Thursday, January 12, 2012

Day 31: Never Take a Banana Fishing


I responded to Mark Ervig’s guide service ad posted on Craigslist in mid-December. I hoped to find a Steelhead mentor. I know almost nothing about fishing and needed more than just a guide. I wanted fishing lessons. Mark emailed me back, quoting a price of $59 for 5 hours on the river. I was surprised at the more than reasonable charge for his expertise. But then I got a second email. Mark was curious about my killing spree, wanted to hear my story, and offered to take me fishing for free.

Now a smart girl doesn’t jump at the first free fishing offer she gets. This was a Craigslist posting after all, and I’m known to be hyper-vigilant when it comes to safety and personal control. I guess you could call me a paranoid control-freak, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t signing up for a day trip with the Green River Killer, or in this case The Kalama River Killer.

I spent a week or better researching Mark’s credentials. I found the Ervig’s Outfitters Facebook page, read a few fishing commentaries in sportsman journals that mentioned Mark by name, and also read testimony from satisfied clients. Of course I ran a sex-offender search. Sounds extreme? Perhaps, but safety never takes a holiday.

I laughed at my overly-cautious self when I met Mark in a parking lot along the river. He’s one of those guys you’ve always known, familiar – like a distant cousin on your mom’s side you saw once or twice at a family reunion, or was it a wedding? He’s that guy whose name is on the tip of your tongue. You’ve always known of a guy like Mark, or at least I have.

Talk was easy as the sun broke through cloud cover and lit up the narrow river like a glowing emerald strip. Fluorescent green moss dripped from skeleton trees. Silver splats of waterfall cascaded down the slick face of a black slate cliff. Towering Douglas fir striped fat shadows downstream, and a Bald eagle, still speckled with youth, swooped down and scored a fish head from a rotting carcass. Mark maneuvered the drift boat through the milky froth of rapids, cutting around boulders and edging close to the jagged shore. I released a trill of giggles as my stomach dropped with each swell and dip of the bow.

Mark rowed to a glassy spot and dropped anchor. I learned about jigs, bobbers, drift lines, pink-dyed shrimp, and salmon egg clusters tied to the line just above the hook. With a little coaching, I dropped the two drift lines and crossed my fingers.

I’ve read about the hard fight and thrill of bringing in a thrashing steelhead. A steelhead is like a giant, seagoing trout growing up to thirty pounds and over three-feet long. Smaller ones are more common. Salmon and steelhead are anadromous, meaning the fish are hatched in freshwater, spend most of their lives at sea, and return home to freshwater birthplaces to spawn. Salmon return, spawn, and die. Steelhead can return and spawn year after year, living for a maximum of eleven years. I hoped to relocate one returning steelhead to my grill and another to my freezer. Even a smaller steelhead of ten pounds could feed me for several meals.

Mark talked about the river like she was an old lover resting in the room next door. He kept his voice low and even, fighting the staccato of sentimental prose. I recited my  new vocabulary and pondered gleaned fish facts. I’d like to say I hardly noticed that the fish weren’t biting, but that would be a lie. Mark pulled up anchor and we moved downstream, pausing for a moment to talk to a fellow angler. The man fishing with his son gave the sportsman head-nod and asked the standard question.

“Any luck?”
I shook my head in time with Mark’s reply. “Not a bite. How bout you?”

“Hooked a little native and tossed him back. Almost didn’t see the fin.”

“Was he bright?”
“Yeah. Nice little fish, real bright.”

We moved on downstream. I read about native fish and the presence of the adipose fin. Native steelhead must be released. Non-native fish or hatchery fish can be kept, and are distinguished by the lack of a small, fleshy fin between the dorsal fin and the tail.
“Mark, can I ask a stupid question?”
“Are hatchery fish a hybrid adaptation to eliminate the adipose fin?”

“No. The fin is cut off before the fish are released from the hatchery.”

It's hard to imagine what that procedure might look like. How many people-hours are spent clipping the fin of tiny steelhead fingerlings? And does the removal of the adipose fin affect the fish in  negative ways?
“So, native fish are endangered?”

“That’s right.”

“How do you think that happened?”

“See that lone tree on the hill?” He pointed to a monster of a Douglas fir at least fifty years old. “That tree drinks about 50-gallons of water per day.” I nodded, unsure of where we were going with the tree talk. “When trees are removed, water that was supposed to be consumed runs off the hillside, flooding the river. People with river-front homes truck in boulders, concrete fill, sand and gravel, and build retaining walls to protect their investments from flood.”

The river becomes a drainage ditch, moving floodwater at the sacrifice of its own ecology.
My thoughts drifted as I admired a fine, fescue carpet hemmed behind a rock retaining wall. From my place on the river, the lush green seemed pristine and weed-free, unlike the dandelion-dotted, moss-mottled hues of my front yard. Perfect grass comes at a price, a price paid by the balance of the river and inhabitants. I imagined caustic ooze composed of fertilizer, insecticide, herbicide, moss killer, septic leaching, and piles of dog crap making its way through the substrate and into the river. I didn’t mention the imagined ooze to Mark. He had started on a new dissertation about the terminal plight of hatchery steelhead.

It’s a hard fact to accept. Even though a steelhead can physically spawn several times during a lifetime and live eleven years, hatchery fish are terminal on the first return. The upstream battle to birthplace return is a futile mission for hatchery fish. Fish that escape first-round anglers are captured in a hatchery corral, trucked upstream to give sportsman another go, and then corralled again. Survivors are introduced to closed lakes to be fished and die a spawn-free life. The goal is to prevent hatchery fish from spawning and reproducing in the habitat of the endangered native. There is speculation that hatchery populations might wipe out the natives or contaminate the gene pool and produce inferior species. I don’t know enough about fish husbandry to formulate an argument, but I think it’s a damn shame for hatchery populations to struggle so hard to return, all for nothing.

Mark moved from proven fish holds all the way down stream. “You can catch one anytime now, Christine. Don’t hold back.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong?”
“We’re doing everything by the book."
I thought about a detail my husband mentioned as I packed my lunch the night before. Jim is no fisherman. In fact he’s only been one time on a buddy’s boat in Hawaii. Apparently, somebody brought a banana on the boat and ruined the fishing for the whole crew. I wrote the banana story off as one of many Hawaiian superstitions, just like the one that says you better not drive the Pali highway after dark with pork in your car. Having pork in my car before or after dark has never been an issue, not even on the Pali highway.  I packed two bananas in my gear bag.
The fish weren’t biting, and the bananas got the best of me. “Mark, so is there anything you should not bring on a boat when fishing? You know, things with certain smells or things that are bad luck?” I was fishing for answers.
“Fried chicken. You shouldn’t eat fried chicken and handle gear or bait. Fish smell fried chicken and won’t bite. And don’t scratch your dog before baiting a hook. Fish don’t like the smell of dog.”
I kept fishing or answers. “Are there any fruits or vegetable considered taboo?”
“Bananas. People say bananas are bad luck. But I don’t really believe that, but some guides will throw you off the boat if you pack bananas.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I got bananas.”
After three-miles and  eight bite-free hours floating down the Kalama, we were out of time. Mark apologized more than a couple of times. He was stumped. I was his first fish-free client in a three month streak. I assured him the fault was mine, but he insisted the banana thing was more folk than fact.

I loaded into my pick-up truck and hit the northbound lane of Interstate 5. I peeled and ate the first banana. The firm flesh tasted sweet and filling, but it could never take the place of a steelhead fillet smoking on the grill. I promised Mark I’d try again, but next time, I’ll travel sans banana.


  1. Banana's, that was hilarious the first time I heard it in Hawaii and it's just as funny now. Cannot believe the superstitions that people have at times. Glad Mark isn't as easily mentally handicapped with silly superstitions. I'm sure that someone out there purposely takes bunches of banana's on fishing trips just to prove their point. Better luck next trip.

  2. And to Mark, Thanks for taking my wife out on a steelhead adventure. Some things fit into my Jack of all trades kit bag but unfortunately fishing isn't one of them. I'm sure this won't be the last fishing outing you'll have with Christine. She's got the bug now.....

  3. I too had a great time and am looking forward to a successful follow up trip. Thanks again

  4. When I saw the part about Mark being like a cousin on your maternal side, I smiled, because he actually is my maternal cousin. Good to see little "Marky" is doing well.

  5. When I saw the part about Mark being like a cousin on your maternal side, I smiled, because he actually is my maternal cousin. Good to see little "Marky" is doing well.