Today, I boldly go where this blog has not gone before. I am starting up a new category – Writings – a place to share some personal essays written in the past, as well as new stuff that I will crank out from time to time. I wrote this piece way back in 1999, when I began (better late than never ;^) to explore my interest in writing.
And what was true then is even truer now…
Lurking in my basement, haunting me, is a salmon. Luckily, its flesh was removed long ago, smoked for lox, if I remember correctly. Its skin has been cured and its fins plasticized, and it has been reconstructed in sytrofoam to its original shape. The Tyee trophy is stored there, a large silver fish, hung on a stud by a nail, tucked behind the boxes of photo albums of past lives — the ones before kids and each other, some dusty camping gear, and some eternally hopeful suitcases.
When I was a little girl spending my summers in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, my dad and I would go fishing for salmon. Most days we’d catch one, or at least snag a rock cod or a ling for our trouble. And if we were lucky, we’d catch one big enough to keep — big enough to feed our family of seven for dinner. He had all sorts of doodads and downriggers and flashers and stuff, and his surgeon’s hands could quickly untangle the knots or tie another lure on, in hopes of hooking Charlie. Charlie was the big one. The fish that always got away.
Sometimes, when we got a really big pull, the reel would not just whir, it would sing. We’d look at each other with raised eyebrows and mouth Charlie? And then in our family tartan, woven over time, I would shift the boat into idle while he released the pole from the holder and played the big fish.
But invariably, some of the really big pulls proved to be bogus: we’d have snagged some kelp, or worse still, the bottom. And sometimes, as my dad reeled in hard, playing the big one that was unmistakably there, the taut line would suddenly go slack. A few more unresisting turns of the reel would guarantee disappointment. The hook would come up empty or the line would be broken, and the wily Charlie would have given us the slip.
My dad was mostly pretty philosophical about it. He figured that Charlie was a smart fish, maybe the smartest in the sea. And although we imagined over the years that we caught and consumed many of his relatives, including some pretty big fish, we were convinced that Charlie was still out there. Charlie was invincible.
My father spent hours fishing with any of his daughters who would like to go for a ride in the little water-skiing/fishing boat. For the most part, it was just me. None of my four sisters were inclined to drag themselves out of bed at first light to go fishing with him. He would awaken me, not with the usual flushing of the toilet and the banging of the kettle, but instead with a stage whisper, his voice wafting up through the railing to my little pine bed in the open loft of the log cabin where I slept. We’d slug back some tea and pick up the tackle box and the big fishing net and some life jackets, and we’d head down the steps to the beach that was washed with pale light in the breaking day. And we would go looking for Charlie.
After a few squeezes on the black rubber bulb in the gas line, and then a turn of the key, the old Merc would sputter to life. We’d untie the bowline, and we’d be gone, the propeller grabbing the water as my father or I accelerated the plucky little white and green boat out beyond Breakwater Island, away from the waters protected and restricted and defined by the land on which our little cottage was perched. That’s where Charlie lived, we were convinced, out in the open ocean.
We’d cast out our lines and drift for a while, and my father would teach me about fishing. It’s an exhilarating thing, you see, catching a salmon. It’s hard work. First, somehow, you must see through a fisheye. You must know how to bait, how to lure, what looks yummy. You must figure how deep it swims. You must imagine the terrain that it moves through. You must be the fish.
Then, when it takes your bait, and realizes that it’s not what it thought, it panics and runs. Like somehow, by moving away faster, the pain will go away. And then it feels the pressure, the attempt to drag it back. It fights and it pulls and it tugs and it changes direction, and sometimes it’ll leap out of the water, to catch with its steely eye the reflection of the boat and its rod-wielding foe.
As it tires, it allows itself to be coaxed to the surface. It can no longer find the energy to run or resist, and it acquiesces to the constant, gentle pressure urging it to move forward and up. It suffers the constant flush of water through its gills that makes it hard to breathe. And then, as it finally comes up under the hull of the boat, and it sees the net, it turns and runs one last time, in one last effort to be free.
And one last time, you coax it in, sensing the fatigue of the fish. You ready the net by dipping it into the water and opening its mouth to the offering. You lift the fish from the water, triumphant, maybe even uttering a yahoo or two, hefting its weight in your experienced hands, you the victor, and it the relinquished. It struggles a bit, but it is a fish out of water — it is on your turf now. It is slowly dying as it drowns in the air, and so you shorten its misery by giving it a quick bonk on the head. And then the fisheye clouds over.
It’s life and it’s death. They are both natural things. For time immemorial, man has taken fish from the sea to sustain him. It has been the order of things. It’s only in the last century or so, with the over-population of people and boats, and the declining population of fish, that the whole thing has gotten out of whack.
Since those early days spent fishing with my father, I’ve gone fishing with others, including a boyfriend who had grown up with a deadbeat dad, and who, at the age of twenty-one, had never been fishing for salmon. He caught a nice one when he went out with me, and I remember how he reeled it in inexpertly, dragging the fish to the boat, not allowing it to run, not letting me help him. But he must have set the hook solidly, because the fish didn’t manage to break away, despite his many mistakes. In the end I had to kill it for him, giving it a quick death blow as it laid bloodied and breathless from his indirect hits.
Later, I went fishing with the man I would marry. I knew him in snapshots through University where we were both still pretty busy outting our ya-ya’s. I’d see him at parties and there was this escalating mutual attraction, right from the heart, right from the start, kind of a coup de foudre, as the French would say — a clap of thunder, a collision of souls. His mom, who died just after we were married, called us peas in a pod.
For a while, he was busy fishing and earning his C.A., and I was busy snorkeling in Fiji and slinging scotch to boozy businessmen for an airline. And then fate or karma or whatever you want to call it brought us together, again. He called me up from out of the blue and invited me out on our first date. Fly fishing in January. I was hooked.
He had been a fishing fanatic for a long time. He and a buddy would jump in his big Bronco and they’d head for the backwoods to catch some steelhead or trout. Or he’d jump in his homemade, bat-out-of-hell boat and he’d head out with a buddy to troll for some beauties for a bit. He spent a lot of time at a fishing resort on Vancouver Island where he had another buddy or two who had summer jobs driving the wealthy in the resort’s Boston Whalers, fishing for Tyees, the granddaddy of salmon, and hustling for tips.
Up there, he snagged a big one: a thirty-four pound monster of a fish that he caught with a Fenwick fly rod and twelve pound test line. That’s pretty light tackle for landing such a big fish. It was an epic contest that was valiantly won with finesse and patience and perfect timing. The fish had more than a fighting chance, what with the flimsy line that could have easily been snapped in a battle of wills, but he played it perfectly. And in those days, everyone kept the Tyee that they caught.
He had it cured and stuffed and mounted on a very glossy burl of wood, which must have come from a magnificent old growth tree. He had his name, the date, and the weight of the fish engraved on a little bolted-on plaque of brass, just like the ones that hang all over the walls at the Lodge — a trophy. The big fish, a Tyee, had a place of honor in his parent’s house, where he and it resided until we were married. Then it moved from apartment wall to apartment wall with us, before we found a home, where it glared at me with its marbly eye from its lair above the dining room table. And slowly, over the years, I demoted that fish from living/dining room, to tv room, to basement storage, where it still lurks. I would have like to have ditched it altogether at the outset of our marriage, but I was afraid of hurting his feelings, of causing conflict. But he knew I didn’t think much of his fish when I hung a shiny red Christmas ornament from its mouth our first Christmas together, when we had been married for only a week, and nicknamed it The Tuna.
My husband seems to understand a little better, so many years later, why I don’t want The Tuna hanging on our walls. You see, to me, The Tuna is a trophy. It’s as if the thrill of victory was not enough — it’s as if we need a constant in-your-face reminder. To me it is a monument to the excesses and the wantonness and the thoughtlessness of days gone by when we caught fish without contemplating the life that we took, and without considering that one day it might all come to an end. It somehow reminds me of how implicated I am, no matter how innocently, in the decline of the population of wild animals on Earth. And it saddens me to remember the abundance of my childhood that has, in my short lifetime, been so drastically depleted.
And, there’s a certain irreverence to the life of a fish, of which the only remnant is a cured skin stuffed with styrofoam. The fish doesn’t want to be canonized. It made a big mistake chomping that cut-plug herring on that fateful day. Its life changed forever in that instant. I feel the same way when I go to people’s homes and see deer antlers mounted on a wall or a bear skin rug sprawled out in front of a fireplace. These aren’t shrines to the wonder and majesty of animals; they are monuments to creatures who were unlucky enough to get in harm’s way of a hunting rifle’s bullet.
I like fish. By learning to scuba dive some years ago, in some ways, I have become one. I have communed with cuttlefish and glad-handed groupers. I’ve gone nose to nose with a hammerhead shark and butted up against a wall of barracuda. I’ve seen massive balls of schooling fish (rare these days) and weird little fishes that don’t look like fish. My favourite is still the puffer fish though. There are several varieties that I’ve seen, but they all have the same gig: they balloon up when they are nervous or threatened. They just blow themselves up until they are really, grotesquely, bloated, and out come these little spikes to ward off attackers. And then they bumble away, their transparent, ethereal little fins ineffectively steering the course for such a momentarily big fish.
Being underwater — a witness to the world of the creatures that dwell there — has changed my perspective. Friendly groupers that seem to enjoy human contact, and aggressive puny territorial damsel fish who will take a David and Goliath run at a diver just to steer him away from his coral head, have made me realize that these creatures are not automatons. Octopus and cuttlefish are curious and can even seem playful. All this, and so many more aquatic encounters, have turned me on to the complexity and to the depth and to the beauty of life below the surface, something I had never really previously considered until I went there.
But I understand why people like to fish. I used to like to too. It’s meditative, sitting in a creaking boat, a fiberglass cork bobbing on the tight surface of the sea. Or standing on the edge of a river, casting a floating filament of fishing line, lulled by the rushing and hushing of water. It’s hours of boredom, of the finest kind, punctuated by moments of adrenaline. It’s kind of like flying in an airplane.
And, fishing is a skill-testing game: you play the fish, adroitly, adeptly, with instinct, letting it run when it needs to. If you try to stop it, the line will break. The key is to listen to the fish, to read it. Keep tension on the line, and only reel in when the fish is obliging. Don’t let the line go too slack for too long, or it will tangle and you will have to let the fish go free.
I know fishing is also about victory. It’s about the big one that didn’t get away. It’s about the good fight. It’s about dominating nature, at least for a brief moment, in a world where we are constantly reminded by hurricanes and flash floods and earthquakes and viruses that nature can not be controlled.
Here, in the Pacific Northwest, in the days of my youth, there used to be bountiful fishing. There are legends of even more abundant times, before mine, when it is told that salmon would jump out of the water and into your boat, just to escape the teeming masses. Overfishing and overdamming and urban sprawl and polluting industries have taken their toll. And the harder it has become to hook a salmon, the more people seem to want to try. Now people pay big money to go fishing in British Columbia and Alaska, with the majestic Tyee, the King Salmon, as the most coveted prize. A Chinook salmon is classified as a Tyee when it reaches thirty pounds. And there are stories and trophies of fish weighing in close to a hundred. The Tyee is like a coldwater Marlin; it is a game fish. It fights and it pulls and you won’t be able to net it and get it into the boat to beat it into submission until it decides that the battle is done.
In those same years of the decline of the salmon, in both the ocean and in our house, our attitudes towards fish have changed. At first, three babies and the selling of my husband’s homemade boat that was too dangerous for toddlers got in the way of going fishing. Then we started to be alarmed by the stories about how depleted the fish stocks were becoming. About how there is commercial and recreational over-fishing. About how some aboriginal groups are being allowed to net too many salmon, as they travel upriver to spawn, a portion of which end up feeding a black-market of bargain-hunting consumers. About how American and Canadian governments disagree on both the ownership of and the measures required to sustain the imperiled Pacific salmon fishery. And then we became divers, and began to look at fish with wonder instead of hunger.
And I know now that some fishing is also about polluting the earth with the puffing blue smoke from a fossil-fueled two stroke that dumps more gas into the sea than it burns. Boats clog the estuaries of the river, trolling for fish with depthsounders and fishfinders and other no-fail newfangled technology by which the fish are so clearly outsmarted. They create an almost impenetrable gauntlet, blocking the path for these animals as they remarkably return to make their final journey up the river of their genesis, to their ancient, now disturbed, spawning grounds. To the shoals where they will breed and then die.
I’m glad to hear that many sport fishers now catch and release. They realize they must to protect the fish stocks. That’s a good thing. But still too many fish are being taken by too many people, for too many reasons, under shortsighted, inadequate, regional, federal and international laws, to stem the tide of the inevitable day when salmon will be the stuff of legends and trophies. Charlie. The Tuna. The great Chinook that precariously reigns in the Emerald Sea of the Pacific Northwest.
And, sadly, in my basement.