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Bait and Switch

After a high-tech salmon-catching expedition, a skeptic realizes the joys of slow fishing

Author Adam K. Raymond Illustration Miguel Mansur


Stare at it long enough and the classic two-tone fishing bobber will play tricks on the human brain, especially one navigating the rigors of adolescence.

Hallucinations mostly. In my preteen years, I suffered many weekend mornings watching a bobber bob, desperate for the rush that comes with its momentary submersion. And while I waited for a fish to take a bite of my hastily hooked mealworm, my bobber would inevitably transform. Sometimes it became a killer tomato from a favorite cartoon or a scoop of ice cream I would have sold my sister to eat. Then I’d catch myself, readjust my eyes and see the bobber smugly bouncing atop the placid Kentucky lakes my father favored. The only thing more annoying than that bobber was my father’s stock response to my cries of boredom: “It’s called fishing, not catching.”

Suffice it to say, I never much cared for the sport. The ritual of waking up incredibly early on a day you didn’t have school, spending interminable hours on an overturned bucket and envying insects as they feasted on fish guts—at least they had a good breakfast—ruined fishing for me. As I got older, and was allowed to dictate my own free time, I told my father I had better things to do than watch a bobber bob.

Fifteen years went by before I even thought about sniffing a night crawler again. What changed? I’m a father now. My daughter can’t even crawl yet, and I’m already feeling that paternal urge to force her into bonding experiences. In my family, that means fishing. It’s what my father did with me and his father with him. But if I was going to put my daughter through this, I thought, perhaps first I ought to learn to enjoy the sport myself.

I’d heard about the San Juan Islands off the northwestern coast of Washington. When the calendar’s right, there’s no surer thing than the salmon run in this pocket of the Pacific. Late summer in odd-numbered years is the time to strike, and forecasts for August of last year called for more than 6 million salmon to pass through these waters. Fishing is so easy there, it could in fact be called catching, and that’s what I was after. I thought that, if I could just eliminate the waiting, the bobbers and the jaw-busting yawns, I could learn to love this sport and pass it on to my daughter.

So it was I met up with Jay Field, the owner and captain of a deep-sea-fishing outfit called Dash One, at 6:15 in the morning on a dock at Roche Harbor on the northwest side of San Juan Island. Though the wake-up call and my captain’s inadvisable facial hair hadn’t changed since I last went fishing with my father, the equipment had. In place of the dinghy of my childhood was a 26-foot Osprey with a remote-control motor. And instead of my old tackle box and bag of night crawlers, I had the latest in state-of-the-art fishing equipment, which included a Cannon Digi-Troll 10—a digitally operated, push-button contraption with an LCD screen that looked more like a military-issued crane than a fishing rod.

After finding our way through Mosquito Pass and out into open ocean, Field pointed to his “fish finder”—another LCD screen that showed a red pixelated mass on top of blue and green pixelated masses. “We’re putting the puzzle together,” he told me, indicating that there was something below.

Field then set up four rods, each with a fluorescent lure and a shiny metal flasher, which attracts salmon by reflecting light. The rods fit into holsters above the Digi-Trolls, each of which held a line with a 15-pound weight on the end. At the press of a button, the lines descended to a specified depth—a depth that was displayed on the LCD screen. Field then grabbed the remote control for the motor, and we set to trolling. “This way we cover more water,” Field said, explaining that moving the boat with the lines at a specific depth gave us the best chance to catch fish. “Hopefully we can put the bait in front of their faces.”

Five minutes after the lines touched the water, Field saw a rod bounce. He snatched it, started reeling and then handed it to one of my boatmates, who won the honor of landing the day’s first salmon. Not three minutes later, we hooked another. I grabbed the rod, and Field immediately started shouting instructions: “Keep it tight! Don’t let him get to the engine!” I pulled up on the rod, reeled as I let it down and pulled everything toward my side of the boat. The fish was fighting, as anything with a hook in its mouth would. I reeled, I pulled, I shouted, “It’s a leviathan!” When it reached the boat, I saw that I had overestimated. But it was the first fish I’d caught in 15 years. That should have been cause for celebration. Instead, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d cheated.

Here’s why: The fishing I knew as a boy called for you to bait a hook, cast a line, wait and reel in, usually without a fish. This was different. An expert did all the hard work for me, and I took over only once the fish was hooked. I felt like I had put the candles on a cake and called myself a baker. Then there was the technology. Sure, the Digi-Trolls, fish finder, remote control motor and depth monitor made everything easier, but the whole high-tech process was so far removed from the cast-and-wait fishing I knew as a child that it felt like a different sport.

“I get a lot of satisfaction out of finding the fish,” Field explained when I asked him about the technology. He said the tools turn fishing into a hunt. “I think the fun is in figuring out the depth and the bait that’s working and finding the right area. Then you own it. For me, it’s hunt, find, fish.”

Keith Ammons, the resident fishing expert for Discover Boating magazine, has a different take. “I think the actual catching of the fish is not the end goal. Spending that quality time is the goal. That conversation I can have with my spouse or my father is the most important part,” he told me.

I had sought out Ammons to talk about what I call “slow fishing”—the fishing I did as a kid. He encouraged me to give the slow version another shot now that I’m no longer 12. “It’s no cell phones. No TV. No video games. I don’t want to say there’s no rules, but it’s just about being able to get away and relax,” he said.

So on a cool spring morning earlier this year I forced my six-month-old and my wife to accompany me to a pier near our apartment in Oakland. Pier fishing, a tradition in California, was new to me, but I quickly learned that I could rent a rod nearby and fish without a license. After finding a spot, I baited my hook and cast into the San Francisco Bay. As I watched the line fly through the air and the bait land with a splash, I was transported back to those algae-infested Kentucky lakes I fished as a kid. Casting, the most fun part of fishing, is also the quickest. Then came the waiting. Ten minutes passed. Then 20. I fidgeted a little but realized I wasn’t bored. I was enjoying the sun bouncing off the water and the rhythmic crashing of the waves, with nothing on the other end of my line but a worm and a hook. In a few years my daughter will consider this boring. But I’m old enough now to finally see that what I once considered boring is what adults everywhere call relaxing—what a certain kind of person calls “fishing.”

Adam K. Raymond is a writer based in Oakland, California. He prefers worms of the gummy variety.

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