Fall Fishing on the Columbia River
written by Laura Cherau | photography by Justin Bailie
The late summer air is full of salt smell, warm and misty. I like getting up when it’s still dark and moving around outside with only the light of the bait-and-tackle truck. I have been told the salmon fishing is going to suck, because it’s early and the run was late last year, something blamed on warmer ocean and river conditions. But I am hopeful that beginner’s luck will play in my favor. I’ve never caught a fish. I’m 38. Leaf Geraghty is laid-back in the way you’d want a charter guide to be. Down-to-earth would be another way to describe him. He’s a big guy, a guy’s guy, a father and a contractor.
He’ll try like hell to land you a fish on a bad day. He knows about the tides and weather and the sandbars. His humor is a bit Chevy Chase and a bit young Bruce Springsteen, I think. Geraghty’s dogs have already eaten his lunch, which he left on the stairs of his house while packing the boat up this morning. When I show up, though it is well before our starting time, he’s already got the boat in the water. Geraghty’s River Wolf is called the Bar Tender. It’s an open-sled boat with an off shore bracket and an Evanrude 300 hp—an excellent rough water boat to have on the lower Columbia. I know about the other kind of bartending and being a single mom and writing. I know next to nothing about fishing. I think I am supposed to be quiet.
I’ve stared at this river for what feels like forever and watched people fish from shore. That’s what started this—I took a photograph of anglers on shore and the clouds opened and looked holy and I thought maybe I would like to fish too. The river is a person with a temperamental personality. She changes colors frequently. She can be soft like brown butter or violent and black. This morning her black water is kind and quiet and only lurches and laps the hull when I climb aboard. Geraghty leaves to park his truck and returns with his two dogs, who run down the dock and jump in the wrong boat. The boat’s owner looks confused. It’s still pitch black out. Geraghty gives the dogs a good talking-to, and they figure out the boat I am on is theirs. “We should be okay. If I fall off, just turn the motor off. We should be pretty good. Already a lot of guys are turning out and going to the ocean,” Geraghty says.
“Forecasts for the river are not the best. A little bit of daylight starting here, we got a full tank of gas, we got bait, just need a couple of Chinook to bite and we’re there.” It’s 5:30 a.m. Today we will not be tending the bar. We’re staying on the river. Often the Washington side of the river gets so crowded with boats during the Buoy 10 season that it looks like the occupants could join hands and form an island, or a chain, like some ants do during flood season. It’s a pretty spectacular sight from the minty green Astoria-Megler Bridge, which spans the width of the Columbia River and connects the northern corner of Oregon with the southern tip of Washington. “Sometimes a whale hangs out here,” I exhale as we pass. I want to see the whale. We don’t.
We catch our first salmon of the day around 7 a.m. A 15-year-old boy from Long Island, New York, reels him in. “On the board! We’re on the board!” Geraghty exclaims. He gets on the phone. A big part of being a good guide is how many friends you have out on the water. All day Geraghty’s phone is blowing up to the opening chord progression of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” They talk about where the fish are and what they seem to be biting. Today the answers seem to be “nowhere” and “nothing.” We mill around for hours, trolling with our lead droppers, ashers, anchovies and cut-plug herring. We use a spinner on the bow a couple of times. Ted Hughes, the English poet, thought fishing was meditative, “some form of communion with levels of yourself that are deeper than the ordinary self.”
I order myself to stay in the present moment. I know that if I catch anything, it is out of my control. It would be because a fish is hungry, or deranged, or because of the “short bus” ashers Geraghty said were “consistently good.” Or because of the tide, the cold water current, the weather, coincidence or something more spiritual that I failed to grasp. We decide to bail on the absentee Chinook and go sturgeon fishing in the afternoon. The sky is still gray cashmere and the hills misty and navy blue on the horizon. The water ebbs milky green identical to its foggy forest surroundings. When I finally reel in a green sturgeon it is exactly 1 inch longer than my 11-year-old son. It is hard to reel in a big green sturgeon the size of your child as fast as possible. My left arm and leg shake uncontrollably.
I fear losing the rod. We measure him and then I let him go. After the fight is over, I realize I just made the sturgeon irritatingly late for something, like when I make my son brush his hair before he runs out the door. We have to wait for the tide to come back in to return to salmon fishing. “Got the curse! C’mon, stupid salmon! Beat it, seagull,” Geraghty says. We fish for more hours. I’ve been in boats before, but never for this long. I could have own from Seattle to Dubai to much the same physical effect—the 3-foot chop mimicking in-flight turbulence of a mellow and fatigue-inducing nature. When Geraghty finally throws his hands up and resigns himself to a beanbag chair and a can of Pringles, it is time to leave. He counts five total salmon caught from the boats he knows, including the one we caught.
I am relieved beyond measure to be going home. It is fun when we do a big loop in the River Wolf on the way home, like going on two wheels in a Formula One racer. On the other hand, I feel like it’s making me late for something. On Thursday, those who want their limit head out to the ocean for Coho. I feel like a salmon fishing failure who just landed in Dubai and doesn’t wish to leave her hotel room. I am amazed to realize that I actually like this and I’d probably do it again. Would I go out for open ocean? Tuna? Marlin? I would. I vow to catch a damned salmon and eat him for dinner. I look forward to long hikes and winter steelhead. I need waders. Maybe I’ll get Geraghty to take me out for crab or coho or both.