I had awoken at 4:30 am, dug around for my Xtra tuff boots, the footwear of choice for fishing and made my way to the Salty Lady in Sausalito. In the cool, foggy mist, I remembered a familiar feeling from my old fishing days in Alaska. Tired. But as I neared Clipper Harbor, the smells of diesel fuel from boats firing up, the sounds of the engines starting and I hurried up, as the sports fishermen were already claiming spots at the back rail. In the novel, “The Old Man and the Sea” the veteran fisherman, Santiago swears at a giant fish towing him out to sea, “Fish," he said, "I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.” This phrase echoed in my blurry brain as I made my way through the foggy morning towards the lights of the Salty Lady.
In 2008-2009 the number of Chinook salmon returning to California waterways was so low that Fish & Game closed fishing to both commercial and sport fishing. In 2009, the number of salmon returning to the Sacramento River was only 39,500. The 2010 fish count improved slightly, and by 2011, there were 114,741 Chinook showing up to spawn in the Sacramento River. This year, they are expecting 820,000 Chinook returning to the Sacramento River, and even more bound for the Klamath River. The reasons for this vary. Many fishermen say the crash in numbers is due to too much water being taken from the Sacramento River by farmers, but Fish & Game claim it’s due to improved conditions in the ocean.
Regardless, commercial fishermen, fishmongers, chefs, and diners are delighted, but perhaps the most excited of the bunch are people who love to fish. And what’s not to love? You get a boat ride, see some wildlife, have an adrenaline spike when you hook the fish, and then delicious food for weeks. Of course, this is the ocean, and there’s always the possibility of stormy seas, fear and illness instead of delight, no fish, and well, worse can happen, as anyone who has read Seawolf, the San Francisco Bay classic shipwreck tale by Jack London, could tell you. Though it has been some time since shipwrecked people were rescued and then enslaved by seal hunters.
But we were an optimistic crew. For weeks people had been catching their limits—often before noon, as rumor has it, and the boats came back early. Gunard Mahl, of San Francisco had been out the week before. Not only did he catch his limit, but he also spotted over 15 whales, including a blue whale, among many gray and humpback whales. The only person not brimming with enthusiasm was the skipper, Tak Kuwatani, who warned us that the fish run had tapered off and they only caught four the day before. “Remember,” he said. “This is fishing.”
The man fishing next to me, Jonathan Van Bourg from Inverness, commented, “Then we can just eat the bait. I love anchovies.”
The deckhands, Eric Horne and Anthony Largo, gave us instructions. Keep our bait fresh, no scratches. Take your time when you get a bite, don’t get too excited. “Remember, today you might only get one chance,” Eric said. “Don’t blow it.”
We headed out under the Golden Gate Bridge, the water mostly calm with a few swells, the morning fog settled around us. Sandy Kaplan was out fishing with her father, Madison Kaplan. She had been asking him to take her out for the past five years. “There weren’t any fish,” he explained. “They are back, and she’s starting high school in the fall. It seemed like a good time.” Christopher Hart, a thirteen year old from Pasadena, who convinced his father to take him out, spotted the first porpoise swimming alongside us. We drank coffee, the queasy among us kept their eyes on the horizon, and we finally made it Duxsbury Reef off Bolinas. Other charter boats were already there, hopefuls out on the deck, soaking their lines.
We dropped our hooks and then waited. And waited. Checked our bait. All of us out here in the cloudy drizzle, different ages, backgrounds, most from the San Francisco Bay area—all really excited that the salmon were returning. The night before a friend had asked me, “Really, you’re doing this just for food?” It’s hard to explain fishing to those who don’t do it. Yes it’s food, but you caught it yourself, on a boat. I had spent eight years in Alaska, working on commercial fishing boats and for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. There is no animal I admire more than Wild Pacific salmon and nothing quickens my heart like a fish run.
When I worked on a salmon seiner with an all female crew, we’d hold a spot in front of the stream for the season opener to begin. Around us, salmon occasionally broke the surface of the water, and landed back on their sides. The effect of these jumpers on the fishermen is much like songbirds on house cats. It stirs their primitive hunting instincts and every fiber of their beings twitched with anticipation to go after them. There was an intersection between these creatures and ourselves, our own primal pulse coming into tune with nature.
And then there’s eating the fish, pulled straight from the water, its soul still in it and almost nobody has touched it but you. This is a gift the ocean gives us and it’s important to brave the elements to remember that.
“If I catch one,” Jonathan said, “I’m eating it raw. I’m having all my neighbors over for sashimi.”
“I want eggs to brine,” I said. “And I may freeze some for winter.”
“But it’s so much better fresh,” he argued.
“Yeah, but they’re big. And salmon lasts for quite a while,” I said.
While we were having this argument, a shout came from the stern of the boat. "Fish On!" We ran back and cheered on Hector Hurtdio from Santa Rosa, as he wrestled in a king salmon. He held his cigarette clenched between his lips and though it did get a bit dampened during the struggle, it never extinguished. When Eric got the net under it and it was pulled aboard, we all cheered, and Hector threw his hands into the air and yelled, “Thank you God!”
It was a beauty. About 15-18 pounds, bright silver and fresh as can be.
“Everybody, get on gear,” Eric yelled and we scattered for our poles.
It got quiet again and some people dozed. We looked out for porpoises and seals. Spied on the other boats. Checked to make sure our bait was fresh. I think I may have prayed for a salmon, and it was almost answered. My neighbor Jonathan was dozing off on deck, when Anthony, the deckhand, ran past me and lunged for his pole as the line was ripping out to sea. Jonathan awoke from his catnap, chased Anthony down the side and reeled in a salmon. We cheered. Another beauty, upwards of 15-16 pounds. People congratulated him. “The fish caught itself. I was sleeping,” he explained.
Another man landed a fish. I let my bait soak and talked with the captain, Tak Kuwatani, who had been running fishing charters for 60 years in the region. “Best year I’ve seen in 16 years,” he said. “But something happened this week. There’s krill, that’s what I look for with the sonar.” I watched us pass over a school that glowed red on the screen. “Water warmed up, salmon don’t like that. But next run will start again. We’re just in-between.”
Later, I spoke with Hector, and he told me that this was his second fishing trip this year. On the first one, everyone caught his or her limit, except him. He caught nothing. Someone gave him a fish head. “I took home, made soup,” he said. He shrugged. “But I just knew I had to catch one. So I came back out. And I did.”