Salmon Camp ’08-
I received a summons in the mail the other day. This one inviting me to a salmon camp which included camping, fishing, eating, sitting by the fire, and merry-making while telling stories, truths, lies, jokes, fibs, and fairy tales; while being mentored, guided, and educated about how to catch and release King Salmon. All of this fun and excitement, for only some of my money.
Since my fishing usually consists of a yearly trip to Montana I began thinking this would be a great way to get some big time Michigan fishing accomplished. I asked my usual fishing partner if he would be interested in attending, but he refused. He sees fishing as a more individual, introspective process to be used as a key to unlock understanding life issues whilst interacting with the natural world; and he likes to do this introspective therapeutic fishing with big mountains in the background. I considered harassing him until he gave in, but when we do go on our yearly fishing trip together he brings the good merry-making juice; and we take his van, so I graciously accepted his refusal.
Using my typical method packing for a trip consists of jamming all my gear into the station wagon fifteen minutes before departure. Somehow I felt ready. I realized that by accepting the summons that I have in a short amount of time prepared myself for an overnight stay in a tent during potential 33 degree temperatures. Shaking off the ominous feeling that I was forgetting something, I snapped the reins of the wagon, and let the horses run.
One of the aspects to a fishing trip I enjoy is the trip itself; the driving, the scenery, the knobs. You have to remember that all of the control knobs belong to you. Climate control is to your discretion, the cruise, the radio/CD/tape deck; the control is all yours; as fast, and loud as you want. It’s like being a teenager again, only with more insight and self-control. Well, more insight anyway. So I slowed down a bit, and turned the radio down because the music hurts my ears.
The season was approaching mid fall, and though the leaves were not at peak, they still put on a nice show. Time was flying by, and the internet directions were working fine, until three hours pass and I arrived to the destination listed in the invitation.
Stepping up to the door, I noticed that the camp hosts had posted a hand drawn map on the door telling me where they REALLY were. It looked like a series of 5 steps to get to the camp from the resort, which was great, and they even put the cardinal directions on the map.
“Keep it simple.” that’s what I always say. Because of the simple map, and some self-control over my genetic flaws, I assumed nothing could go wrong and picked one of the land marks on the map as a reference point before I once again shot off to the adventure ahead.
This was where my genetic flaws kicked in. I don’t know which side of my family they come from, I have my suspicions. One of my genetic flaws flare up when I get overly excited about a topic; like fishing, and all sense of logic and reason are deleted from my brain by something I call feral fervor. To illustrate my point; I was miles down the road before it occurred to me that I have never known my cardinal directions, let alone where I could find a cardinal to ask.
Another flaw I have is the belief that it will all work out for the best, if I just hang with it. To make my point, my genetic flaw leads me to believe that if I continue going straight eventually I will happen upon fish camp. Or hit Lake Michigan. Ten miles up the road, and who knows how many missed fish, common sense wrestles control out of feral fervor grip and demands I stop at the next gas station to get a clue as to where I should be going!
After talking to 35 people all of whom, by the way, have never heard of “Salmon Camp”, but somehow feel able to point in a general direction, I quickly learn that where I am going is back to the map.
On my way back to the map I begin to think of all the wonderful fishing I am missing at that moment. This is where panic enters the scene to stoke the fire of my feral fervor, trying to throw a wrench into the plan. The situation looks dire when panic looks like it is pulling ahead, and I start to blame the map makers themselves.
“Stupid 5 step directions, don’t they know about feral fervor?!” I scream to music that is suddenly way to loud again.
Returning to the resort, I decide that this time I will get out, make a copy of their map, and stick it to the dashboard with a used gummy critter my son thoughtfully left behind in his car seat. Resourcefulness has a way of calming the panic so that common sense can once again take control.
After about a mile of driving, I had arrived. Upon greeting some fellow campers they asked if I found the place okay. Common sense dictated the answer.
“Yup, not a single problem.” This was technically true, because there were multiple problems. After all, the salmon camp invite said something about fibs; so I just decide to get started on mine immediately.
It wasn’t long before I was greeted by the owner of the Salmon Camp, who at first appearance, seemed quite tall. As he neared I determined that I was correct. He was very tall! I stand at about 6 foot 1 inch, and had to crane my neck quite significantly to look him in the throat. His legs alone must have been five and half feet long. He walked with an easy stride, but I found that when I tried to keep up with him that I was running a decent paced trot like some kind of 6 foot 1 inch Oompah-Loompah from the children’s book. I noticed that whenever he walked about with a group, everyone followed him with the same trot.
“Hey, welcome to Salmon Camp,” John the camp host said as he walked up to shake my hand warmly. I felt as if I have run into an old friend, though I know I have never met him before.
“I am so happy that you are here,” he continued. “And am excited for the fishing memories we will share this weekend.”
He paused in his intro to exchange pleasantries about the weather, and the fall colors. Then he asked,
“Do you mind if I have a look at your fishing equipment?”
I smiled with pride as I pulled out my old school Yellow 1965 St. Croix 8 wt. fiberglass rod I purchased on the internet. I am not typically so frugal when it comes to equipment, but with a new style of fishing I decide it was better to error on the side of frugality then to spend a bundle on equipment that would never be used again. I learned that lesson on a vacation in Texas where I spent a large fortune on Holstein pattered cowboy boots, and matching hat.
Clearly impressed he spoke admiringly.
“Hey, that is a really nice rod”, he said with such sincerity that only a guest appearance from the Great pumpkin, could be more sincere. But then finished with the statement, “it’s gonna break, so what else ya got, Newbie?”
The indisputable finality of his statement hung in the air like a death sentence. As my jaw hung open in shock and awe, he continued.
“Well, we’ll see if we can rig you up something. Bring the rest of your stuff along to the tent and well let the others check it out. And bring the rod, too.” He paused as he turned to walk toward the rest of the gang. “The guys need a good laugh.”
I was shocked to discover that I could go from pride to humility in .01 seconds a personal worst for me.
After paying some of my money, I was introduced to the crew. Everyone seemed pleasant enough, and I was beginning to feel at home; when a request from the owner came.
His purpose for calling me over was to do a rod comparison. I found this to be a bit annoying because he already said mine was crap and would break, while I could clearly see his was shiny new and made of a just released lighter than air carbon/steel alloy, which cost over $500.00, could pull a truck out of the swamp. Oh, and the “Newbie” thing was beginning to stick!
I could feel my will start to bend when another guy, Jim, called me over to complain about my equipment and call me newbie. I thought I was at the end of my double-tapered line when he decided to throw me a double haul. He said to me,
“Listen, he’s really a nice guy who wants you to have a ton of fun with these fish. Now, this is the part where you ask the owner if you could try out the very expensive rod and reel combination he showed you on tonight’s trip.” I looked at him in disbelief and said.
“I could not ask the owner to use his very expensive rod and reel combination on the river tonight.”
As Jim was looking down inspecting my nymphs, and flies seemingly not even paying attention to me, he tossed his head in the owner’s direction and said,
So I walked over to where the owner was harassing another new guy about his net size and waited for a break in the conversation. Once the new guy’s lip began to quiver the owner decided that the newbie had been through enough hazing for the moment, he went off to grill some new fellow at the fire pit. It was during the walk/trot to the fire that I breathily asked the owner if I could try out his very expensive combination on the river tonight. His response was a simple, “Sure, no problem.” I dropped out of the trot at that moment to perform some stretching exercises’. This was going to be a workout!
After grilling the previous fella the Host directed me to follow him out to the lawn with the fly rod combination to give me the full-blown tutorial of how to cast, hook, fight, net, and land a Salmon. This seemed totally reasonable to me, after all, I was a newbie; and it was his combination.
Before heading out to the river, it was voted on that we should have a bite to eat. So the crew pulled the Beef roast out of the SUV sized bar-be-cue grill and brought out the four suit case sized containers of mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffed jalapeño peppers, corn, 14 different salads, beans in homemade sauce, salmon, and 1000 desserts; and invited us to jump in. We toasted one another, the fish, our families, and even the neighbor’s dog who came over begging for food; remembering why we were here, which was to have fun doing something we enjoyed-fishing with friends.
After eating all of it, the owner handed each of us ten 20 inch long 2X8 sized chocolate bars to give us energy in case we get tired during the trip. “Oh LORD! Thank you for blessing me with this trip.” And up to that point I had yet to wet a line.
So armed with very expensive equipment, we loaded up in “Daisy”, a brightly painted yellow 60’s series International 4X4 suburban type truckster. The fumes from the leaky manifold only served to make the trip jollier as we made our way to the river after dark, which at first struck me odd, but after the owner educated me about salmon physiology and the fact that their pupils do not dilate like other critters, it made perfect sense.
Arriving at the site, one of the crew pointed to what looked like a long steep stairwell, but in the glow of our head lamps it was tough to tell.
“Welcome to the stairway to Heaven.” He said. I was concerned about going down to get to Heaven, but he just smiled and said, it would be okay. His smile looked very eerie in the lamp light, but I didn’t say so.
“It’s 147 steps down the stairway to the river, but on the way up it’s at least… well, you’ll see. I was confused by the meaning, and counted out the steps all the way down.
Once everyone made it to the river’s edge we could hear the salmon splashing around in the water, having their little salmon party. It was at this point that Jake, an older, jovial man stepped to the river’s edge soberly, and handed his rod behind him to the next man. Jake paused for a moment as if looking for something, then dove into the river, belly smacker style, onto an unsuspecting salmon. There was a terrible commotion in the water, which included some cursing, laughing, coughing and gagging from an unintended episode of waterboarding, the curses seemed to be of the first degree four letter level , though the waterboarding made it tough to tell. The fish; gaining its senses I assumed, used the waterboarding move to its’ advantage to make its’ escape. I would have assumed that when Jake came out of the water he would have been soaked. This however, was not the case. In fact, he looked quite dry, except for the parts that were not covered by waders or waterproof coat. Those parts being his head and hands. To be honest, he looked ready for another dive.
Now, if ever there was a time for me to be intimidated this was it. It was made very clear to me that we would be using rods and reels to actually catch the fish. At no time was it ever mentioned to me that we would not use these tools. This display of bravado was totally unexpected by me, and I felt completely within my rights as a newbie to move to the back of the line for a chance to observe a few of the other guys make their “wrestling dives”, as I coined the term, to get a feel for the technique needed for Salmon wrestling. Sudden there was a rush of activity around Jake by the rest of the guys, all shouting questions. This rush pushed me to the front of the line, thereby preventing me from making the move to the back. So, seizing the moment, I thought it reasonable to compliment him on a great battle in hopes of securing a few pointers in the salmon wrestling sport before my dive came up. In the light of half a dozen head lamps I could see his eyes narrow in on me as I asked why he chose that particular fish to dive upon. He said,
“I slipped and fell in, dummy.” He responded. “Hey, did anyone find my hat?” I decided not to share my salmon wrestling thoughts with anyone else that night.
We marched/trotted along the river’s edge after making the river crossing, which was the intended purpose of Jake’s entrance to the river, to the fishing site where the owner invited me out to the river. While out under the stars I had an opportunity to watch him cast repeatedly, explaining that he was trying to hook a fish, and show me how it was done. Eventually he hooked a fish, and then set the hook into the fish three times before handing me the rod.
“But”, I began in half argument, that’s your fish.
“Nope”, he began, “Now I’ll talk you through the fight.” And he did! Oh, what a fight it was. At least 10 minutes of me and the fish locked in battle, the owner coaching me through the fight, giving pointers to technique, reminding me of the on shore lessons, and light reprimands for doing things that could lose a fish.
“Point the rod tip up and away from the fish’s direction of movement.”
Finally, the net was dropped on the fish. As we made our way to the shore, the fish struggled against the net and its captors, while shouts of congratulations rang up and down the river shrouded in darkness, and the faint lanterns glow. People came from various places along the river to comment on what a nice fish it was. I was in awe of what a magnificent creature I held in my hands; pictures were taken, memories recorded, the fish was released.
The owner said, “Now you know how to do it Newbie, go have some fun.” I returned to the spot and hooked 10 more fish that night and pulled in 5 or 6. After the fifth fish John the owner came over to me and said, “Hey Shannon, I have a Newbie I’d like to get on some fish, would you mind taking a break for a while?” I looked up with a grin that wrapped all the way around my head and said,
“Sure, send the Newbie down, is he set for flies, I have some extra if he needs some.”
Once the fishing was done, and the fun was had, we began the trek back to “Daisy.”
Gathering at the base of the stairs, I looked up and said;
“Ahhh… the stairway to heaven.”
The guide’s assistant fixed me with a stare, and replied.
“No, we don’t call it that on the trip up. We call it, the highway to… Well, you’ll see.”
After showing the pictures to my fishing partner, we planned a trip for the next weekend.
And this is what he caught!