Have you ever heard of Grits Gresham? When I was a kid, he was one of more prominent, and certainly one of the most entertaining, figures on outdoor sports television. Outspoken and a little outrageous, he was well known as an aficionado of the fish story.
Tales of the one that got away have been a tradition among fishermen since the days when hillbilly handfishing was cutting edge technology. Although these days, the “tall” part of the tales are not quite as prominent as they once were. Sure there are some guys out there, like my good friend Buck, that will spin all kinds of bullshit about what they almost caught. For the most part though, folks have come to realize that true stories are usually the most interesting ones.
When it was suggested to me that a fishing blog should really have at least one good fish tale, I didn’t have to think too long about which story I’d relate. Don’t get me wrong, I have my share of fish that got away. I haven’t lost nearly as many as my good friend Jim, but I have lost a few. Still, the story of what was easily the largest salmon I’ve ever had on the line, the prolonged fight, interference of another boat, and the breakage & loss of equipment, set one story above the others. So prepare yourself for a tragic tale of struggle, loss, political intrigue, sex, lies and betrayal, that is also completely true. And, hand to God, if so much as one word of this is exaggerated, may my good friend Gray be struck by lightning.
Sherman, set the Wayback machine for the summer of 2012. Some of you older folk may remember those days. The kids were doing a new dance called Gangnam Style, the Mayans had convinced everyone the world was going to end in a few months, and Senator Lohan was merely a drug addled starlet back then. It was a simpler time.
You also may remember that those of us in the Seattle area were having a challenging king salmon season. There was reportedly a huge amount of candlefish in the Port Townsend area, and most of the migratory kings were staying parked up there, stuffing their faces on all that bait. So while the boys at Mid Channel Bank were filling their fish boxes, us poor city dwellers were hunting and pecking like …. well, like me typing this right now.
Consequently, when there was word of a bite happening at any spot in our area, boats flocked to it like the new iPad was being released there. On the morning in question, the place to be was off Richmond Beach. It had been “the spot” for a couple days and I had already pulled a few kings out of there myself. All the cool kids and at least one doofus were there. The doofus in question came to be known to us as Bad Luck Chuck. I’ll get to him in a second.
There was a good crowd of boats off Richmond beach when we motored in, including all the local pro charters. When the pros are there, that’s generally a good sign there may be a bite on nearby. Anyway, a good crowd of boats, but it wasn’t crazy. It’s a wide open area and there was plenty of room to get your troll on.
Tide was going out that morning, which around here means it was flowing northward. We set up on the south end of the run so that we could troll north, going with the current. That’s always a good idea, especially when fishing for kings. They like to face into the flow of the tide, then turn and pursue bait as it passes by them. Three of us were on the boat that morning, myself, Jim and Meagan, and it took us just a few minutes to get our lines down and start our troll.
The early morning bite had been shallow lately; kings were being taken in the upper 60 feet of the water column. That’s not typical for kings but it does happen, especially when they are on the move. Word around the area just then from those that were boating fish was “keep it shallow”. Sometimes though, I have a bad habit of going against conventional wisdom.
Because we already had two baits set shallow, I decided I would drop my lure deep, just to see what might be lurking down on the deck. We were in 125 feet of water, so I decided to run my bait 120 feet down.
It was just after we had set our lines and began our troll that I first laid eyes on Bad Luck Chuck. The first thing I noticed was his boat. It was pretty nice and looked brand new; I won’t say the make, as I don’t want to get too specific about him. Now it’s not unusual to see pricey new boats out there, but it was a little odd seeing one that was piloted by a guy who looked like old Doc Brown from Back to the Future.
The other thing I noticed was that he was mooching, meaning he was bait fishing while letting his boat drift with the wind & current. Now, there’s some etiquette involved with this. Generally, the moochers and the trollers try to keep to separate areas, as trolling boats generally keep a linear path and the moochers are going with the flow, as it were. Mixing those two things in the same space is recipe for a fine game of bumper boats. Still, there’s a good amount a gray area in that. If it’s not crowded, then there is no real need to establish territories; with just a few boats around, it’s no big deal to avoid each other. Also, we are talking about wide open areas of water, and it’s very easy for the border between drifters & trollers to get blurred. So while there are some niceties to be observed here, there aren’t too many hard & fast rules, and opinions vary as to where the lines of propriety are drawn.
Even though Bad Luck Chuck was drifting in the path of a bunch of trolling boats, for all I knew, he could have been there first and the trollers moved in on him. Either way, considering that trolling lines run straight out behind the boat, and mooching lines stay mostly run right below the boat, there was plenty of room to give Chuck a wide enough berth that our lines would stay well away from each other’s. That is unless some third party were to interfere.
We were about 40 yards past Chuck’s boat when the third party showed up.
It was maybe 5 minutes into the troll and I had barely had a chance to enjoy more than a sip or two of coffee when my rods blew up. All right, FISH ON!
I grabbed the rod and right away I notice this one’s got some fire in its belly. It’s making a strong first run, stripping more line off the reel. That’s pretty typical of course; a decent sized salmon will usually take some line, especially when it’s first hooked. This one though, was pulling line fast.
And it just kept pulling line.
Meagan had jumped on the wheel, keeping the boat straight, Jim had pulled up the other lines and gotten the net down and ready, and I had turned the trolling motor down so we were moving at a crawl, and it was still pulling line. Remember I said I started off down 120 feet? I therefore had about 130 feet marked on the line counter on my reel when the fish hit. I watched the counter roll past 200, 250 and I still hadn’t turned that fish’s head. Finally, as the counter rolled near 300 feet, it stops pulling line. I hadn’t started gaining any back yet, but the fish was beginning to tire, and my heart was doing a full-on Keith Moon solo, because the strongest salmon I’d ever fought was on the end of my line. The fish began to run laterally to my right, not taking any more line (although it was trying) but not giving any back either. It was an exhilarating fight, right up until the moment the fight changed.
Suddenly the struggling, the head shaking of the fight was gone, and there was just a steady pull. I wasn’t snagged, it was more fluid than that. Besides, the fish was nowhere near the bottom. During the fight, the king did what salmon often do, headed toward the surface. So while it was hooked 120 feet down, it was now relatively close to the surface. Which also means that that 300 feet of line out meant the fish was nearly that many feet out away from my boat, and when the salmon ran to the side, it ran behind Bad Luck Chuck’s line. I realized this once Chuck started yelling and waving his arm. He had been watching me fight that fish, saw the direction my line was pointing and even though our boats were 80 -90 yards apart by then, he knew right away what happened.
Meagan turned the boat around and we headed back toward Chuck. The closer we got, the more line I was able to reel in … at the exact pace we were closing on his boat. Meaning that Chuckles wasn’t letting any line out.
Ok, now we are getting back into etiquette again. Often when you have a fish-on, lines crossed situation, you’re not certain who had the fish bite their lure and who just got tangled. When it’s like that, it can get a little murky as to how best to handle it, as no one is sure whose fish it is. This wasn’t one of those situations, everyone involved knew exactly whose fish was on the line; there was no debate about that. Chuckie could’ve, nay should’ve, either let line out so I could bring the fish into my boat, or he could’ve cut his damned line. He was mooching folks, meaning that his terminal tackle consisted of a 4 or 5 ounce weight and below that a leader with 2 hooks. Even if he had champagne tastes in his tackle, it couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 bucks worth on the end of his line. Just cut your fucking line dude and let me land this fish. But nooooo … Suddenly he’s Russel Crowe in the gladiator arena: “Whatever comes through that gate, you hold fast!”
Finally we get to the point where we are next to Chuck’s boat. I’ve already put the kicker motor in neutral and our boats are about 12 feet away from each other and I’m able to reel the fish up closer to the surface. Meanwhile Chuck is also reeling in on his end, keeping my line angled out away from my boat.
Just cut your fucking line, dude!
I pull up the first bit of tackle that breaks the surface, and I see that my line is caught on his weight. It wasn’t until all this was over that I really got to check out what was going on though. This will take a little explaining, so bear with me on this.
Two of the most popular types of weights for mooching are banana sinkers, which are just tapered, in-line weights; and sliding weights. Those are small pieces of hard plastic tubing that slide over your line and have a clip attached to the side. You hook your weight onto the clip and it’s able to slide freely up and down your line.
What Big Spender Chuck had done was make his own sliding weight by taking a thin piece of plastic tube and electrical taping a banana weight to it. That’s right, this guy had jury-rigged this stupid contraption in order to save himself the $1.19 he would have had to spend on a sliding weight rig.
I did mention that he was piloting a brand new boat, right?
My line had gotten caught in the electrical tape, wedged between the weight and the plastic tube. His little money saving set-up also made a nifty little line grabber.
As I said, I didn’t have time to take in the fine craftsmanship of his weight rig just then, because seconds later the salmon broke surface.
OK folks, like I said before, any one-that-got-away story is assumed to have some degree of exaggeration in it, and there is probably a good reason for that. In my memory of this incident, that salmon looks half the size of my boat. However, I’ll try to keep to the truth as much as possible by recounting what all three of us who were on the boat said at the time.
Jim said that it was definitely over 30 pounds. I love my buddy Jim, but his eyes have been known to magnify a bit. Or maybe he was trying to make me feel better.
Then again … because I lost the fish, maybe he was trying to make me feel worse.
That son of a bitch.
Anyway, I didn’t think it was quite that big, but I thought it was definitely in the high 20s. Meagan, who is somewhat newer to salmon fishing, summed it up nicely by simply commenting, “I didn’t know salmon got that big”.
The take-away here folks is that it was a beautiful fish, I had gotten it to the surface, but because of Bad Manners Chuck, I couldn’t get it within net range of the boat; and it wasn’t like Jim wasn’t trying.
Dude, cut your fucking line!
I couldn’t reel in anymore or even maneuver my rod much because Chuck’s line is holding mine and the fish to one side & out away from my boat. The really stupid part is that I think Chuck actually thought he was helping.
I can’t even swing my rod around or lift it high enough to bring that salmon, which even after all this is still fighting like a demon, into the net. If I could just bring the tip of my 10 ½ foot downrigger pole close enough, I could cut Chuck’s fucking line.
So I made a desperate, stupid decision.
Here’s the thing, any decent sized fish is capable of breaking the fishing line you’re likely to be using for that species. There are two things, aside from the skill of the angler, keeping that from happening. First, there is the drag setting on the reel, which lets line play out if the fish pulls hard enough. That’s what allowed the salmon to take so much extra line after it was first hooked. The other thing is the rod itself. The bend & flex of the rod acts as a shock absorber against sudden, violent moves by the fish, but it’s the length of the rod that gives strength to that flex.
So yes, I fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous of which is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well known is this: never hold your rod at its mid-point when a king salmon is on the line.
I started walking my hands up the rod, and right at the point that I’m about to grab the filet knife and sever Chuck’s umbilical cord, the king makes a savage dive downwards, and snaps my brand new rod.
Did I mention that it was a brand new rod? I had just bought that Wright & McGill salmon rod, it was the first time I was using it. The damned thing hadn’t seen its first sunrise on the water yet. It was taken before its time.
At this point, I’ve got a broken rod, a tangled line, and very little hope left; but at least I’ve got hold of Chuck’s line as well as my own finally. So I cut Chuck’s line and decided to double down on the desperate & stupid. I try carefully pulling my line in by hand. I only need to guide that fish in about another 6 feet and we can get the net under it. Just as long as the salmon doesn’t make another of those SNAP … dives. The salmon broke my main line, my 50 pound test braid main line, like it was thread. The fish was gone, my terminal tackle was gone, my new rod was snapped, and after a flurry of cursing, I’m standing there holding that white trash, electrical tape, jury-rig weight of Chuck’s, that grabbed my line and held it so effectively.
Amongst the condolences and sympathies from my friends, Chuck’s voice called over from the other boat. “I need my weight back.”
You need your weight back.
I should have bounced it off his forehead.
However at that moment, I see he had engaged his motor to move his boat closer to mine, apparently out of fear that I was going to abscond with his precious p-o-s weight. Yep, he had clearly seen through my ruse and realized that the whole scenario with the salmon & the crossed lines, was a clever scheme of mine to get my hands on that cutting edge technology he created.
I just had time to toss the weight back to him before I had to quickly reach out and push his boat away before he ran into the arm of my downrigger and broke that too.
After that, my first priority was to get far away from this guy and try to escape the fog of failure that surrounded him.
I saw his boat several more times throughout the season, but I made sure to keep a safe distance. Basically, I treated him like that guy at the party you know will trap you in a long-winded conversation about nothing if you let him. Give him a raise of your glass from across the room, but don’t dare get close enough to get caught in his vortex of, well, in this case, bad luck.
All right, enough about that. After re-living that mess, I need a little comfort, or rather, I need comfort food.
This is a recipe I love because it’s really simple but looks intricate when done, and of course, it’s delicious. It’s really well suited if you have a date or other guests coming over for dinner, because most of the work involved can be done ahead of time. Also, other than the fish itself and whatever side dish you choose, the entire ingredient list is tomato, onion, mango, salt, pepper, & olive oil.
Mangoes have been particularly sweet & juicy lately, so this is a good time to give this dish a try. Also this has the benefit of being a preparation style that works with just about any type of fish. I’d avoid steak fish, but aside from that, go for it.
Fish of your choice, filleted and cut into portions. I used white king salmon for this batch.
Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil, use a high quality variety for this dish
Peel the onion & slice it in half. Then cut very thin slices. You will only need 3 or 4 slices per portion of fish.Cut the tomato in half and slice it similarly to the onion.Peel the mango, cut the meat away from the pit and slice it as well.
Season the fish with salt & pepper.
Then “shingle” the onion, tomato, & mango on top of the fish in an alternating pattern, until the filets are covered.
At this point fish can be covered and refrigerated for a couple hours if needed.
Pre-heat your oven on the broil: high setting. Also heat an oiled, heavy bottomed (preferably cast iron) pan on the stove top. Drizzle a little olive oil over the tops of the fish, and carefully set them in the pan.
Try not to disturb the toppings as you move the fish.
Put the pan in the oven on a middle rack and cook for 5 – 7 minutes until the toppings have browned and the fish is cooked.
Another light drizzle of extra virgin olive oil over the fish after it’s plated adds a nice extra pop of flavor and richness to the dish, just be sure you use a good quality EVOO for this. Low quality oil will bring the flavor of the dish down as effectively as a good quality one will raise it.