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Some Firsts Mean More Than Others - Steelhead & Coho by Matt Miller

Last August I caught my first steelhead and my first coho salmon.

At least that’s what my dad thought—and how he labeled the photos he sent to his blog readers and commented on his Facebook post. Apparently, he had forgotten the dozen or more times that he took my younger brother and me fishing in the Great Northwest as children.

We didn’t catch fish every time, but we experienced enough success to know that “limit” is a triumphant verb in angler vernacular. And since the truth should never get in the way of a fishing story...

fishing steelhead coho  miller

Dr. Mark Henry Miller was a fisher of men, so to speak, as a senior pastor of United Church of Christ churches for over 40 years in five different states.

He is the best preacher I’ve ever heard, was an amazing parent to me throughout my childhood, and is a knowledgeable, versatile, and highly capable angler, even as he quickly approaches his 80th birthday.

His natural love for fishing was practically a birthright passed on from his father, my Grandpa Hank, and my dad hoped to pass that love on to me and my younger brother Andrew. But it never took.

Not for lack of effort. Andrew and I grew up in Colorado, where our father, the angler and minister (he prefers that order), introduced us to everything from bobber-and-bait and lure fishing in beautiful mountain lakes to picturesque dry fly fishing in the streams and rivers that stubbornly knife their way through the majestic Rockies.

We also vacationed at least once a year in Oregon, where my dad was born and raised; he and Grandpa Hank treated us to amazing fishing adventures in the Willamette and Columbia rivers and out on the Pacific Ocean. Despite all that, the closest I ever came to loving fishing was developing a strong affinity for the jam band Phish during college, attending dozens of their concerts and festivals throughout the 1990s.

Not exactly the love of fishing my dad had in mind.

So, when Dad told me that there was a spot available on a two-day fishing trip in Oregon with his favorite fishing guide, the famous Zorba of many of his fishing legends, I initially thought,

“No, thanks, Dad. It’s a week before school starts so I’m crazy busy… plus I really don’t like fishing that much—that’s why I haven’t gone in 20 years!”

But I’m glad I didn’t say what I initially thought and gave it a couple days thought. I sorted through fond childhood memories of sipping hot cocoa as I huddled on an exposed jet boat, cruising down the Columbia River, sensing my father’s and grandfather’s increasing excitement as we approached the latest “hot” fishing hole.

Also, my recent divorce and the surrounding circumstances mirrored what my dad had experienced 20 years earlier, so maybe I could compare some life notes and get some fatherly advice during those long periods of time on a slow fishing day when the hands on the clock seem to move backwards.

I booked my flights and called my dad to tell him the good news.

The drive from Portland International Airport to the Oregon Coast is not as spectacular by night, but without the visual distraction of evergreens lushly blanketing the highway and an occasional gorgeous vista, my father and I worked easily through some small talk and moved on to more serious subjects, which for him are, in no particular order, himself, his wife, myself, my brother, and fishing. He lost me a bit when he started talking jigs, flashers, and sinkers, but I do appreciate his passion for all things fishing. By the time we reached the Clatskanie River Inn, we had to get to bed quickly to eke out five hours of sleep.

Borrowing from poet Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” the “blueblack cold” of predawn has a different energy to it on fishing mornings.

I felt it that morning as my father and I dressed in the sterile quiet, the rustle of our Gore-Tex outerwear and the cracking of our aging joints the only sounds. My anticipation grew as the rental Hyundai’s engine grinded to a start in the early morning weather—it was somehow cold and humid. Dad broke our silence in the car, explaining that we were meeting our guide, “Zorba,” at a practically unknown little launch point in Westport.

He began describing the area we’d fish on the lower Columbia River that day and the likely method: anchoring the boat and dragging lines down river with spinners or jigs on them.

When he started talking about the different types of lures and test lines and leaders, my mind drifted. But I was confident that with three experienced old men near the sea, it wouldn’t matter that I didn’t know the difference between a flasher, warbler, or jig.

As long as I kept the tip of my rod up and the line tight while playing a fish, I’d be fine.

IF we got any strikes. (I do remember having “limit” days as a child, but there must have been some strikeless days too, and those had dug some stubborn, deep trenches in my memory—why else would I have avoided trips like this for over twenty years?)

Not surprisingly, we got to the launch site in Westport a half-hour before Zorba and Doug. My dad would rather wait two hours at the gate before boarding than sprint through the airport to make a flight. I don’t think he has ever been late to anything in his life.

When Zorba pulled in, towing his tanklike 25-foot, steel gray Willie boat, I almost said out loud what I was thinking, “This just got real!”

I’m always impressed with experienced boat owners and how well they maneuver their boat trailers behind their trucks. Zorba was no exception. In a matter of minutes, the boat was in the water, the gear loaded, the motor smoothly idling, ready to go. Our fourth fisherman, Doug, parked the truck while Zorba hopped out of the boat and came over to greet us.

“Zorba!” my father yelled, “You’re right on time!”

“Padre!” he called my father as they bear hugged. “Great to see you!” After their embrace, Zorba extended a hand to me. “And you must be Matt. It’s great to finally meet you, although I feel like I already know you,” then a pause and a smile while we continued to shake hands. “You might not know this, Matt, but your dad likes to talk about you and your brother.”

I knew. I grew weary of it as a child: my father’s boasting and detailing of every success while ignoring or simply forgetting our failures.

Anyone who knows us only through my father’s eyes must think Andrew and I are nearly perfect humans. But I could tell that Zorba could see through the biased father-speak and how many were real. That was a relief: I knew I didn’t have to live up to any inflated expectations.

Before this trip, I didn’t know Chris Vertopoulos’ name –– he was always just “Zorba” in my dad’s stories—a moniker my dad seemed proud to have given him, though I question its creative brilliance, since it’s based on Chris’s obviously Greek last name and not any similarities to the title character in Nikos Kazantzakis’ famous novel or the popular 1964 film starring Anthony Quinn. Nonetheless, Chris seemed not to mind, and Zorba is a cool nickname. But I still chose to just call him Chris.

The boat ride to the area of the lower Columbia River we were fishing that day took about 30 minutes. The persistent drone of the powerful Yamaha outboard motor prevented us from communicating much, but I could see the excitement building on my father’s and Doug’s faces. Chris was the model of a Northwest fishing guide, from the calm, almost nonchalant expert way he helmed the boat right down to the open-toed sandals he wore on his feet despite the 40-degree temperatures that day and the brief cameo appearance by the sun.

Though it wasn’t quite cold enough on this day, I could envision icicles hanging from Chris’s salt-and-pepper beard on a brutally cold day, framing a smile that never seemed to leave his face. 

When we arrived at our chosen spot, I just tried to stay out of the way as Chris adroitly maneuvered his boat and, with Doug’s help, used two anchors to perfectly position us just 10-15 feet from the banks of the lower Columbia River. I remember previously only trolling the Columbia for steelhead, so this anchored river fishing was new to me.

Fifteen minutes later, Chris had the four rods perfectly rigged and the lines out. We were steelhead fishing in the Northwest!

The morning had felt so magical I expected all four rods to immediately bend dramatically and the reels to sing a harmony announcing “Fish on!” But not even a strike.

The minutes turned to hours, still nothing. Chris knew from the day before that this was the area to fish, so he occasionally had us reel in the lines and re-cast them to different spots. As the slacking tide revealed more and more of the riverbank, he repositioned the boat, re-anchored, and cast again. Still nothing.

As an immature child, this is what drove me crazy about fishing. On the slow days, there was Nothing. To. Do. Some people remedy this with conversation. Others with drink or drugs. But I was not a good conversationalist during my younger fishing years, and it was several years later before I discovered the pleasures of occasional recreational mind-alteration.

So I coped as a child by just suffering silently through the slow fishing day, complaining about it later to whoever would listen, then vowing to never go again.

Some would say I’m still relatively immature, but now that I’m 49, I’ve developed some conversational skills and an appreciation for the importance of quiet, reflective time. I also enjoy altering my mind with the right substances in the right circumstances, but this was not the right circumstance. So I asked Chris about being a fishing guide and we talked about our remarkably similar social lives at the moment and the ups and downs of romantic relationships.

His positive attitude and straightforward approach to life worked in harmony with his warm, relaxed vocal cadence and it made me want to be him.

Doug has more in common with my father than with me, but I talked with him about his family and what it’s like to be retired and have the money and time to fish any day he wants.

I remembered my father had mentioned that Doug had received some bad medical news recently, but you would never know it from speaking with him. He had such an appreciation and excitement about his life, it made me want to fast forward through my own life and become a happily retired fisherman.

When the conversations paused, we all just sat and soaked in the surrounding beauty, listening to the water lapping lightly against the side of the boat and feeling the mild undulations of the river gently rock us.

At one point, a bald eagle soared across the sky and landed expertly on its aerie in a tall evergreen on a bluff. I wondered if it could see whether there were fish in the water around us.

“I think that’s a good sign, Matt.” My father had been watching the same scene.

“Hey, guys...” This from Chris as he pointed at the rod closest to me, whose bend and dance indicated more than just the drag of the flasher and bait in the current.

 “Yeah, I’ve been watching,” said Doug. “Just nibbling, waiting to strike.”

As if on cue, the reel screamed its falsetto song and the controlled scramble on the boat began.

“Fish on!”

Chris grabbed the rod from its holder and handed it to me while Doug and my dad reeled in the other lines. As I focused on keeping the tip up and reeling quickly whenever the fish stopped running for a moment, the persistent tug at the line flooded me with positive childhood fishing memories. I thought, maybe for the first time ever, about the metaphorical significance of that moment in fishing: when you’re playing a fish but you don’t yet know the outcome of the fight. The dream of landing the big one is real, it’s possible, it’s RIGHT THERE at the end of your line in the water, but it’s still not quite realized.

Sure, landing the fish on the boat is a special moment, too, the one that most people cherish about fishing. But to me, the doubt that still exists during the battle is fishing’s truly magical ingredient.

I could see the swirls and splashes on the water’s surface getting closer to the boat as I continued to reel in. “That’s a nice fish,” said Chris as he readied the net. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as the fish got within five feet of the boat, then four. Sweat started beading on my forehead and upper lip, despite the mid-40s temperature. Now just a yard out, Chris smoothly swiped the net through the water under the fish and then lifted it, a beautiful steelhead thrashing about in the nylon twine, its silver scales sparkling, even in the flat light of the overcast day.

 steelhead fishing miller catch fish columbia river

“Yes, Matthew!” My father raised two fists in the air in victory.

The pose and the excitement on Dad’s face were very familiar. I had seen them many times growing up, whether I landed a fish, made a game-winning basket, or aced a math test. My dad always took great pleasure in my successes (and provided great comfort after my failures). I didn’t like being the center of attention, so his celebrations made me uncomfortable as a child. But I was different now than I was as a teenager, and I saw my dad’s celebration differently that day.

With a daughter of my own, I now know what it’s like to root for her to succeed, then want to celebrate it.

Her success and happiness in life are more important to me than my own. I’ve caught myself raising my arms in victory, just like my dad does, after Laura’s volleyball team wins a match point, or when I see her touch the wall first in a 100-meter butterfly heat. I smile when she’s happy and weep when she’s sad. I understand now why my dad always acted the way he did during my games and matches and why his arms were still in the air at this very moment. My dad loves me more than himself. Just like I love my daughter. When a child has success and enjoys life, the parent feels successful and joyful. I get it now. So in some ways, maybe this was my first steelhead. Not technically, but certainly the first one where I knew how much it meant to me AND my father.

 

Chris quickly ended the steelhead’s suffering with a crisp whack to its head and then showed me how to hold it like a pro. Dad finally put his arms down to reach for his iPhone and take approximately three thousand, four hundred and eighty-two photos of the momentous occasion.

Doug, Dad, and I cast the other three rods while Chris made quick work of re-rigging the successful rod and then cast it precisely to his intended spot. After all the excitement, the stillness surrounding us was even sharper when we settled back into our seats, watching the tips of the rods. The eagle continued its watch from above, and we waited for the next big moment. We were able to boat a second steelhead that day – matching father-and-son fish to make our day complete… almost. Although I knew from his stories that Doug had already caught thousands of fish in his life and would still catch at least hundreds more, I felt a little guilty that my father and I were the only ones who tasted success on the boat that day.

I could tell that Doug didn’t want to fish the lower Columbia again the following day. As we pulled up the anchors and headed back to the launch spot, he and Chris talked about the next day’s plan. I couldn’t quite understand, but it sounded like Chris was considering taking us out on the ocean the next day, which was the first day of the Chinook season.

“Matt, do you get seasick?” asked Doug. 

I have been seasick twice, both while below deck: crossing the English Channel on a large ferry and cruising on Lake Erie on a 40-foot sailboat. Since Chris’s 25-foot Willie boat had no ‘below deck’ area, I didn’t think either experience applied here.

“No, not generally.”

“Ok… Padre, how about you?” Chris asked my dad. “Wanna head out to sea tomorrow?”

“Absolutely, Zorba… that would be great!”

Unless you’re a baker or a milkman (do those still exist?), there is something almost obscene about setting a wake-up alarm earlier than 5 a.m., but since Astoria is quite a bit further from the Clatskanie River Inn than the Westport launch spot of day one, my iPhone alarm rang at 4:30. By 5, we had the car packed with everything and were ready for Northwest Fishing Adventure #2. I was still half-asleep as our Hyundai chugged onto Route 30 heading towards Astoria. 

The hour-long drive in a quiet car was a better opportunity than a high speed boat ride to ask my Dad about divorcing my mom and the dynamics involved. I had finalized my divorce just weeks before this trip and, since some of my situation matched his, I thought I could benefit from his experience. But I quickly realized that no two divorces were the same, and rather than press for details that my father was either unwilling to or unable to remember 20 years later, I steered the conversation back to fishing. He explained that we would be going out past Buoy 10 to the Pacific, one of the most famous salmon fishing areas in the world.

The sun had yet to peek over the horizon when we parked at the Astoria Riverwalk Inn and walked to the marina to meet Chris and Doug. Even in the grey dawn I could see that they were almost finished prepping the boat and rigging the rods. Jeez, what time did they have to set their alarms?

 “Here, Padre.” Chris tossed us waterproof overalls and my dad and I wriggled into them. Now I really looked and felt like a fisherman! Though catching the steelhead was a nice adrenaline shot, the day before was largely a dull fishing day without much action. I was really looking forward to fishing out on the ocean, where even if we didn’t catch much, it was bound to be a more adventurous day.

The mouth of the Columbia River is five miles wide, so as we left the marina, I already felt like we were out on the ocean.

Doug and Chris both remarked how calm the waters were as we passed the Church Hole and the Green Line, though they didn’t seem calm to me... I held on tightly to stay in my seat as we sped past Buoy 10 and bounced on the water. The tank-like construction of Chris’s boat seemed a bit overkill on the relatively calm waters of the lower Columbia a day earlier, but I appreciated its solid feel today as the 175-horsepower Yamaha outboard powered us through the water and we crashed violently against waves and across swells, especially as we left the mouth of the river and entered the Pacific Ocean.

Once we found an area of the right depth, Chris expertly baited the four rods—two with herring and two with flashers and just herring heads for scent—in less than a minute and we were salmon fishing in the ocean.

It already felt like a more adventurous fishing day than yesterday. The dozen or so other fishing boats in the same general area only fractionally diminished the wonderful combination of vulnerability and freedom I felt being out on the open ocean. 

Chris and Doug told me that the coho and Chinook salmon were great fighters, so today could prove a little more exciting. Less than 30 minutes after we let our lines out, one of the rods bent into an upside-down U and the reel starting singing.

Nobody said “fish on!” because it was so obvious.

Chris grabbed the rod out of its holder and handed it to me, reminding me to keep the tip up and the line tight. Then he steered the boat while Doug and my dad reeled in the other lines.

They were right about the fight in these fish compared to the steelhead from the day before. At times I just had to let the fish run and hope he didn’t spit the hook or snap the line. The swells of the ocean added to the challenge—I used my legs like springs, adjusting to the ever changing pitch of the boat floor, while fighting to keep the rod’s tip in the air. Since it took longer to play this fighter, the pressure seemed to mount. And I could tell that this wasn’t just a feistier fish—it was also much bigger than yesterday’s steelhead.

My eyes probably saucered to twice their normal size when the fish was close enough for me to actually see it. My heart pounding, I could feel blood pulsing through every vein—this might be one of the biggest fish I’ve ever played and now I really, really wanted to boat it, take photos of it, post it and make the Facebook world jealous. 

“Whoa, Matthew!” My dad shouted when he could see that it was easily 24 inches long.

Chris, like a magician with a wand, deftly waved his net through the water and snared the thrashing Coho. “That’s a beautiful fish!” said Chris, as he checked to make sure it was from a hatchery and could be kept. “Keeper!”

He got the hook out of its mouth and reminded me how to pose the fish for the best photos, then focused on re-rigging the rod.

coho fishing fish salmon  

“Matthew, what a fish!” I could see the corners of my dad’s enormous smile behind his iPhone as he captured the moment. The smile on my face was pretty big, too. When you catch a fish like that, fishing’s magic courses through your body.

 

We had to extend our conversations on the previous day to fill the strikeless hours, but today’s challenge was different: we frequently had to wrap up our conversations quickly to play the next fish! We boated seven fish in all and caught three others we released before we called it a day and headed back towards the marina. As he steered his boat back through the mouth of the Columbia’s much rougher afternoon waters, Chris’s smile of satisfaction said it all: a successful fishing day for his clients.

Back at the marina, Chris made short work of cleaning and filleting the fish right there on his boat, completing an impressive two-day demonstration of the varied and high-level skills that make him one of the Northwest’s best fishing guides.

 

Sharing a fishing experience like that creates a bond, and I felt a little melancholy saying goodbye to Doug, not sure when or even if our paths would cross again.

I had a different feeling as I hugged Chris goodbye and thanked him for the literally life-changing experience. It would definitely not be another 20 years before my next fishing trip. And it would definitely be led by him.

Once we left the coastal region on our drive from Astoria towards our lodging near the airport, the overcast skies cleared and the sun warmed us up enough that my dad and I shed our jackets.

We talked a little about the trip and the moments that stood out: the relief of landing the two steelhead on the first day to avoid a shutout; the adventure of the boat ride out past Buoy 10 into the open ocean and the excitement of playing and landing the feisty Coho today; the skillful way that Chris could drive the boat, rig a rod, and carry on a coherent conversation all at once; the generous, kind nature of Doug in offering me the rod every time there was a fish on. 

But we mostly talked about us, our relationship, and how taking more trips like this could hopefully reduce the distance that had developed between us since my parents’ divorce.

I asked his opinion about my current social situation and what I should do about it. He provided fatherly advice that made sense to me, but he also stressed that ultimately I had to be ok with the decisions I make. At that moment, speeding along the ribbon of Route 26 that winds between the Clatsop and Tillamook Forests, I was probably closer with my father than I had been in years. I didn’t know exactly what roles the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of the previous two days had played in the repair of our relationship, but I knew that this fishing trip had been about so much more than just fishing.

As I lay in my bed at the Comfort Inn & Suites by the Portland International Airport, I could hear my dad talking on the phone in the bathroom. He was describing to his wife his excitement in watching me catch my first steelhead and salmon.

I suppressed my inclination to roll my eyes at his continued misremembering and technical inaccuracy.

Instead, I considered how much my life had changed since my last fishing trip with my father. That in some ways, since my divorce, I was living a new life, filled with new opportunities and challenges. That while I had caught several steelhead and Coho in my childhood, these were my first steelhead and salmon in my new chapter of life. Regardless of how I define “first”, I know for sure they won’t be my last.

And on the next trip, I’m bringing my daughter.

- written by Matt Miller


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