The last of the pink salmon were running like mad in Puget Sound and I was hoping to catch my dinner in the city. A friend was meeting up with me, one who plays the role of expert fisherman in my life. In other words, he is the hunter and I am the gatherer – mostly because I find the regulations for fishing too complicated. And personality-wise, I’m ethically averse to activities which alienate the common person from the simple act of catching his or her own food, whether it’s through time, rules or gear. Mostly I resent that once my gear is ready and I’m finally standing in the right spot on the right body of water with the right license, I never catch anything. Yet somehow I keep going back. Pinks, also known as humpies, are the least endangered species of salmon and supposedly easy to catch. This might be my fish.
Because I like to know what I’m eating, I learned other facts that gave me an affinity for these Oncorhynchus gorbuscha. Their nickname is “humpy” (not the fact I was thinking of) which comes from the large humpback the males develop when they migrate upstream to spawn. The schools of salmon return to the exact location where they hatched after two years of eating krill and shrimp in the open sea. They find their way by instinct, feeling and smelling and sensing where home is. I relate in that, some way, we are all searching for that feeling of home. Once back where they started, the salmon use what little energy they have left to spawn before they die. In Puget Sound, huge schools of humpies return on the odd years and bring out the masses for a chance to catch a salmon from shore.
Now most people don’t consider humpies an entrée species. Their flesh is pink and pale compared to other salmon; it lacks the characteristic orangey salmon-colored tint. Also, even when the fish is fresh, its flesh is very soft. They are best, many will tell you, smoked. However they are abundant and you can still say you caught a salmon.
I meet my friend out on the point at Lincoln Park in Seattle. He’s found a spot between some fishermen who are Asian and seem to know what they’re doing. In fact, the Asian men have already caught a few fish. Local water regulations ban barbed hooks so I pull out pliers and pinch mine flat, scoping out a gap where I can stand. I am friendly as I walk up to the water. I find myself walking the line between looking like I know what I’m doing – so they won’t offer me advice the whole time – and knowing I’ll need help if I actually do catch a fish.
Casting, for me and probably everyone, is easy because you use a heavy lure for humpies called a Pink Buzz Bomb. It is un-sexy and boring, to say the least, simply a kite-shaped hot pink lead hunk that wobbles in the water with a hook on the end. But it is heavy enough to fling a long way and this is the goal so we (I) hardly have to aim.
We fish for a few hours and catch nothing but seaweed or “salad” in fisherman lingo. An old man by the bathroom tells us to go up the Duwamish. His son catches his limit there most of the season. We listen and thank him, conscious that it might be a fish tale.
At the Duwamish River off West Marginal Way, a man with no bottom teeth tells me to jig my pole a little more. In fishing, as with most things related to food, everyone has an opinion. Here most people use a lure with a lead bead head and a little sprig of feathers at the bottom hiding the hook. The chosen color again is hot pink. We are running short on time at this point and finally leave after saying over and over, “One last cast…” We hope we’ll have better luck at the West Seattle Bridge but get lost and then stuck waiting for a parked train. I am ready to clear off my schedule for the evening to catch a fish but my expert fisherman friend is out of time.
Ready to say our goodbyes, my friend in his farm truck, I in mine, we begin driving west when we spot a full parking lot. Across the street, people of all ages and nationalities are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder. The West Seattle Bridge. We park. “Maybe just a couple casts,” he tells me. We cross the road and squeeze in between very enthusiastic fishers, a little dismal that we don’t have the bead-head lures. I can tell this is more my style of fishing. At least I will love the socialization.
Next to us, a few young Asian men reel in fish – good-sized ones over 18 inches. To land a fish from the water 15 feet below, they either drag the fish over a hanging net and haul it up like a crab pot or use their poles like a lever to fling the fish out of the water and over our heads. I am gleeful about people flinging fish, the spray of water as the fish sail onto the walkway, the cheers as hands go down to stop the flopping. They shout in their own language, “Get it, get it, get it!” The only thing to stun the fish, I notice, is an empty beer bottle.
We want a fish so badly but nothing bites our buzz-bombs. The sun isn’t warm enough to keep me from getting goose-bumps on my stomach. Behind us people speak Spanish. To the sides, Tagalog or Korean or Japanese. I have my doubts that anyone here is going to actually wait to smoke their fish. From the looks of the crowd, we’re all going for dinner.
We see monstrous schools of pinks swirling below but nothing bites. More salmon fly over our heads on other peoples’ lines. I look over at my friend. “One last cast!” we say again and again, staring down into the water, willing the fish to bite. Then something grabs my hook.
“Fish! I think I got one!” I say, sucking in my breath.
A young man next to me starts cheering. Instead of “Reel it!” he commands urgently, “Roll it! Roll it!”
I roll it and fight my fish toward the bridge. Below in the water, it follows the school and only a flash of flying pink tells me which one is mine. My arms are sore from casting all day. I don’t know if I can make the fish fly through the air onto the dock. I heave on the pole, digging it into my groin to get leverage. Men yell not to let it go under the bridge, and I pull one way. Then they tell me to pull it over the little net (which is almost under the bridge) so they can hoist it up. I pull, I roll it, I pull some more.
In a few seconds, the fish flops over the net and some quick person hauls it onto the bloody walkway. I notice its dark, telltale humpy spots on the tail like someone tried to wipe off splattered ink. I love the shape of the mouth, the way the jaws fit together in a curve. This is always the hard part for me, the only burr in the perfect circle of life. I thank the fish in my head for its sacrifice. My friend searches for something with which to knock it out but the only thing we can find is the empty beer bottle. When in Rome! We stun the fish and carry it over to the planters to cut its gills and let it bleed out, the quickest way to put a fish out of its misery.
Blood oozing, I carry the fish to a bench and borrow a Ukrainian man’s pen to fill out my catch record. My hands are bloody and covered in tiny scales, which, in typical pink salmon fashion, slough off everywhere. I zip open a pocket on my jacket, touching as little as possible. Note to self, next time keep the catch record in an open pocket.
My friend fills out the catch record for me. My fish has an adipose fin – a little tear-shaped, fleshy fin between the dorsal fin and its tail. With other species of salmon, this fin is often missing meaning that that particular salmon was raised in a hatchery. The Department of Fish & Wildlife folks snip off the adipose fin before releasing their fish, and this is what will distinguish it from a wild salmon. In the world of fishing regulations, I vaguely remember that wild salmon of other species must be thrown back because I am not a member of a tribe. Pink salmon are abundant enough to not need the help of a hatchery so there really isn’t a chance of my fish not being wild. But this doesn’t matter to me. I admire that fin on my fish. To me, it means that this is the real deal. My fish is wild and I am one proud mama.
I carry the fish to my truck. A car full of Latino men rolls into the lot and they shake their fists in the air in congratulations. I cheer back, realizing later I have blood on my chin. My hands are caked and itchy from the fish scales. We cut the fish in half on my tailgate and I give the head section to my friend. The tail, with fewer bones, is for me and I wrap it in a black plastic garbage bag. We hug no-handedly and my friend says, “Nice last cast there!”
It’s the last day of the humpy season, at least for me, and they won’t run into Puget Sound again for another two years. Considering the hours we spent casting today, I figure that I’m paying a lot to stand by the water and this is the most expensive salmon tail I’ll ever eat. Yet somehow group-fishing with a rowdy crowd from all walks of life is appealing to me. Looking around at all the people lined up on the bridge, and seeing the closeness of people to their dinner rather than to having the right gear or perfect cast, I think to myself, I could fish again in the city. Two years, I hope, will go by quickly.