Caught by Danny Pettit
June 1985     
79 lbs. / 36kg.

Copper River   King Salmon

   Gyotaku
          by
Pat McGuire

Copper River Fishin'

Dawn breaks gray at low tide

cat and crow squabble outside
Eagle swoops by, grinning and sly
giving kitty that hungry eye

Night bear staged a garbage raid
Out in the yard a great mess was made
Cormorants diving for their morning meal
Ravens rummaging through garbage to steal

Down to the docks n’ throw on a slicker
loose the lines on the ol ‘ bowpicker 
Bustin’ now through ocean spray
Fishin’s just a few hours away

       

 

      Kaila Marie is first to leave the Cordova harbor, Fireweed follows in hot pursuit.  Pat heads out over the shallows of Orca Inlet in Kaila, her 24’ “Loomis” jetboat, running a “460 Ford” gas burner.  I swing wide staying in the deep water channel.  Kaila disappears around Whitshed Point with the jetboat herd.  Fireweed, my 26’ “Starvin’ Marvin” is passing tenders like they’re standing still with her new power package.  A “Volvo Diesel” 200 hp. “Duo Prop.” This outfit is pushing her along real fine, cruising at 22 knots with extra power to spare. The two boats take their favorite routes to Egg Island from town.  Kaila jumps up on step in the shallows but wallows laboriously in deep water. 

        Fireweed holds to the deep water, running “on step” in the “stick channel.” (A marked route for the larger vessels).  I have a fifty-five gallon drum chock-a-block full of trashed propellers, the penalty for attempting to follow boats like the Kaila Marie.  The two boats pass by the Egg Island anchorage, Fireweed catches up with Kaila Marie, who has been knocked off-step by the passing fleet and is plugging along at a painful 8 or 10 knots.  Fireweed blasts by Kaila leaving her rocking in the wake.

        I pull Fireweed up to the “Steamboat Markers” to wait for water at the “Racetrack.” The tide is flooding, but there is not enough water yet for Fireweed to take the channel.  Kaila catches up with Fireweed, she is back up on step and going like a “bat outa’ Hell!”  Fireweed is rocking wildly on her passing, “that was intentional!” “C’mon, stick it Pat!” “Oh, c’mon, puhleeeze...stick it!” If she slams that sand bar, I’ll beat her to our mutual favorite hole in Walhalla. “She’s blowin’ a ton a’ sand through that jet, she’s really shallow, c’mon baby, STICK IT!!”

       Pat gives a wave and cuts neatly to port, across Fireweed’s bow; she knows exactly where she is. “That was a stunt and a taunt. Maybe even a shot across my bow!”  She disappears down the Racetrack and I know within a few feet where she will drop the pick. The hole at the bottom of Walhalla channel.

       The water rises, the other boats waiting with Fireweed begin firing up their engines.  Anchors come up and the race is on!  I can feel the lift from the shallow water.  No room for mistakes in the Racetrack with the lower unit hanging down there.  The little fleet of boats negotiates the channel at top speed.  The faster boats pass the slower boats and pull away; forming their own little fleet and move off down channel at 30 knots or better.   

       Fireweed drops out of the Racetrack into P’dahl channel, she’s throttled   down as she passes the fleet anchored at the markers, as a courtesy.  Once clear she’s throttled back up, following boats down channel.  The fleet begins to thin out as they stop to drop anchor on a spot they intend to begin fishing. 

         First set of the fishing period is a crapshoot today.  Most of the fleet has spread out in the ocean or are still running further east.  There have been a lot of fish caught on the eastern end of the Flats, reducing the number of boats substantially in this neck of the woods.

      “Maybe I’ll go upstream, hang around and look for fish flooding in.”  “Still got time to look around, might go back to P’dahl slough,” I didn’t see any jumpers when I came through, but it might be worth a look, could be some kings around, that’s why Pat’s in that hole.” Hmm...”Pettit” had his pick down in P’dahl.  Danny’s one hell of a king fisherman, hmm.” 

        The helm is put down hard to starboard at full speed, Fireweed slides around, heeling sharply, in a tight one hundred eighty degree turn.  This old “Starvin’ Marvin” is a real performer.  Her design is, I believe, the predecessor of the mass produced Vietnam riverboats at the “Uniflite” factory in Bellingham, Washington. 

       A surprise at “Patty Point” as it had come to be known, (the fleet uses her for a turning buoy down here).  Patty Point is vacant.  “She’s gone!” I pull up short, then shut down the motor to drift, listen and watch.

 

                         

        Fish are a poppin’ up in P’Dahl gutter

 An’ I hear that 460 beginin’ to putter

  Ya, fish are poppin’ up in P’Dahl gutter

  The tune of her 460 has my heart aflutter

 

      

 

       I hear Pat’s motor idling upstream over in P’Dahl, “I guess she changed her mind.”  I give her a call on the radio, asking if she had talked to her dad yet, she comes back with a “he wasn’t home.”  “Ok, maybe later.”  “The kids have arrived already.”  “Ok, tell him happy birthday for me.”  “Ok.”   So now I know she didn’t see any sign of king salmon.  Her dad’s name is “Rex.”  She said “the kids have arrived already,” tells me she saw sockeye in P’Dahl.  I drop the conversation, thinking, “Ya, somethins’ happnin.” 

          The motor is fired back up, the boat begins idling down channel.  Fireweed drops out of Walhalla, headed to a random central point where the major drainages, P’Dahl, Walhalla, King Salmon, Gus Stevens & Castle converge.  The motor is shut down where Fireweed has a clear 360 degree view of all the drainages and P’Dahl bar as well.

        The bar is roiling on this flood tide.  The seas are breaking across the channel, closing it off.  Waves crash with authority on the inside beach. “Damn glad I didn’t go outside, that’s a hell of a swell runnin.” “It’s floodin’ hard, if there’s fish, I’m in ‘em.”                                                               

 

 

  Up Castle slough sockeye are on the jump

Now that 460’s really startin’ to pump

Off the breaking beach Fireweed stands alone

   Across the channel, Kaila’s anchored in foam        

                                             

      

        Kaila Marie is on the move again.  She is running hard down the beach in the shallows, then turns toward Castle Slough where she hits deep water.  She bogs down, making her way through the chop in the bar. “She’s gotta plan.” It’s obvious, she’s headed for the point at the bottom of Castle.  “Good choice!” One of the best sets in the drainage on the flood.  Played well, she can work that corner through most of the tide.  “We both got damn good sets, if there’s any fish showin’ we’ll have a hell of a day.”

     “Damn, no boats, hardly anyone around, they all went east. Probably’ll catch more fish, but the ocean boats will take a beating for it.  The outside beaches are gonna be real big. Hope everyone stays safe.”  “Inside Grass Island and Softuk there’s gonna be a ton of boats an’ they’ll probably knock hell out of them.  When we get to town we’ll suffer the stories, the struttin’ an’ the shit-eatin’ grins.”

                                                                       2.

 

        “Two minutes. Here we go.”  I get out on deck, put Fireweed in gear and move out the bar where the boat may set the net close to the beach then lay it out to deep water.  The swell is big, many of the waves are coming across the bar as combers, this only occurs with big seas outside. 
         Two minutes pass, but a big set is rolling in, I am in no hurry, I hold Fireweed’s position off the beach, just outside the breaker line. The occasional wave comes across, breaking behind me in the channel.  I jam the boat into reverse, backing Fireweed over a comber and take a bath for it. 

        Looking downstream, I see Kaila’s buoy is out, still on the sand where she threw it.  “I love that set.”  A bit of jealousy here, I’ve caught a lot of fish there. It’s where I learned my first real fishing lesson on the Copper River Delta.  
          I was in my first year of salmon gillnetting on the Copper River, fishing the inside waters here in P’Dahl and doing poorly.  Fishing was not bad, actually, it was damn good.  I just couldn’t catch them. 
       I spent much of my time watching other boats, trying to figure out why they’re picking so many fish out of their nets.  Sometimes it was a mass of heads ‘n tails from the boat all along the net to the end buoy.  Kings and “reds” (sockeye).  There was one boat, solid black in color, that I watched in particular.  It never seemed to move. It was more like a marker than a boat. When boats would leave the area for the ocean, many of them would go around that boat to get outside through the surf.
         It was driving me nuts.  It was always there.  I needed to catch fish, I had serious bills to pay and a balloon payment coming up.  I made a desperate, dumb decision one night. 
        The light on the boat marks its position clearly, it had not moved. Almost all the boats are anchored with their nets on board.  A few are fishing in the dark.  I run Fireweed up Castle Slough quite a ways in the middle of an ebb tide.  I roll all 150 fathoms of net off the boat and wait. I wait only a few minutes when the net lights up with splashes.  

        Fireweed is drifting downstream fast, I start pulling the gear back, working hard to get the fish untangled.   A big wad of reds comes over the roller then a king is there, wrapped in the leadline, hitting the deck with a great “thuuwomp!”     
       There are a few minutes of exhilaration, the net is coming aboard fast, but as I watch the light on the boat at “the corner,” it is plain to see, I’m going to get sucked out the bar with a good part of the gear still out.  This is a situation that has taken many lives on the river.

       “Ebbing out the bar.”  I had heard this repeatedly in conversations. I have some experience with breaking bars, my steering failed entering the Columbia River Bar a few years back. The Coast Guard arrived in force and worked all night to extricate the Freya from the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” but that’s another story for another time. (see note 1.) 
        The Copper River, from the all stories I had listened to, demands a high degree of respect.  This night it is obvious, I have not heeded the warnings.  There is no wind to speak of, but there is a swell running, the tide is receding fast, slamming into the seas.  The waves roll in from the deep, hit the shallow water of the sand bars and build to become like rows of sharks teeth which will roll a bowpicker over and chew it to pieces in short order. This is what greets the hapless fisherman who’s boat is broke down or, like myself, is inexperienced on “the Copper.”
      The “corner” is coming up fast, I had hoped Fireweed would ride the ebb straight out the bar, giving me time to get the net on board and make another set.  That hope is long gone.  Fireweed will sweep around the corner in a matter of minutes.  Inexperience.  The thought to cut away the gear has not even come to mind, I am still trying to “outpick” the certain catastrophic event I’m faced with at this moment.   
       Kings and wads of sockeye; the deck is filling fast with flopping reds and kings up to my knees. They have affected my thinking, I’m not.  “I got ‘em!  I really got ‘em!  Gotta get these fish onboard” is powered by adrenaline. Not logic.  The surf is pounding. I feel its reverberations underfoot as the boat draws closer.  Thudding waves are deafening as they smash sand.    
         Fireweed picks up speed as she begins to sweep the corner with her net out.  Still picking and not thinking properly to save myself, the black boat on the corner is there.  The marker buoy, I will go around.

        Then, I see him.  Standing there, a statue in stone at his helm.  In that instant there is a line around Fireweed’s cleat, and the mystery fisherman has his boat pulling hard in reverse.  His engine at high RPM drowns out the ocean.  Spray from his jet is a cloudburst over our decks as he backs into the hard running ebb tide. The net is coming aboard still filled with fish as this furious battle between jet boat and tide rages, where the Copper River greets the Gulf of Alaska.       
          Again, inexperience.  At this point, I could have rolled the rest of the fish onto the reel, still in the net.  I did not know that yet, the thought simply never comes to mind.   I’m picking like a madman, tearing the fish out of the net, rolling Kings out of the lead line with my feet. A wad of reds and a couple of kings comes through the rollers, hopelessly wrapped and tangled.      
      Out comes the knife in a wild frenzy of slashing.  Slicing through the hangings at the cork line and leadline the whole mess is cut away. That wad of fish was followed by the end buoy.  The last of the gear has come aboard.
      I yell a big thanks to the fisherman, cut him loose and we both got the hell out of there!  The fellow had never allowed Fireweed to enter the breakers.  I cannot say what this story would look like had he been unable to win this wrestling match with the ebb tide?   
        I headed Fireweed back to the Prince William, my tender, to deliver the load.  Steve “Smitty” Smith looked at the fish with a wide grin, “ya finally got ‘em!”  “Ya, got coffee on? I gotta tell ya a story.” I was shaking, my head hanging down, struggling to hold back the emotion.
       When done relaying what had happened since he had seen me last, Smitty, a long time Copper River fisherman, looked me squarely in the eye  saying simply “sounds like Bobby Weiss saved your life.”  I broke.  He then grabbed my shoulder, carefully prodding me to “get back on your boat. Make a few drifts from the marker and take low water here in Walhalla.” 
        I began making quiet drifts as Steve had suggested.  It came to me that these fishers on the Flats are here for each other when it counts.  They are as sweet and wonderful as the Copper River is foreboding and treacherous, both are immeasurable.

 

                                                                     

                                                                     3.

 

     A comber breaks, mushing out underneath Fireweed’s stern, snapping me out of the memory. I ease her into reverse and back over the waves, at half throttle. “That was the beginning of a smaller set,” I throw her into forward and hit the throttle, chasing the last wave to the beach.  Taking her in as close as I dare, the end buoy is tossed, then bump her into reverse and hit full throttle.  The “Duo-Prop” digs in, Fireweed responds, backing over the curler before she can be thrown to the beach like a driftwood log.
       The five or six fathoms of net I had flaked in the bow flies neatly through the rollers, laying a line of corks snaking to the beach.  The corkline comes taut, the reel complains with whines and whirs as it spins the gear off the boat.  Fireweed  backs off the beach, clear of the heavy breaks.  The end of the net drops off the bow, a line from the port cleat is snapped in, taking the strain.    
      Fireweed’s stern is brought around, towing the end of the gear upstream, holding it somewhat perpendicular to the beach to catch incoming fish and sweep down on fish idling into, or running against the tide.  The beach end of the gear moves much slower than the boat end in the deep part of the channel. The boat end, being towed upstream has a “fishy hook” where schools of fish become trapped, get confused and scatter.  Some are caught in the hook. 
      Glassing up toward Castle, I see Pat is holding nicely in the eddy. “Ya, she’s got the set, she won’t budge now.”  I watch my corkline intently for signs of fish, not a splash. Zip.  I let Fireweed drift until she reaches P’Dahl channel then wind the “waterhaul” back onboard.   I run her back upstream for a repeat of the same drift.  There are still no boats on this beach where fortunes change with the tides.    
      I ease up on the throttle, watching the set of waves roll in.  I start in, chasing a wave to the beach as before, toss the buoy and back down.  More than half the net is out when I see a king salmon hit the corkline, flopping violently.

    I am not about to lose this fish, not after I just had a waterhaul. I begin spooling the gear right back aboard to get to it.  The king is caught in the corkline hangings, he will be gone in short order for sure.  I go easy with the reel, letting the waves push me toward the fish to keep the net slack where he is hanging,  If I stretch the corkline tight when bringing it aboard, the fish may free itself or be popped out of the gear and get away. 
                   
                   
Into the wheel goes ten fathoms of net
                 Holy shit! 
            I’m stuck in my set!
       Round ‘n round Fireweed does spin
    the breakers a poundin’ raisin’ such a din
               Over in the foam 
              the Kaila does roam
               Now there’s a dish 
             that’s really pickin’ fish!

         

           Fireweed eases to within a few fathoms of the king.  He is quiet now, the boat is quiet as well, idling in neutral; the moment is taken, with gaff hook in hand, to asses the situation.  “I’m not going to lose this fish!” The shifter is bumped gently into forward, then right back to neutral, idling, so as not to disturb the resting king salmon. 
        A healthy wave rolls underfoot, “the sets are building.”  “Gotta get this fish.”  The shifter is bumped in and out of gear again, Fireweed coasts forward, toward the king, silently.  Another wave, bigger, gives the boat a gentle toss. She is lying lazily in the trough, parallel to the beach. The trigger cord, running across the deck at my ankle controls the speed of the reel as I pull the gear in slowly, winding up only the slack corkline in front of the boat, careful not to put a strain on it. As long as the net is slack around the fish, he is most likely going to entangle himself, making escape almost impossible. 

          Still drifting just off the beach, a musher breaks at Fireweed’s stern, she takes another, more forceful broadside shove.  The king thrashes wildly when the corkline comes taut, but there is web wrapping his tail now. “He’s not going anywhere.”  I let the wave pass by, then take up the slack. This puts the fish right below the bow rollers, within reach of the gaff.  The web has come off his tail and when our  eyes meet, he thrashes wildly.  “He’s going to get out!” The mind is oblivious to the ocean, it is locked on to this king salmon.  I hit the trigger hard to haul him in straightaway. He is only a foot out of the water when he tears away from  the gear, “Dammit!” 

 

A great big wave smacks Fireweed with a waapp!
    Damn near rolled her over that big slap

 
        A mean spirited shove from yet another, much larger wave pushes Fireweed straight at the breaking beach, broadside. Self preservation has me drop to my knees, hanging on to the steering wheel and hooking the rail with the gaff. 
          Fireweed rides the wave at a steep  angle then whipsnaps over the crest. I get to my feet as she slides down the backside, leaning over the rail, gaff at the ready. The king is still there, the wave was not his friend either, he is wrapped in web now.    
       Instinctively, I drop the gaff, my hand goes to the leadline and drapes it over the fish.  This done, I hit the trigger hard, the king comes flying through the rollers, and he is mad. The thrashing is violent when the next wave takes Fireweed by her stern, The fish, the wave, whatever it was throws me into the controls. The   engine whines at full throttle in neutral.  I back the throttle down then hit the shifter in reverse and throttle up to back into the next wave.  KUUTHUNK!!  Game over.  
         I take the few steps to the cabin and get on the radio to Pat, “I got gear in the wheel, I need a tow off the beach!”  I see Kaila break away from her net and make a beeline for Fireweed.

         I jump back to the deck, clear the net from the king, reach in behind the gill plate and rip out a fistful of gills.  The king, blood spurting profusely from the torn gills goes wild while I wrestle him into the hold; then I fire up the engine in neutral to get the hydraulics working.  The rest of the net has a few fish, but I am drawing myself closer to the dangers as I spool it on.  Fireweed lays broadside to the incoming waves, when the reel comes to a hard, torturous stop.  The net is stretched rubber band tight from the reel through the bowrollers and back to the stern of the boat where it is wound up in the Duo-Prop.      
        The rest of the net, maybe a 50 fathom shackle, is still out and flagged downstream.  Meanwhile, Kaila Marie is bogged down in her deep water slog, which is driving me nuts as Fireweed is about to be hurled onto the beach, helpless against the relentless march of breaking waves.

          Next installment  on

             Sunday  Morning

                 4 am  Pacific

              November    27th  

 

 Note 1.    See  “Night on the Columbia River Bar” at:       https://www.balladofcalypso.com/team-3