I haven’t eaten a banana since the rookie mistake of packing two in my lunchbox on a guided steelhead fishing trip down the Kalama. Evidently, it’s common knowledge amongst fishermen that bananas equal disaster. My guide, Mark Ervig, assured me that it didn’t really matter. He believed his skills and the river’s fruitfulness would outweigh my flirt with lady luck. He was wrong. I left the river empty handed, but I promised to return the next time Mark had an available seat on his boat.
Mark’s calendar is packed as hatchery-bred and native steelhead return from the sea to spawn. I’d been on standby, waiting for a cancellation when he sent me an email Monday evening. I jumped at the chance, packed a bag, loaded the truck, and hit the road way too early on Tuesday morning. My plan was to fish all day with Mark, and then drop south into Oregon to visit the folks, and hopefully feed them a steelhead supper
The usual January drizzle subsided, and a shy sun peeked from a blanket of pouting overcast. I unzipped my woodland camouflage, leaned over a bright spot on the water, closed my eyes, and welcomed the sun’s reflection to warm my face and exposed neck. A waterfall cascaded down layers of sedimentary rock and dripped on carpets of wooly moss. Oars cut softly through the river. Morning birds rustled leaves and conversed in muted chirps.
I had slipped free from the hustle of freeway traffic and tucked deep into the tranquility of the river. The moment was spa-like. Caught up in the vibrations of nature, I forgot about fishing.
“Christine! Right pole! Right Pole!”
I opened my eyes to see the right pole dipping in sharp juts. I scrambled to my feet, grabbed the corked handle, and started to reel.
“Tip up, tip up. Keep it steady, Christine. You’re doing great, just great.”
The boat quaked under our movement but remained a stable platform. My mind raced to the Sportsman show and the little, blue drift boat I had admired. Yes, that drift boat would be perfect for me. I scolded myself to stay on task and focus on Mark’s words. Excitement blurred. The tranquil spa vanished. Moss and water and silver fish swirled in a great jumble of adrenaline.
I heard Mark jumping up and down behind me. My mind swooshed out of bounds again. Could Mark really be as excited as I was? I mean, the guy catches fish every day. Fishing is his job. How cool is that, fishing as a job? He teaches crazy women like me to fish and spends his days swapping fish tales and life stories. My little fish-fight should be boring him to tears. But it wasn’t. Mark was all in.
“Tip up, tip up. You’re doing great.” Mark’s words brought me back to the moment again. Which is so weird, you wouldn’t imagine that I’d be anywhere else, but I was. I flitted in and out of my fish fight like a butterfly on the breeze.
An iridescent flash broke the water, twisted in air, and slammed back under the surface. I marveled at streaks of pink, silver, white, and mottled olive green. My fish was striking and powerful. The fight surprised me. Mark continued to shell out advice and encouragement, but as the fish neared the boat, my attention tunneled. I can’t recall most of what he said. But I did hear him say, “Native.”
Mark had spotted the adipose fin of a native steelhead. Mine was not a hatchery fish. Mine was truly wild. This would not be dinner. I relaxed for a moment, and just like that, the little native popped free from my hook. I had failed to set the hook properly, and was glad. I felt a sense of relief as the silvery streak swam away. The fight had been exciting, and my fish survived unharmed, or at least not seriously harmed.
Two weeks ago, on my original trip with Mark, I toyed with the idea of releasing my first fish as a gift of gratitude to the river goddess. But since I caught nothing, there was nothing to give. It’s custom amongst some indigenous cultures to return the first prize to the sea as offering. I wasn’t sure I’d be strong enough to do that this time. I really wanted to catch a fish and overturn my banana luck. But my little fish, by the very nature of his upbringing, demanded sacrifice. I obliged with bliss.
We had only been floating for about 10 minutes when the native fish hit the line, so I knew we were in for a great day. A mob of Canadian geese sounded a honking alarm and lifted like a quarry of steely boulders from a nearby cow pasture. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a larger formation. I watched the geese near the river’s edge. I pulled on my hood to prevent wearing any fallout from the flock.
The geese moved into position. The next thing I’m going to tell you may sound crazy, but the birds flew in the formation of a giant fish, a steelhead even. Ridiculous, I know, but I swear it’s the truth. I pointed the fish out to Mark and he caught the tail just as it slipped behind a berm of trees.
“Ha, you see that, Mark? Now that’s a sign. The River Goddess is pleased.”
The right pole twitched slightly. I reached to grab it.
“Wait,” said Mark. “Give it a minute.” The pole dipped. “Okay, Christine. It’s on!”
I grabbed the pole, jerked hard to set the hook, and reeled. The fight was gentle, lumbering. A chubby burst of white hit the surface. “Oh my God, I caught a whale.” The thing was huge, or at least it seemed huge. I lugged it closer to the boat one rotation of the reel at a time. Mark cheered me on. I felt much calmer than the first round. The fish almost came freely. I say almost because when it neared the boat, and Mark readied the net, all hell broke loose. It’s like my fish flashed on the realization that he would soon be somebody’s dinner.
There are a couple of ways to kill a steelhead. Neither is very nice. Common practice is to issue a good bonk on the head with a bat. The bonking may stun the fish or knock it out for a while. Bonking doesn’t always kill. The goal was a quick kill, so I opted for Mark’s method. He showed me where to slip my finger beneath a silvered flap just behind the eyes. I threaded my index finger through the loops of fleshy gills, gritted my teeth, and tugged. The loops broke free and blood gushed in my palm. I stifled a scream, allowing it to leak out as an almost inaudible gasp, and then swallowed the lump growing in my throat. I had killed a lovely fish with my bare hands. The lump swelled again, but I fought back. I high-fived Mark with a bloody hand, and we celebrated for a moment before moving on to the next spot.
"See, the geese knew. They gave me the sign. I still can't believe they flew in fish formation."
Mark examined large green splats on the once pristine interior of his boat. "I can't believe they shit all over my boat."
I caught one more steelhead before the day was done, and liberated a large, white cooler from a tangle of hazel brush growing along the shore. With cooler salvaged, my fish would make the trip to my folks free of trash bag, and riding first class.
Mark offered to clean and filet my catch. I guess it’s a customary service, but I passed. Instead, I asked him to watch over my shoulder and coach me. It wasn’t as gross as I suspected, but there were a lot of guts. My largest fish was over two-feet long and really fat. I’m guessing he weighed at least 10lbs alive. The second fish was almost the same length, but not as well-fed.
I stumbled through the first fish, but felt confident as I slit the belly of the second. I ran a cupped hand up through the cavity and tore out a line of viscera. Mark gasped.
“What? Did I do something wrong?”
“No, Christine. You’re doing great.”
“Then what was all that about?” I peered up at him through blood-speckled glasses.
“I’ve just never seen anything like this. That’s all.”
I took his gasp as a complement. Through Mark’s coaching, I caught, killed, and gutted my limit of steelhead. I washed the gunk from my hands, tossed my fish in the salvaged cooler, stripped off layers down to yoga pants and tee-shirt, loaded the truck, and headed to Oregon feeling much wilder than yesterday.