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The seaward journey of the salmon is no slight or timid thing. Fish from the Columbia River are found far to the northward along the British Columbia coastline and into the offshore waters of Alaska. Fish from the Fraser and other British Columbia streams travel still farther north and out along the Aleutian chain. Alaskan fish mingle with fish from Siberia and Kamchatka in mid-Pacific and far beyond, almost to the Asian shore. Yet the survivors of these ocean wanderings sort themselves out and faithfully return to the identical tributary streams that nursed their earliest life. And their return matches almost to the day the date of their parents' return. The driving forces of their return are biological; but its precision is and must be almost mechanically perfect if the miracle is to be effective.
For sport fishermen this year, the miracle has been effective. Runs are gathered in great schools in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and off the fishing hamlets of Westport and Lapush in Washington. This is the climax of the salmon-fishing season. It is time for the trophy hunters to look to their gear and polish their lures.
Most salmon are caught by trolling a bait (usually fresh herring) or a lure (usually a spoon or plug), and one of the problems is getting down to deep-feeding fish. Commercial trollers have taken salmon at depths to 90 fathoms, and the fish probably feed at much greater depths. Sportsmen don't get down quite that far, but they try. Wire lines help. In some places a "planer" is used to carry the line down; a planer is that ancient fisherman's device, the otter board, set to ride vertically downward through the water instead of horizontally and so carry the lure to a greater depth without the disadvantage of a heavy weight. Planers are tripped to lose their action when a fish strikes, but even so they can sometimes cause a measure of excitement and confusion before a big fish is brought to boat.
Some fishermen claim that, day in, day out, strip casting or mooching with fresh herring will do as much business with feeding Pacific salmon, kings or cohos, as any other technique. The "herring is generally cut in two ways: either as tapered slices of flesh and skin taken from the side of the herring, or as plugs made by cutting away the head at an angle behind the gill covers. Strip casting is a first-rate sport and permits the use of really light gear, especially when the fish are not too deep. The fisherman anchors his boat at a good spot, strips off several yards of monofilament from his reel, then casts out his herring strip with an easy side-swing movement. A two-ounce weight will take the bait down through anything but a very fast tide, and the fisherman can pay out extra line to get more depth. When it is deep enough he may leave it to play in the tidal currents until a fish strikes; or if he is an impatient type, like so many of us, he will strip it back in, with frequent pauses, until he is ready to make another cast.
The moocher is the stripper's younger brother. At some stage the stripper learned he could pick up fish by leaving his gear dangling near bottom as he slowly rowed from one favorite hole to another. The moocher does exactly that, and preferably still from a rowboat; he just mooches slowly along, now rowing, now drifting, letting the tide carry and work his herring strip or herring plug into all the likely places. Good moochers, like good strippers, are men of great skill and cunning who will find fish when no one else does.
The rarest prize for the moocher or the stripper is the giant king that comes in along with the coho and the smaller, feeding kings. A big fish may turn up anywhere—off Astoria or Westport, out from Neah Bay behind Cape Flattery, in the San Juan Islands or in Puget Sound itself. The favorite place to look for them is along the bars off the mouths of the rivers that have runs of 5-year-old fish. They are dour and difficult, rarely or never feeding, as their bodies undergo the drastic changes that fit them for spawning. But they can be made to strike, and when one does the fisherman has the raw material of major triumph at the other end of his line. Conventional salmon trolling spoons like the Gibbs-Stewart have remained the most popular and successful artificial lures. They must be worked as slowly and steadily as possible, never spinning and without too much "throw" from side to side.
The returning cohos offer a much more lighthearted form of sport than the big kings. Cohos continue to feed, at least to some extent, even when they are waiting off the stream mouths. They are a surface fish by preference, running close to the top of the water, feeding there when they can and fighting at the surface and above it when they are hooked. Shallow trolling at a fair rate of speed generally gets the best results with the maturing fish of late summer and fall, and they will take small bright spoons, long polar-bear-hair streamer flies and small plugs with about equal enthusiasm. A five-or six-ounce fly rod is ideal for this fishing. The reel should carry at least 150 yards of line, since cohos run hard and fast and jump very freely when they are hooked. When the fish are breaking the surface in their feeding, a cast fly often does well; sometimes fish take it the moment it hits the water. But cohos are generally best fished from a moving boat because they usually like to follow a longish way before taking. From an anchored boat one too often watches the arrowhead ripple of a following fish come on and on, only to turn off or out at the last moment, when the retrieve slows and the fish catches sight of the boat.
In July and August, especially along the east coast of Vancouver Island, there is sometimes excellent sport in "hunting the beaches" with spinning rod or casting rod, throwing out a small spoon like the Gresvig crocodile. Generally one can pick up an occasional salmon, king or coho or humpback, here and there among strikes from rock cod and other less desirable fish. The best time is at high tide on calm July evenings, when schools of small herrings pile right in against the shore at certain beaches. If the feeding cohos turn into them, it is an exciting affair. One wades knee-deep among clustered herring and casts a fly or lure at the swirls and surges of feeding fish. If the beach is well known, there may be a hundred other fishermen, all with their wives and children and dogs, everyone except the dogs hooking fish, and some of the dogs hurling themselves into the water to leap on struggling fish or chase the showers of startled herring. Everyone is happy and friendly and full of talk; it is about as close as we northerners come to a spontaneous fiesta.
Some rivers have a run of big kings, usually 20-and 30-pounders, in the spring of the year; these are bright, clean fish that will not be ready to spawn for several months and are well worth catching. Often they lie in the heavy water at the head of the pools, just under the foot of the rapids, where a big spoon cast at the white water and swung back over the breakoff will be taken fiercely. The fish are very fast indeed, faster than any fish I know except fresh-run summer steelhead, and very strong—I have seen the first run of a May fish pull down the rod top and break 30-pound line. Sometimes they make long twisting runs right at the surface, with half their deep bodies out in the sunlight, and they will run out of a pool, upstream or down, as often as not. Unfortunately, many of the streams with these early-season runs are glacier-fed and cloudy, so they give little chance of good fishing except where clearer streams run in. The Puntledge on Vancouver Island used to be an excellent clear-water stream for May-run kings but has been spoiled by a dam. There is good fishing still in some of the main tributaries of the Snake and Columbia systems. But first-rate clear-water, spring-run streams are hard to find.
In fact, despite the healthy size of this year's run, first-rate fishing grounds for both king and coho are becoming increasingly hard to find at any season. Some of the best rivers and streams have already been ruined, and each year more and more are taken away, while the numbers of fishermen on the remaining grounds continue to grow. Ferris Neave, one of the ablest of salmon biologists, said recently that the Pacific salmon fishery so far has been "the gathering of an uncultivated crop of fish whose abundance has depended on great areas of land and water being left in their primitive condition." The chief threats to this desirable primitive condition are the following: high dams and other obstructions; pollution from domestic and industrial causes, including pest-control spraying; and reduction of stream flows through deforestation or irrigation.