Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
My good fortune this week was to drive with my gorgeous ex-fiancee up to go fishing on the Columbia River. My mad friend John Whitlatch and his lovely wife Allie have their Buoy 10 fish camp there at the mouth of the Columbia every year. So we jumped in the wheels, pushed the adventure button, and headed north.
And what is the adventure button when it is at home? Well, for me it is the button on Google Maps that looks like this:
You push that joker, and there’s no telling where Google will send you, and you better not be in a hurry … but it will be adventure all the way. For example, in northern Oregon at one point it routed us onto a gravel road for about a quarter mile. Then there was a patch of pavement by some farmer’s house to keep down the dust, followed by another quarter of mile of gravel. That brought us out to a rural airstrip where they were using tow-planes to launch gliders, one after another. After dropping each one off, the tow-plane pilot put on an amazing acrobatics show—stalls, spins, loop-the-loops, eight-point rolls, it was awesome … we watch the aerial play, shook our heads, looked at each other, and rolled on.
The adventure button also took us past lots of plowed fields, which are the natural habitat of that amazing creature, the dust devil. They form wherever they are needed to cool the surface down, and plowed fields run significantly hotter than grass. At one point, there was an amazing parade of dust devils. There was a gentle wind blowing from right to left. The dust devils were forming near the right edge of the plowed field and growing stronger as they drifted across it … only to die out at the left hand edge. I was reminded of the endless line of buckets cleaning up spilled water in the Disney animated film, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And in truth, this was equally magical—when that part of the earth got too hot, an endless stream of dust devils materialized out of nothing, one after another, to carry the excess heat aloft and cool the earth.
And of course, none of this is in the climate models … but I digress.
So we stood amazed by the dust devils, and then after while we continued to stooge on north to the Warrenton KOA where the fish camp is located. I love fish camps, the easy cameraderie, the stories and lies, the river hidden but present in the background. I hadn’t told John I was coming, so he was absolutely stunned by our sudden appearance.
After the preliminary hugs all round, we each grabbed an adult beverage and caught up on what we’d been doing. John never ceases to amaze me, and this was no exception. Here’s the story:
A few years back, Johnny had a client who caught an absolutely humongous salmon on the Kenai River. That’s the boy himself, on the left …
After they measured the length and the girth, Johnny said “I think you have a record fish there, by measurement it should go just over a hundred pounds” … and the world record is 98 pounds. The client said “What would you do with it?”. John said “I’d let it go” … and amazingly, the client did. They stood in awe and watched it swim upstream to spawn.
Now, that in itself is a measure of the man and of his effect on his clients. Before they ever arrived at the Kenai he’d talked to them about catch-and-release, so they were clear on the idea when they arrived. And enough of John’s love of the salmon tribe must have gotten through to the client to get him to make such an astonishing gesture.
But of course, this being a Johnny Whitlatch story, there’s always more. After the dust had died down, he got to thinking—why was there no record for fish that are released? I mean there are records for fish that are kept, but his client got nothing but the joy of watching the mighty fish return to the water.
So John started writing to the IGFA, the International Game Fishing Association. They are the keepers of all of the official fishing records. At first they were cold to the idea, but Johnny is a force of nature … and as a result, after twenty letters or more, there is now a brand-new IGFA category for released fish! Finally, a fishing guide or a fisherman can get the recognition of his or her peers for their accomplishment, WITHOUT having to kill the fish to do it.
I find it difficult to even estimate the difference that this will make to the large game fishes of the planet, which are under increasing pressure from sport fishermen. It is a stunning achievement with lasting effects, and a testament to what one dedicated individual can do.
So, we caught up on the past, and then we set the morning time for a 4:30 meeting at the camp, and went to bed. Every third person in the Warrenton KOA pulls a trailer, so the morning was full of the roar of big Ram Diesels and the like moving out. We got in the truck and went to the marina early to miss the crowd … where we discovered that the boat was nearly out of fuel. So we pulled out of line, and went and got fuel … only to discover that the only problem was a sticky fuel gauge. Ah, the joys of the fisherman. Back to the marina, where the line was now very long, wait and wait, and finally toss the boat in the water.
Now, truth be told, I don’t know much about sport fishing. I’ve been a commercial salmon fisherman from Alaska to California, I’ve killed maybe 50,000 salmon in the course of my life, but I know little about sport fishing for salmon. But John had the boat, and all the gear, and he and his uncle Bob were both happy to show me how to go about doing it right.
Of course, for most of the day, all we did was talk story. Fishing is like that. I hooked one, but it broke off. We had half a dozen bites, and then Brett landed a lovely fish.
When the next fish struck, the boys said it was my turn … and I was all thumbs. I was doing fine until the fish got up next to the boat. You have to keep the line taut so the fish can’t spit the hook. But then at the surface I thought I still had a tight line, and John is screaming “Take the slack”, and I look down and I see that I’ve cranked the lead ball out of the water, that’s what’s fooling me by making my rod bend, but the line to the fish was perfectly slack, no tension at all …
There was no way I should have caught that fish, but when a fish wants to get on board there is no stopping it. When John had netted it, as is my invariable custom I spoke my thanks out loud to the fish for sacrificing its life for our food. It was bright and beautiful, nearly three feet long, a noble creature of the sea. I can’t tell you of the pleasure of being out on the sparkling water of the river, laughing and talking with my friends, and catching such a wondrous fish.
And that was all that we caught that day. The sun was still as shiny, the river was as beautiful, but the bite was off. Didn’t stop us from continuing to fish, of course … who knows when they might bite again, and besides the trees were glowing green and the sun was bouncing off the wavelets … even with no fish, what’s not to like?
But all good days must end eventually, so in the afternoon we motored back to the marina, loaded the boat, and rolled back to the fish camp. We were met by questions and laughter and the like, and the day rolled on. I went over to our RV and changed clothes … and then I though “Damn! I left my fish in the boat!” Uh-oh …
For me, as an erstwhile fishing guide, this is a big no-no, you have to take care of your own fish. So I went back to grovel to John … he said no worries, that his good lady Allie and he had gutted it, scaled it, filleted it, vacuum-packed it, and it was in the freezer for when I was ready to leave …
That night we had a lovely campfire, and the gorgeous ex-fiancee and I both broke out our guitars and gave a concert. We sang “Ain’t It Good To Be Back Home Again”. We sang “When I’m 64” in honor of uncle Bob’s previous birthday. It was a night of joy and laughter and music, the essence of fish camp.
Later when they were making up the list for the next day’s fishing, I told John to give my seat to someone else. They tried to press me to go again, but I said one of the things about me being in what I call my “middle youth” (I’ll be 70 in February) is that I’ve learned that there are some experiences that cannot be either repeated or improved on. I knew that yes, I could fish again the next day, but the magic and the mystery of that day could not be equalled. It would just be a pale copy. I had caught my fish, and I was satisfied. It reminded me of the poem by Richard Brautigan
Xerox Candy Bar
Aaaah, you’re just a copy
Of all the candy bars I’ve ever eaten.
So the next day, instead of fishing, the gorgeous ex-fiancee and I broke out the bikes and rode around Fort Stevens, which is at the very last point of land in Oregon at the mouth of the might Columbia. It was another magical day, riding along beside the river, and then looking out to the ocean itself, I do love to ride bikes with my own true love …
And the next day we had to leave, off to push the adventure button once again. My profound thanks to Johnny, his hard-working wife Allie, uncle Bob, Brett, and all of the folks around the campfire. We’ve now rolled down to South Lake Tahoe, where my one and only daughter is getting married on Sunday … ah, friends, my life with my gorgeous ex-fiancee has been one of immense good fortune, and I can only wish the same good fortune for each and every one of you. And in particular, I wish it for my most non-PC friend, boon companion, and savior of countless fish, Johnny Whitlatch … tight lines, mi amigo, tight lines always …