Lighter Side

What is life if there is not laughter? Welcome to the lighter side of flyfishing! We welcome your stories here!
March 3rd, 2003

The Salmon Killers - Part 3
Bob Lawless, Port Ludlow, WA

The salmon killers were simply characters in a play, a play as might be performed in a small high school theater, but with real people, not actors, real time, not imaginary, and with events so bizarre and strange that no playwright would dare to write of them for fear of being called a fake. No, this was not a play; it was a scene. And like all scenes there was a setting, and it is about this setting that I wish to here write, sort of a geography, if you will.

Find an ink pad and put your index finger in it and then make a smudge on a globe in the Eastern Pacific, Northern Hemisphere, a little more north than half way up the California coast, just a tad more north than San Francisco. This smudge would represent the fishing grounds of the Fort Bragg, Noyo Harbor fleet. If you can find a new pencil with an unused eraser tip, dip this, too, in the ink and make a small smug with the eraser right in the center of the larger mark, but tight against the coast. This is where the mosquito fleet fished. Of course, there was a fleet and a mosquito fleet all up and down the coast, but we are not concerned with them here. They all were pretty much the same phenomena, however.

People who live on land and look at the ocean see it as a beautiful and romantic place. They usually are looking down from high atop a rocky bluff and it looks as if the ocean is only slightly ruffled with small waves. They fail to see in amongst these waves a tiny speck, a speck which in reality is a 40' salmon troller, struggling to keep from rolling over and sending the crew to their death. The motorists don't hear the shouts and curses of the men as they struggle to bring things under control. Mom says to dad, "really beautiful, isn't it?" He nods, yes.

The fleet usually had crew because the big boats made enough money to pay for deckhands. They could stay away from port for up to a week or more because they carried tons of ice. Each fish was carefully gutted, turned upside down and its cavity was filled with ice. And then they were stacked like cordwood in the hold with ice placed all around them. They were held at near zero. Very few ever spoiled.

Mosquitoes dared not venture too far from port as the weather could turn violent and then they would have to run for it while the big boats just slugged it out. Thus, the mosquitoes were called day boats sometimes, and the big boats were called trippers.

As a day boat, I never dared to go further south than Point Reyes, CA. since points are inherently dangerous. The wind will usually double in speed because all that air blowing down the coast must speed up in order to force its way around the headland. Salmon tend to hang around points but boats tend to stay away if they can. Sometimes, because of the bite, they are forced to fish the big points and capes if they want to catch fish. And catch fish they must.

To the north, I always feared Cape Mendocino because it is here that California makes a big bend, and the ocean is terribly deep following canyons like the Gordo Canyon that allows the water to come in from the deepest parts of the Pacific. Then, suddenly, the canyons end and the water smacks up against the rocks of the Cape. That, plus the venturi effect previously described, makes Mendocino one of the most feared areas in the world's oceans. Many have died here, sailboats often become dismasted and drift all the way to Hawaii, some half-dead, the rest all dead.

Though it was 37 miles north of my harbor and it meant a night on the open ocean, I went up there because the rumors were always that it was red hot. I could have been easily killed doing this in my little boat. Dark, often foggy, riddled with wash rocks, it was a no place to be at 2 a.m., and one time, when anchored for the night in this joke of a shelter called Usal, I rolled so hard all night from side to side in my cuddy cabin that I was bruised by it and I vowed to build a coffin and bolt it to the deck. Then I wouldn't roll and if worse came to worse, I would be ready at least.

And then I never liked to get more than fifteen miles out because you might loose sight of land and that sort of bugged me. Plus, it would be so deep that while sometime there would be schools of traveling fish, it was not for boats like me. The fleet only could work here with any success.

And so those were my limits. But within those limits all hell might break loose. I remember the time when the swells were so high and with a pitch on the forefront so steep that my poor little boat when at top would break loose from the water and fall to the bottom of the trough. This was white knuckle time. What was I doing, flying along at the speed of light, with no wings, no tail, and no wheels? I hate flying in a boat.

The people in my limits were mostly all known to me; if not acquainted in person, I heard their voices so many times on my three radios (all blaring at once over speakers mounted outside the cabin) that I felt I knew them well. It is these people who were the salmon killers and we will study them in more detail at the next posting. ~ BOBLAWLESS

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