When salmon run, anglers follow
Written by Green Bay Press-Gazette   
Tuesday, 25 October 2005 04:25
Even in the dark, a half-hour before dawn, you could see the big chinook salmon pushing water, pushing upstream in the Sheboygan River. They?d rest in what deeper pools they could find, then surge back into the current, making power runs in shallow water. Dorsal fins were surfacing, like black blades, cutting wakes into the river.

The air was cold and sharp. My photographer, Dwight Nale, and I put on waders and strung fly rods, and went looking for someone to interview. We found him a half-mile downstream.

?I?ve let five go so far,? said Brian Love, who was getting by with a wool shirt, hip waders and a spinning rod.

He?s from Cedar Grove, and he?s been doing this for 30 years. Love was using a classic lure, nothing more than a ball of bright-colored yarn on a hook. It?s a good imitation of fish eggs, of the spawn sacs bait fishermen use.

?I like to see how many I can release in a day,? he said genially. ?The biggest I ever caught was a 28-pounder, downstream, in deeper water. I even got wet that day, chasing it up and down.?

We drove back to our first spot, where we had the river to ourselves. The best fishing is at dawn, and as Love had pointed out, it was getting late in the year, late in the run.

The Sheboygan is low, starved of water after yet another dry year, and some of the bigger salmon hardly fit in it, but they push on. They are true to their genetic code, which has programmed them after years of swimming in the depths of Lake Michigan to fight their way upriver, spawn and die.

The fertilized eggs, sadly, don?t survive. The rivers that flow into Lake Michigan along Wisconsin?s east shore are too slow and warm. The gradient is too flat.

Nale had been at this for a week, burning up a vacation, and had fine-tuned a technique I was happy to copy, using flies he had tied the night before.

We were ?sight fishing,? casting to salmon we could spot in the pools. It did no good to cast when they were moving. These fish aren?t feeding, which is a good thing for the river, given their bulk.

To catch them, we?d cast the weighted lures into the pools where they were staging, timing the drift so that the lure falls right at them. You?re trying to hit them in the nose. They?ll often ignore the first good cast, but if you keep offering it, one of them will strike, whether out of habit or annoyance, I?m not sure which.

Not everyone likes this kind of fishing. They call it ?flossing the fish,? since you?re one step short of putting the lure in its mouth. But it does take technique, and when you set the hook, the river explodes.

The big fish charges upstream or down, stripping off line and putting a hard bend in the rod. When a salmon runs, there?s nothing you can do but hold on, keep a tight line and hope the beast tires enough to be turned.

Nale caught and released three before I got the timing down. The big salmon I hooked charged down river, taking off 40 or 50 feet of line in a couple of seconds. By the time I got it close enough for Nale to grab, my forearms were burning.

We weren?t bothering with nets, so we helped each other land fish by hand. Then we let them go. Neither of us were interested in eating them, although some people will keep even the dark salmon, saying they are good smoked.

Then Nale called out. He had hooked a steelhead and it was fighting hard. These rainbow trout sometimes will follow salmon into the river to eat their spawn.

Unlike the darkly spotted chinook, the rainbow, when landed, looked like a big bar of silver with a faint hue of iridescent pink running down its flanks.

This one measured 33 inches, about the width of Nale?s grin, and weighed 12 pounds.

Trout, unlike salmon, do not self-destruct after spawning. They return to the lake. This fish was not dying, but it was doomed all the same.

I?ve eaten fresh rainbow trout before, filleted and cooked over an open grill with lemon and pepper.

As I explained to Nale, this is a good thing.

 
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