My uncle Howard wound up at a very young age with a doctor's degree in mathematics from Reed College. Nobody called him "Howard" except nephews and nieces. To all of the world he was "Doc." (Howard got his doctor's degree at 22.) He became a professor at Portland State College and he never taught a mathematics class in his life. He had two passions in life. One was collegiate wrestling and the other was fishing.
Howard tried to combine these two as much as he could. At Portland State he taught "Fly and Bait Casting," "Co-Ed Sport," and "First Aid." He was always there to help his wrestlers get better grades…but, this is a fishing story.
Howard, to support his fishing jones, had built a 22-foot boat that looked like a barge. He never even named it. I personally as a young man (I was about 12 when he built this thing)…I always thought of it as the "African Queen." That's sort of what it looked like, the old boat in the 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.
There were two towns down by the mouth of the Columbia River. They were on the Washington side: Ilwaco and Chinook.
We got up early in the morning. Howard would always get up about like midnight to me because I was a sleeper, but I would wake up to the smell of bacon and coffee and the sound of my uncle Howard singing strange, nonsensical tunes which really had no real words and no real tunes.
He was super-enthusiastic. He would get his wrestlers up. They would all sit around the campfire in the dark and he'd cook up huge servings of bacon and waffles. He had a grand time. He was in Heaven: fishing and with his wrestlers.
So one morning we were camped at Chinook. We went over the Columbia River bar -- about a 10-mile wide river bar -- and it was a rough passage. The Columbia River Bar is known as a problem for boats coming in and out because of tidal bores and just big sand bars and shifting bottom. It can get really ragged. A lot of boats had a lot of trouble there and it has been called "The Graveyard of the Pacific."
But, this was a fun morning even though it looked like a chance of rain. Off we went, chugging out in the Queen, out over the bar, and out into the ocean. We started trolling. We trolled around for a couple of hours and we really didn't get much going. We caught nothing.
Then about four hours after we had been out, the fog started rolling in -- a really heavy fog -- and with it came mist and inclemency in general. It got pretty nasty. The water got choppy and everything got rough. It was getting a little bit scary out there from a kid's point of view, to tell you the truth.
On this particular trip it was my dad and Howard and one wrestler, Harley Lutz, and myself. We started hearing a lot of noise from the other boats. We couldn't really see much; it was getting pretty foggy.
The Coast Guard got worried about all these crazy homemade boats so they went out and started rounding them up. They were saying, "The water's too rough. We don't want to be responsible for you. We're going to cancel the fishing fleet today."
And Howard, he really didn't think this was a good idea, so he said, "Okay, here's what we're gonna do. We're going to sneak over and hide in the fog in the back of the south jetty. We'll pull right up to the rocks and the Coast Guard will never see us. And then we'll be out here all alone."
So that's what we did. We pulled in behind the jetty. The Coast Guard duly rounded up everybody they could find and drove them all back over the bar. The whole place outside the bar was virtually empty, I guess.
There was a lot of fog. It was hard to tell, but when things had calmed down and all motor noises and everything had stopped, we chugged back out to where we had been fishing before and began trolling again.
I was in the foc'sle up in the front. I poked my head out of my little hatch and I could sort of spin around in a circle in there. Everybody else was in the main part of the boat, but the little puka (hole) up in front of the boat was mine.
I fought my fish and I got it up. Howard netted it and we got it in the boat. It was a beauty. And then it happened again. And then it happened again. And then it happened again. Again, again, and again.
There was a limit of nine fish. We had boated eight. I had caught every single one…to the utter dismay of everybody else in the boat. They complained. They wanted to take over for me.
"Are ya getting' tired there, son? Here, climb on out, gimme that rod. I'll take her down back around the engine…keep the line outa the prop. I'll bring her around, hand her back to ya. Here! Gimme that rod, boy!"
"Oh, come on, you're gonna get hung up, you're gonna lose that fish."
"I am not!"
"Yes, you are! If you knew what was goin' on… I'm the captain of this boat. Gimme that rod!"
"No way! Get away from me!"
Jealousy was running wild and I was the king for the day. It was the shrimp that was pulling in all those big, beautiful fish.
In the middle of all this, a most amazing thing happened. The Chinook salmon, when they migrate up the Columbia River, go kind of in a big wave. They all stop….maybe a straggler or two, but…the massive percentage of them would just stay outside the bar and congregate until there were many, many fish outside the bar. At some point they would all just unanimously decide to move and break over the bar up into the Columbia watershed en masse.
As we were fishing for our last fish, up they came -- thousands and thousands and thousands of Chinook salmon, all huge -- nothing below 10 pounds, some 50 pounds -- and they began jumping. When they flew through the air they'd come down on their side and it would make this enormous slapping noise. It sounded like somebody throwing a big plank out on to the water. All around us the sea was boiling with salmon charging for the river, heading over the bar, going to the watershed to spawn.
We didn't know what to do. We just stood in the boat in amazement. It was a phenomenal sight. It was just countless fish -- the whole surface of the sea, as far as you could see, and this kind of misty hazy weather with salmon.
I got another bite. Lo and behold, I had caught the last fish. We were limited-out.
Howard sighed, "Well…okay, that's it. We're going back in." With the salmon we just kept driving back towards the bar, went over the bar, and back up into the landing at Chinook.
The problem was that out of all those 40 or 50 fishermen, everybody else had been chased in…had a bad day, caught no fish, and they were decidedly unhappy. And here we came with our absolute limit of great big bombers….I think all of them were over 30 pounds, nothing was over 40 pounds. They were all in about that 30 to 40 pound range…and we had nine of them.
We sneaked into the harbor and anchored up. Howard didn't want to take the fish into the camp so we waited until the middle of the night. They came and got me out of my little tent and sneaked down to the boat and spirited those fine monster fish through the snoring camp with their dogs and campers and Coleman stoves and hid them away in the ice in the back of the truck to be spirited away before morning.