Dad and I have spent many hours trolling for landlocked salmon.
For those of you who don't fish, landlocked salmon are freshwater cousins to Atlantic salmon. Trolling is a lively, entertaining form of fishing in which one putters along in a boat at what's supposed to be the speed that a small fish swims, towing a lure or fly that's supposed to look like one. The idea, of course, is to fool a salmon into thinking it's the real thing so it'll bite it and get caught on a hook. Now, salmon can be hard to fool, at least Dad and I found it so. We spent days idling along, periodically changing the lure or fly, and waiting for the rod to bend, signaling that we'd hooked a salmon or a rock. The latter happened more often.
Now by the time the ice goes out around here in the Spring, the salmon are pretty hungry and tend to be a little less cautious about what they try to eat. At about the same time, fresh water smelt swim down brooks into the lake, what's called a smelt run. Salmon love them. If you time it right, the combination can make for some lively fishing.
So, one spring Dad made up his mind we were going to hit the smelt run on Alford Lake. He knew, from talking to other members of the Fish and Game Assocation, that the lake had salmon. Somehow he also found out that the smelt were running. So, we set out in our open aluminum boat on a lovely April day, with mist and drizzle, the temperature in the upper 30s (Fahrenheit), and a raw northerly wind. The lake was black (a color we only see at ice-out) under a dark overcast with patches of skim ice that we had to maneuver around. We were dressed for it in coats, rain gear, gloves and caps with earflaps, but we still had to handle wet, near freezing line, lures and fish with bare hands. If you're starting to shiver, you have the picture.
Back then, a landlocked salmon had to be at least 16 inches long to be a “keeper”. It's a decent size fish and fun to catch. Also, unlike today, you didn't have to immediately kill or release them. You could keep them alive on a stringer, which is a lightweight piece of aluminum chain with a bunch of large safety-pin sort of things along it. You open one of the hooks, slide the end in the space between the fish's gills and out the mouth, close it again, then hang the whole thing over the side of the boat. The fish can breathe and swim around normally, staying fresh until you're ready to go home.
Well, on this particular day, Dad was right. We caught fish … 3 keepers … more than we'd ever caught in one day. Two of them were closer to 20 inches than 16. Nice fish. Despite the cold, we were very happy guys.
I don't know how long we fished. But, once we'd gone a couple of hours with no more luck, we decided to call it a day. So, we stopped and put everything away, then Dad turned the throttle wide open and we sped across the lake toward the dock.
On the way in I kept hearing a metallic slapping noise, but was too busy daydreaming about a warm kitchen and fried salmon to pay attention. Then, as my wife Cindy would say, “Dawn broke over marble head.” Dad couldn't hear anything over the wind noise and motor, so I waved my arms frantically and pointed at the back of the boat. Wearing an all-too-familiar scowl, he finally slowed down and asked what was the matter. Still pointing at the corner of the boat behind his back, I choked out the single word “stringer”. At first he looked puzzled, then it hit him. He whirled around, grabbed the chain and pulled the forgotten stringer out of the water. No fish.
Now, you'd think that would have been a moment for a few choice words. Nope. We motored back to the dock, unloaded the boat, put it on the trailer and drove home in silence. We never spoke of it. In fact, as far as I know, neither of us has said anything to anyone in over 50 years, not until I asked Mum, a few days ago, whether she'd heard about it.
And that's the story of 3 salmon that, in fishing vernacular, “got away”, although not in the way that phrase is usually meant. It was one of our best, and worst, days fishing together.
Rest in peace, Dad.