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Pacific lampreys are eel-like fish with disk-shaped mouths and jagged teeth. Like salmon and steelhead, they spend their adult lives in the ocean and then ascend coastal rivers to spawn. They subsist as parasites, boring through the skin of other fish with their teeth and suctioning themselves to their hosts with their mouths. They feed on blood and body fluids.
My first experience with a lamprey was a dozen years ago on Northern California's Klamath River. I was wading down a riffle, fly-fishing for steelhead, and felt what I thought was a strike. The line stopped and tightened, the rod bent, and something ran out a few feet of line. Increasing the pressure wouldn't budge whatever I'd hooked. Convinced that I'd snared an old boot or a waterlogged tree limb, I decided to break the line or reel in my "catch." whichever came first.
My leader took the strain, and within seconds I had dragged in a four-pound jack salmon—only it wasn't hooked. Somehow my fly had snagged the tail of a two-foot lamprey that had latched on to the jack salmon's back near the dorsal fin. Looking closer through the slightly rippled water, I saw eight or 10 dime-sized holes across the salmon's back and side. In fact, the dark, unusually thin fish seemed to be all but sucked dry. The gray-brown, slimy-looking lamprey was thick and healthy, though, and I found it a repulsive sight. When I couldn't separate it from the salmon by yanking at the leader, I cut the monofilament a few inches above the lamprey's tail. The salmon righted itself in the shallow water and swam slowly away with the lamprey still attached.
For a long time afterward I thought of lampreys with complete disgust. They were ugly, harmful parasites, and I was certain that the world—or its coastal rivers, at any rate—would be far better off without them. My prejudice didn't waver until a couple of years ago, when I was surprised to learn that lampreys are edible.
Oregon's Warm Springs Indians travel hundreds of miles each year to harvest them from the Columbia, Deschutes and Willamette rivers. They take the lampreys in nets or pluck them off rocks to which the fish have attached themselves with their powerful mouths as they climb waterfalls en route to their spawning grounds. Some of the harvest is cooked fresh, some is canned. Many lampreys are simply stretched open with cedar sticks after butchering and dried in the shade for a few days or lightly smoked. There are no bones to worry about, and—I had to admit when I brought myself to try it—the rich, white meat is not just edible, it's delicious.
I now realize that my bias against lampreys had been the result of an unfortunate conditioning process that afflicts most American sportsmen. The hundreds of books and articles on hunting and fishing that appear each year lead us to believe that only a few species of fish and game are desirable. Out West, for example, freshwater anglers are deluged with advice on the best ways to catch and cook salmon, trout and steelhead. Getting one's limit of these fish is the standard measure of success, and sporting literature abounds with photos of smiling anglers displaying their bounty. When it comes to upland bird hunting, outdoor writers emphasize pheasants to the point where one might conclude that they are the only game bird available.
The situation is complicated by the fact that a lot of so-called sportsmen aren't after sport at all. They're after meat. Just a generation or two back, many families had to hunt and fish to survive, and that tradition still flourishes in some parts of the country. A related factor is what I call the "farm-ranch mentality." In rural areas most domestic animals are raised to be slaughtered and eaten or sold. Naturally, the farmers and ranchers who do the killing, eating and selling aren't much more romantically inclined toward wild creatures than they are toward those in the pasture or barn. Not surprisingly, then, they don't consider a hunting or fishing trip a success unless "meat on the table" is the result.
I used to hunt and fish with a friend whose wife—they both were from Nebraska—would fly into a rage when he came home empty-handed. Ordinarily, she was a reserved and friendly person, but a day spent with a rod or a gun that yielded nothing but pleasant fatigue was a waste of time to her. I have been called worse than an idiot by fishermen who've seen me release a salmon or a steelhead. Watching 10 or 20 pounds of edible flesh swim away was more than they could bear.
In short, a lot of outdoorsmen confuse their desire for meat with a desire for sport. The misfortune is that to get their meat they slaughter animals that some of us consider too valuable to serve as mere meals.
Which brings us back to lampreys and to what they suggest in terms of a solution. There are a number of wild creatures that, although they may not provide outstanding sport and often aren't particularly nice to look at, either, make better eating than the subjects of all the books and articles. A good example is the squawfish, a voracious minnow that feeds on other fish, including young salmon and steelhead, and is found in many of the same rivers as lampreys. Five-pounders are common (they are reported to reach 80 pounds), and they can be caught on nearly anything, including streamer flies. The few fishermen who do go after squawfish consider them good eating, especially when smoked. Last summer a friend of mine ran into a large school of squawfish while canoeing down Oregon's lower Umpqua River. He stopped to fish for them with steelhead flies, and he compared their strikes and initial downstream runs with those of steelheads. The squawfish, however, were far easier to hook.