The vision was clear, the resolve firm. My chance to become my own fishing guide was at hand. Five days. For five days I would turn the academic into reality, demonstrate to my family (always better to start with those who think you’re pretty good and are willing to be more understanding than judgmental) that I could put them into fall Chinook salmon.
Mark Henry Miller, the guy without the gills, with a Buoy 10 Chinook.
So it was that week in October of 1985. Every morning for five days I had the rods rigged—herring for the Ghost Hole and in front of the Coast Guard station and spinners for the Oyster House and Picket Fence. I knew the names and the ways to connect with the salmon. I had trolled these waters for twenty years, with guides who got paid for their efforts.
Now it was my turn. To be a guide. A dream. Soon to become a reality.
It ended up worse than Casey at bat. I had five pitches (read that, days) and not even a nudge let alone a strike. Fish being caught everywhere around us, especially at flood tide. We were right there. I tried to keep a positive attitude, but the stiff rods led to stilted conversations. No fish. No action. No nothing.
On Friday afternoon after fanning for the fifth time, I waved farewell to my empty-netted family members and thought to myself, Well, there will be some redemption to all this. I’m going with Keller tomorrow morning.
Don Keller had been my guide for over a decade and I was to meet him Saturday morning at the Oyster House dock. Truth was—not one day, not one trip, not one time on the water with Keller—did I fail to catch a salmon. That’s pretty impressive, mainly because Keller, who gave “Old Man and the Sea” deeper meaning, was that good. I just held on and played the salmon.
Saturday morning would be “my day, my time, my learning what I had done wrong the previous five days.”
I arrived at the dock, renewed enthusiasm and adrenalin flooding my every step. Keller was getting his boat ready, looked up, “Mark, what are you doing here?”
“Keller, I’m here to fish with you;
we’ve scheduled this morning months ago.”
He raised his hands in deference, “No, Mark, you are scheduled for next Saturday.”
What could I say? I knew my calendar was right, having flown more than 1,000 miles from Colorado Springs. Keller was wrong. But there was nothing I could do about it.
I started back for my car, shoulders slumped in defeat and rejection.
“Mark, wait a minute. I have four guys coming down from Portland. They like to party Friday nights, so maybe not all of them will show.”
At that point, I must admit it was the first time in my life I prayed for someone to be drunk and unable to drive.
Moments later three guys showed up.
Keller smiled, “Mark, get in, there’s room.”
As we left the dock, the yell pierced my enthusiasm, “Don Keller, wait. I made it.”
My prayer had been in vain. The fourth had arrived.
“Sorry, Mark, but maybe next time.”
Never had next time seemed so hopeless, longer than eternity.
I returned to my room in the less-than-famous Tilla-Bay Motel in Garibaldi, and began to hold my own pity party.
After fifteen minutes of self-pity, I reasoned, who’s ever caught a Chinook salmon sitting in a musty motel room?
Getting into my father-in-law’s boat, actually more like a barge, called with more affection then derision the African Queen Two, I headed to the Sheep’s Corral, just off of Bay City. I let out line with my spinner doing its thing, put the rod in the holder, went to the front of the boat to the steering wheel and puttered along. To keep me company I played and gave my own karaoke version to Billy Joel’s “You’re Only Human,” that began appropriately enough, You’re having a hard time lately and you don’t feel so good; you’re getting a bad reputation in your neighborhood.
About an hour into the litany of self-deprecation, someone yelled at me, pointing to the back of the boat, “Hey, mister. You’ve got a fish.”
I turned to see my rod bent in half, the reel singing its new song, line tearing out.
The battle, termed affectionately in memoriam as the “Mother of all battles,” began. The salmon was strong, plumbing the depths, then coming directly to the boat. I finally remembered to slow the motor down, the tide pushed me back and forth. After fifteen minutes, which seemed like hours, the fish was at the side of the boat.
One problem. I had not removed the net from the inside section of the boat. As I went to that side the fish took off again, then stopped. A match of will was at hand. I finally removed the net, laid it down and brought the fish back for netting.
The moment of truth was at hand—literally. I took the net in one hand, held the rod in the other. Fate smiled as the net slipped from my hand and began to sink into Tillamook Bay.
Lunging, feet in the air, balanced somehow on the boat’s side rail, I barely caught the net.
The fish had to be thinking at this point, “So you want to be a guide, eh?”
Now was the moment. Out of desperation, knowing it was now or never, I had the audacity to lay the rod down, take the net with both hands and net the fish.
It took every breath and muscle to lift the netted salmon into the boat, at which point I sat down shaking my head in wonder and disbelief, I, myself, me. Caught a fish all by myself. Wow.
I then heard applause, looked up and found four boats had circled me to see the clown in action. I could only smile, was too tired to signal a touchdown.
Arriving at the Garibaldi Bay Marina I needed to weigh the fish. They put it on the scale but I couldn’t see the number.
Minutes later the dock hand put a hat on my head. I took it off and saw the story written, “Garibaldi Bay Marina—50 pound class.”
The author with his 50-pound Tillamook Bay Chinook salmon.
I couldn’t wait to get back out. The African Queen Two chugged along across the Bay. I found Keller, came close to his boat and tipped the new hat.
He applauded “Mark, I knew you could do it. See, everything turns out in the long run.”
When I got home one of my friends gave his perspective, “Mark, no one will know what that hat means, no big deal. They’ll think the Garibaldi Bay Marina is a diet-center and you just lost fifty pounds.”
Needless to say, I wouldn’t invite him the next time I guided on Tillamook Bay.
Mark Henry Miller is a Northwest Guy all the way, born in Portland and only fishes NW rivers. He graduated from Stanford and Yale, has been a minister for 52 years and has published 7 novels, all dealing with life, ministry, fishing and murder, but not in that order. (Amazon/Kindle) When not fishing he resides in Austin, Texas.
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