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Sunday, August 28, 2011


“Look, Daddy! I’m an angel!”
Smiling, my father turns back to steering our little cabin cruiser. The watery autumn sun is just burning through the fog enveloping the Columbia River, bringing other boats into sharper relief around us. There is the occasional glow of a cigarette, the clink of a coffee cup and the faint oily blue scent of outboard exhaust. The dissipating mist reveals a flotilla of boats like ours, each gliding slowly and sporting a rooster’s tail of fishing rods arched with the pull of lures spinning far below. I look again into the green water at the shadow of my head surrounded by a golden halo of sunlight needles.
Dad took me fishing with him whenever he could. He knows every rock, sandbar and dredge-spoil island between Bonneville Dam and Bouy 10. From the silent rusting remains of the old Kaiser Shipyards in Portland where armies of war workers once furiously built Liberty Ships, to foggy Astoria where the river’s irresistable force meets the immovable object of the Pacific, there’s not a spot where he hasn’t cast a line.
The river’s bounty filled my Batman lunchbox with my mother’s salmon sandwiches. We had salmon casserole, roast salmon, and salmon poached in my grandmother’s dishwasher. There was salmon dip, smoked salmon, and salmon jerky. I loved it all.
As a toddler I would jump for joy and race around the boat shouting “fish on!” whenever one of the rods suddenly bent double from a salmon’s hard strike. My father told me sternly that a good fisher sits still and remains quiet no matter what happens. I resolved to prove I was grown up enough for anything.
So one raw winter day when we were tied up at a gas dock, I sat quietly on top of the cooler, a picture of childish determination. Silently I watched my father walk backward with a fuel hose and step off the edge into the swirling frigid water. I clenched my teeth and strove to be good. Finally, when he was gasping and clutching at the slimy dock and being drawn powerfully down by the weight of icy water pouring into his rubber boots and soaking into his heavy Cowichan sweater, I murmured “There goes Dad.” Sensing something amiss, my mother popped out of the cabin. She saw my father and screamed for the dock attendants. It took two strong men to pull my dad out of the river’s clutches. But I was enormously proud of my four-year-old self for following his instructions and remaining still and quiet. I didn’t notice that my parents were equally silent on the ride home.
Thankfully that incident was our only brush with disaster. My father’s enthusiasm remained undiminished, though my mother’s waned. Dad and I continued our fishing trips.
Most outings followed a regular pattern. We launched at dawn, waiting our turn at the ramp in a line of idling station wagons and pickups. The adults drank coffee from thermoses and watched the action in the glow of headlights. When it was finally our turn to slide the “O Dad” off the EZ-loader into the river, I got to hold the mooring line while my father went to park the trailer.
No matter how early we started it always seemed as though hundreds of others had beaten us to the river. Bundling me up in the plaid car blanket, dad fired up the big Evinrude and we roared off through a constellation of running lights to his chosen section of the Columbia. Once there, he cut the big motor and we drifted in the sudden silence while he pulled out the fishing rods and attached long strings of flashers and spinning lures with sharp treble hooks. As soon as the the gear disappeared into the black water, dad stuck the butt ends of the rods into holders, consulted his whirring depth sounder and annouced how many “pulls” I should take. It was my task to deploy the lures to the proper depth by tugging the line out from the reel a given number of times. Dad lowered the little “kicker” motor that allowed us to troll at precisely the right speed to keep the flashers spinning through the silty current.
Then it was time to settle in and wait for the sun to come up. Up and down the river we trolled. “Any luck?” Dad would ask passing boats. “Two stikes, one in the box,” might be the reply. Or a number of fingers might be wordlessly held up or an empty-handed gesture made.
Suddenly one of our rod tips bobbed down. “Don’t move!” said Dad. “He just testing it.” The tip bobbed again. Dad waited. I bit my lip and sat on my hands. Then the tip swung down almost into the water. “Now!” said Dad as he hopped out of the captain’s chair and grabbed the rod out of the holder.
My job was to hold the steering wheel straight while dad played the fish. He stood at the stern with the bouncing, bent-double rod, alternately reeling and letting the fish tear off down the river. Sometimes the salmon would flash to the surface, then roll back to the depths. Eventually the fish tired and glided up to the side of the boat where dad could net him and hoist him in. We admired our prize for a few minutes, all gleaming silver and black, with a speckled fins and a black-rimmed jaw full of short wicked teeth. We marked our tags and lowered the fish into the box, while applause trickled back from nearby boats. Now for the rest of the day, whenever someone passed by and asked “Any luck?” it was my solemn responsibilty to hold up one finger.
The sun rose, the air warmed and I fidgeted in my itchy wool sweater. It was time for lunch. Dad opened a can of chili and set it directly on the little propane heater. As the contents warmed, filling the air with a mouthwatering salty, beefy aroma, he cut big chunks of sharp cheddar cheese with his filleting knife and dropped them into steaming beans. A stray salmon scale glittered on his hand. I ate my portion of cheesy chili out of a chipped tin cup and watched the stands of yellow poplars on the sand island slide by.
As the aternoon turned warmer and more golden, I sat on the vinyl seat, my head pillowed on my lifejacket. I watched the hypnotic nodding of the rod tips as they danced to the spinning lures' distant tugs, and listened to the muttering of trolling motor. I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of an endless sunlit river.

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