The big one

5:30 AM.    BLEEP....BLEEP...BLEEP...BLEEP...

I'm jarred awake.   Despite a warm and attractive woman curled up next to me,  despite a volley of wind and rain spattering against the pitch black windows,  despite a moral conviction that no one should ever wake up earlier than 6am,  I get up.   Carefully picking my way down the stairs in the dark,  I flip on the kettle,  and pour the boiling water in a slow circle across the grounds.   Apparantly 190 degrees is the coolest water can be and still produce a perfect cup of joe,  hence the recent trend of coffee bars drizzling piping water over individual cups.   I've been doing that for years now,  so it's a rare pleasure to feel like a trendsetter.  

The mason jar of coffee rides between my legs,  causing me to wipe fog off the inside of the windshield frequently as we jounce down the road toward the bay with my bungee corded kayak lurching with each dip and pothole,  threatening to self-eject from the lowered tailgate of my monstrous blue chevy.     Across the railroad tracks,  skid to a stop,  drop the keys into the ashtray and turn off the headlights.   Drysuit,  pfd,  skirt,  helmet,  pole,  net,  knife,  headlamp.   Trudge through wet grass,  trip,  stumble,  trip again,  and finally slip into the cold salt water.  

I'm just a quarter mile from the mouth of the bay and I can already see boats with lights on drifting past me toward the bar against a stiff south wind and chop.  What sort of weirdos would go out fishing on such a pissy and miserable morning?  I paddle about halfway down the jetty and settle in with an ever growing herd of motorboats,  baiting a herring and dropping it down near the bottom.   A half hour passes and I'm restless.    I get bored and venture past where the motorboat dare to,  to the spot where the channel narrows and the current increases dramatically,  I allow myself to get sucked out with the ebb tide,  in hopes that I might find a glut of fish waiting at the tips of the jettys,  unable to cross the constriction responsible for jettisoning me out to them.  

It was a good theory,  though one that didn't exactly pan out when instead I found myself facing about 5 knots of current pulling straight into a wall of breakers.   In a different context this could be entertaining,  but fishing out here was beyond consideration.    I spun and caught the nearest standing wave,  veering far,  but not too far,  toward the shallow side of the bar,  picking up a series of surf rides back to where the current was a bit more managable.    Breathing hard I paddled back over to the lineup and baited my hook again,  feeling a bit sheepish and a bit stupid.    

For all of my hyperbole about fishing being an avenue toward deeper connection with the natural world and personal Zen,  fishing this morning felt more like a chore.    Noone was catching anything,  there was no excitement,  no red sunrise across a glassy ocean,  just wind,  and rain,  and time slipping away marked by the chugging translation of gasoline into carbon dioxide.   I grew up on the docks so I don't mind the smell.    As the current slacked I tried several more forays into the bouncy water,  only to settle back into the drone of the crowd,  chatting with people I knew,  and laughing off the occasional ribbing such as "you're going to need a bigger net!"    I don't take it too personally.    If I hadn't done it I wouldn't believe a guy could land a salmon of any size in a kayak either.

Two hours passed,  then three,  then four,  then five.    It's times like these that one starts to feel like a gambling addict at the bottom of a losing streak.    Tired,  broke,  and exhausted,  knowing you should have quit hours ago and waiting for a break that isn't going to come.    In my case I'm starting to think about the 140 or so hours I'd spent this year catching a mere five salmon,  and what else one might do with that much time.    I'm thinking about how my tax extension is coming due,  and I have a talk to give this evening that I haven't written yet,   and how I desperately need to write the fall update to let people know what the heck is happening with my business this coming year.    After five and a half hours where I saw not a single boat out of forty catch a fish,  I dejectely paddled back upriver,  line down of course.    I always leave my line down.   Passing back through the crowd, I wondered why so many guys fish in camoflage clothing. 

There is a distinct thought at this stage in a fruitless fishing trip,  that is,  the "Maybe it will happen at the last minute"  thought.     You know that it won't,  but maybe,  just maybe.    After all it does happen,  and this DID.    My pole jerked hard and I snapped to attention,   careful not to hope,  because many fights end right here as the fish spits the hook.    It kept yanking though and I started to feel a bit more confident about my hook-up,  when suddenly the reel started to sing,  line melting away.   I'd seen fish run before but usually they stopped,  and this fish had no intention of stopping.   With little choice I cranked my drag tight,  risking tearing out the hooks,   and also risking being capsized by the fish.  I brought the pole around to the bow and managed to reel the kayak up to the fish,  taking back some of the line I'd lost.   He still took line in bursts,  but now my kayak was essentially acting as the drag,  and I sped smartly across the water,  powered by this incredible fish-engine as a couple of incredulous motorboaters looked on.    It took a surprising amount of upper body strength to keep things under control as the the fish twisted and tugged, it felt like every bit of balance I'd accumulated in my years of kayaking was being tested.

We fought like this for forty-five minutes, reeling the fish near to the kayak only to have it nearly capsize me as it peeled out more line.   Let me be clear,  I had already resolved that if the worst happened I would let go of my kayak and keep fighting the fish from my drysuit!   When I could finally bring it alongside the seriousness of my predicament appeared as well,  all four feet of it!   Tentatively I pulled out the net and indeed my tiny net was ridiculously undermatched to the task at hand.   It barely held half the fish.    I've never caught a fish so big that I couldn't get it on deck,  yet every time I pulled on this one,  I essentially pulled myself down to the water,  keep in mind that it was still very much alive and thrashing violently against me.  Leaning way back I finally was able to drape the massive Chinook across the cockpit,   tail in the water on one side,  head in the water on the other pinning it roughly down as much as one can a thirty-pound writhing fish.    Again,  the balancing act was quite tenuous as I unshipped a small stick and began ackwardly swiping at the head, pole and net in complete dissaray.   I finally managed to partially stun it,  finishing the job with a needle nosed pliers jammed into the brains,  just to make sure.    I tried to clip a carabiner through the jaw as per usual,  only to find the jaw much too large,  so I just white knuckle gripped the tail as I ripped out the gill rakers too bleed out the fish.   I collapsed onto my foredeck, panting, while a disgusting pool of blood spurted and congealed on the natural depression of my sprayskirt.

I felt sheer amazement, awe, reverence, and most of all gratitude.  I said thank you. 

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