smell of dead fish
Early October. Last year at about the same time I fished a section of the Yakima that I’d never fished before, above the town of Cle Elum. It’s a much different river up there compared to the more familiar waters downstream where I usually fish. The river was low and very wadable, and reports were that salmon were in the system laying eggs. The trout were following the salmon. And the fishermen were following the trout – at least Marck and I were. It was a beautiful afternoon until the wind started blowing so hard that casting became nearly impossible. As if the wind wasn’t bad enough it was very late in the day and I was facing a horrible skunk. It did not look good, and in fact vultures were even circling overhead (you can just make them out in the photo below). Desperately I worked my way downstream, trying everything in the fly box before finally managing to scratch out a 10 inch rainbow on an October Caddis. Just as the last light was fading, I glanced up to see Marck walking toward me with a shit-eating grin on his face. As I was plying 1/4 mile of water for one small fish Marck had stayed in one spot for 2 hours, using the same tattered fly, without moving an inch. When you’re catching fish on every other cast, why would you move? I made a note to myself never to fish with Marck again.
So yes, last year was a rough day on this stretch of the Yakima for the Unaccomplished Angler. But this was a new year and it was with rekindled faith that I decided to go back and redeem myself. In addition to Marck, whom I had long since forgiven for being a better angler than myself, Jimmy and my son Schpanky also joined in the fun. Except for the lack of wind, which was quite welcome, conditions were very similar to a year earlier: a beautiful warm, fall day with pesky mosquitoes gnawing at us as we geared up and hiked a mile or so to our starting point.
The river was low and clear, flanked by brilliantly-colored foliage and the smell of fall. Or rather, the smell of hundreds of rotting salmon. Not all were dead yet, but most had completed their journey and lay peacefully still in the shallows, giving nutrients back to the stream that had given them birth. It’s not sad to witness all these dead fish, rather it’s a joyous triumph to see that they had completed their life cycles and made the journey home. Still, it tugs at the heart strings when one sees two lovers lying next to one another in a last, dying embrace.
Fishing was quite good right off the bat, at least for one of us. Jimmy immediately waded into a run that continued to give up modest sized fish with nearly every cast. What he failed to do was move on after catching a whole bunch of them so that someone else might have a turn at it. Had he glanced at the riverbank he would have seen a man-child looking on with yearning in his eyes, drool hanging from his lower lip and a twitch in his casting hand; waiting patiently, hoping for a chance to catch just one fish from the productive run. It was not to be.
The boy, Marck and I moved on downstream to less productive waters. Egg-laying October Caddis bounced along the water’s surface, but no fish were rising. It was still early in the afternoon with few shadows on the water so we opted instead to swing soft hackles and Chubby Cousins, largely to no avail. We worked a couple runs that gave up tiny troutlets, but fish of any notable size were very scarce — scarce, but not completely absent. At one point I did manage to land a strong fighting 12″ fish that gave my 4wt a good run for it’s money. Schpanky gleefully ran to my side to snap a photo of the fish, his face beaming with admiration for his old man.
The water temperature had measured 62 degrees upon our arrival. That’s not too warm, but it was warmer than we’d have preferred. When the cooler weather of fall hits and lowers the water temps into the 50’s, the fish start thinking ahead to winter and begin gorging themselves. The fish hadn’t yet adopted this line of anticipatory thinking, and catching remained slow. I tried my best to make this day all about the boy. After a severe skunking earlier in the summer, he needed a good day of catching more than I did. It’s been a long time since the Yakima yielded a bountiful day, or even a single decent fish for Schpanky, so on this day I gave him first shot when we approached new water, hoping he’d hook up with a good fish. I almost felt bad when, after he had worked through a nice piece of fishy looking water, I came in behind him and picked his pocket hooked into a solid fish. Much to his delight I lost that fish but immediately thereafter landed another nice 12 inch fish. I could see the look of despair spreading across his face, but he remained a good sport and showed his adoration for his old man by holding up a single finger. It was gratifying to know that I was still #1 in his book. I think it was his index finger, though now that I ruminate over it I may have been mistaken. Oh well, blame it on aging eyes.
We kept fishing and I continued to be the positive-thinking role model that every teenager loathes, especially when they’re not catching fish. Comments about how good his casting looked were apparently unheard. Repeated reminders that “It’s called fishing, son – not catching!” were met with contemptuous sideways glares. The increased silence grew deafening. As the afternoon wore on I continued with my attempts to lift the lad’s spirits by reminding him that even Marck wasn’t catching any fish (which I took great pleasure in, by the way). Schpanky’s body language indicated that he was defeated and no longer interested in trying to salvage any chances of catching a fish over 3 inches. Concerned that perhaps his mood was being affected by low blood-sugar, I offered him a shot from the whiskey flask snack bar and a hug. He gladly accepted the former. We moved on. He had to keep fishing because we were still a ways from our termination point, but his heart wasn’t in it. Apparently he had hit the wall.
A constant companion throughout the day was the stench of rotting salmon. Redds were flagged throughout the river so we were careful to give them a wide berth, but the carcasses were harder to avoid. At one point a particularly nice looking specimen was encountered and, in trying to keep the mood light, I suggested to Schpanky that he hold it up for a hero shot. He passed. Probably a good thing because his mother would not have been amused to see her little boy holding a moldy salmon in his bare hands.
We fished on. We swung flies through fishy looking slots and when the shadows were fully upon the river we switched to dries. Nothing seemed to work– not even a small woolly bugger stripped behind a rock the size of a Smart Car could produce a bump. At one point I looked upriver and saw a large fish jump a half dozen times within 30 feet of Schpanky’s location. I was momentarily sure that he had hooked an elusive Yakima unicorn steelhead and his mood would be salvaged! It turned out to be a Coho with a bug up it’s butt, putting on one last display of gumption before it expired like the scores of its brethren. Unfortunately it was not in any way attached to the boys line.
We called the time of death at around 6:30PM and hiked back to the truck. As we broke down our rods and stripped off our waders, we once again fed the mosquitoes and marveled at what a beautiful day it had been on the water. While the catching had been much less than what we had anticipated, it was a great day of fishing. For me it was a rewarding afternoon spent with my son, forging an already solid bond on the river. I’m not sure that he felt the same way, but someday when he’s a grown man he’ll look back on days like this day and fondly recall not the quantity of the fish caught, but the quality of the time spent fishing with his old man. I hope that then I’m still #1 in his book.