a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
I arrived in the Northwest a pioneer of sorts. I had no family here, no uncle to show me the ropes. Mooch the ebb tide off Bush Point? Pinks in odd number years only? Winter blackmouth? Cut plug herring? Resident silvers? Green and pink hoochies? This was a foreign train station, a strange tongue booming track assignments off the cavernous ceiling. The only touchstone was the certainty that I had no idea of what was going on.
Gaining knowledge meant chatting up clerks in the tackle shop; buttonholing anglers to pry out good locations; paying money to guides to take me out on rivers; reading books and magazines; standing in the rain for hours, making cast after cast while rain drained off my wide-brimmed hat; and making lots of mistakes.
But now I look forward to August and September, when the kings and then coho salmon appear in Elliott Bay, and to October, when kings can be had in the rivers on the Olympic Peninsula, and late July, when the sockeye run through Lake Washington.
Salmon are creatures of habit. In Puget Sound they’re caught at classic locations like Possession Bar, Point No Point, Clay Banks and Ediz Spit by Port Angeles. There are innumerable rivers, creeks and streams, each with its mix of the five kinds of salmon, king, coho, chum, sockeye or pinks, and each with its own spawning timetable.
It’s impossible to follow every run, but then it isn’t really necessary. It’s enough to know there are times when the salmon are thick in Puget Sound, days and weeks when this train station is crowded with fish heading toward their particular track. The angler is like the pickpocket, above the frenzy, alert for opportunity, aware of patterns.
Of course, there are many good salmon catch areas around the state, but there’s something wonderful about fishing for salmon in Elliott Bay, in spitting distance of downtown Seattle. Tourists ride horse carriages past the stone buildings of Pioneer Square. Workers pound at computer keyboards. Shoppers dodge skateboarders to buy clothes at Nordstrom’s, and stockbrokers advise their clients to sell this and cost average that. The city is going about its business. Meantime I’m threading a 20-pound leader with two hooks through a whole herring, and sending it down to the bottom, in hopes of catching a darting shadow fifty or ninety feet below the opaque surface.
But you can’t fish just because the fish are there, or because you’ve shelled out fifty bucks for the requisite licenses. Permission to fish also depends on the health on the run, as analyzed by the fishery biologists and decided by the fishocrats. Reports in the newspapers had been tantalizing for weeks: There may be a salmon fishing season in Elliott Bay. Now, Thursday afternoon, after a tribal test net fishery indicated “harvestable” numbers of fish, the Department of Fish and Wildlife offered up the decree: Elliott Bay would be open from noon Friday to 9 pm Sunday, in a tightly scribed area that fanned in front of the Duwamish river. Daily limit two salmon.
The season is on. If 57 hours can be called a season.
The Duwamish River flows past the south end of Seattle and into Elliott Bay, and from any of Seattle’s downtown buildings you can peer down at the river’s mouth, flanked by tall orange cranes for handling shipping containers.
At one time the Duwamish had a wide mouth and was rich with wildlife. Then, as the city grew, ambitious engineers rearranged the basic geography of the area. A 10-mile stretch of river meandering to the mouth was given orthodonture, and straightened to a 5-mile channel. Thousands of acres of wetlands and marshes were destroyed. Mudflats, dense with shellfish and birds, were filled in, and factories and warehouses were built on the new land, freely spilling industrial waste into the river.
Meantime the Cedar River was re-routed and directed into Lake Washington. Lake Washington itself was connected to Puget Sound with canals and locks and by way of Lake Union, and dropped nine feet.
The Black River that fed the Duwamish dried up and simply disappeared, and the Duwamish river declined to one fourth of it’s former water flow. Wild creatures like the salmon went into precipitous decline.
Once the salmon of Elliott Bay were thick enough to warrant fishing derbies. Seacrest Marina kept a fleet of rowboats for rent. Nowadays we have giant outboard motors and deep vee boats, fish finders and downriggers, but we wait pathetically for the announcement of short bubble seasons, and are thankful when we get them. Sewage and pollutant clean ups in the past decade have greatly improved the water quality of the Duwamish, and there have been efforts to augment the wetlands. Environmental regulations have forced developers to pay attention to ecological matters, and the Chamber of Commerce espouses a vision of industry and nature co-existing on a city-hugging river. But really it’s a wonder there’s a fishing season at all, considering.
We rendezvous in the dark pre-dawn and head down to the boat. It’s moored at Harbor Island marina, a half mile from where the Duwamish enters into Elliott Bay. Overhanging the boat is an eight-story cement plant, a castle of towers and conveyor belts. We head out into the night, the boat’s running lights a reassuring beacon. As we turn into the Bay, I’m amazed. I’d expected a lot of boats, but the bay is infested with firefly dots of red, green and white. It’s a horizontal fireworks tableau.
I pick out a bright herring, not too big, and thread the hooks through the fish’s lower jaw, then through the top of the eye socket, and attach the hooks lightly on opposite sides of the fish. This gives the bait a slow twirling action, mimicking a hurt herring. I use a four-ounce banana weight and lower the rig slowly about 40 feet. It’s still early and the salmon often are found fairly shallow. We are fishing for king salmon, and they can get pretty big: a 29 1/2 pounder had been caught just a few days earlier by a fisherman fishing off the Seacrest pier. But even a 10-pound king is an impressive beast, a gleaming torpedo of muscle, navigational skill and determination. The sides and head are silvery black, like gunmetal. The shoulders are wide and thick, the envy of any linebacker. The mouth is filled with sharp, wicked teeth. This is a wild predator, no doubt. Good knots, sharp hooks and line free of nicks are mandatory.
Dawn creeps up on us. It’s overcast; there are no rosy fingers waving greetings. The change is imperceptible. It’s a classic Northwest day; the entire sky is a radiant overcast gray. I feel like I’m inside an oyster shell. As the day slowly brightens the city’s jigsaw puzzle of skyscrapers comes clear. From the water Seattle’s downtown skyline is dense, like lower Manhattan’s. The skyline is flanked to the north by the Space Needle, and to the south by the sports stadium.
I jig the bait up and down. Jets fly overhead, and ferries slip by, wide as snowboards, loaded with cars and people, moving fast. To the south is Mount Rainier, and though it’s distant and barely visible I know exactly where to look. All in all I feel like I’m in the middle of a chamber of commerce poster for the city. It’s a vision of nature and man in harmony. Decimated habitats, dwindling salmon and declining worldwide fish stocks seem far away.
It’s true that the action for kings is anything but fast and furious. You can fish all day and have only a couple of minutes of action, if that. But one of our party gets lucky, and suddenly he’s bringing up a fish. He’s using a light pole, and it’s bent over hard. The salmon sounds to the bottom, but the pole’s relentless pressure brings it up. The fish is no match for reinforced graphite.
Soon the fish is against the boat. The net goes down, but by some quirk of geometry the barbless hook slips out of the salmon’s mouth. It takes the salmon a moment to realize he is free; then with a flick of the tail he’s gone behind the heavy curtain of dark water.
David Berger is a Seattle writer and artist. He writes on a wide range of non-fiction topics, including the visual arts, environment and food. His banner was part of the recent Celebrate Elwha! event, marking removal of the Elwha River dams. He can be reached at davidberger at hilakers.org.