It’s 3:30 a.m
Time for a first for me — a day of salmon fishing aboard a charter boat. I’ll be on the Discovery, four to six miles offshore. It is transition time — the coho, or silver, salmon are running as are the Chinook, or king. And as the granddaughter of a champion East Coast surf caster and a Pacific Ocean marlin catcher, I want to snag one before the season is scheduled to close Sept. 30.
Check supplies: cooler, lunch, nuts for snacking and to offset any possible seasickness, check. Sunscreen, multiple layers (I will want a couple more soon), rubber-soled shoes, bug spray, small emergency kit, check.
Breakfast downed, I take a non-drowsy Dramamine for which I will be extremely grateful in about three hours. Make sure Styrofoam coolers for salmon catch, provided by optimistic city editor, are in car. Double check for notebooks, pens and small camera.
Drive to Westport Marina and head for the Westport Charter Association across from Float 8. Purchase fishing license for the day, $10. Fare for the trip aboard most charters such as the Discovery, now docked at Float 12, costs $125 per person. Many take children, age 6 and up.
At the entry to Float 12, turn left and park in any one of several available public parking lots, do not park on the streets, the time limit is less than the time you will be on the ocean.
Sleepy-looking passengers board the Discovery in dawn’s light. Coffee is available in the kitchen. Water? Deckhand Buzz Graves replies there is only potable water in hold for passenger use. Dash on land to buy five bottles of water. Get cash on hand for tipping the deckhands, which is strongly encouraged in reminder signs.
At a sink in the middle of the boat, Graves is methodically chopping off the heads and trimming some guts out of herring, whose shiny headless bodies will be anchored on weighted lines on rods that rim the boat. The herring are known as “cut plugs,” an inelegant name for the siren call they are asked to provide the salmon. The cut plug is hooked precisely to encourage maximum spin — many cut plugs who have lost their spin will be replaced with a replenished supply through the day.
Much of fishing is about the preparation. Spare hooks are carefully placed on the handle of a tub on deck, each rod is checked for the correct tackle. Spare weights are at the ready. Long nets to snare the hooked salmon are stored above. Life jackets are stowed in bench storage under the seating around the kitchen table, Captain Dave Camp says.
There are 23 rods set out for about as many fisher folk.
Deckhands will labor all day to make sure each fisher has a spinning plug, the right spot and the best opportunity to catch salmon.
The sky turns rosy and purple. The motors of several charter boats are running. We sign in on a numbered chart which will correspond with pins placed into the jaws on the salmon to track who caught which fish. There is a two salmon limit. Currently, only hatchery coho, and wild Chinook of certain lengths are eligible as “keepers.” Any combination of the two counts.
Several families are aboard. Two grandfathers have treated several of their progeny to the trip. Two boys, Donovan and Dylan DeCoster, 12 and 9, of Beaverton, Ore., are on their first salmon fishing trip. And just as salmon return to spawn, so have several clients of Capt. Camp, for whom this trip is a ritual.
We hail from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Capt. Camp, who is from West Seattle, tells us we will go out about three to five miles and move around a bit. The marina is placid. He warns that the trip over the bar will likely be choppy.
The water roils above the sandbar. A sea lion bobs on one of the channel buoys as we rock and roll to the first fishing spot. Several of our faces are pasty gray as waves of seasickness accompany the chop of the sea. Determined not to “feed the fish,” I drink water, snack on a few almonds, and focus on the horizon, tips from a veteran. It helps. Others are not so lucky, and several doze.
We reach the spot. There are 23 rods around the boat, so we pull the line from our reels rather than cast. Depending on the side of the boat, we either count 100 or 30 feet deep. Then reel in slowly, or more quickly, as you choose. Aiming to balance, take notes and keep thumb on the clutch of the reel proves challenging. Fortunately, Graves is really good at untangling fishing line.
Soon several people start landing salmon. Cries of “fish on” are often followed by “sole on board,” meaning the shining cut plug has enticed a sand dab, a version of a flounder, on the hook. “Is it a keeper?” meaning does the fish fit length and type requirements? Hatchery coho are identified by the absence of an adipose fin clipped from the fish near it’s tail.
Wild coho must be tossed back. They arch and twirl as they fight on the line. It is hard and somehow soothing to watch the silvery, bouncing fish netted and released. Some salmon have the beginnings of the fierce looking hooked jaw, called a kype, a sign they will launch upstream soon to spawn before they die.
The boat mambos on the waves. It is now misty. The boys, Donovan and Dylan, seem a bit bored until first one, then the other, lands their first salmon. Patriarch Donovan Kleweno, 75, says he and his wife put money into a special account for these kinds of family excursions. “If we put it in the checking account it just goes.” It is clear how he’d rather spend the money as he keeps track of several members of his family aboard.
Debates ensue about rods and reels. Some people have brought their own. Funny fish tales are told and demanded to be considered off the record. Some of what is said aboard the boat, stays aboard the boat. The Discovery muscles to a new spot, then another. The sun emerges, and as if tranquilized by the rays, the waves calm.
Patriarch Jack Jasper of Westport, who has been married for more than 60 years, dispenses advice as he waits for his first salmon of the day.
After catching one wild coho, two sand dabs (one with a salmon attached) I defend the family honor and land a 24-inch hatchery coho. after Jack hollers, “Hey! salmon on the line!” The salmon is male and has to be clubbed twice. I feel mildly sorry, then think of salmon chowder in winter.
Then the largest salmon of the day, a formidable Chinook, is hooked by Wes Michael of Idaho at the stern of the boat. Capt. Camp guides him around the port side up to the bow where he battles the fish for several minutes. The whole boat holds its breath as Graves moves in with the net. And just like that the Chinook leaps and escapes the hook.
“That’s why they call it fishing and not catching,” Michael said philosophically.
We catch within the limits and head for home in the now windy sunshine, a much smoother ride. Graves sharpens his fish knife and quickly dispatchs gills and innards of each fish in a v-shaped holder on the side of the boat.
He lays them out on deck. The boys caught two of the biggest fish. Graves quickly fillets fish on request and gives the roe to the family from Montana who don’t mind the work it takes to prep it for eating.
Cameras click as the catch is recorded. Whether the fish tales will match stays aboard the Discovery.
Mark Cedergreen, executive director of Westport Charter Association, provides the skinny on fishing from Westport:
• The average price of a trip is around $125. Booking services may offer discounts or specials for families or quantities of trips. Most don’t. There are 10-12 booking services, each one independently owned and operated. All booking is through booking services, www.charterwestport.com.
• Most captains don’t like to take kids under 6 for safety reasons. No upper age limit as long as one’s healthy. Some vessels are equipped to take wheelchairs.
• It is standard to bring your own lunch. Although all vessels have potable water, folks bring water and beverages in coolers.
• Salmon season will last until attainment of the quota or Sept. 30, whichever comes first.
• Coho (silver) must be 16 inches and up in length and Chinook (king) must be at least 24 inches, whether wild or hatchery, depending on the rules at the time.
• Halibut season is limited to Sundays and Tuesdays in early May.
• Rockfish and Lingcod trips run from mid-March through mid-October.
• Tuna season is governed by the critter’s biology. Usually Mid-July through mid-October. (Tuna trips are often overnight and can run some $400,” says Discovery deckhand Buzz Graves.)