For the sake of salmon

John Driscoll
The Times-Standard
May 15, 2006

It was no surprise that on the weekend before salmon season begins there was a small craft advisory posted for whippy chop and sloppy swell.

That's always the way, it seems, in spring. Nonetheless, with the ocean forecasted to become more appropriately pacific, many salty souls will have at least set out this morning in a wide variety of boats to have a look and wet a line. For salmon season starts today, and a short season it will be.

One of the first times I crossed the bar -- that often hazardous entrance to Humboldt Bay -- I clung to the dash of Jimmy Smith's 46-foot commercial fishing boat. We rode up and down some big swells channeled between the jetties, and I was nervous. Jimmy and Brogi the fish hog thought nothing of it, of course.

With my heart in my throat I turned to port, hearing the whine of an approaching outboard engine. Buzzing by us was the sorriest excuse for an ocean-going vessel I'd seen, or have ever seen since. Calling it a canoe would be too generous. The single fisherman in it buzzed over swells bent on salmon.

Anyway, I figured if that guy could stare down the ocean in that pitiful dingy, I could certainly loosen my grip on the dash of a big commercial boat.

Since then, I've seen a lot of boats out in a lot of different weather. The short salmon season we've been dealt this year -- an effort to protect the projected weak Klamath River stocks -- almost guarantees that some of these boats, and some of their operators, will take risks that they otherwise might not.

That is, if the season runs from May 15 to July 6, and you can count on half of those days being unfishable due to weather, the remaining days will either be marginal or calm. Since most fishermen can't get out during the week to take advantage of weather that pays no heed to calendars, many will risk a sloppy Saturday to put a couple of salmon in the box.

I've done it. A friend and I once decided to buck up and launch his glorified lake boat out of Trinidad to take advantage of a gap in our schedules. At Pilot Rock, we were barely clearing the top of swells, and we were surfing down their faces. We turned around because we suddenly got smart, and to hell with the $20 launch fee.

I would have you recall the tragic case of the Whitehorse II. The capsizing of that sturdy Boston Whaler piled tragedy on tragedy, as two passengers died and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter plummeted into the surf. From the experienced operator's tale, it was a freak wave that overran the boat.

The ocean in spring and summer can lull fishermen into complacency, offering big swells but no wind in the morning. But the wind can suddenly rip across the surface, putting chop atop swells that just an hour before almost rocked fishermen to sleep.

Risk is unavoidable when you venture onto an ocean, and it's worth taking reasonable risks to haul in one of the best fish in the world, the California king salmon. I would hope, however, that putting two in the cooler is weighed against ending up in the cooler yourself.

Be safe. Catch fish.

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