Sitting at The Bridge restaurant on the Kris River in Oradea, Romania back in 2011, drinking Leffe Blonde Beer, I could only dream of wading into the cold Carpathian runoff with a rod in hand. Wide and dark, the water ran from the heights of northern Romania into Transylvania, a region stained red with blood from Vlad the Impaler’s thirst for violence. What sort of fish ran in this river, I wondered? How could they be caught? Who before me had fished in this very spot?
So it was only right and proper that when me and the boys pulled up to the Cispus River to fly fish for Coho Salmon on an early August evening towards the end of 2016 that we began the enterprise with a toast of Leffe, remembrances of old, promises of the new. Kurt (repeat offender in my fishing blogs), Brad, Justin and I clinked bottles and laughed, nothing but expectations and promises of salmon grandeur before us. I joked, “Isn’t this how all backwoods horror movies begin… four friends, drinking, merry, alone, out in the wilderness?” We laughed even more, just as the doomed characters in a movie would have laughed, right before they were picked off one by one. That was a moment… a certified moment. Then we got serious, attending to our gear, preparing, readying ourselves, now individual fishermen keen to conquer the river and its progeny, as much hunters as we were fishermen.
I had never fly fished for salmon before. In fact, I could count on one hand the number of fish I’d caught on a fly rod; all small rainbow trout. So my desire would have to rise above my lack of experience. I could have spin fished. God knows I’d earned several Master’s Degrees in that over a lifetime, but I was determined to fly fish. I was determined to learn the old sport, elevate my skill, and become someone who could populate a Norman Maclean or Ernest Hemingway tale without feeling guilty for being there. So, with my 4-piece Echo Solo rod in hand, I trod upriver, searching for a likely spot, whatever a likely spot looked like.
I’d never seen Salmon in a river before. While I’d fished and caught salmon on the Columbia River, that revered body as wide and as deep as a good woman’s soul, I’d never seen them near the surface. The only way I saw a salmon on the Columbia was when I’d been able to land a twenty-five pound monster in a boat (thank you Chuck). So when I turned a corner of the Cispus, the sun falling behind me, turning the tips of the waves and rivulets into silver daggers, and beheld half-a-dozen salmon laddering up some rapids into a pool, by heart caught in my throat. And as much cliché as that sounds, that’s exactly what happened as you of the salmon river fishing brother and sisterhood can attest.
Busy with laddering and spawning, they ignored me even as I approached, more goggle-eyed school boy than experienced fisherman. After a minute of reverence and confusion as to what I should be doing, I selected a fly with red, green, and black coloring. I don’t know what it was called, but Kurt said it was tied by a local guy who knew these waters. Assured the knot was perfect, I unloaded some line, then tossed the fly above roiling salmon and let it drift.
Bam! My father had told me over the years about his experience Steelhead fishing in Wisconsin when he was in college. He'd often reminisce about how the fish would strike and then take off like a freight train. This was another cliché proven true, because that salmon grabbed my fly and headed up river like the Chattanooga Choo Choo on methamphetamine chased by an angry battalion of highway patrolmen. I kept my left hand grabbing the line, so the fish was unable to engage the drag. The line grew taught, then stretched, then snapped.
Oh - Period - My - Period - God - Period.
I immediately realized what I’d done, but that didn’t do much to fill the hollow that grew in my gut.
That fish… that salmon… well, it was immense.
I shook my head to clear it, then with shaking hands, opened my gear and selected another fly, this one green and black. I’d thought that maybe I might find a salmon or two, but was really here to fish for cutthroat trout. That I’d stumbled into a mess of salmon was beyond anything I’d ever dreamed, standing there just moments ago, Leffe in hand. I had trouble controlling my breathing. It didn’t help that out of the corner of my eye I could see their backs breaking the water as they slashed back and forth, eager to reach higher elevations to spawn and fertilize. My eyes were having trouble seeing, even with the magnifiers I slid onto the bill of my hat. My hands were still shaking. I closed one eye, then the other. Sweat beaded into them. I was like a blind man trying to slide my tippet through the eye of the fly. It took twenty minutes that was really five and three miss-ties to get the fly ready.
Five minutes later I was into another fish. For fourteen minutes I fought the damned beast. I learned more about drag and playing a big fish in those fourteen minutes than I had the entire time I’d been fly fishing. One moment of not paying attention and it leaped, gave me the same dour look I’d seen from my former mother in law on too many occasions, then shook free of my fly.
Damn. That was two. And during those minutes, I discovered I had a problem. My tackle was too light. I was trying to catch fifteen- to twenty-pound salmon on 5wt tackle. That was no less true on the next salmon that took the fly. For forty-four minutes we fought… well, that’s perhaps an exaggeration. I tugged and held. It moved a few inches right or left. And we stayed that way. My tackle wouldn’t move it. God bless my rod, but it didn’t have enough power. Then the Salmon decided it had had enough fun playing with me, surged forward, and even with my drag, it moved fast enough to separate me from yet another fly and yet another fish. Where the first two salmon were lean and thick, this hog was a beast and my gear was no match for it.
Earlier I’d mentioned that I’d learned more in those fourteen minutes than I had the entire time I’d been fly fishing. Well, during those forty-four minutes with that beast, I'd received my Master’s Degree in Cispus River Coho Salmon Fishing Cum Laude and now was the time to prove it.
But the sun was going down. It shone just above the horizon of the trees, blinding me when I looked that way. In the golden shade of some great trees near by, the water dappled with spears of the dying day with caddis flies swarming above. I selected a #12 Caddis. Big for a trout, but it seemed about right for these immense salmon. I moved down to the lower pool. I cast once. Twice. And on the third cast, a salmon sucked down my fly. When I set it, the fly lodged behind the armor of its hinged jaw—true a hook set as ever was.
Ten minutes went by. Ten minutes of my dissertation in Cispus River Coho Salmon Fly fishing. I was tested on drag, on rod tip placement, on when to load line and when to unload. The river asked me question after question and I answered them. I heard honking in the distance, then shouting, then loud music. My friends wanted to go. It was time to leave.
“Sorry boys,” I said to the universe. “I can’t come quite yet,” my own replacement for the song Beth-- made famous by Kiss on their 1976 Destroyer album. “Beth, I hear you calling. I can’t come home right now. Me and the boys are playing, and we just can’t find the sound. Just a few more hours and I'll be right home to you. I think I hear them calling. Oh Beth what can I do.”
Had this fish been my first, I would have lost it. The same could be said with my second and third. But I’d been schooled by the river. The salmon were harsh masters and had given me hard lessons. Five minutes later, I netted the top half of the salmon and grabbed the bottom half. In one heroic heave, I brought the scarred and lithe beast to shore, fell on it, then lay there for a transcendental moment as I became one with every man, woman, and child who’d ever caught a massive salmon on a fly rig.
Eventually I stood, shaking. My diploma lay before me, gasping, covered in dirt and slime, dimpled and scarred from the thirty-five-mile trek from the top of the dam where it had been released. My diploma for this day was a fifteen pound twenty-nine inch coho salmon. When I was finally able to move, I broke the line, leaving the fly where it was. I shored the rest of my line, then grabbed the salmon through the jaws. Holding it at my side, the tail drug on the ground. Noticing that was yet another moment. I saw a standing pool of water separate from the river and out of respect, paused to wash the salmon clean, then headed downriver to the sounds of honking and yelling.
Walking back to the car to my boys, having now found the sound, pole in one hand, fish in the other, was a feeling like I'd never encountered. Satisfaction. Accomplishment. Amazement. Grateful. It wasn't as simple as an old drill sergeant once said, "Success is where preparation meets opportunity." I felt more like Sir Gawain after his improbable defeat of the invincible Green Knight than I did a fisherman trying his first time to catch a salmon with a fly rod. I knew then that my walk back towards my boys, all three of them watching me, wondering where I was, then seeing me and wondering what the hell that thing was that I was holding firmly in my left hand, then closer, realizing it was a fish, then not just a fish but a salmon, and wondering, for a moment being me in my triumph, was yet another certified moment.
“Some people go their whole lives without ever catching a salmon on a fly rod,” Kurt said to me.
I glowed with accomplishment and thanked the river for her lessons in fishing.
After pictures and several mandatory retellings of my fish story and those of my boy Brad, who’d caught a salmon just a bit larger on a spin fishing rig, we all found ourselves in a moment of silence. A moment filled with what could have beens, what had beens, and remembrances of similar moments, each of us had shared individually or together as we'd fished this great wild world. Then Kurt broke the silence. He brought out the rest of the Leffe Blonde. We opened them and drank. We’d found our sound… the river, forever running and falling, and our heartbeats, still moving fast with the epic thrill of our salmon hunt, and our blood through our temples, reminding us how alive we were, at this moment, together.
Some more pictures
|A selfie of me and the fish. It wasn't moving, I was just too excited. I think I was actually vibrating.|
|Kurt filleting one of the fish at his cabin. We later smoked them.|
|Brad with another picture of his fish.|
|Another picture of the salmon.|
|They're almost the same size but Brad's edged mine out by about 2 inches and a pound.|