You should see them the moment they come out of the salt. In the net their pectoral fins flare, stygian black to translucent at the tips. On the flanks, their scales shimmer, and above the lateral line, blues fade to purple, fade to black and sparkle in the sun. Heads scarred and scratched, colors ripple from tip of nose, back through the cheeks, iridescent black to silver to violet.
Sometimes bleeding from seal swipes, shark teeth, nets and hooks, these are the most powerful of the Pacific salmon. Predator and prey. Food and sport. It is abundant and scarce, and whole communities live and die with it.
If you want to understand the Pacific Northwest, you have to start with the beaver and the top hat, for that was the fuel that fed the fire of Western exploration.
When the beaver and the bison and the sea otter were exploited, we turned our attention to timber. And salmon. Salmon is king.
Picture 16 million adult salmon returning through the jaws of the Columbia River and blasting upstream. Bringing the bounty of the ocean to the interior, they swim a treacherous path, all the way up through Oregon and Washington, up the Snake River in Idaho.
Today’s salmon runs are a shadow of what they once were, but there are still surplus kings to catch. And the best way to get a jump on those fish is to catch them before they get to the Columbia.
This year we hit them at Kyuquot, British Columbia. Our crew consisted of my good friend Bill Valentine and his wife, Jessica, on a boat captained by Gary Sutherland, while Sam Pyke, my wife, Merrilee, and I were on a 28-foot Grady-White with Matt Guiget.
To get here, we took an early-morning flight north to Vancouver, British Columbia, then changed planes and flew on to Campbell River where we overnighted at Painter’s Lodge. From there it was a three-hour drive to a place called Fair Harbour, where the boats and the pickup trucks outnumber the residents 200-to-1. Fair Harbour is a resort and marina, the last place to park the truck for the run to Kyuquot.
Matt Guiget, owner of Rugged Point Lodge, stabbed a finger against the GPS to show me where the contour lines dropped off to the ocean floor.
“We call it the Salmon Highway,” he said. “That’s the edge of the continental shelf and the king salmon start running south in June, headed to the Puget Sound and river systems like the Fraser, the Columbia and the Sacramento.”
And they’re supercharged with herring, needlefish, squid and shrimp. We timed it right this time, hitting Kyuquot, an old Finnish salmon canning village on the leading edge of the continent. Kyuquot is protected by small barrier islands and where the land juts out into the ocean, it is only 13 miles from the shelf and the Salmon Highway.
We had scouted the night before, probing close to shore in choppy water off Spring Island. And each of us had caught a king. Now it was time to put fish in the box.
Here the water runs about 260 feet deep, and, like salmon everywhere, the kings find the edge, slashing through bait balls of herring and needlefish, and hunting down the squid. On this day the schools of bait we saw on the electronics averaged about 100 to 150 feet down. Guiget clipped on flashers and tied up leaders with hoochie skirts and barbless hooks. I doctored the hoochies with scent, Pro-Cure’s Salmon Slammer and Bloody Tuna, and Guiget dropped them down.
The rods were two-handed 101⁄2 footers that bent all the way down through the cork handles; the reels were large arbor British Columbia-style units, filled with 60-pound test mono. Guiget, from his stern-mount steering wheel, zigged and zagged, sped up and slowed down to make the troll erratic, to simulate bait escaping. And when the first fish bit, the rod rattled in the rod holder, the tip pulsed.
This one was an immature salmon, still in its first year in the salt. Already it had been wounded by some predator that tried to eat it before we caught it. A fresh gash bled along the top of its back. We turned it loose, farewell to a king.
The first day of summer. On gleaming wavelets we crossed the Salmon Highway back and forth while the herring were hard at work on their feed and the salmon and the lingcod were hard at work on them. Sometimes the salmon showed as blips on the screen and then the rod pulsed with a bite, the downrigger clip let go and the handles on the reel whirred as the fish made its first long run.
The mountains were blue in haze on the horizon. The first peoples who lived there, who made their way up and down the coast, called it Nuu-chah-nulth, the shimmering mountains along the sea. And that is the name they call themselves now.
In many ways, it was the salmon that gave them power, their wealth. Reliable runs of salmon fed them year-round, gave them leisure to develop art, society and traditions. If we look back at our shared history we understand it better because of salmon.
In bright gleaming moments, with the sun at our backs, the net poised to punch beneath a 15-pound king, we could see the fish at the surface, lying on its side, all the beauty and the power of the ocean in its scales.
—Gary Lewis is the host of “Frontier Unlimited TV” and author of “Fishing Central Oregon,” “Fishing Mount Hood Country,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact him at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com