My crazy brother thought I would enjoy riding down the Sandy River, in Oregon, on a raft with a fishing guide, clad in waders and a life jacket, looking not at all like Meryl Streep in "The River Wild." Steelhead trout are in season. Before leaving town, Miles plunked two jars of “egg cure” and a Mason jar on the counter, and said that if I got a “hen” I should prepare the eggs for him, so he could use them as bait. Yeah, right … Didn't he know that I have always been on the side of the fishes?
The guide’s name was Ed Fast. I think of him as Steadfast Ed Fast. Ed Fast endeared himself to me right away by calling to say he was going to be a little late because he was stopping for doughnuts and what kind did I like? (Cinnamon and chocolate.) Maybe fishing wouldn’t be so bad ...
He arrived at six-thirty in the morning with a catamaraft—a pontoon raft—on a trailer. All the other guides had been out on the river for hours, taking their clients to their favorite spots and fishing them out. It is bad etiquette to pull in where other guides have already staked a claim, so we leapfrogged them down the river: a big bald guy named Bob in a beautiful wooden boat, with three fishermen sitting athwart (how often do I get to say “athwart”?), and Dave Maroon, in an aluminum boat. (I would never go out in a boat with a guy named “Maroon.”) Ed knew a lot about the natural history of the area, and told me to get out my brand-new non-waterproof camera to get a shot of the canyon walls as we slid sideways over the rocks. (Agh!) On a beach, he pointed out cougar tracks, and what he thought was the track of a mink, and a single elegant elk print, and took my picture with a waterfall. He showed me how to cast—Ed casts beautifully, his line making a lazy loop in the air—and told me to try to place the line in the “seam,” so the bait would travel along the bottom, where the fish like to swim. He kept saying “Mend,” which I think means raising your pole to get control of your line, without jerking the bobber, which would make the fish suspicious. And "Open your bail."
At a spot called the Gauge Hole, Ed baited my line with a fake pink worm. The Gauge Hole has unsightly equipment along the bank that registers the depth of the river and that rangers can read from some remote outpost. I stood on a rock and cast a few times, and then felt something take my line and started reeling it in as we both saw, out in the water, a fish leap twirling in the air, like something right off the cover of Field & Stream. “You got a fish!” Ed said, incredulously. He was by my side in an instant, coaching me to give it line, to “pump and play,” never to point the rod directly at the fish (is that why it’s called angling?). I was all for reeling the fish in, though it was very strong. Finally, Ed said, “I’m gonna have to go after him,” and took the pole out of my hands and ran over the rocks along the bank and climbed over the gauge equipment. It seemed like it took forever to land the fish. He explained afterward that you have to be careful or you’ll rip the hook out of the fish’s mouth—the hook was just barely in the fish’s lip; it fell out as soon as he landed it. But if you let the fish fight, it gets exhausted and flops into your hands.
There was much documentation of the fish, after Ed had bled it out in the river and demonstrated how to hold it through the gill, without letting my fingers show through its mouth, and adjusted the flash on my camera so the trophy fish would shine. It had three rows of sharp little teeth in there! Ed estimated that it was thirty-two inches long and about twelve pounds. It was a female. Miles would be pleased. I was, of course, hoping that Ed would prepare the eggs.
I would have been content to just ride down the river, but Steadfast Ed Fast was getting paid to make me fish all day long. He would stand in the water, changing the bait, tying on a spinner or mashing fish eggs on the line, adjusting the amount of lead in a tiny mesh bag. That's another reason I don’t like fishing: it's like sewing, except that you have to thread the needle while balancing on a rock in a rushing stream. We changed spots again, negotiating some more white water. The sun came out, and on a calm, quiet place in the river we munched our sandwiches and drank hot coffee straight from the thermos. A bald eagle flew upstream.
At a spot that Ed said was a favorite of his, with the raft perched on some rocks and the water running over them, he hooked a fish and tried to hand the pole to me. “No, you land it,” I said. “I want to watch.” He was puzzled. As a guide, he was used to letting his clients bring the fish in—that is what people are out there for, that sensation of matching wits with the wily trout in its own element, blah blah blah. This time, Ed really did practically walk that fish ashore. It was a male, what he called a “chromer.”
At the landing, I peeled off my waders. I was surprised that my feet were dry inside of there. Ed addressed the fish. He showed me the scar on the side of the chromer, where a seal had tried to eat it. He slit open the female and uncovered two “skeins” of bright-orange eggs. “Do you want to eat a fish egg?” he asked. I declined. He put the eggs in a baggy and the two fish in a Hefty bag, loaded the raft on the trailer, and we headed home.
Ed stayed and prepared the fish eggs for me—or, rather, for my brother. He put on latex gloves and sprinkled the powder on them and instructed me to turn the jar over regularly until they puffed up. He filleted the chromer, which, though it had been caught by him, apparently belonged to me. Its flesh was red, like salmon. He started to fillet the female, but her flesh was pale, almost gray, and he said it would be no good to eat. So we walked down to the riverbank and he tossed her in, saying she would now be food for other fishes. He really believed that. He said she was a hatchery fish, after all, and just put in there for us to sport with. But I kept thinking she had put her whole being into making those eggs, and now they would be used against her, used to lure her own kind into being hauled ashore. It made me sad. You should have seen her when she was alive and leaping.