The fishing rod on the starboard aft side (or back corner — I was proud of myself for learning some navigation terms) of our little vessel sprang taut, like a bowstring. Our guide, Shane Moon, jumped to his feet with a quickness I didn’t expect from a guy who looks as if he could play lineman for a college football team. “OK, we’ve got one,” he said. The sun hadn’t yet shown its face in the purplish-blue sky, but it was light out, maybe 5:30 in the morning, and dozens of boats dotted a wide section of the Columbia River where it forks. I was excited. I had gotten a fish, and it was still pretty early, so I was feeling good about the prospects for the day. The question: Would I be able to keep it?
“Let’s hope it’s a king,” Moon said as he scooped it up into the net. It was not a king, or Chinook salmon. It was a fat, silvery sockeye salmon, and Moon shook his head. He cut it loose and the fish wriggled away, disappearing into the bluish-gray water.
It wasn’t the first time this would happen. Washington state carefully monitors its rivers and lakes, giving constant updates on what fishermen are and are not allowed to keep, and sockeye had just been placed on the no-fish list. The catch-and-retain window, I was learning, is extremely narrow. We were looking for king salmon, but it could not be wild — it had to be from a hatchery (a clipped fin is the giveaway).
Patience and acceptance were just a couple of lessons I learned during a not-always-fruitful but highly instructive fishing expedition, part of a cheap getaway in Washington and Idaho that centered around the states’ spectacular natural beauty — with some quality food in the mix. I’d booked a “Long Weekender” package through the Hilton Honors app, which offered a 50 percent discount on Sunday night during a three-night stay. My first two nights at the Hampton Inn & Suites Spokane Valley cost $139, and so the third night was a mere $69. The hotel was comfortable enough, but, most important, it was a good home base for heading back and forth in my $22-per-day Alamo rental car between Spokane, Washington, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, 25 minutes away on Interstate 90.
My first order of business was to explore Coeur d’Alene, a small city with a cute, compact downtown area. It also has beaches — not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Idaho. I parked on Sherman Avenue, downtown’s main drag, and walked over to the prosaically named City Park and accompanying beach, along Lake Coeur d’Alene.
The slightly gravelly shoreline isn’t going to give Oahu a run for its money anytime soon, but it’s a fun, lively scene.
Lounging and sunbathing (it was hot that weekend) was the pastime of choice when I was there, but other outdoor activities are widely available: Cruises on the St. Joe River are offered, as well as kayaking ($9 per hour), parasailing (from $65 per person) and something called a SUPsquatch — a massive paddleboard that fits up to nine people ($50 per hour). The park also hosts weekly summer concerts.
I wanted to do a little kayaking but decided I would hunt for a slightly better deal. I found it at Fun Unlimited in Post Falls, which offers an early-bird kayaking special from 9 a.m. until noon for just $22. After signing a quick waiver, I paddled east on the Spokane River, toward McCabe’s Island, then turned back and went toward the site of the town’s first lumber mill, now the Post Falls Dam. It was a perfect day for kayaking — just be careful of motorized watercraft.
After kayaking, it was easy enough to visit Post Falls Park, a small but picturesque green space on the Spokane River. The views of the dam are great, as well as those of the pretty-but-inaccessible Avista Bridge.
Tubbs Hill, 120 acres of hiking trails and public park, offers a great way to stretch your legs and take in panoramic views of Coeur d’Alene and the surrounding area. I parked on South 10th Street, on the hill’s backside, and entered the trails from there. I spent an hour or two on the hill before realizing how hungry I’d gotten.
Fortunately, Hudson’s Hamburgers, a no-frills spot that’s been in business for 110 years, wasn’t far away. Best of all, the simple double cheeseburger with onions, pickles and spicy mustard ($5.60) was everything a burger should be. The rest of Coeur d’Alene doesn’t skimp on quality food, either — I had good drip coffee ($2.30) from Vault, the resident hip coffee shop, and enjoyed the Greek Village Salad from Olympia Restaurant on East Lakeside Avenue.
The most surprising spot was Daft Badger Brewing, a fun and busy brewpub smack in the middle of a residential street. They have a refreshing (and potent) Blood Orange IPA that is hearty without overdoing it on the hops ($5). It went well with a Not Your Mother’s BLT Sandwich, which added sundried-tomato mayo and provolone cheese to the classic formula ($11.95).
Lest Idaho take all the glory, there was just as much good grub and quality suds on the other side of the border. The deal I found at the Wandering Table in Spokane was probably the single best of my trip. The chic spot allows for a near-luxurious lunch experience for a pittance. Customers can choose three dishes that individually range from $12 to $20 on the menu for a total of $15. I had a salad of charred broccoli with drop peppers and pine nuts, a healthy portion of albacore tuna in rice wine with pickled pears and a jalapeño aioli, and two immodestly large chicken wings slathered in a sticky Vietnamese glaze. It was all quite good, and entirely too much.
Garageland on West Riverside Avenue is another good spot to grab a quick bite in a slightly more casual setting. And I can also recommend Zola’s as an option for a solid meal and a beer, especially on Sundays when there’s an all-day happy hour. If the collegiate vibe at Zola’s is not your thing, head to the Observatory, where the mood is more tattoos, board games and microbrews.
With such food and natural splendor in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area, it does raise the question: Why did I travel so far (Brewster, where I booked my trip with Moon’s Guide Service, is 130 miles from Spokane) to go fishing? I asked myself the same thing as I drove toward Grand Coulee Dam in the middle of the night.
The answer, naturally, was price. Moon offered an eight-hour trip for just $200 — about half of what some guides were offering. Additionally, salmon fishing wasn’t quite as weather-dependent as fly fishing, also popular in the area — I reached out about fly-fishing lessons to a shop in Coeur d’Alene, only to have the class canceled at the last minute because it was too windy.
By sunrise, I could see at least 50 boats on the water. Our craft was typical — four poles, a complicated downrigger system and a collection of high-tech screens and remote controls that I couldn’t begin to understand. Fishing, I learned, is as expensive a hobby as you would like to make it.
The downrigger system, Moon said, allows for accurate targeting of a specific depth. It looks like a miniature building crane that accompanies the fishing pole and drops a lead weight in to your preferred depth, attached with a clip to the fishing line to keep the hook at the specified number of feet below water. When a fish bites, the clip breaks free and the pole springs up.
After my initial sockeye bite, things slowed down considerably. Still, the river was serenely beautiful. We caught a couple of more sockeyes and a Dolly Varden trout but threw them back.
Moon admitted that some people cheat, keeping illicit fish, but he stuck to the rules. “Sometimes I find myself saying, ‘Man, I never thought I’d be throwing back a 40-pound king,’” he said.
The elusive hatchery king salmon we sought weren’t cooperating. A sizable king teasingly jumped out of the water not far ahead of us. “What do you want?” he asked it. We decided to call it a day as 1 p.m. neared. Three sockeye and one Dolly Varden later, the little cooler I’d bought from Walmart on the way over remained empty. “I tell my customers,” Moon said, “I guarantee you will catch a fish.” He emphasized the word “catch” — no promises about keeping. I would have loved to keep a fish, but I left happy, feeling vaguely instilled with a kind of wisdom: What is it they say about teaching a man to fish?