Then the good times rolled. In spring I bounded out across the Columbia River bar, the most dangerous in the world, slowed down and looked around at all that lovely, empty ocean, then greyhounded off to wherever I wanted on it, did whatever I desired.
Mostly I desired to learn how to fish all that water with flies. I don’t know that I can explain why. I’d only fished small streams for tiny trout in my past. A minor half might have been the grace of the fly casting. Another half was likely that I wanted to do what nobody else had ever done out there. A major half might have been the limitations of the act itself — after an initial orgy of catching all of everything that I could, both legally and illegally, I became, like John Hersey in his beautiful book Blues, after only a single fish for dinner each day. But that’s too many halves; I don’t know why I went after those fish with flies. It was clearly not the easiest way to catch them.
That ocean, so short a time ago, abounded with fish: Coho and Chinook, surprise sea-run cutthroat and summer steelhead, rockfish and, with short throws of lead-core line, snapper, once almost a 6-foot long shark. It was a blue — a far from dangerous species — following up a salmon I’d hooked, still there, thrashing questioningly around, just a couple of feet deep off the starboard stern, wondering where its dinner had gone after I landed the salmon, conked it, set it aside for my own dinner.
I tossed the same fly back out beyond the shark, trotted it past it. Likely there was blood and stink from the luckless Coho still on the big streamer. The cast was an accident, brought the fly swimming almost into the shark’s mouth, which opened and closed. I leaned back and set the hook ferociously. The shark did not think or scheme, boil or dive; it simply accelerated out of there.
All I could do was hold onto the rod and keep my hand away from the invisibly whirling reel handle while it started up tendrils of smoke — distress signals — before blowing up. The rod shattered under my hand and the line ripped the spool out of the reel. All I had when it was over was the reel frame attached to about a foot stub of rod handle. I didn’t see where the shark went because I was too busy staring disbelievingly at the left over appendage I held in my hand.
That entire spring and summer I dashed up and down 50 miles of coast in the Widowmaker. I throttled her at idle along jetties, casting for salmon and rockfish, catching them almost at will. My depth finder discovered some seamounts, remnants of volcanic intrusions that after millions of years of erosion still reached near enough the surface that I could count a lead-core head down to the rocky tops of them. I caught monstrously ugly lingcod there, some that weighed 30 pounds, all head and teeth and hunger tapering off to slender bodies, the fillets off which might have filled a book had I been into writing recipes.
I was more into exploring. I spent a lot of nights at sea, some anchored in quiet coves along the coast, more adrift far enough off shore that I knew I had sufficient ocean around me to neglect even setting up a watch schedule to check my position, see if I’d drifted close to anything that might endanger the Widowmaker. I didn’t sleep much anyway. The nights were too beautiful out there. I’d sit on the back deck, or in a lawn chair up on that flat cabin roof, watch the moon, the stars, jet planes, whatever was up there.
I was living a good life, as I defined it, but I was also lonely. I thought often of that girl I’d left in Viet Nam, though I knew she’d taken up with my replacement, probably the same day I’d helicoptered out. I’d sit there at sea, the boat bouncing gently on even the softest seas because she was not large, after all, and had those tippy lines. I’d watch the moon set and leave all that vast blackness over the water, those shining masses of stars overhead, and wish I had somebody sitting next to me to watch it with me. The person I always constructed to share it valued it exactly as I did.
Near the end of summer I got close to broke, applied for a charter license, put the Widowmaker through all the necessary Coast Guard inspections. The old chief who approved and signed the papers read the notations that followed the hull number, about the boat’s earlier accident. “Bad luck boat,” he told me when he handed the papers over. “You be scared of her.”
I took out a few folks who wanted to fly fish the open ocean, but they were scarce in those days, and my charter business scant. I was more cognizant of the albatross on my boat than that old chief. I didn’t take clients on any but flat days. I didn’t take them any distance out of sight of the north and south jetties of the Columbia River. I brought them in instantly, refunding their money if fog came in, wind came up, or the sea got burly.
Chartering paid the gas, in a ratio something like three trips out by myself for every one with pukers aboard. That’s a fine formula by which to take trips, but not to make any income. I was willing to leave earning a living until later.
That winter I got a wild-assed idea to make a bit of gas money by writing stories for boating magazines about what I was doing out there on the ocean. I calculated I’d earn a buck from the stories if I could sell any, and advertise for charter clients at the same whack. I piled up rejection slips, finally sold just one short article, gave that idea up. The piece turned out to be fatal, though fortunately not for me.
PHOTO CREDITS >>