When the urge to spawn came over them, salmon ran up the rivers by the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. They also ran up any creek, slough, channel, and ditch they could squeeze into. My friends and I used to stalk them in rivulets so shallow the fish were virtually stranded, and still they shimmied on their sides and pounded the gravel with their tails trying to get a little farther upstream. Then they died. By October the stench of rotting salmon was everywhere. The experts said salmon stopped feeding once they left the big lake to spawn and could not be caught on lures, bait, or artificial flies. The proved the experts wrong in coming years. But those first few seasons we didn’t know any better. Like everyone we knew, our reasoning went like this: If you couldn’t be caught with conventional tactics and were just going to die anyway, why not catch them any way you could? Made sense to us. Until it stopped making sense and turned ugly.
This essay was first published in Outdoor Life, and was later collected in A Place on the Water:
MY FATHER never learned the art of snagging salmon. I realize now that is to his credit, but when I was 17 and suffering from a serious case of blood-lust, it was a matter of some embarrassment. My friends and I had become aficionados of the unadorned treble-hook and I had little patience for a man who hardly tried. He stayed home and fished alone for walleyes in Long Lake. I joined the crowd at the Boardman River in Traverse City and learned a harsh lesson.
The river had filled suddenly and unexpectedly with so many coho salmon, a new and exotic species in our part of the world, that everywhere we looked we saw enormous fish porpoising, swirling, leaping clear of the water to land in great side-smacking explosions. It was hardly possible to drag a lure through the water without hooking one. My friends and I, drunk with abundance, figured we could be forgiven if we killed a few more than our share, or if we forgot—temporarily, temporarily—such concepts as restraint and honor and sportsmanship.
It was the beginning of our last year of high school and we were eager to be released to the broad freedoms of adulthood, college, and life. Every afternoon, the moment the final bell rang, we ran for the parking lot and drove Doug’s rust-shot Torino straight to the river. There, at least, we were equals to anyone. On the water we had already graduated to a bigger world.
We recognized many of the cars parked beside the bridge. Other students had skipped school, had been here all day, and would have raked the Willow Hole clean by noon. Below the bridge, the hardcore regulars, the Men, stood in ranks along shore. They crowded each other, their thickets of rods in constant up-and-down motion. They used surf-casting outfits with 30-pound-test line and cast them like they were heaving anvils in the river.
We hurried into our waders, grabbed our spinning rods, and raced down a trail almost nobody else used, beneath tag alders and blackberry brambles, over piles of crumbling yellow bricks and tangles of the discarded monofilament that stretched in coils and snarls from Union Street Dam to the mouth of the river. We busted out onto the riverbank. The pool was deserted. Fishermen were upstream and down—we could hear a wailing drag, the crash of a leaping salmon, shouts and oaths and laughter—but somehow, this spot, the spot, had been left to us.
Doug, careless with knots and other trivial matters, was rigged first. Before he could cast, a large salmon broke the water at midstream; another swirled close to the bank. Doug tossed his Spider out and across, allowed it to sink the necessary three-count, then began the old jerk-and-haul.
“You bozos better hurry,” he said. “Unless you want to watch me catch all the—WHOA!”
He was into one already. It ran downstream, and Doug kept his rod skewed low and rigid, the reel shrieking, the line tearing across the river so fast it raised a trail of mist at the water. Suddenly the fish came up: somersaulting in its own spray, arching and flexing, crashing back into the river. It was hooked in the back. Good spot. It gave the fish leverage but did not disable it with pain.
We had forgotten the net. Russ and I refused to go back to the car. Doug screamed at us to go but we ignored him.
I cast my Spider and let it sink. One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three. Wait any less and the hook would be pulled over the tops of the salmon. Wait any longer and it would get wedged in rocks, driven into a log, or tangled permanently in the monster-snarls of line that had been growing like fungus on the bottom since the run began. Yank and reel, sidearm to keep the hook low. Yank and reel. No resistance to speak of, just the #2 treble and the quarter-ounce bell sinker streaking through the water. Yank and WHOA! It ran instantly, the rod maxing out, the fish up and leaping before I could warn Doug to watch his line. He hadn’t landed his 10-pounder yet, and mine, 12 pounds at least, crossed his line and his crossed mine and mine crossed his again. Then the two salmon plowed off in opposite directions and the lines broke almost simultaneously, like rapid-fire gunshots.
Doug blamed me, of course. He had a scrub-brush of hair growing straight up from his forehead, like he’d been shocked. When he was angry he pushed his glasses up on his nose, they slid down, he pushed them up again. Russ, meanwhile, cast into the pool and first yank was into a fresh-run eight-pounder that blasted out of the water almost the second the hook bit. Doug, to cool off, left for the car to get the net. I landed Russ’s fish for him, waiting until he led it into shallow water then placing my foot beneath its belly and booting it up on the bank. When Doug returned with the net, Russ had his fish hung on the stringer in the shallows, and I was into another, a coho that might have gone 10 pounds except that it was hooked in the absolute maximum leverage point of the tail and I didn’t have a chance. It made a V-wake for Lake Michigan and kept going even after my line popped 50 yards downstream, where the fast water began at the Front Street Bridge.
THE NEWSPAPERS called it Coho Fever. It appeared shortly after the salmon began congregating near the mouth of the Platte River in northwest lower Michigan in 1967, eighteen months after they had been planted by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in an effort to revitalize a Great Lakes fishery that was suffering, to say the least. Once considered sportfishing heaven, the Great Lakes had become a wasteland. Parasitic sea lampries had wiped out the lake trout, and massive schools of alewives—small, shad-like baitfish that had the unpleasant habit of dying by the millions every summer and fouling the beaches—were nearly all that thrived in the lakes.
Nobody knew if the salmon would feed on the alewives, or even if they would survive in the big lake. But when adult fish appeared in Platte Bay late that summer all expectations were surpassed. They had grown an astonishing 8 to 15 pounds in less than two years, and were returning to their parent stream in numbers that even the most optimistic fisheries biologists had not dreamed of. The fever spread like bubonic. Mile-long lines of vehicles waited to use the access ramps and frenzied anglers launched their boats the way a dumptruck unloads a full bed of refuse: backing up fast to the ramp and hitting the brakes. They would park then in the sand along the road, getting their vehicles stuck to the axles and abandoning them there. Later, when salmon moved up the rivers, the fever moved up with them. I came down with a very bad case of it.
We were not prepared for the salmon. Our equipment was inadequate and we had no idea what techniques might catch the fish. A few anglers were looking to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska for precedent, but most believed that once the salmon entered the rivers they would show no interest in lures or bait. It was thought that since the fish would inevitably die after spawning, we were justified in harvesting them with any method that worked. That attitude was endorsed by the Department of Natural Resources, and snagging was legalized on virtually every Michigan river those first few years. It became the standard tactic of most river fishermen.
In the Boardman, in Traverse City, hundreds of salmon were stacked in every pool from the mouth of the river to the Union Street Dam, a distance of about a mile. Snaggers would fill their five-fish limit, carry the salmon home in the trunks of their cars, then return to fill another limit. Catches of twenty fish a day were not unusual at first, before the competition got intense. By then it was as entertaining to watch the action as it was to participate in it. Fishermen unequipped for the strength of the salmon watched their reels explode and rods shatter. Full-grown men leaped into the river to do battle hand-over-hand with salmon that had smashed their equipment. Fishermen standing elbow-to-elbow at the hotspots became involved in incredible tangles of line when hooked fish ran parallel to shore. Harsh words were exchanged. Fights broke out.
My friends and I learned fast. We used sturdy fiberglass spinning rods and reels with smooth drags. Many of the snaggers preferred 20- and even 30-pound-test line, but we chose to use 8- or 10-pound-test, willing to lose a few fish in exchange for the greater casting accuracy of the lighter line. Refining our techniques, we became proud masters of snagging. We devised our own snagging lure—the Silver Spider—a treble-hook with a heavy bell sinker attached underneath by a few twists of copper wire. It was a deadly, streamlined weapon that rode through the water with hooks pointed forward, ready to impale anything in its way.
WE HAD NEVER SEEN the pool so full of salmon. Doug, Russ, and I hooked six fish in six casts. But our activity attracted the attention of fishermen above and below us and they were closing in. Russ made a hurried cast and lofted his Spider over a willow branch. Doug, laughing, cast sidearm to put his hook beneath the same branch, hauled back once and nailed a big, silver female that did a tail-walking routine the length of the pool. Seven for seven.
I made a cast, jerked, reeled up, jerked, and was into another fish. Eight for eight. After hundreds of pounds of snagged salmon I knew immediately not only the size of the fish but approximately where it was hooked: head, side, belly or tail. This was a small one, maybe three pounds hooked amidships. I wasted no time, simply derricked it in and dragged it onto the beach.
But it was not a salmon. It was a brown trout, vivid with spawning colors, with the hooked jaw and thick body of a healthy, mature male—the largest and most beautiful trout I had ever hooked. I had snagged dozens of salmon and never felt the slightest remorse, treating them like throwaways, like objects of commerce given out to promote business. But this was different. This was a wild, natural fish, here for a purpose that had nothing to do with the circus atmosphere of the mock-run of salmon. It was not the first trout I had seen snagged. A few steelhead had entered the river, and they were sometimes netted and hurried to car trunks by men and boys who laughed about their indiscretion. Possessing snagged trout was unlawful, of course, but the law seemed to be held in abeyance those days.
I was determined to release the trout. I kneeled and removed the hook carefully. The wound seemed shallow, harmless.
“What you got there?”
I looked up, expecting a conservation officer. He was perhaps 40 years old, dressed in street clothes, wearing aviator’s sunglasses. Not a conservation officer. Not a fisherman, either.
“Brown trout. Hooked him accidentally.”
“I’m going to let him go.”
“Why let him go? I’ll take him.”
I had noticed people like him lingering on the fringes. They weren’t fishermen, but they liked to watch. Sometimes they cadged a salmon or two from the fishermen whose freezers were already filled.
“I have to let him go.”
“Seems like a shame, a waste.”
“He was hooked lightly. He’ll be okay.”
I noticed his trousers were too long and the cuffs had frayed where they dragged on the ground. He wore black, heavy-heeled leather shoes caked with mud. I looked up and he was smiling at me. He never quit smiling.
“It’s just going to die anyway,” he said.
“No it’s not,” I insisted. I was growing uneasy. I wanted to release the trout and see it swim away as if nothing had happened.
The man, smiling, shrugged and stepped forward. He raised his foot and brought it down heel first on the trout’s head, crushing it into the gravel. The body jumped once, then was still.
He slid his hand under the gill-plate and lifted the fish. “See?” he said. “It’s just gonna die anyway.”
I didn’t know it yet, but I was finished as a snagger. I would go home that evening unsure what had happened, knowing only that the fun had gone out of it. In a few years the DNR would virtually abolish the practice anyway, limiting it to a few short stretches of the larger rivers. Anglers, forced to experiment, would discover salmon in rivers could be caught after all on lures, bait, and flies.
Standing beside the river, watching the man walk off with the mutilated trout, I realized that my enjoyment had been tainted all along. We had caught fish, many fish, but it had been an empty exercise. Intent on having fun, we had failed to consider fair play. It was obscenely easy to convert abundance into waste, but at some point—and now it seemed inevitable—there must always be a reckoning.
(From A Place on the Water: An Angler’s Reflections on Home. Available at bookstores everywhere, or from the author.)