I thought more quickly than I ever had in a crisis situation of my own. Within 30 seconds after she'd hooked the fish—or it had hooked her—I'd run to her side, gotten her to stop screaming, loosened her drag, stripped several yards of line from the reel, assured myself that the salmon was staying put for the moment, cut the line, reached out with the tip of my fly rod to retrieve the front half of her rod, which I slipped off the end of the line and tossed away, then spliced her monofilament line to my fly line and finally handed her my rod.
She did a remarkably fine job fighting the fish and, after the first few minutes, didn't need much coaching. She kept a steady pressure on, gaining line when she could, giving it up when she had to, surely and gradually tiring the fish in the process, and in 20 minutes she had it on the bank—a lovely female Chinook, bronze-backed and silver-bellied, weighing just over 24 pounds. The woman—Marjorie was her name—hadn't even known there were salmon in the river, and the one she landed was the first she'd ever seen outside a can.
Not all fishing surprises turn out happily, of course. At the height of one fall salmon run on northern California's Klamath River, I once watched two experienced anglers embarrass themselves, and each other, profoundly.
Driving along the river highway, on my way home from yet another unsuccessful steelhead trip, I passed a line of at least 20 cars, trailers, pick-ups and jeeps parked along the narrow gravel shoulder of the road. Curious, I pulled in at the head of the line and then walked through a stand of second-growth pines and across a grassy meadow to investigate. There I found a dozen or more people on each side of the river, those on the opposite bank having crossed in rubber rafts and rowboats, all of them casting clusters of eggs or large treble-hooked spoons into a deep, swirling pool. I stayed to watch, curious as to whether or not it was actually possible to catch fish under such crowded conditions.
It was. Within half an hour after I'd arrived, three of the fishermen, two across the stream and one on my side, had landed salmon of 10 to 12 pounds. At their strikes, each yelled "Fish on!" and then everyone else at the pool reeled in quickly to watch the lucky angler play and land his salmon.
A few minutes after the last of them had killed his salmon, two more cries of "Fish on!" sounded simultaneously. Once again everyone else reeled in to watch the action. It was obvious that the two gentlemen supplying it had been around—obvious from their expensive tackle; obvious, too, from their properly worn and faded outfits, including tattered old hats; and perhaps most obvious of all from the air of calm authority each displayed, which was meant to convey the impression that hooking large fish was a regular occurrence.
Directly across from one another, 30 yards apart, their rods were bowed, their lines angling into the brown, rather murky water toward the middle of the pool. First one of them would gain some line, pumping the rod, reeling, then pumping and reeling again. Then the other one would gain line the same way, while the first one lost it.
"Tenth fish this season," the one on my side announced matter of factly to the onlookers around him, talking from the corner of his mouth. "Best damn one yet. Big male. See how the s.o.b. sulks down there? Thirty pounds maybe. Hope that guy across there knows what he's doing. I'm not letting my fish go too far."
That guy across there was talking to his audience, too, as likely as not in a similar vein, as he gained a little line and then lost it.
This went on for several minutes, each fisherman pumping and reeling harder and harder as the time passed, increasing the strain on his rod. Always, one would gain line as the other lost it, and then it would go back the other way.