig. Emerge from truck and start yapping with him. He was out with Buzz the day before and says they hooked their four springers — including a 26-pounder — in very shallow water close to shore.
6:15ish: Dressed like — as Terry would later put it — fat, bloated ticks, Otto and I slip-slide down through wet ivy, across parking lot and over to the dock.
6:20ish: Meet up with Buzz — that would be Buzz Ramsey, the well-known Northwest salmon and steelhead fishing guru who is our captain in the Fisherman’s Marine/Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association’s Spring Fishing Classic derby. Also coming, Andy Martin, the Brookings-based guide, and Dave Castellanos, the Smith River, California-based guide. I am in good company: All totaled there is something like 75-plus years of salmon-slaying experience on board. As for me, I could be a stringer for the Unaccomplished Angler blog or something.
We’ll be fishing the Interstate stretch of the Columbia, scene of some pretty hot fishing the past few seasons. The drill here is dragging herring downhill. Back in the 2008 season, Swanny murdered the springers here on naked 6- to 8-foot-long leaders, 8-inch droppers and chartreuse and blue cutplug herring — no attractors.
Since then, Fish Flashes have really come on. In this cold, murky water, Buzz is betting on chartreuse FFs (last November his company, Yakima Bait, bought Big Al’s, which manufactured the flasher) and chartreuse-dyed cutplugs.
And while Pautzke’s, Pro-Cure and Atlas-Mike’s battle it out for springer scent supremacy in the pages of STS, Buzz is curing his worms in new mojo from Berkley (which he pro-staffs for). His recipe calls for:
1-1/2 quart distilled water
1 cup kosher salt
1/3 bottle Gulp! Alive spray
1/3 bottle Berkley Bio Dip (available in chartreuse, orange, red and blue)
As he later notes, it accounts for six springers in two days.
But that’s getting ahead of our story slightly.
6:50ish: It’s funny, sometimes you go to great lengths to go fishing, but then the fishing’s relatively close at hand when you get there. This is one of those cases. After my o’dark fifteen wake-up and 3-hour, 180-mile drive to catch a Chinook, we blast off from the wharf and go … all of 1,000 yards downstream. Not even 20 yards off the breakwater of the Tyee Yacht Club, we dunk our junk into about 24 feet of water.
The rig consists of slider or spreader bar with a 16-inch-or-so dropper line to 8-ounce cannonballs, a foot or so of line to the flasher (I’m using the big daddy model, the others are using 8-inchers, if I recall) and then a 5-foot leader to the cutplug hooked on the first of a two-hook setup.
From the yacht club we troll downhill towards a wing dam protecting the top end of Tomahawk Island, and then across the face of it in all of — no joke — 7 feet of water at times.
It is here that the crew hooked one of their fish yesterday. We adjust our lines to keep the weights occasionally ticking bottom.
Sideways against the pilings that protect Tomahawk Island is a 25-foot-long-or-so cabin cruiser. It’s clearly seen better days and looks like someone had been trying to enclose the back end before it went adrift and wrecked. We wonder about Oregon’s salvage laws, but the yellow police line tape around it seems like it’s there to dissuade such attempts.
7:11: Andy Martin posts a pic of the boatload of us on Northwest Wild Country’s and my magazine’s walls.
7:45ish: Terry hooks something, but it ain’t a fish. We spin the boat around and he reels in a rope. I try to untangle his hook from it, but have to reach for my serrated CRKT knife which is handily buried under 38 layers. After cutting the hook free, I yard the rope in and pull up a very nice sand anchor someone donated to the Columbia. Too bad I can’t weigh it for the derby.
8ish: On our third or fourth pass on that inside line, a rod goes off — on another boat, and a bit further out. The net comes out, the first one we’ve seen of the morning. We polish off most of a box of donuts.
8:30ish: Count boats — see roughly 80 or so between the interstate bridges. Doesn’t seem like as many as there “should” be at this point of the season, but then again, the previous Saturday’s count was 40 percent below the same point from the 2010 run, it’s a smaller return and they’re not here in good numbers yet. The 126th, 127th, 128th and 129th springers of the year will go through Bonneville today; the ten-year average calls for 143.2 to go through on March 26 alone. The next day, 282 on average have over the last decade; only 1 does.
9ish: Rain stops, but it’s still windy and cold. Guys reach for extra layers. Did I mention it would be nice to one day not have to fish in 57 fleeces?
9:25ish: We break out the moose pepperoni. Goooooooooooooooood stuff. Reach for seconds. And thirds. And make sure to store open sack next to me after it returns from back of boat. Guy in neighboring Alumaweld shouts out he wants some too. Feign deafness — shoo, go away. Fortunately, the women of the Mountain View Canoe Club paddle past us in their outrigger canoes, distracting him. Pepperoni from Buzz’s northern BC monster is safe.
9:55: Apparently, the fish are also safe. Cell phones and iPhones come out, in search of a better bite.
10 or so: A rod goes off, once again in another boat, and back out near where the other one bit. So far, those are the only two nets we’ve seen all morning.
But that tells us something too. Yesterday’s inside slot isn’t performing, so on subsequent passes we move out and fish the deeper water on the outside of a little buoy below the yacht club down to the north end of the wingdam.
10:51: A rod goes off — I’m watching it as it does. It’s Martin’s. It bounces once in his hands, then jumps a couple more times. He rises and fights what turns out to be a very, very nice springer. We catch glimpses of its big head and broad tail. With how slow fishing is, a springer this size can get us somewhere in the derby.
If it wasn’t a native.
The unclipped adipose fin means we have to turn it back to continue its upstream journey. Buzz unbuttons the fish and turns it loose.
We’re also a bit closer to the wingdam than I’m comfortable with, but Buzz is in no rush. He picks up the kicker, turns the key on his 200-horse Mercury — and it doesn’t start. Hits it again, doesn’t start. We drift closer to the wooden teeth. He primes the big motor, it doesn’t start. Finally, the fourth time and about 20 feet from the pilings it fires up and we dash out of there. Later, he tells us about bringing a boat over the bar 108 miles downriver from here, green water all over the place and a Coast Guard boat in the middle of it all on standby. That had been scary, he says.
Noonish: We’re talking about Skagit summer/fall Chinook again, the biggest kings in Washington. I did a story on that fishery when it opened up for the first time in 17 years back in 2009. Then I look over at my rod and, holy shit!, there he is! I jump up, grab the rod out of the holder and fight the springer. Please don’t have a fin, please don’t have a fin, I pray. It tears upstream, I tighten the drag, then there’s nothing. I reel down and it’s still there, but coming right at the boat — reel, reel, reel. It turns and goes parallel to us. I see it and oh, it’s a nice one — 26.16 pounds easy. Oh my goodness, the new blue cooler really IS fishy! Buzz is ready with the net — only the fourth time one has been raised in our vicinity — the guys have their cameras going, and I’m about ready to win a derby sponsored, in part, by STS.
The fish dashes back upstream, and then comes off.
Boys, just drop me off at that old wrecked cabin cruiser, I’m thinking, I’m gonna become a hermit.
This raises memories of the first time I ever saw Buzz in person; a friend and I lost a springer right in front of him at Drano back in the early 2000s.
The afternoon: We make a mess more passes but see no more nets. We do see plenty of sailboats, however. There’s some sort of race going on and one plays chicken momentarily with our sled. Bring it, buddy, I think, but the skipper wusses out and weaves out to sea.
Ugly rain squalls appear on the southwestern horizon, so in a bid to outflank them we zip upstream to the bottom of Lemon Island and fish the channel edge. Dive back into the pepperoni.
2:45ish.: Time is running out if we’re going to weigh a springer for the derby, but if anyone can pull a Chinook out of nowhere, it would be Buzz. He tells us a story about catching one on a jig.
In North Dakota.
While ice fishing.
This is like 9th level Buddhism or something. I mean, who else do you know who’s ever caught a Chinook ice fishing?!?!? The man is one with Oncorhynchus.
3:10: But even as icy as the wind has been at times today, we’re not ice fishing. We call it, pull up to the dock at Donaldson Marine for a tankload of non-ethanol fuel. There we run into the gent who was nearly blown up a year ago. Martin, Otto and Buzz were just downstream when it happened and saw parts of the 32-foot Wellcraft go flying into the air before the boat immediately sunk.
The man, Gary Krueger, tells us he’s lucky to have lived through it. If, like usual, he’d been forward at the moment the boat’s owners had tried to turn the second motor on and which sparked the explosion, he probably wouldn’t be filling our tank this afternoon.
There’s still a chunk of the boat’s fiberglass shell buried in the building alongside the dock, and you can see what appear to be burn marks on the siding.
Krueger adds that a week later, a guy who apparently mistook his poleholder for his gas tank had 10 gallons of gas pumped into his boat — and then wanted to drive off with it sloshing around. Was refused. Krueger didn’t trust that his guardian angels’ singed wings had healed.
3:30: Arrive back at ramp. Quizzed by ODFW fish checker. Quiz back. She tells me that today’s score is 10 fish for 70 boats. Figure two guys a boat minimum with up to six in some and that’s a fish for every 20 rods, if not worse. We’re pretty lucky to have had two on, and six over two days. Scott Weedman of Three Rivers Marine arrives and indicates he’ll be fishing downriver.
3:50: Arrive at derby HQ and check leaderboard. Of course the largest salmon — brought in by Jeremy Toman’s boat — is all of one-one hundredth of an ounce smaller than the one I hooked, mentally measured and lost. Damnit, don’t remind me. Drown sorrows in a cup of Bud Light.
As for other results, Eric Wiegele’s boat brings in 105.6 pounds worth of sturgeon, including the derby’s biggest, a 54.6-pounder, and wins first place in that portion of the contest.
Jeff and Josh Gaylor and Anthony Herrara land two kings @ 44.6 pounds total to win the salmon part of the derby. Guide Josh Leach, a Northwest Sportsman mag advertiser, and crew actually catch one more springer, but come up 5 pounds short. Guide Darren Hoberg’s boat weighs in the second place springer, a fish just over 25 pounds.
And David Daglanzer of OC wins the raffle for a drift boat.
4:03: Take pictures of fish awards, see there is none for Almost Landed the Derby Winner. Out of spite consider leaving unlucky blue cooler amongst the stash of prizes. Say hello to Liz Hamilton of NSIA, briefly consider joining dinner line, but with 180 miles to go, bail around 4:30.
7:23: Arrive home.